Dumplings, diversity and day trips: Why Melbourne is the culture capital of Australia

Visit Australia and the typical traveller will expect kangaroos, koalas, beaches and barbies. With endless coastlines of untouched silica beaches, crystal clear lagoons, communal barbeques and wildlife found nowhere else in the world, why wouldn’t you want your Australian adventure to feature these incredible attractions?

Having travelled up the east coast from Melbourne to Cairns (3,000km and a hell of a lot of driving) and everywhere in between, there was something about Melbourne that was unique and for me, set it apart from the other cities and towns on our roadtrip.

Melbourne is original. It has a strong sense of community, an inclusive vibe and heaps of culture. Officially, the city is known as Australia’s cultural capital and there’s a good reason that it has been stapled with this title.

Melbourne skyscrapers and the Yarra River from Southbank.

Melbourne Central Business District 88 floors up on the Eureka Skydeck.

A sense of belonging

Don’t get me wrong, I love Sydney for its beach-vibe, national parks and world-famous tourist attractions but my love for Melbourne is different. Similar to the way I love London and Leeds, visit Melbourne and you’ll very quickly feel at home there. Despite referring constantly to Google Maps, getting lost was a frequent occurrence for me in Melbourne – just like in any other new city really. Yet unlike in the UK where you actively have to seek a friendly-looking local to ask for directions, in Melbourne it was the friendly-looking locals that instead approached me – obviously looking confused and incapable of finding my own way. With friendly faces on every corner, happy to help you navigate, it wasn’t long before I found my bearings and was able to quickly access everything the city had to offer.

Melbourne has amazing transport – I’d go as far as saying it’s one of the best cities I’ve visited for it. Trains, trams and buses are frequent, on time and have regular stops, making it easy to get to the CBD and the city’s surrounding areas in good time. Once you get to the CBD, there is a free tram zone and minimal traffic, which means you can get from one side of the city to the other in ten minutes or so. If you want a quick tour of the city from the comfort of public transport then there is an old-school free tram that will shuttle you around the centre. This was something we did on one of our first few days in Melbourne as it helped us get our bearings and decide which attractions we’d like to visit.

A view of the city just before we caught the free tram around its outskirts.

Towards the top of our list of things to do was a trip to the Immigration Museum. Admittedly, my knowledge of history is pretty shocking and before landing down under my extremely basic understanding of Australian history was that about 200 years ago we sent quite a lot of convicts as far away as possible to a country we then claimed to have ‘officially discovered’ despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities having roamed the land for thousands of centuries before. Unfortunately, little did I know that the reality of this was much worse.

The Immigration Museum did a brilliant job of educating me on the atrocities of the British Empire and it’s conquering of Australia. In 1770, Captain James Cook (a figure I was brought up to admire with his hometown of Great Ayton only a short drive from my home) and a number of explorers were the first Europeans to reach the Australian coast. In 1788 the First Fleet of over 1,000 convicts arrived in Sydney with many ships following suit. The British then quickly took over the land, slaughtering groups of Indigenous Australians in masses (right up until the 1920s) and renaming land to reflect their conquering. In the later 20th Century, thousands of British, American and Irish immigrants (under the White Australia Policy…) set sail to Australia for a better life and the promise of work once they arrived.

A multicultural hub

Yet despite this history, in the past 30 years, Melbourne has transformed its attitude towards immigration and culture dramatically, and as a city really sets the standard for cultural diversity around the world. Melbourne’s citizens are well aware that their history is entrenched with colonialism and the suppression of Aboriginal communities and so are hugely active in trying to change the perception of the nation. Much to my surprise, Melbourne was largely liberal. The LGBT flag and ‘Vote Yes’ was plastered on surfaces all over the city ahead of the same-sex marriage vote, “Refugees Welcome” remained draped across the masterpiece that is St Paul’s cathedral for the entirety of my visit, and I lost count of the numerous art exhibitions across the city celebrating diverse groups.

The vibe was young and energetic, and Melbourne is bursting at the seams with culture. Melbournian’s wear diversity as a badge of pride, keen to welcome anyone and everyone into their community.

The Royal Exhibition Building standing in front of Melbourne Museum.

If you love art, film or theatre, Melbs boasts famous street art and lanes filled with colourful graffiti: not quite Banksy standard but pretty impressive nonetheless. Alternatively, tourists often flock to the Royal Exhibition Building (a stunning structure worth a trip to for the architecture alone) which hosts fairs, conventions and cultural events, or the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) which has film-related exhibitions throughout the year. While I do enjoy a trip to a museum every now and again, a lot of the time I don’t have the patience to spend hours in these types of places, especially when more exciting activities await – they get very same-y after a while, right? However, much to my disbelief, along with the aforementioned Immigration Museum, Melbourne Museum kept me intrigued for at least three or four hours. If you visit the city on a rainy day – which is quite likely as Melbourne is known for having all four seasons in one day – a trip to the museum is the perfect solution.

Let’s talk about food

One thing that anyone living in or visiting Melbourne will quickly come to realise is that everything is done over food. It is a central feature of everyday life and with dishes from every cuisine you could imagine there is no way to fall short of new places to visit and exotic dishes to try. Whether you’re vegetarian, a #fitfam member, vegan, celiac, incredibly fussy, a meat-lover or just a general food enthusiast – Melbourne has got it covered.

