In 1885, just 50 years after the city was founded, a visiting journalist dubbed it "Marvellous Melbourne," a moniker that has stuck and that is just as apt today.
With architecture dating from Victorian times to cutting edge modern buildings, gardens and parklands, a vibrant city center with an intriguing network of laneways, ethnic precincts and bay side suburbs, Melbourne is often described as a city of contrasts.Melbourne's 3.7 million inhabitants are from varied ethnic origins contributing to the multicultural feel of the city. Originally inhabited by the indigenous Wurrunjeri people, it was first settled by white Europeans in 1835. Following the boom days of the gold rush in the 1850s, and lured by the promise of stability and prosperity, immigrants from all over the world arrived in Melbourne. Many arrived from Europe after the WWII with subsequent migration from South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa over the past three decades.
This cultural diversity has contributed to the city's fantastic selection of restaurants that offer the possibility of feasting on just about any cuisine the world has to offer. In fact, there are said to be more than 3,000 restaurants covering more than 70 world cuisines.
As Australia's cultural and intellectual capital, Melbourne plays host to a continuous succession of arts, music and writers' festivals with a rich program of events throughout the year. It has much to offer its sports-crazy inhabitants; hosting a huge variety of local and international sporting events such as the Australian Open tennis tournament each January, the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix in March and the Melbourne Cup — highlight of the Spring Racing Carnival each November where the whole city stops for a horse race and a public holiday has been declared in its honor.
Melburnians are both fashion and design conscious and can be seen dressed in the city's signature black at chic bars, cafes and restaurants around town. The city has long been regarded as the fashion capital of Australia with its boutiques and fashion houses offering garments from Australia's top fashion designers and those from the fashion capitals of the world. And, as Melbourne is notorious for its changeable weather, there is always an opportunity to dress up, no matter what the elements may have in store.
The city has an easy-to-navigate grid system and its public transport system — the Met — will afford you many a scenic trip to most must-see destinations. A daily pass will give you unlimited travel on trains, buses or trams. Be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes, as many of Melbourne's secrets are best revealed to those on foot. There is also a free Tourist Shuttle Bus that offers a hop on/hop off service with on-board commentary to 11 key destinations.
Another way to discover Melbourne is from the water with one of the one- or two-hour scenic cruises offered by Melbourne River Cruises along the Yarra River, which bisects the city. Those wanting to visit one of the area's many nature reserves can drive to the Dandenong Ranges, The Great Ocean Road or the world famous wineries of the Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula. You may want to rent a car-bearing in mind that Australia drives on the left hand side of the road — or take advantage of the many organized tours on offer.
A three-day See Melbourne & Beyond Smartvisit Card can be purchased at the Melbourne Visitor Information Centre at Federation Square. It comes with a full-color pocket-sized guidebook that highlights all the best things to see and do, cash free entry to numerous popular attractions, useful maps, local tips and unlimited transport on the Met for the duration of the card.
Melbourne has an excellent selection of hotels, serviced apartments and B&Bs to suit every pocket. One of the most luxurious is the Crown Towers where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the city, river and bay from your deluxe suite, take advantage of the spa facilities, numerous shops and restaurants, its cinema complex and the adjoining casino. Special packages are on offer. Another option is the award-winning The Westin, or for something a little more boutique, Hotel Lindrum is a sophisticated contemporary haven for travelers, located a short walk from the city center. If you prefer to stay in Melbourne's grooviest fashion district, the Hotel Como in South Yarra is a good choice, whereas those wishing to stroll along the beach and sit at chic cafés, sipping lattes and watch the passing parade may like to stay at in the bayside suburb of St. Kilda where the überchic The Prince hotel offers spa treatments, bars and restaurants including the renowned Circa.
