Long heralded as Australia’s second city, Melbourne is a vast urban district spilling forth from the banks of the bay of Port Phillip. The city proper skirts the Dandenong and Macedon mountain ranges, as well as the sun kissed grasslands of Mornington Peninsula and the illustrious Yarra Valley — giving inhabitants and visitors alike ample opportunity to savour the best of both town and country on Australia’s south east coast.
Dubbed the world’s most liveable city five years on the trot, Melbourne is regarded as the cultural capital of Australia, and is cited as the birthplace of Australian impressionism, contemporary dance and film and television. The city is recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature, and is considered a global centre for music, theatre and street art.
As well as providing a glut of cultural happenings, Melbourne boasts a rich historic heritage, housing many of Australia’s most celebrated structures, including Melbourne Cricket Ground, the State Library of Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria and the UNESCO World Heritage accredited Royal Exhibition Building.
Couple this rich culture and heritage with fabulous retail opportunities, not to mention a warm, temperate climate, and Melbourne makes an attractive proposition for the globe-trotting traveller. Here we explore Australia’s undisputed second city, from its colourful history to its unique cultural highlights.
Prior to European settlement, the Melbourne area was occupied for over 30,000 years by a band of indigenous hunter-gatherers who were split into three tribal factions: the Wurundjeri, Wathaurong and Boonwurrung. Thanks to its position next to the bay, the area became an important meeting place for clans of the Kulin alliance, as well as a source of water and food for the region’s 20,000 inhabitants.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Victoria was first settled by the Europeans. Lead by Colonel David Collins in the autumn of 1803, a band of sailors established a settlement at Sullivan Bay, around two hours from the centre of Melbourne as it stands today. A year later, the settlement was abandoned on account of a perceived lack of resources, with Collins choosing to move the village to Hobart, Tasmania.
Other attempts to settle the region didn’t take place until 1835, when Australian cattle grazier and entrepreneur, John Batman, led the Port Phillip Association on a mission to explore the south east region. Choosing a spot on the northern banks of the Yarra River, Batman laid the foundation stone for what would eventually become the city of Melbourne as we know it today.
Having entered a treaty with the indigenous Aborigines who still held residence in the area, the site was declared the administrative capital of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales in 1836. Planning the layout for the new city fell to Robert Hoddle, who in 1837 created a city plan known as the Hoddle Grid. Initially the city was named Batmania after its founder, but this was soon changed to Melbourne after British Prime Minister, William Lamb, who hailed from the market town of Melbourne, Derbyshire.
The new city of Melbourne wasn’t officially declared thus until 1847, when a letter from Queen Victoria arrived confirming its status. In the subsequent years the city experienced rapid and continuous growth thanks to the Victorian gold rush of 1851. As the principal port in Victoria, Melbourne provided thousands of new jobs, and saw its population grow by 15,000 in under a year. By 1865, the city had experienced such growth that its population was greater than Sydney, and it became the wealthiest city in the world during the Gold Rush era.
Between 1850 and 1860, Melbourne witnessed an influx of overseas migrants, who flocked to the city in their droves upon hearing about its increasing wealth. Among those to journey to Melbourne, the Chinese population was the greatest, and it was these migrants which would later go on to form Melbourne’s Chinatown — which remains the oldest Chinese settlement in the Western World.
From the 1860s onwards, Melbourne continued to grow at a rapid rate, reputedly retaining its title as the wealthiest city in the world well into the 20th century. This wealth was used to bedeck the city in lavish architectural structures, including Parliament House, the Treasury Building, Victoria Barracks, the Old Melbourne Gaol and Melbourne Town Hall. In 1885, Melbourne’s cable tramway system was created, quickly becoming the world’s most vast and expensive public transport system.
Throughout the 20th century and to the present day, Melbourne has continued to enjoy significant growth, both in its population and employment numbers. Large swathes of the city have seen increased investment from the property market, with new developments being added regularly. This new investment, coupled with innumerable historic sites, gives Melbourne a European feel quite unlike other major cities down under.
