Three espresso-fuelled days in Melbourne would represent an ideal midpoint for my relentless round-the-world trip with Aeroplan – a chance to catch my breath and relax in a city known for its gastronomy and good vibes.
Widely regarded as Australia’s cultural capital, Melbourne struck me, at first glance, as a place that’s ultimately not too dissimilar from the many other busy cities in Western countries that I’ve spent time in.
But I also had no doubt that the city harbours many of its own allures and aromas waiting to be discovered, so as much as I needed to catch up on work and rest during my three days in town, I was also determined to sample as much of Melbourne’s charms as possible while I was at it.
Kitting up with my laptop, camera, and a list of the city’s top restaurants and coffee shops, I headed into Melbourne’s avenues and laneways in an effort to live like a local and get a sense of what makes this place tick. Here are a few of the highlights.
Day 1: Lost in the Laneways
My review of the Grand Hyatt Melbourne may not have been glowing, but the hotel definitely gets the basics right: location-wise, it’s ideally situated right on the corner of the famous Flinders Lane, and amenity-wise, it knew better than to offer me a complimentary breakfast and tempt me into eating the same bacon and baked beans that I could get anywhere else in the world. 😉
Instead, I strolled right down Flinders Lane on my first morning in town, headed for my maiden Melbourne coffee experience.
(As I turned the corner, I took note of the queue rapidly forming outside Lune Croissanterie outside the hotel – supposedly the best croissants in the world – and thought to myself, “Hmm, I’ll just come back later in the afternoon.” That would be my first tourist mistake.)
I wasn’t to know, though, because I took up a spot in Brunetti’s Flinders Lane, one of Melbourne’s most well-known Italian-style cafes, for a flat white and a pastry to kickstart my day.
As I opened up my laptop to catch up on some work, though, I came face-to-face with Tourist Mistake #2: a misunderstanding of the coffee-shop culture. Compared to the cafes I frequent in Toronto and Montreal, where it’s not at all uncommon to see students and young professionals working away the entire day on the premises, the coffee zeitgeist here takes the whole “eating and drinking” part of a coffee-shop visit much more seriously.
It’s customary to spend a few minutes sipping on your favourite roast in the morning, and it’s also very common to go for a late breakfast at your favourite cafe with a few of your mates before continuing with your day. However, using coffee shops as workspaces is decidedly less customary, and several establishments that I visited even choose to forgo wifi to discourage customers from lingering.
Taking this stride, I worked offline briefly at Brunetti’s before polishing off my breakfast and continuing down the distinctive Flinders Lane. It’s one of the most interesting historic laneways in the city centre, a narrow and crowded thoroughfare with eateries, hotels, designer shops, and captivating street art standing shoulder to shoulder, and I took my time to wander through it as I headed towards the west side of the city.
My destination? The second cup of coffee for the day at Higher Ground, a cafe that’s recognized as one of Melbourne’s best (with a superb double-entendre for a name, at that). And that impression was confirmed, not by a successful sampling of an espresso drink, but instead by the huge queue that had snaked out onto the street from the cafe’s entrance.
“It’s about an hour’s wait,” the host told me. If I didn’t know how seriously Melbourners take their cafe breakfasts, I knew now. I decided to return to Higher Ground in the afternoon, as the host told me it should be a little less busy by then.
Melbourne’s distinctive tram lines are a central part of urban life, and since all rides within the city centre are free, I hopped on a tram to continue exploring the city centre.
After a bit more meandering along the grid-like street network to admire some of the city’s unique characteristics – including the famous “hook turn”, a Melbourne traffic specialty in which right-turning cars must pull up all the way to the end on the far left side of the intersection and wait for the green lights on the street they’re turning into, before pulling a sharp right hook and mad-dashing immediately into traffic.
Eventually, I headed back to Higher Ground for lunch. It was clear to me that at a Melbourne cafe, breakfast foods aren’t just for breakfast, so I was happy to take this opportunity to indulge in a bagel with “smashed avo” and egg whites.
