See also: Where to stay in Melbourne
Dynamic, unique, multi-faceted – Melbourne is the cultural center of Australia. Having perfected the balance of metropolitan and lush nature, Melbourne’s riches lay in its art-strewn streets, eye-catching architecture, historical preservation and the generous green spaces that connect them all. Between gorging on healthy but delicious bites, travelers are encouraged to ditch the map and anticipate surprises that come every corner. Still, if we were to sum up the best things to do in Melbourne, this would be it:
Wander through the Royal Botanical Gardens
Unwind at the Royal Botanical Gardens amid its tens of thousands of flora and fauna occupants. Zen lakes and fresh lawns build a much needed oasis smack dab in city center. Garden delights aplenty; Guilfoyle’s Volcano steals the spot as one of the oldest sites. Built in 1876, this circular reservoir has a wrap-around boardwalk interspersed with low-water plants, elevated for striking views of Melbourne’s landscape. Natural water systems predating European settlement have eroded into the smaller Ornamental Lake and Fern Gully. For diverse rainforest florals and ferns, Tropical Glasshouse covets displays from worldwide. You’ll find plenty of heritage sites, sculptures and a Children’s Garden as well.
Snap the bright pops of color at Brighton Beach
Brighton Beach’s vibrant bathing boxes are frequently features on social media like a painted on rainbow. 90 individualistic boxes stand in line, a permanent fixture since the 1900s. Photo ops aside, the beach offers a stunning sunset view over Port Philip Bay. It is also a popular destination for families during summer holidays. Adjacent to Brighton Beach is the Bayside Coastal Art Trail stretching 17 kilometers. Featuring artwork maps at every viewing platform, it combines the beauty of nature and the hand-made in show of the area’s cultural heritage.
Step into Paris of another time
There’s certain glamour in the Parisian Arcades of 1800s. Melbourne’s Block Arcade wears the dome arches, glass ceilings and old-fashioned garnishes in elegant display. Tea rooms, chocolatiers, artisans and boutique shops come together to offer an unforgettable shopping experience. The title of oldest surviving arcade in Australia however, goes to the Royal Arcade which connects Little Collins, Elizabeth Street and Bourke Street Mall. A heritage listed site opened in 1870, it curates a sense of warmth through its arched glass ceiling, welcoming casual boutique and gift shops browsers. Definitely include this in your list of things to do in Melbourne.
Branch out from Federation Square
Sitting in the intersection between iconic Flinders Street and neighboring Swanston, Federation Square’s quirky façade hides a prominent arts and cultural venue. Alternatively, weave through Flinders Street for a selection of cafés and scrumptious brunch options that Melbourne is famously known for. For some backstory, visit the timeline display on The Atrium Balcony or sign up for a guided tour. You can also avail yourself to various bars once night hits; the Transit Rooftop Bar and crisp Icebar Melbourne keeping you relaxed and chilled.
Be charmed by St. Kilda
There’s no suburb quite like St. Kilda’s seaside kitsch. From the marshmallow puffs of paragliders to the café at the end of the harbor and a time-beaten amusement park, St. Kilda’s sunny aesthetic exudes a 1910’s retro charm. St. Kilda’s Veg Out Farmers’ Market, foodie-acknowledged Hank Marvin Markets and Esplanade Markets do much to perpetuate its image of bright and alive, setting the bar high for weekend escapades. Carlisle Street and Acland Street provide scrumptious cake shops, bookstores and beach-comfy clothing to appease your retail needs. And when the lights turn down, music grows loud as St. Kilda’s vibrant bars and jazz clubs come alive along the beachside.
Admire local artistic talent
Street art line sanctioned areas in Melbourne in all their vivid glory. Hosier Lane is one of the nitty-gritty streets made over by talented graffiti artists. Tiny Caledonia Lane may not be as mainstream popular as Hosier Lane, but it offers a grungy aesthetic that puts you in touch with Melbourne’s love for anything underground. AC/DC Lane on the other hand, displays a child’s scribble table brought to life; painted hands and crayons work hard at colorful caricatures and robots. Snap a cool selfie at any of these streets to boost your Instagram cred.