Thanks to its immense depth of history and progressive, forward-thinking approach to the arts, Melbourne is littered with cultural sites and attractions. From contemporary multimedia art spaces to historic jewels which transmute the fascinating heritage of the city, Melbourne affords no shortage of cultural highlights from its centre to its outskirts. Here we uncover just five of the cultural highlights you can enjoy during your time in the so-called City by the Bay.
State Library of Victoria
Housing some two million books beneath its century old dome, the State Library of Victoria is Melbourne’s — nay, Australia’s — most vital cultural institution. Having inspired many of the country’s greatest minds, Melbourne’s State Library has come to typify Victoria’s cultural ferocity. The highlight of the library is without question the domed Reading Room. Opened in 1913, this extraordinary octagonal space can seat six hundred readers, and is thought to contain over one million books, including the personal diaries and folios of Captain James Cook, John Pascoe Faulkner and John Batman.
Royal Exhibition Building
Cited as one of the world’s oldest remaining exhibition pavilions, Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building was completed in 1880 to serve as the venue for the city’s International Exhibition of 1880-1. In subsequent years, the Royal Exhibition Building hosted the opening of the first Parliament of Australia in 1901 — a significant moment in the history of the city and the country more generally. Now, the Royal Exhibition Building is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was in fact the first building in Melbourne to be awarded the status. While the building alone is a marvel of 19th century architecture, its gardens are also well worth exploring during a visit.
Nowhere else in the world will you find a development quite like Melbourne’s Federation Square. At once a traditional public square on the banks of the Yarra River, the site doubles as a multimedia arts and exhibition space, with theatre seating and a giant screen for performances and events. Interactive art installations are commonplace across Federation Square, and there are also a number of cafes and bars skirting the site. What’s most impressive about the square is that a large portion of it is built directly above one of the city’s busiest rail transport hubs, making it truly one of the most architecturally varied public spaces on earth.
Those interested in chancing upon Melbourne’s world celebrated street art need look no further than Hosier Lane. Lying opposite the entrance of the Federation Square Atrium on Flinders Street, this colourful byway, clad in bluestone cobbles, is a world away from the city’s grand architectural powerhouses. That said, Hosier certainly holds great charm and appeal, with an ever changing smorgasbord of street art installations from some of Melbourne’s most talented graffiti artists. Rather than being shunned for its gaudiness, Hosier has been broadly accepted by Melbournians, and is now a popular location for wedding, fashion and art photography.
Royal Botanic Gardens
If punting on a wonderfully photogenic ornamental lake sounds like the perfect way to while away a sunlit afternoon, head to Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Located on the southern bank of the Yarra, the gardens were first opened in 1846, making them some of the oldest in the southern hemisphere. The gardens cover over 40 acres, and are home to an abundance of native and exotic vegetation.
Where to Shop
Melbourne is to Australasia what Paris is to Europe: a mecca for exquisite retail. From designer names to historic shopping arcades, the city is renowned for its varied and comprehensive shopping opportunities. But given just how many shops, markets and arcades are strewn across the metropolis, where do you start your Melbourne shopping spree?
Bourke Street Mall
Wedged between Swanston and Elizabeth streets and accessible only on foot or by tram, the Bourke Street Mall represents the epicentre of Melbourne’s retail offering. Packed with a variety of designer and high street stores, as well as other lesser known boutiques, Bourke is the perfect starting point for a shopping trip in Melbourne thanks to its central location.
Housing a plethora of cutting edge designer names, Melbourne’s Block Arcade is for those who take fashion and style very seriously. Because it’s partially hidden on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth streets, few tourists know the Block Arcade exists — lending a touch of exclusivity to this timeless shopping arcade.
If you’ve money to burn during a Melbourne retail outing, the best place to spend your money is Chapel Street. Home to a handful of world-renowned designer names, as well as a scattering of ritzy restaurants and bars, Chapel Street offers a premier shopping experience for those with the money to pay for it.
Image credits: Cazz, Fotolia