Melbourne is Australia’s second biggest, and lesser advertised, city. It lacks the sparkle of Sydney and the remoteness of Perth and doesn’t quite fit the mold of the kangaroo and beach-centric image that Australia’s tourism board has been shipping around the world for years. That being said, Melbourne is an incredibly diverse destination made up of immigrants from all over the globe. Around every corner you can find amazing food, world-class museums, and locals who are always willing to give you their tips for how to do Melbourne right. Often referred to as Australia’s San Francisco, Melbourne is perfect for culinary enthusiasts, beachgoers, and those looking for a hip reprieve from Sydney’s glitzier vibe. And if you’re really looking for them, yes, there are kangaroos around as well.
1. National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne is full of great museums, but the National Gallery of Victoria, located in the Southbank neighborhood, is the crown jewel of the city’s art scene and the oldest public art museum in Australia. The museum’s halls are filled with works from storied Australian painters and international masters alike, but it’s their attention to modern art, which is currently focused on exhibits featuring Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, that really sets it apart in a city that moves to the beat of artists and musicians. Follow the visit with a walk around the neighboring Royal Botanical Gardens and enjoy Melbourne’s more tranquil side.
2. Queen Victoria Market
Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty
Every great city has a great central market and Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market is just that. Part farmers market catering to the locals’ wide-ranging taste in fruit and vegetables and part collection of stalls selling everything from fresh meat, fish, and poultry to baked goods, coffee, Lebanese pizza, and wigs, Queen Vic (as the locals call it) is a great place to start off your stay in Melbourne as you check out that morning’s offerings, all while enjoying a spicy bratwurst just like the residents do. Also, Wednesday nights the market opens its doors to an endless number of food vendors, each of whom dishes out food while bands and buskers entertain the swarm of market attendees.
3. Richmond and Footscray
Over the past 40 years, Melbourne’s population has greatly increased as immigrants from every corner of Asia have flocked to its streets. Chinatown came first and remains a stalwart of Melbourne’s downtown, but it’s the Vietnamese communities that have taken root in the neighborhoods of Richmond and Footscray that really call to those looking for a banh mi or bowl of bun thit nuong that would rival any found on the streets of Hanoi or Saigon. Grocery stores, coffee shops, and noodle shops line the streets and, although you aren’t paying Vietnam prices, with locally sourced meat from Aussie farms and incredibly fresh produce, the quality of the food far exceeds that found in Vietnam itself.
As with most modern cities, Hipsternization has hit Melbourne, and in a big way. The perfect example of this is in the Fitzroy neighborhood, located just north of downtown. Once a refuge for drug addicts and criminals—always the perfect breeding ground for hip and cool—Fitzroy has emerged as the trendiest neighborhood in the city, with sections of it looking perfectly picked from NYC’s Williamsburg or Chicago’s Bucktown. The dive bar and coffee shop options are endless, but if you want a truly chill Melbourne night out stop by the Black Cat Cafe on Brunswick Street. A coffee shop that also sells beer and pizza, Black Cat is filled with pleasantly worn-in couches and tables, each of which are perfect for sitting back and enjoying the well-curated selection of hip-hop and rock that the friendly staff rings out for all to hear.
3. Laksa + Bar
Photo by Max Bonem
One of Melbourne’s smaller but ever growing immigrant communities hails from Malaysia and as with anywhere this country’s former residents go, so goes their incredible food. Laksa + Bar, located in Melbourne’s downtown business district, combines the modern, casual eating environment seen throughout Melbourne with laksa so good that you might think they’re importing it instantly from a kitchen in Kuala Lumpur. Although their menu includes every variation of laksa you can fathom, we’re partial to the curry laksa, particularly the option served with whole fried crab, which pairs perfectly with an ice cold Tiger beer or two.
6. St. Kilda
A suburb of Melbourne, St. Kilda (pictured at top) is the beach refuge that Melbournians seek out when they need a break from the bustle of the city’s concrete and glass canopied streets. Located less than 20 minutes south of the city center by car, St. Kilda is the epitome of a beachfront neighborhood filled with bars, restaurants, backpacker hostels, and shops catering to people making a day out of lounging around by the softly breaking waves just within earshot. Hippies, hipsters, bogans, and tourists all bump up against one another as they take a break in the area that was once Melbourne’s Red Light District.
7. Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven
Melbourne’s Chinatown is a treasure trove of Chinese delights, ranging from Hunan and Cantonese classics to dumpling shops and Sichuan specialists. However, quietly hiding just a block or two away from Chinatown’s Little Bourke Street is one of the most delicious restaurants in the city, Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven. The name itself should draw you in, but if that’s not enough, their take on western Chinese (as in western China, not westernized) food should speak for itself. A lesser known cuisine, Uyghur food combines traditional Chinese recipes with ingredients you might be more accustomed to finding in middle eastern specialties, including lamb, heavy doses of cumin, and multiple styles of bread. Come for the handmade noodles and stay for the roasted lamb pie. It might not be synonymous to Melbourne, but it certainly should be.
8. Somewhere Store
Very rarely do you find a store that carries everything that you wish you had in your closet, but Somewhere, the sister store to Sydney’s Someplace, is just that shop. Located on the second floor of the Royal Arcade in downtown Melbourne, Somewhere carries a wide range of jeans, shirts, jackets, hats, and eyewear that perfectly express what it means to be a modern day Australian, at least in terms of style. Modeled with a nod toward Scandinavian design, the shop’s employees are eager to help you pick out a good piece or two, all while suggesting the best places to grab a pint of cider or see an up and coming Melbourne band. You won’t accidentally stumble upon Somewhere, but if you make a point to stop by, you won’t regret it.
Max Bonem is a writer and eater currently traveling through Southeast Asia. You can follow his travels via his blog, Instagram or Flickr.