International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
It may not have the iconic, made-for-postcard images of its longstanding rival Sydney, but Melbourne is more like a city of a thousand lesser-known snapshots. In catching the eye of tourists, Australia’s second city has little to compete with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House or Bondi Beach, but Melbournians will proudly tell you that the charms of their beloved city are subtler and well worth searching out. They include the labyrinth-like laneways of the central business district, the high-end boutiques and street cafes of its stylish “Paris end”, the beaches at Brighton and St Kilda, the leafy footpaths that trace the Yarra River and even the famed clocks at Flinders Street Station – the mustard and copper-coloured Victorian-era terminus that has been a meeting point for generations.
While Sydney has always been able to fall back on the staggering beauty of its harbour and coastline -- breeding a sense of complacency -- Melbourne has had to be much more industrious throughout the years. Watching Sydney host the Olympics with such aplomb in 2000 spurred Melbourne on to even greater efforts, and for the past decade the city has continued on an upward trajectory. Recently, the Economist declared the Victorian capital to be the world’s most liveable city, giving Melbournians the kind of international recognition that Sydneysiders have grown somewhat blasé about.
One of the world’s great over-achieving cities, Melbourne is now well-established as Australia’s cultural and sporting capital, home to some of the country’s finest theatres, galleries and athletic cathedrals. And with a growing number of top-notch eateries, Melbourne has gone in search of another more contentious title — Australia’s culinary capital.
In a city full of slightly obsessive foodies, much of Melbourne’s flavour comes from its polyglot population. Along with the strong Chinese and Asian fusion food that can be found in most major Australian cities, Melbourne lays claim to a string of top-end Greek, Italian and Eastern European restaurants. The city caters to every taste, from the fine dining of its most celebrated restaurant Vue Du Monde, to fashionable hangouts like Cumulus Inc, to much-loved institutions like Caffé e Cucina. Partly because of the city’s strong Italian influence, Melbourne baristas claim to brew the finest coffee in the land, and there is no end to the city’s cafes and coffee bars. Local favourites include Journal Canteen, Brother Baba Budan, Seven Seeds and 65 Degrees.
There is also a lively late-night bar scene, much of it concentrated around the laneways of the central business district. Two favourites are the Supper Club (161 Spring St; 61-3-9654-6300), which has the look of a gauche London drinking den, and the Madame Brussels roof bar. To no avail, Sydney went so far as to change its licensing laws in an attempt to ape Melbourne’s small-bar success. The 2008 reforms gave Sydney drinkers a wider choice: offering drinking holes where it was possible to have a quiet, intimate conversation and thus an alternative to the mega-pubs – or hotels, as they are called locally – with their loud music and rows of electronic poker machines.
Along with its food and coffee, Melbourne is also a city that savours its culture. It has the most lively theatre district in Australia – you can catch Geoffrey Rush in local productions that have ended up on Broadway in New York – and also some of the best galleries. The mausoleum-like National Gallery of Art, Victoria regularly hosts visiting blockbuster shows and has a strong international collection of its own. The museums’ Ian Potter Centre is the first major gallery to be devoted solely to Australian art.
The Melbourne Recital Centre, a futuristic building that plays host to orchestral concerts and looks at first glance like a giant Meccano set, combines the city’s love for culture with its rich architectural heritage. Melbourne is peppered with architectural styles, from Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Beaux Arts to Spanish Mission, Moorish Revival to Deconstructionist and Gothic Revival to Chicago-style skyscrapers. The Old Treasury Building and State Parliament are two of the city’s finest examples of colonial-era architecture, much of which was financed by money from the 19th-century gold rush.
As one might expect in a city where sport is almost regarded as a secular religion, some of its finest buildings were erected to house Aussie Rules (Australian football), cricket and soccer. The MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) – or the G, as it is known to locals – is one of the most impressive multi-purpose stadiums in the world. The Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, the new home for soccer and rugby, is the most recent addition to the sporting skyline. Commercially known as AAMI Park, the stadium is another design gem, with a bubbly exterior has the feel of a galactic space station. While it probably will not make a postcard all on its own, it is another snapshot to add to Melbourne’s charming collage.