I took a detour along the CBD’s northern boundary on the way back to my hotel, scoping out Hardware Lane, another one of Melbourne’s most well-known laneways, as well as the nearby Chinatown district. The lively restaurant scene of the afternoon and early evening was only just getting started, but in the interest of taking care of a respectable amount of work and sleep, I decided to leave the evening explorations for my second day.
As I returned to the Grand Hyatt, my intention was to drop by Lune Croissanterie to try out some of their masterpieces as an afternoon snack. I was delighted by the absence of a queue, but quickly let down by the fact that they had sold out their entire batch for the day in the morning already. It was the kind of pastry shop that knows it’s in high demand, so I made a note to come by much earlier in the coming days.
Day 2: City Tour with Urban Adventures
Day 2 in Melbourne would begin with a Bites & Sights Tour with Urban Adventures, where I’d get to walk through the city’s most significant sights in the company of a local guide. (Full disclosure: Urban Adventures comped the tour for me in exchange for writing about my experience with them.)
Our tour began with a complimentary lift up to the top of Eureka Skydeck, a building in the Southbank district just south of the Yarra River with the tallest viewing deck in town.
While it’s a bit of a tired cliché in terms of tourist undertakings, I do find that going up to a city’s highest point can be a valuable way of getting your bearings as a newcomer, and in this case I definitely appreciated the views of Melbourne’s surrounding neighbourhoods, as well as our guide Nicole’s insight on what makes each of them unique.
Nicole praised each of Melbourne’s neighbourhoods as possessing a wealth of charms of their own, and in particular, the fact that they each channel one aspect of the city’s patchwork of multiculturalism: Carlton for its old-school Italian cafes, Footscray for its acclaimed African cuisine and a “quirkiness beyond Melbourne’s usual quirkiness”, and so on.
Since I’d realistically have time to scope out only one of these neighbourhoods this time, though, Nicole recommended St. Kilda for its urban gardens and its unique seaside setting, and I made a note to head out there on my third and last day in town.
Back on ground level, our tour continued across the Yarra River and into the heart of Melbourne’s laneways. Nicole explained that the city layout was planned from scratch by Melbourne’s British colonial settlers, who imprinted on the land a unique combination of wide avenues as the main vessels for traffic and narrower pedestrian laneways for the public to gather, the latter of which played a large role in allowing Melbourne’s culture, gastronomy, and creative scene to foster.
After admiring the outstanding street art in the laneways, we stepped into the Jungle Juice Bar, where we snacked upon some house-made bagels and a much-needed first flat white of the day, as Nicole illuminated the origins of the vibrant coffee culture that surrounds us here.
As it turns out, it was all thanks to the Victoria Gold Rush, which had brought over a surplus of hard-working men, whose overt rowdiness in the bars and pubs in the evenings eventually led to the widespread Temperance Movement in the 19th century, which advocated for moderation or total abstinence from alcohol.
Bars and pubs struggled in those times, elevating the coffee house as the pre-eminent social gathering place here in Melbourne, all while blurring the lines in terms of what kinds of food and drinks actually get served at a cafe (read: all kinds). A later wave of Italian immigrants would build further upon the booming cafe business, permanently infusing the enthusiasm for espresso into the city’s very identity.
As we continued our walking tour, the laneways transformed into arcades: lofted shopping venues built in the colonial art-deco style, reminiscent of the many similar establishments you’ll find in Central London. Then, we arrived at the Queen Victoria Market, where our tour concluded with a journey around the dozens of stalls here at Melbourne’s largest market and another round of bites and brews on the house.
There’s no doubt that Melbourne is a place that’s best experienced with a local guide of some kind, because you can’t live here without having a handful of favourite eateries, cafes, and bars that they’re just dying to share with people who are visiting.
