Melbourne, Australia (Photo: Thinkstock)
It’s a destination that rivals New York in terms of its culinary scene, New Orleans with its architectural charm, and L.A. for epic coastal views. Not to mention its distinction of being the world’s most livable city four years in a row. If you’re headed down under, Melbourne is an ideal starting point for a trip up the Australian coast, or the perfect place to spend a week. Here’s the perfect seven-day itinerary.
Pre-Trip Logistics: United, Virgin Australia, Qantas, others fly into Melbourne. The ideal time to go is in the warmer months, November to March. Foodies should schedule around the late February for the Food & Wine Festival, and sports fans should note the January Australian Open. Splurge on a stay at the five-star Crown Towers, where you’ll have epic views of the city. For a more boutique-y vibe, the Adelphi Hotel is a recently renovated spot on trendy Flinders Lane. On a budget? Try the Vibe Hotel Carlton.
Colorful, artsy Hosier Lane (Photo: Tourism Board of Victoria)
Called Melbs by locals (who often shorten words), the city is known for the dark, winding cobblestone laneways that house many of the hottest stores, galleries, and cafes. You can start familiarizing yourself with them on a tour of the area, like the Hidden Secrets Melbourne Lanes and Arcades Tour. Owner Fiona Sweetman says the objective is “to go to places that customers can revisit throughout their stay.” Highlights include Signed & Numbered, which sells limited edition, affordable prints from Australian artists and The Basement Discs, a CD and Vinyl shop that hosts regular in-store performances by local musicians. There’s also cool coffee shop Manchester Press, famous for the flat white (an Aussie original, but now a fave among hipsters in the U.S., it’s similar to a latte).
Once you’ve got your bearings, you can spend time admiring Hosier Lane’s elaborate street art, comprised of bright colors, whimsical figures, and abstract landscapes. Most are commissioned works (which can change every few weeks), so expect to see a high-level of artistry. Hosier leads right to your lunch restaurant on Flinders Lane: Chin Chin. At dinner time, the wait can be two hours at this acclaimed Asian-fusion eatery, but midday you’ll enjoy popular dishes like the pork rollup and papaya salad, sans any “queues.”
Resist the urge to stay until dinner and instead, peruse well-curated indigenous Australian art at Flinders Lane Gallery or check out the National Gallery of Victory Australia Museum, which holds over 70,000 works of art including colonial and contemporary Australian pieces and Australian Aboriginal artifacts. Next, stroll the bustling alleys of Centre Place and DeGraves Street. Marvel at the architectural gem that is Flinders Street Station (the main building, completed in 1909, was the first railway station in an Australian city) and find your own hidden gems via the City Circle tram. “One of my favorite things to do is jump on and see where it takes me,” says Sweetman. “The trams stop every couple of blocks, so if you see something, get off. It will always come back the other way to take you home.” Her favorite tram is the number 12: “It’s a great route to admire the city’s lovely architecture, like the terrace houses, and to see beautiful parks.”
The jet lag can be brutal, so make yourself a dinner reservation on the earlier side at Greek hotspot Gazi. It’s famous for souvlakis, or “souvas” as the Melbournians call them. The gorgeous crowd is just an added bonus.
The lush landscapes at the Royal Botanic Gardens (Photo: Courtesy of Royal Botanic Garden Melbourne/Janusz Molinski)
Have a full-on culinary adventure with a Melbourne Food Experiences tour. Founder Allan Campion (a notable chef and food writer) is as knowledgeable as they come, especially in regards to the city’s prevalent Vietnamese culture. The Victoria Street Food Tour he created centers around the namesake street in Richmond, also known as “Little Saigon.” Prepare to snack on incredibly delicious banh mi, sip authentic iced Vietnamese coffee, and learn about the rich history of the Vietnamese, many of whom settled in Australia after the Vietnam War. "For us, it’s about food tours with context,” explains Allan. (If Italian cuisine is more your flavor, the company’s tour of Carlton’s Lygon Street swaps pho for fresh made mozzarella and gelato.)
Next, spend the afternoon at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Take a squizz (it means look!) at native plants and hear about the history of the local Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung people on the Aboriginal Heritage Walk. Guilgoyle’s Volcano, an old reservoir, has an incredible display of low water-use plants (think: elaborate cacti) and stunning views of the city. Exhausted? Give into the jetlag for a little and relax on the endless stretches of grass with a book (I highly recommend Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country while traveling Australia).
For dinner, visit Peruvian hotspot Pastuso, which comes highly recommended by Allan. Warning: the Pisco Sours (a South American specialty made of Pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, and egg white) are strong! If you’re still standing afterwards, visit popular rooftop bar Madame Brussels for one more round.
An aerial view of the Great Ocean Road (Photo: Tourism Board of Victoria/Roberto Seba)
You’ll want a full day (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and a rental car for the not-to-be-missed road trip along Victoria’s prized Great Ocean Road. Your first stop is two hours out, at the charming seaside town of Lorne. Join the surf set at Kafe Kaos for coffee, eggs, and a side of free wifi. Stop also at Kennet River, where you only have to look up to see koalas then get thee to the mane attraction: The 12 Apostles and London Bridge. See them from vantage points all over Port Campbell National Park or shell out for a 15-minute helicopter flight with 12 Apostle Helicopters.
As you make your way back towards the city stop for a gourmet dinner at Chris’s Beacon’s Point.