Go fresh and organic with a marketplace brekkie
Knock on the stalls of Victoria Market to bag home fresh fruits and organic bites. Loosely separated into various areas, you’ll find the requisite fresh produce market beside alternative sheds toting clothes and handmade accessories. The latter is held under the rafters of a one-storied warehouse, vendors neatly lined like a bazaar. If you turn through the fresh fruits market however, you’ll come into an indoor cheese and cold cuts area. Here, freshly baked bread, jams, dried herbs and various accompaniments fill the air with warm scent. Be sure to start bright and early and snack while you browse the for an open air shop-and-dine experience.
Immerse in the digital at ACMI
Fall into art and technology at the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI). An ever-evolving tribute to digital culture, it hosts some of the newest pop-culture inspired exhibits, film and game viewings. Talks, performances and workshops are also scheduled for those interested in screen work and history. The ACMI also screens independent Australian movies and international films in state-of-the-art cinemas. Load up with snacks at the Café & Bar before settling in for an afternoon of immersive fun.
Appreciating Melbourne culture at Centre Place
A hodgepodge of Melbourne’s finest cultural points: hole in the wall cafés, ever-changing street art and culinary delights for all meals of the day. A narrow passageway not unlike Degraves Street just minutes away, its crammed nature does nothing to deter visitors. Grab a quick bite at Café Vicolino or crowd favored dumplings at ShanDong Mama Mini on your way to Hosier Lane, or take a coffee break between your Centreway Arcade shopping sprees.
Go wild at Melbourne Zoo
Venture into the kingdom of animals at Melbourne Zoo. Fluttering butterflies, friendly elephants and prideful lions make up only a small part of this massive family. In fact, the zoo’s habitats are designed for maximum interaction. Keeper Kids play space offers an activities program where kids can experience the life of a zoo keeper. The Growing Wild exhibit dug tunnels for kids to scout for danger along the vigilant Meerkats, or burrow into Giant Tortoise shells. Lemur Island takes you through a rainforest journey by tunnel-ways and boardwalks, while the glass-protected Baboon Lookout offers clear views of these playful animals.
Explore the depths of the ocean
If the sea and its unplumbed depths sway you more than the land-locked, Melbourne Aquarium is for you. Home to luminous jellyfish and cuddly king penguins, aquatic life from tropical reefs and inhabitants of colder artic waters; it is several oceans merged into one. Start by greeting the unflappable stingrays before grounding at the rock pools. The route will then delve down to the coral caves and even further; become a shipwreck explorer and discover the mermaids! Resurface among the crocodiles and escape to the rainforest. When you’re tired of adventure, cute seahorses and penguins are here to rejuvenate with their miniscule and cuddly charms.
Booze up your walking tour
Do it like the Aussies and treat yourself to early drinks. Join a Drinking History Tour for the best of Melbourne Landmarks such as AC/DC Lane, Federation Square, the Old Treasury Building, Chinatown and the MCG. But the usual tour also includes stops at bars en route! You will hear stories about Melbourne’s sordid past, brothels and murder leading to the enthralling tale of a centuries-old unsolved mystery.
Take a leisure cruise
Ferry between the peninsulas of Queenscliff and Sorrento for potential dolphin spotting. A 40-minute trip connecting the Bellarine Peninsula and Mornington Peninsula, the Queenscliff Sorrento Ferry Service welcomes both passengers and cars on board. Queenscliff is home to historic hotels and guesthouses but dominating Fort Queenscliff is the main attraction. Meanwhile, Sorrento tends towards million-dollar mansions and old limestone buildings. It is also along the scenic drive to Phillip Island, where you can watch the famous Penguin Parade. If you have the time, nothing beats a pleasant cruise through calm waters on a mild day.
Day trip to Yarra Valley
Vineyards, playgrounds and recreational spaces are aplenty in Yarra Valley, located some 90-kilometers off from Melbourne’s central business district. Spend the day tasting sparkling pinot, commandeering a canoe through Yarra River or while away hours fishing for trout. Alowyn Gardens offers up shaded walks under canopied archways, whereas the Aquarena Aquatic and Leisure Centre combine landscaped gardens and a pool area in a stroll-and-swim spot. Naturalists would love the Ada Tree Walk, as well as the wilderness of the Bicentennial National Trail. For a more unusual watch experience, visit the Wandin Blacksmithing forges for some impressive metal working.