Ideally, I would’ve liked to find a friend of a friend to show me around, but in the absence of any well-timed connections on this visit, I found our guide Nicole’s company to be very valuable, and I’d recommend booking a similar tour with Urban Adventures if you too are looking for some local insight.
I decided to stop by the Industry Beans location on Little Collins St for my second coffee of the day – this was a small outpost of theirs, since their main roastery out in the Fitzroy neighbourhood would be out of my reach this time.
Then, after heading back to the hotel to catch up on work for a few hours, I visited the Night Noodle Markets, a series of pop-up fairs in Australia and New Zealand focusing on noodles and Asian food in general, which Nicole had highly recommended I check out. With upbeat live music, a slowly setting southern summer sun, and dozens of noodle vendors to choose from, I couldn’t help but remark to myself just how easily this city was winning me over.
Day 3: A St. Kilda Stroll
My final morning in Melbourne would take place on a Monday, so I decided to finally pick up some Lune croissants, pair it with a long black from Chapter House Coffee not far down Flinders Lane, and head to the open-air Federal Square to watch the city wake up.
Heading to Lune before the crowds showed up at 7am, I picked up both their classic almond croissant and the savoury ham and cheese variety. While they were definitely appetizing, and the portions were very sizeable (I only ended up eating the almond one for breakfast), the prices were definitely pretty staggering to say the least, and I’m not sure how I feel about croissants that are priced at A$9 and A$10 respectively.
If you ask me, this is one to be filed under “guilty pleasures” – unless you were a true epicurean in half-moon pastries, I really can’t imagine making Lune part of your daily morning routine as a local.
After my peaceful people-watching session at Fed Square became spoiled by a gaggle of hungry pigeons pecking at my scraps, I headed out on a long walk down to St. Kilda to make the most of the day before my departing flight in the afternoon.
It’s nice to get out of the city centre and into some of the surrounding green spaces, as I briefly passed by the Shrine of Remembrance, dedicated to Australia’s war casualties…
…as I headed for lunch at The Kettle Black. I had been advised to try their chilli crab scrambled eggs, a hearty portion that did not disappoint, served alongside an iced coffee.
(Here was Tourist Mistake #3, although a somewhat welcome one: an “iced coffee” in Melbourne’s cafes isn’t just a coffee with ice, but rather a full-blown dessert experience that mixes entire scoops of ice cream with coffee and milk. It was quite the excess of calories, but hey, sufficient damage to my waistline had already been done over the past two days, so what was another few dollops of dairy delight?)
Determined to walk it all off as much as I could, I made it to the St. Kilda seaside, catching a glimpse of the harbour where Captain William Melbourne himself had sailed through on the way to “purchasing” the Indigenous lands way back in 1835. If I were able to stay until the evening, there would’ve been an opportunity for some unexpected penguin-spotting here, as a colony of about 1,400 penguins takes shelter in the breakwater here every night.
On this day, though, I soon needed to return to the hotel for my ride to the airport, so I swung by the South Melbourne Market for a glimpse of another urban hotspot, dropped by St. Ali Coffee Roasters for an ice cold latte, and strolled through the high-rise buildings of Southbank one last time on my way back.
Before this trip, I had thought that places like Seattle and Portland took their food and coffee seriously, but I don’t think they quite obsess over it the way Melbourners do. From all-day breakfast as a citywide staple, to some of the finest flat white finishes I’ve had the pleasure of savouring, to the pervasive multiculturalism that reminds me of our very own in Canada, Melbourne was a place that I found far too easy to be enamoured by.
I’d put Melbourne down as one of those places where I’m certain I’ll have some reason to revisit one day – for example, the thriving arts scene, fervent sport culture, and the many diverse neighbourhoods beyond the CBD are a few other fascinating sides to the city that I didn’t really get a chance to explore this time. However, that same similarity to what we have in Canada means that I’ll probably be prioritizing some other, more exciting trips, in the coming years.