Great stores line Gertrude Street (Photo: Tourism Board of Victoria/Roberto Seba)
Take today to shop and explore the hip suburbs. Start by grabbing a quick "brekkie” in South Melbourne at Kettle Black, where locals clamor for the Chili Scrambled Eggs with Air-dried Wallaby. (Note: It’s not uncommon to find wallaby and kangaroo on the menu in Australia. And yes, it’s actually pretty good.)
Then, make your way to the bohemian suburb of Fitzroy. Gertrude Street offers a high-end hipster experience with cool indie clothing stores like Handsom and chic home furnishing boutiques like El Lobo, which uses reclaimed timber for all of its handmade goods.
Move along to Smith Street where, amongst the hippies who stroll the pavement barefoot, you’ll find charming old Victorian houses turned into second-hand stores (furniture, books, designer clothing — you name it, you’ll find it here), millineries (with unique hats for men and women) and critically-acclaimed restaurants like Saint Crispin. Enjoy an elegant lunch here with standout dishes like the Ocean Trout and Glazed Lamb Neck.
Continue the fine dining at dinnertime with a table at Vue de Monde. The 55th floor views alone are worth the expensive tab of the tasting menu, though the Blackmore Wagyu is also pretty stellar. Afterwards, head for drinks at the creepy but wonderful The Croft Institute, where shots are served out of giant syringes and the gloomy decor is mental institution-inspired, complete with a hospital bed in the women’s bathroom.
Red Hill Estate winery (Photo: Red Hill Estate/Facebook)
Rent a car for the easy one-hour drive to the Mornington Peninsula, a region of Victoria famous for its farms, vineyards, and endless coastline. Start with a tasting at Main Ridge Dairy, where it’s all about homemade goat cheese. For $10 you can have a generous tasting platter, though the real masterpiece is the creamy, garlic-y Marinated Chèvre (which won top honors at the Specialist Cheese Show). Next, stop by Red Hill Estate for a glass of wine with perhaps the best view of the area (think: vineyards on vineyards on ocean) and Green Olive at Red Hill for lunch. Hard ciders are all the rage in Melbs, so save room for a cider tasting at Mock Red Hill, a fifth generation biodynamic apple orchard.
Other activities include picking strawberries at Sunny Ridge and my personal favorite: soaking in the nearby Peninsula Hot Springs. Both the larger pools and the private baths at this coastal day spa provide an opportunity to relax in healing natural thermal mineral waters. You’ll also find infrared saunas, a relaxation room and the opportunity to book a classic massage or a Kodo one, which incorporates Australian Aboriginal techniques like spiraling movements and a focus on pressure points.
For the more adventurous, nothing beats swimming with bottlenose dolphins and fur seals. At Polperro Dolphin Swims it’s the real deal — no artificial tanks or enclosed areas. The eco-tourism operation offers small, guided boat excursions around Port Phillip Bay where you’ll have the opportunity to snorkel in nature with the aquatic animals. You can also opt to sightsee from the comfort of the boat deck.
After a full day, get in the car to cruise down to your historic accommodation, The Royal Hotel. The waterfront property was built in 1855 and recently benefited from a big renovation. Eat dinner at the proprietary tavern and end your night with a tinny, aka a can of brew, and a view at the outdoor beer garden.
Bathing Boxes line the beaches of the Mornington Peninsula (Photo: Tourism Board of Victoria)
Spend the morning scouting out the area’s best and most beautiful beaches: Mills is great for swimming, whereas Portsea is better for water sports like surfing and body boarding. On most of them, you’ll notice bathing boxes lining the shore. These privately owned wooden sheds, used for storing beach gear and changing, add a unique element to the Victorian coastline and have become a scenic attraction in their own right. Visit nearby Mount Martha beach — it’s the most famous (and definitely the most picture-perfect), thanks to an especially high volume of colorful boxes.
When you make your way back into Melbourne proper, tune in to the entertainment scene. Classical music aficionados will want to check out the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and live music lovers should buy tickets to a show at the Palais Theatre (Hozier, The Beach Boys and Florence + The Machine are all on the 2015 schedule). For theatre junkies, Baz Lurhmann turned his cult-classic film Strictly Ballroom into a new musical playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
For dinner, book a table at Supernormal. The slow cooked Szechuan lamb is the dish to order, according to a local food-blogging friend who advised me, “If Chef Andrew McConnell is serving lamb – you order it.” For dessert, head to Gelateria Primavera where the ever-changing menu features bespoke flavors like Black Sesame + Honey and Salted Caramel + Chili.
Look out for this van at Queen Victoria Market (Photo: American Doughnut Kitchen)
On your last day, start the morning at Queen Victoria Market (a.k.a. the Queen Vic). This Melbourne institution, first opened in 1878, is big. Largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere-kind of big. Peruse the many food stalls, and don’t be shy about asking for tastes of cheddars, oysters, and olives. And whatever you do, do not (donut!) miss the American Doughnut Kitchen, where warm jam-filled treats are doled out of a retro 1950s van. You’ll also find inexpensive jewelry vendors, a comprehensive candle shop, and even a place to get your caricature drawn: Caricatures By Ivano.
Finally, don’t head home without visiting the southern suburb of St. Kilda. The trendy beach town has a beautiful boardwalk and is also home to Luna Park. The historic amusement park, opened in 1912, is the perfect backdrop for some fun photo opps thanks to the famous entry through the mouth of “Mr. Moon.” End the trip on a high note with a ride on the Great Scenic Railway roller coaster, the world’s oldest continually operating roller coaster, which overlooks the stunning Port Phillip Bay. From the top, you can wave the city goodbye — or as they say in Australia, “hooroo.”
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