Catch a glimpse of the Pink Lake phenomenon
In a recently acquired quirk, Westgate Park’s lake colors pink in the summer. Official explanation lies in hot temperatures, algae mutation and lack of rainfall – but the bizarre pigmentation is still mind-boggling. Regardless, it is an unusual sight worth capturing, especially when birdlife goes about nonchalantly along the shoreline.
A bit of everything in Melbourne Museum
This post-modernist construct composed of jutting angles and sleek chrome walls houses Melbourne’s largest exhibitions of history, art and culture. Outstanding displays include the Science and Life Gallery, which showcases real-sized skeletons of dinosaurs, and Forest Gallery, a real-life Victoria enclosure with reptiles and birds. First Peoples exhibition space celebrates the history and culture of Victoria’s Aboriginal people, where The Melbourne Story picks up where it ends to showcase modern Melbourne icons. An interesting interactive gallery prods The Mind with informative ‘how the mind works’ lay-man displays as well as small social experiments.
Do a guided tour of the Royal Exhibition Building
Adjacent to Melbourne Museum is one of the world’s oldest exhibition pavilions, a grand vision of white-washed walls and capped dome arch. Guided tours will take you to the outside grounds of this majestic building, then through the grand halls and Romanesque arches of its massive pillars. The featured stories and intricate paintings on its walls will have your jaw dropping in awe. Check out their exhibition schedule for the current and future programs; the Royal Exhibition Building hosts everything from art showings to retail trade events.
Embrace the sun at Carlton Gardens, a spread of 26-hectares housing Melbourne Museum and the Royal Exhibition Building. Its elaborate fountains and European landscaping form the perfect picnic area after a long stint indoors. Mature flowerbeds, ornamental lakes and shady trees change with the seasons, but the permanent Victorian-era Hochgurtel Fountain and the French Fountain fixtures maintain solemn grace throughout the year. Carlton Gardens appeal to younger crowds by means of its tennis courts and award-winning children’s playground, but welcomes all demographics seeking solitude.
Visit Melbourne’s historical China Town
Not only is this distinctive area between Bourke Street and Lonsdale Street teeming with delicious eats and shopping malls, but its streetscape recalls the gold-rush days of the 1850s. You’ll find surrounding streets flavored with different cultural influences, whether it is Liverpool Street’s old Shanghai vibe or Tattersalls Lane’s street art and dive bar scene. Stately brick buildings are settings for alternative bars and retro Chinese restaurants alike. There is of course, a requisite lantern strewn pedestrian path accessed through vermillion wooden gates. When dusk falls, Chinatown lights up with neon signage and hanging lights.
Astor Theatre airs classic films
You can’t miss the Art Deco Astor Theatre sitting opposite the ACMI. In operation since 1936, it is the last single-screen cinema in Melbourne. Gold curtains frame the screen like an old Hollywood flashback, films formatted in 35mm, 70mm and digital filter. Jumping between independent movies, double features, classics and special airings during film festivals, Astor Theatre is one for the movie-buffs.
Make new friends at Healesville Sanctuary
At this haven for Australian bush and wild life, you truly feel like stepping home to a jumble of the country’s iconic animals. Not only are there over 200 species to interact with, the colorful birds, playful Platypus and rescued animals put up shows to stun with natural aplomb. Close up talks are led by experts, revealing insights into the habits of wombats, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and massive pythons. You can also drop by the Australian Wildlife Health Centre and watch the vetted team rehabilitate and treat the sick and injured, or learn more about endangered species at the Fighting Extinction Headquarters by carrying out secret missions.
Watch live performances at Arts Centre Melbourne
Catch a show at this complex of theatres and concert halls. Home to The Australian Ballet, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Theatre Company and Opera Australia companies, Arts Centre Melbourne stage over 4,000 performances yearly. Onsite performing arts collection and art gallery brings the audience closer to behind-the-scenes work of beloved plays. The year-round exhibitions rotate in content, but consistently complement current productions while commenting on Australia’s rich performance history. From costumes to stage props to stories, everything on exhibit is a love letter to the performing arts. Arts Centre Melbourne is the place to be impressed by local talent.
