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Australia’s second-largest city (projected to surpass Sydney in 2020) has blossomed into an impressive cosmopolitan center with an active arts community, a fierce love of sports, and an appetite for gourmet dining and street-side cafes. Recent years have witnessed population growth and an increased international flavor. Melbourne’s neighborhoods (called “precincts”) invite exploration and are easily accessible by tram. With its picturesque waterfront, epic sporting events, happening bar scene, and world-class culture, Melbourne offers big city attractions with a refreshing lack of tourist hype.
Melbourne lies along the Yarra River near Port Phillip Bay. The river splits Melbourne into northern and southern regions. The city center, North Melbourne, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond, and the Docklands are on the northern bank; South Yarra, Prahran, Southbank, Windsor, St. Kilda, Williamstown, and Brighton are on the southern bank. Each of these precincts has its own well-trodden thoroughfares and unique style. South of the Yarra River, several communities boast popular beaches and bayside vistas. While the city center has impressive architecture and most of the museums, the diverse array of attractions in the other precincts is not to be missed.
This growing city is becoming a thriving cosmopolitan center. With an intense love of sports, diverse selection of gourmet foods, and creative arts community, there is something for everyone
Only in town for a short visit? Make sure to check out our top Melbourne picks. Click the links to reserve tickets or local guides.
Although Australian cuisine has been traditionally dismissed as an uninspiring offshoot of English “pub food,” Oz eats have recently undergone a multicultural makeover. European and Middle Eastern immigrants spiced up the Australian menu in the post-WWII boom, and today’s Japanese, Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrants are pepper the urban centers with ethnic restaurants.
Foreign influences aren’t the only new forces in Aussie diets. The emerging Modern Australian cuisine—“Mod Oz” in the culinary world—has taken Indigenous fare out of the bush and into the bistro. Traditional, native ingredients are prepared with a fusion of Asian methods, producing a unique and inventive culinary style. French, German, and Italian immigrants have left their mark in Australian vineyards, which are gaining more and more international renown.
Breakfast, or “brekkie,” is usually not eaten out, and most restaurants don’t open until noon. Luckily, the ultimate Aussie breakfast can be made in a hostel kitchen. Just grab a piece of toast and slather on some Vegemite, the infamously salty yeast by-product of Oz’s breweries. Be sure to save room for “tea” in the evening; it’s the largest meal of the day. Also, beware of ordering an “entrée;” it’s an appetizer in Australia. Tipping in Australian restaurants is rare and almost never expected; however, expensive, urban restaurants expect a 5-10% gratuity for good service.
Luckily for vegetarians, Australia’s carnivorous contingent is balanced by its hippie sector: vegan and organic options abound. The Australian continent boasts a cornucopia of exotic fruits, including custard apples, lychees, passion fruit, star fruit, coconuts, quandong, and pineapples. Its meats are inexpensive and high grade—especially the veal and lamb—but the contents of the popular meat pie are usually of a more dubious quality. The doughy shell of this dish is often doused with a ketchup-like tomato sauce to disguise the taste of the meat. Seafood is a less questionable Australian favorite, with regional specialties like king prawns (shrimp), Balmain Bugs (a type of lobster), and Barramundi (freshwater fish).
Coastal Indigenous Australians have eaten crayfish, yabbies (freshwater shrimp), and tropical fish for centuries, but urban Australia has only recently discovered the merits of its exotic indigenous food. With the onset of Mod Oz, menus are increasingly inclined to incorporate wild “bush tucker” like bunya nuts, Kakadu plums, and wild rosella plums. Specialty meats like crocodile meat, Northern Territory buffalo, and the surprisingly popular kangaroo filet are also making a showing. However, the average tourist will still probably find witchetty grubs (ghost moth larvae) and wild magpie eggs a bit too daring.
Self-catering is surprisingly easy in Australia. Most budget accommodations offer kitchen or BBQ facilities, and public BBQs are available at parks, beaches, and campsites. Your best bet for an inexpensive midday meal out is a pub counter lunch, which usually includes generous portions of “meat and two veg.” Fish and chips is another budget Aussie institution, but it’s a bit more tropical than its English cousin. Although still battered, fried, and served with thick-cut french fries, Australia’s version is made from “flake,” slang for shark meat. Australian-style bakeries offer a similar mix of familiar and foreign. They sell breads baked with cheese, onion, or other savory additions; sandwich-ready rolls (like hamburger buns); and blue treats like the lamington (coconut-covered chunk of pound cake dipped in chocolate) or pavlova (giant meringue).
Ordering “just coffee” is nearly impossible in Australia, particularly in the cappuccino culture of the major cities. If you need help ordering, see Cool Beans. Tea, often affectionately referred to as a “cuppa,” is also very popular. Sweet-toothed cafe fans may opt instead for iced chocolate, a frothy, creamy concoction of ice cream, cream, and chocolate syrup.
