Simone Spilka, travel writer behind The Constant Wanderings, a website of stories inspired by strangers around the world, shares the secret gems of the Southern Hemisphere’s most cultured city: Melbourne.
On your first day here, seeing this is a must:
I recommend starting at the Queen Victoria Market, famous for its fresh produce and souvenir trinkets. On the weekends, the market is full of life and energy with traders shouting bargains from every direction while the aisles are packed with locals stocking up groceries for the week. As you move down the city center of Elizabeth Street, the most important thing all tourists should do in Melbourne is get completely lost in the laneways of the CBD (central business district). Decorated in graffiti and lined with homegrown boutiques and charming cafes, the heart of Melbourne is full of personality. Around every corner is another unique space of art, food, or coffee – Melbournians love their coffee. Wander left then right through the grid-like alleys without a map and you’ll discover hidden side streets always filled with a vibrant buzz of people and colorful, impermanent displays of artwork. Degraves Street is one of the city’s most notorious laneways, free of cars and filled with outdoor tables for eating. Near to Degraves, tourists can admire the famous Flinders Street Train Station and central meeting hub Federation Square, a space home to free museums, unique architecture, and many weekend festivals. (Tip: Don’t leave your hotel without an umbrella, the weather in Melbourne can be temperamental.)
Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture…
Wake up early, grab coffee from Brother Baba Budan, then spend some time people watching. The city is unrivaled when it comes to staying entertained by the energy of everyone around you. My favorite spot is in front of the State Library. The lawn is always packed with people listening to music, reading books and spending time in the company of friends. It’s also directly across from Melbourne Central shopping center and close to University campus, so there’s never a lull in what to feast your eyes or ears on. Don’t forget to go inside and admire the library, a magnificent space teeming with students and creatives. Around lunchtime, head to Lentils As Anything for a delicious vegetarian meal. The restaurant, located at the Abbotsford Convent, offers donation-based meals with the hope of providing nutritious and wholesome food where money is not a concern.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation:
To get truly cultured in any city – get out and walk. Keep walking until your legs hurt and you can barely stand anymore. When you’re forced to rely on your own sense of direction it will make you much more aware of your surroundings. You’ll also have the opportunity to stop at the plentiful shops and cafes along the way. Trams are certainly the preferred mode of transportation for locals and the most convenient way to move about the city (for those who don’t ride bikes). Melbourne’s public transport is very reliable and easy to navigate. From the heart of the city you can easily reach any suburb while soaking in the sights.
Photo by eGuide Travel
I had my best night’s sleep at:
I initially came to Melbourne as a backpacker, so my best night’s sleep was at the abodes of strangers and friends who took me in. (Editor’s note: for a luxury stay at a boutique property we recommend The Cullen hotel).
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days:
Melbourne, like most major cities, is famous for its eclectic cuisine. There are many excellent restaurants to gush over, but Coda is one spot I always recommend to foodies. Tucked in one of the aforementioned hidden alleys, Coda serves tapas style French and Vietnamese fusion dishes complemented by a diverse wine selection. The entire dining experience of unique tastes, presentation, and ambiance is worth the splurge. To be honest, I’m salivating just thinking about it!
Best place to find artisan handicrafts…
There are plenty of bimonthly and one-off markets full of artisan crafts such as the Rose Street Artist’s Market in Fitzroy and the Blenders Lane Artists Market, which runs on Wednesday evenings all throughout summer. Both are comprised of small, independent artist stalls. Design A Space is also a fantastic boutique for clothing, jewelry, and home decor. The retail store was developed to support local Australian Designers who can rent a small space in one of the three locations. Pop-up shops, which are an emerging part of the culture here, are making it easier to find locally-sourced products.
Reading a good book amidst the serenity of the Carlton Gardens before roaming the bohemian suburb of Fitzroy. Any time of day on any day of the week I can easily get lost amongst the galleries, vintage shops, bookstores, restaurants, and bars. Fitzroy offers a glimpse into Melbourne’s thriving art culture; it’s a charming and vibrant safe haven for creatives. If I’m out for the afternoon I’ll always drop by the ever-popular and always crowded Veggie Bar.
Photo by >littleyiye<
For a more bucolic/green setting I escape…
To the Royal Botanical Gardens. They’re magical in the springtime, especially when the trees blossom a palette of soft, pale flowers. There’s also a great running trail around its perimeter and the garden’s restaurant serves an absolutely divine chai latte.
The art/music scene is alive and well here:
There’s no truer statement. From jazz bars to free art exhibitions to street buskers, there is no shortage of live events. Many of the oldest and most notorious bars such as Cherry Bar and The Espy Hotel are also music venues. Summer is filled with music festivals that stop in all of the major Australian cities. The infinite number of shows is definitely one of the best things about coming to Melbourne as a tourist (and living here, as well).
Where the locals get tipsy:
Everywhere! But Section 8 is quintessential Melbourne. Possibly the most permanent pop-up bar around, this popular spot is a beer garden without the pub. Open every day, the space is painted with graffiti and has old wooden pallets strewn about in place of chairs. Close by and equally notable are cozy Ferdydurke and Sister Bella. When the weather shapes up, there’s no better place for a Pimms than at Rooftop of Curtin, which seasonally doubles as a cinema. Covered in astroturf and colorful umbrellas, the bar is a favorite among locals during summer. Other favorites include Bar Open and Naked for Satan. If you’re looking for a late night party, you can certainly find it in this city.
If I had only 24 hours to explore Melbourne I would:
Drink a lot of coffee, of course. But beyond that I recommend choosing one suburb such as the CBD or Fitzroy to explore on a whim. In a city of hidden treasures running into the unexpected is typical. Don’t forget to talk to locals – Australians, and Melbournians in particular, are incredibly friendly. Melbourne has been, and will continue to be, one of the world’s leaders in arts and culture because of the entrepreneurs, writers, designers and artists that flock to the city from all corners of the world.
About the Writer:
Simone Spilka is a freelance writer/digital nomad living in Melbourne after one year (and counting) on the road. She left home in America in 2012 on a journey that left her humbled and amazed by strangers in countries around the globe. On her trip, she composed the One Way Ticket travel journal series for New York’s premiere photography studio Milk Studios. She now focuses her creative energy on her website, The Constant Wanderings, a platform for strangers to share and inspire stories about travel. When she’s not writing in her journal or wandering around bookstores, Simone can be found with her computer and headphones at a local cafe. You can follow her as she tweets around the world @constantwanders or follow her insta adventures @constantwanderings
Feature photo, guide to Melbourne laneways by Looking Glass