For those of you after a chilled vibe and good scenes, I fully recommend a trip to Southbank, located along the Yarra River in the CBD. Cross the bridge from Flinders Street and take a stroll along the river bank where you will find yourself surrounded by bright lights, buskers and al fresco dining. Although completely spoilt for choice, we finally settled for a Greek street food restaurant with an upstairs balcony looking out across the river to the magical city lights.

If it’s Chinese food you crave head to Melbourne’s Chinatown. As the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world, there are endless alleyways and streets with Chinese restaurants for any budget. Dumplings are a huge craze in the city and something you must try when in Melbourne. As a big fan of UK-style mince and dumplings, I was a little reluctant to taste this dish at first but after being persuaded by work colleagues (who looked at me as though I was from another planet when I told them I’d never tried Chinese dumplings before) I was completely blown away by my first dumpling experience, which I can only describe as an explosion of flavours in my mouth. Top tip: Always chose steamed dumplings over fried.

If you’re looking for somewhere a little quieter, head to Little Bourke Street where you can find pedestrianised lanes with eateries and delicious smells spilling out into the street. The European vibe to this area will make you feel as though you’ve taken a trip to a bustling Italian town for the evening and will leave your stomach feeling extremely satisfied.

In Melbourne, you don’t have to go to the city centre to discover tasty food. In fact, suburbs like Richmond, Prahan and Fitzroy actually have more to offer, especially if you’re looking for independent restaurants, bars and cafes. If you’re in Prahan, Chapel Street is the place to be if you’re on the hunt for impeccable food. Walk along this street in the evening and it’s easy to mistake gelataria’s for bars with the number of people socialising over ice-cream! If you’d prefer somewhere out of the city but not too far away visit Richmond, with a huge variety of bars, restaurants and takeaways on Church Street or Swan Street.

Halloumi fries and ham and fried potatoes topped with fondant cheese, served at the Queen Victoria Market.

During the summer months, Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market extends its opening hours every fortnight to host the night markets – with various themes, stalls, live music and the best fresh food you could imagine. With over 100 food stalls, deciding which dish to try was extremely problematic and took me a good hour or so to decide. As a cheese fanatic, I eventually went for the safe option – ham and fried potato topped with cheese fondant AND (because I had to try them) halloumi fries. It’s safe to say I was in cheese heaven until I ate way too much and this cheese-bliss turned into a cheese coma, as I had literally consumed a whole block of the stuff… Definitely worth it, nonetheless.

For the wildlife-lovers

Australia is known for its natural beauty, wildlife and incredible scenery. Most Aussie’s thrive in the summer heat, spending minimal time indoors. The wildlife in the country is genuinely intriguing with lots of creatures residing only in this part of the world. That being said, there’s also a hell of lot animals and insects that can hurt and kill you here, from box jellyfish (which can kill you within a matter of seconds) to crocs and spiders.

At the top of the Pinnacle in the Grampians National Park.

Luckily for me, I was pleased to discover that the majority of deadly Aussie creatures are mainly up in the north where the climate is more tropical (something I would encounter later on my road trip to Cairns). Melbourne and the rest of Victoria is home to the more furry and friendly beasts like ‘roos, koalas and penguins. Obviously it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to come across a member of this trio in Melbourne city but venture a little further (1-3 hours drive) and the wildlife is THRIVING. From start to finish the Great Ocean Road requires roughly 151 miles of driving but is so worth it, even if you only venture as a far as the Twelve Apostles – a collection of limestone stacks shooting up out of the Southern Ocean. You could easily take your time exploring this bit of coast over a number of days but with limited time we decided to take a day tour from Melbourne to ensure we visited all the best spots. Part of the tour involved visiting an area where numerous tropical birds congregate and where – if you’re lucky – you can spot koalas sleeping in the trees. Despite everyone else on the trip managing to spot the sleepy koala, this was something I missed completely and I have yet to see a wild koala to this day.

The beginning of the Great Ocean Road.

Venture a little further afield (perhaps for a weekend break) and you will come across the stunning Grampians National Park. Envision sandstone mountains lining the sky, the dusty, orange-yellow outback and the frenetic silhouettes of kangaroos jumping around at dusk. The Grampians was dreamy. There are numerous activities to do here; most visitors are keen to climb its many mountains for the amazing views. In the short time we were there, we managed to pack in a climb up to the Pinnacle, stop at Reeds Lookout and Boroka Lookout, get a glimpse of MacKenzie Falls, enjoy a soothing bathe in Venus Baths and take a shorter walk to the Picanninny. Here, you don’t have to look for wildlife because it is everywhere, especially at dusk when you have to drive super slow to avoid kangaroos and emus all over the roads. My only regret is that we didn’t have longer in this beautiful corner of the world.

While you’re in Melbourne, a tour you see plastered in the window of numerous travel agents will be a day trip to Phillip Island to see the famous Penguin Parade. The Penguin Parade is a nightly event that sees thousands of Little Penguins return to shore with their bellies full of fish to feed their chicks. Cute doesn’t even begin to describe the scene of these little creatures waddling along with heavy stomachs.

A home away from home

While my two-month stay in Melbourne only provided me with a glimpse of what the city is like all year round, my conclusion is that it is extremely livable and if I had to pick anywhere to live in the world out of the cities I’ve already visited, Melbs would definitely be up there. It is a metropolis that boasts great food, green spaces and overall good quality of life. The longer I was in the city the more I came to admire its rooftop bars, quirky backstreets and cultural acceptance. Melbourne was my home away from home, providing me with everything I needed to settle into life down under. In Melbourne I belonged.

 

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