Australia produces some delicious brews, and Australians consume them readily. The best place to share a “coldie” with your mates is at one of the omnipresent Aussie pubs.Traditional payment etiquette is the shout, in which drinking mates alternate rounds. If the beach is more your style, throw a “slab” (24-pack) in the “Esky” (ice chest) and head to the shore. Although Foster’s was marketed worldwide with the slogan, “Foster’s: Australian for Beer,” other locals brews are gaining popularity and are definitely worth a try. For more beer terminology and information on the types of beer available, consult Terms of Enbeerment.
Australian wines are now among the best in the world. Overseas export started soon after the first vineyards began to produce wine in the early 1800s, and the industry gained renown after a post-WWII influx of European oenophilic talent. The Hunter Valley, the Barossa and Clare Valleys, the Swan and Margaret Rivers, and the Derwent and Tamar Valleys possess some of the best Aussie vineyards. Many cafes and restaurants advertise that they are BYO, or “bring your own,” meaning patrons should bring their own bottle of wine.
While Australia has only been producing canvases and novels for 200 years or so, art is woven into the fabric of the nation itself. The rock sculptures and paintings of Indigenous artists predate the arrival of Europeans by millennia. Today, a bevy of artists—both native and otherwise—are continuing Australia’s proud artistic tradition, working in disparate styles and genres that reflect the nation’s diffuse identity and evolving national consciousness.
Indigenous Australians have developed their own brand of literature through 50,000 years of oral tradition. Their stories revolve around the Dreaming, their creation legend, which is set in a mythological time where the landscape is endowed with mythic and symbolic status. Narratives of the Dreaming speak to a complex network of beliefs, practices, and customs that define Indigenous Australians’ spiritual beliefs and connection to the land.
Perhaps the first Western literary genre to emerge from Australia was the bush ballad, a form of poetry that celebrated the working man and the superiority of bush life to dreary urban existence. The most famous of these ballads is AB Banjo Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda,” often considered the unofficial Australian national anthem. Henry Lawson celebrated bush life in both poems and short stories, with works like “The Drover’s Wife” providing a popular mythology for this heavily urbanized society.
Early colonial novels tend to focus on the convict experience, as exhibited by both convicted forger Henry Savory’s autobiography Quintus Servinton, the first Australian novel, as well as perhaps the first real Australian classic, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. In the early 20th century, two female writers highlighted the changing face of the newly independent nation. Early feminist Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career is a portrait of an independent and strong-willed woman seeking emancipation, while another female writer, Henry Handel Richardson, documented an immigrant family’s history in The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.
Since WWII, Australian literature has adopted a more outward-looking, cosmopolitan voice. Voss, by Nobel Prize winner Patrick White, uses the bleak emptiness of Australia’s center to illuminate the universality of individual isolation. Thomas Keneally writes with a strong social conscience: his The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith takes on the issue of turn-of-the-century race relations, and his Holocaust epic Schindler’s Ark was later made into the film Schindler’s List. Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey is known for Oscar and Lucinda and, more recently, The True History of the Kelly Gang, an imaginative account of outlaw and Australian folk hero Ned Kelly. David Malouf’s work explores the relation between cultural centers and peripheries in the immigrant experience, and his background as a poet surfaces in novels like Remembering Babylon. Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, Les Murray, celebrates the irreverent with his “larrikin” characters and brought much-deserved attention to Australian poetry from every era, while the late Judith Wright occupies a special niche with her uniquely feminine poetic voice.
Australia’s rich musical tradition stretches back centuries to a time when indigenous people sang “karma” songs that celebrated their ancestry. Different regions produced different styles and instruments, but the didjeridu is perhaps the most famous musical contribution of Indigenous Australians. Invented by northern people some 2,000 years ago, the prototypes of these droning wind instruments were created using tree branches.
While classical music and precursors of jazz dominated the modest Australian music scene throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the country came into its own with the discovery of rock and roll. Shortly after the sound of Bill Haley & His Comets swept through Australia, the country produced its own rock star. Hard-rocking, hard-living Johnny O’Keefe was a perennial presence on the Australian charts throughout the late 50s, and his fitting nickname, “The Wild One,” was also the name of his first hit. The British Invasion of the 60s also had a major impact on Australia: the Easybeats hit the international scene with their infectious tune, “Friday on My Mind.” The wholesome acoustic sounds of the Seekers led the folk bandwagon, and contributions from sibling supergroup the Bee Gees helped Australian pop stay alive through the 60s and 70s.
In the late 70s, AC/DC scored big with their brand of blues-influenced heavy metal. Other groups, such as the Skyhooks, Cold Chisel, and Australian Crawl, grew up out of the pub scene and gained local fame with Aussie-themed hits that refused to emulate sounds from across the seas. In the 80s, politically aware pub-rock bands like Midnight Oil became famous for their energetic live shows. Men at Work broke into the American music scene and paved the way for super bands like INXS in the late 80s and thereafter.