MELBOURNE DAY 1: Federation Square, Australian Centre for the Moving Image and Botanical Gardens
Start the day at Federation Square in the heart of the city opposite Melbourne's most recognized landmark, Flinders Street Railway Station, built at the turn of the 20th century. Stop at the Melbourne Visitors Centre and pick up maps and brochures to consult over coffee in one of the many cafés in the square before setting out. The square was conceived as a gathering place for the public — a kind of 21st century forum — with a large open space for public events surrounded by galleries, shops and restaurants. The stunning modern architecture in itself is worth a visit, but there is plenty more to do and see there. The complex houses the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria dedicated entirely to Australian art with over 20 galleries featuring permanent and temporary exhibits.
Film buffs can visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Entry to both the gallery and ACMI is free with payment required for some special exhibitions, or for tickets to screenings. Champions-the Australian Racing Museum and Hall of Fame is also good choice in Federation Square, for those passionate about horses and racing.
Have lunch at one of the many restaurants in the square, such as Chocolate Buddha, or one of the venues at the Transport Hotel, the first new pub site in Melbourne in over 50 years with a huge selection of Australian and foreign beers. Check out Taxi, a beautiful fine dining restaurant with stunning views from the courtyard, and its modern, contemporary menu. Or cross the road and walk down the Southbank riverside promenade.
There you can choose from any number of cafes and restaurants to suit your mood and pocket, a favorite being Tutto Bene with its perfect risotti and gelato bar.
Also in the Southbank precinct is Eureka Tower, one of the world's largest residential buildings. Opened in October 2006 and with a height of 984.3 feet it dwarfs the once tallest building in Melbourne, Rialto Towers on Collins Street. Before lunch, take the opportunity to visit Eureka Tower's Skydeck on the 88th floor, and you'll be rewarded with a bird's eye view of the city and beyond. The really intrepid, can view Melbourne from The Edge, a glass cube that juts out nine feet from the side of the building and is suspended almost 900 feet above the ground!
After lunch, head back to St. Kilda Road and take a river cruise or catch the No. 8 tram to the Botanical Gardens (stop 21), passing the Melbourne Arts Centre with its Concert Hall, State Theatre and National Gallery and the beautiful parklands on the way.
The 150-year-old Botanical Gardens are home to over 12,000 species of plants. There are ornamental lakes planted with water lilies where you'll find Australia's native black swans as well as water fowl and ducks. The tearooms in the gardens offer a selection of snacks, the most popular being the Devonshire Tea of hot scones served with fruit preserves and whipped cream. The gardens are open from 7:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. November-March and from 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. April-October and admission is free. During the summer months there are live performances in the gardens, and Moonlight Cinema holds twilight screenings of vintage and cult movies. Tickets are available at the gate. Bring a blanket, a picnic and personal insect repellent if you want to enjoy this experience to the full. You will find maps, brochures and details of events at the main gate (Gate A).
After your walk through the Botanical Gardens, consider stopping at The Botanical, located opposite the gardens (Gate E) on Domain Road, where you can enjoy a perfect coffee, glass of wine or incredible dining experience.
If staying in the city for the evening, you could begin your experience at Cabinet, located behind Swanston Street, one of Melbourne's newest intimate venues, for a glass of wine and tasting plate, followed by dinner in one of Melbourne's best restaurants. The Italian, located in the heart of Collins street offers some of the city's best Italian food in glamorous surroundings and also sports a bar, café and outdoor courtyard. Teague Ezard's Ezard at the Adelphi Hotel on Flinders Lane serves award-winning Fusion cuisine with an Asian twist.
After dinner, enjoy a drink at one of Melbourne's premium cocktail bars. Choose from Red Hummingbird, known for its hanging birdcage above the front entrance and located opposite the QV Centre or Murmur, voted Melbourne's best overall bar in 2007, located off Little Bourke Street. To finish, you can't go past Blue Diamond, which is perched above a Queens Street block, offering a mix of cabaret, jazz and all things in between; groove the night away at Bennett's Lane Jazz Club, which attracts the very best Australian and international musicians; or try your luck at the casino.
* Skyline image courtesy of the Melbourne Convention and Visitors Bureau