Smell the flowers at Fitzroy Gardens
More nature within Melbourne’s cityscape, Fitzroy Gardens spoils with its beautiful Conservatory. This Spanish Mission-style 1930 construct totes five floral displays of hydrangeas, fuchsias, begonias, cyclamens and calceolarias – vivid and aromatic. The natural landscape further accommodates the historical abode of Captain Cook. A model Tudor Village is uprooted and reassembled on these grounds, a strange collection of fountains, memorials and follies gathered over the century.
Admiring the National Gallery of Victoria
Australia’s largest and oldest art museum to date, the National Gallery of Victoria offers permanent galleries and a rotation of exhibitions. You are guaranteed to find many a masterpiece! Featured within the Gallery’s eclectic collection of art are indigenous, modern classic Australian and Asian art curatorial categories, as well as fashion and textiles, and contemporary displays. Photography, prints and drawings have also made it into the display spaces; working to digitize art, high-resolution images are available for download on the Gallery website.
Activities around Yarra River
Keep close to city center with a kayak down Yarra River. Water-level exercise keeps you reasonably cool even in the summer, and this down-up view is spectacular during sunset. The Moonlight Kayak Tour is particular will have you drifting through whimsical light flares and glowing nightscape. You can also settle in for a reflective people-watching session along the bank during daytime, the tree line providing ample shade.
Jump hot and cold at the Peninsula Hot Springs
You might think it’s crazy to jump into ice caves and freezing baths, but alternating between hot and cold is therapeutic for the body. Reduce inflammation and stress with a 45-minute workshop, which starts off with a stint in the sauna followed by plunging into a negative-degree ice cave. Slowly warm back up at a cold pool and cap off the experience by basking in a geothermal hot spring. People with heart problems should be cautious as the temperature shock really gets the blood pumping, but it is otherwise a great way to relieve stress.
Peer out from The Edge
No city trip is complete without a 360-degree viewing and Eureka Skydeck is here to deliver. At a dizzying height of almost 300-meters, this observation tower takes a step further and suspends visitors at a projected glass cube 88 floors high. What you might not know if the architectural smarts behind its construction. Combating high winds are 300,000-litre water tanks on the 90th and 91st floors, and a flexible tower tip to prevent excess swaying. Effort is made to pretty up its exterior as well; the glass of Eureka’s top floors is plated with 24-carat gold.
Watch the Australian Open in person
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to catch top-tier tennis stars battling it out at Melbourne Park for the Grand Slam championship. It is worth dropping by the arena even if you don’t make it to the stands. Live entertainment and food stalls fuel tennis fans at the roaring Australian Open Festival, where big screens bring live matches to the people. A Ground Pass will slip you through to the smaller courts around the big arenas where newcomers to the professional court play.
An artsy day at Abbotsford Convent
Abbotsford Convent hardly seems the place of creatives, its historic and somewhat crumbly exterior reflective of its 1800s roots. But it takes a single glance at the crowds to forget about the gothic spires; artists, crafts makers and creatives are the bulk of its community. Tour the galleries in appreciation of local artistic work, then meander out onto the gardens. The green hills surrounding the property are great for picnics and days out with the family. Nearby Collingwood Children’s Farm also houses friendly animals to play with.
Bar crawl with the best on Chapel Street
Chapel Street has emerged from behind fake tans and binge drinking to a new cast of restaurants and bars. Start from either Windsor or South Yarra for an exciting night of budget bites and endless beverage. One hole in the wall to never miss, if you can find it, is the ultimate Jungle Boy hidden bar. Hint: search up sandwich shops and discover the secrets behind their refrigerator doors.
Rock it out at the Tote
Hidden in an unassuming white-walled building is the iconic Tote pub, a rock-n-roll banger since 1980. Sparking a full-scale protest against prohibition of live music back in the day, its spark has yet to distinguish. Grab your post-dinner brews at this beloved pub for diversified acts – rock, pop, folk bands and DJs will surprise you with their musical picks.
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