After the dance-rock success of Arnhem Land group Yothu Yindi in the 90s, Indigenous music became commercially viable. Examples of politicized Aboriginal “bush rock” artists include the Coloured Stones, the Warrumpi Band, and Archie Roach. Indigenous pop artists in the charts recently include Shakaya and Christine Anu. At the same time, indie rock was popularized by such artists as Silverchair, Severed Heads, and Savage Garden.
International purveyors of pop include Delta Goodrem and pint-sized Aussie icon Kylie Minogue, and rock is currently well-represented with such bands as The Vines,Jet, and the increasingly world-popular John Butler Trio. Nick Cave is still churning out hard-driving Aussie rock, both with his Bad Seeds and Grinderman. Australia’s nation-wide radio station, Triple J, plays contemporary local music and actively promotes newer acts, such as indie groups Cut Copy and Architecture in Helsinki.
The rock paintings of Indigenous Australians have covered much of the Outback for millennia, and many of their carvings, sculptures, and stone arrangements still exist. Today, many artists carry on the Indigenous traditions. Australia’s most well-known Indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira, is famous for his Western-style depictions of Outback landscapes. His work made him a pioneer in the Aboriginal community, and he received full Australian citizenship in 1957. More recently, the frequently abstract and colorful paintings of Emily Kngwarreye have soared in value; in 2007, her Earth’s Creation sold for over a million dollars at auction.
Led by artists including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, and Frederick McCubbin, the Heidelberg School of Australian painting that emerged in the late 19th century is considered to be the root of western art in Oz. Named for the rural area near Melbourne where its painters worked, the style focused on landscapes and depictions of everyday Australian life. Roberts found inspiration in the red land of the cattle station, and McCubbin drew on the thin forests of smoky green gum trees.
Possibly the most famous Australian work is Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, which tells the story of the folk hero’s exploits, final capture, and execution through a series of vibrantly colored paintings. Other artists in the last half-century who have developed distinctively Australian styles include the acclaimed, controversial Brett Whiteley, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Boyd, and abstract artist John Colburn. First awarded in 1921, the Archibald Prize represents the pinnacle of Australian art and is awarded for special achievement in portraiture.
Australians love a good yarn, so it’s little wonder that the Land Down Under also boasts one of the world’s most prolific, innovative film industries. The world’s first feature film was an Australian production; written and directed by Charles Tait, The Story of the Kelly Gang lasted 70min. and cost slightly more than AUS $2,000. The Limelight Department,which was run by the Salvation Army in Melbourne, was among the world’s first production companies and made several hundred short films around the turn of the century.
Despite auspicious beginnings, Aussie films suffered budget woes until foreign financing picked up during the post-WWII economic boom. Films like Leslie Norman’s The Shiralee, a joint British-Australian production about a fancy-free wanderer forced to assume responsibility for his child, relied on foreign funding. The Australian film infrastructure didn’t really solidify until the 70s, when generous government support ushered in the Australian New Wave, characterized by films like Peter Weir’s eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock and Bruce Beresford’s war epic, Breaker Morant.
After the critical successes of the 70s, the 80s brought Australian films into commercial favor at the box office, both at home and abroad. Hits like Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee were wildly popular the world over. Films of the 90s were personal, Australia-specific, and often quirky—especially in intriguing character studies like Muriel’s Wedding and Shine. Recent productions, such as New South Wales-native Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, demonstrate the multiplicity of themes and styles present in contemporary Australian film. The Land Down Under has sent an astonishing number of its stars abroad; these include Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!), the New Zealand-born but Aussie-raised Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Guy Pearce (Memento), Hugh Jackman (the X-Men series), Toni Collette (About a Boy), and Mel Gibson (the Lethal Weapon series).
Known for their friendly informality, Australians are quick to adopt a first-name basis with new acquaintances and difficult to offend. However, it’s still best to avoid public pronouncements on sensitive topics like race relations or refugees, and you shouldn’t joke about Australia’s convict origins. “Aborigine” has also become somewhat politically incorrect; use “Indigenous Australian” to be safe. Smokers beware: Australia’s states and territories have recently implemented stringent bans on public smoking. Public buildings are tobacco-free throughout the continent, and smokers in licensed establishments—including bars, pubs, and hotels—can only light up in the Northern Territory. Littering in Australia is not taken lightly by its environmentally-conscious populace.
For women, almost any clothing is acceptable if it steers clear of indecency. Tube tops, halters, and tank tops are all common. For men, pants or shorts are the norm. Cossies, swimmers, and togs (affectionate terms for Australia’s favorite garment, the swimsuit) are usually appropriate only at the beach.