With its artsy laneways, cafe culture, festivals and sporting events it’s easy to see why Melbourne claims to be the cultural capital of Australia.
And to be fair, it’s hard to argue against that point. The Victorian capital is Australia’s second-largest city offering plenty regardless of whether your trip to Melbourne is for business or leisure.
My work at different events means I have visited Melbourne regularly, at least a few times each year, and over that time I’ve experienced plenty of what the city has to offer.
With that in mind, I’ve taken the opportunity to sit down and put together my picks for the things I think you must do while you are in Melbourne.
MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground)
Referred by locals as “The G”, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is the largest sports stadium in the Southern Hemisphere.
Located a short stroll from the heart of Melbourne, this modern coliseum has hosted both the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. These days it is used year-round for domestic and international calibre sporting events including AFL (Australian Football League), Cricket, Rugby League and Rugby Union.
If you would like to experience the atmosphere of the 100,000 capacity stadium for yourself, keep an eye on the MCG’s events page to see what might be on while you are in Melbourne.
Pro Tip: The stadium hosts weekly AFL fixtures during the winter and regular international cricket events in December and January each year. But the biggest event by far is the traditional Boxing Day Test Match (Cricket) which is typically sold out.
That all said, if you aren’t a fan of big crowds or just happen to be in Melbourne when there isn’t an event on, the MCG is still worth a visit.
You have two options, the Australian Sports Museum (formerly the National Sports Museum) and the MCG Tour.
The Australian Sports Museum which also houses the Australian Sports Hall of Fame is located within the MCG (Gate 3, just look for the signs) and has recently (February 2020) undergone significant redevelopment.
Plenty of interactive experiences have been added (although these are targetted towards kids) to the amazing collection of Australian sporting history which is well worth checking out.
If you have the time, a look behind the scenes of this stadium that dates back to 1853 is also worthwhile. MCG Tours are held daily when the venue isn’t hosting an event. And it’s a great way to appreciate the history and facilities usually only reserved for the most elite of athletes.
Located in central Melbourne, along the banks of the Yarra River, Melbourne’s SeaLife Aquarium differentiates itself from the many other aquariums around Australia with a unique Antarctic and Southern Ocean display.
One of a number or SeaLife aquariums around Australia, the one in Melbourne is particularly large. While it’s got all the typical Australiana that you would expect as well as tropical reef exhibit, the key attraction that makes SeaLife Melbourne stand out is the King and Gentoo penguins.
Even if you have been to some of the other SeaLife aquariums, the penguins that you’d otherwise need to travel to the remote islands of the Southern Ocean to see make this one in Melbourne a worthwhile visit while you are in the city.
As with the majority of the other aquarium and zoos you’ll likely visit, if are really keen, they do offer a couple of animal encounter passes as well at an extra charge. Including an opportunity to get up close with the penguins and/or diving with the sharks.
I can’t say that Melbourne is the cultural capital of Australia and not include some arty attractions now can I?
The National Gallery of Victoria or the NGV for short is Australia’s oldest, largest and most visited art museum. And it is actually comprised of two galleries, NGV International and The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.
Located on the Southbank side of the Yarra River (St Kilda Rd), the NGV International hosts a diverse collection of historic international art, including works from Picasso and Rembrandt.
It also has significant gallery space dedicated to a rotating exhibition of contemporary art, design and architecture known as the NGV Triennial.
While the NGV Australia gallery is much smaller, located within Federation Square and focuses more on local design and artwork.
General admission at both NGV galleries is free, however special exhibitions hosted the venues often attract an entry fee.
Old Melbourne Gaol
Delve into the dark side of Melbourne’s history with a tour of the Old Melbourne Gaol.
The site of infamous bushranger Ned Kelly’s execution, this prison turned museum dates back to 1839 and offers plenty of insight into the history seedy underbelly of Melbourne during the 1800s.
I could go into more details but the tours do a really good job explaining the extensive history of the site and really make it a worthwhile experiencing for yourself.
However, if you really want to creep yourself out, try one of the after-dark tours to really heighten the senses.
Ride The Tram
It might trivial, but the trams are iconic to Melbourne and a staple of day to day life in the city.
While other cities chose to remove their tram networks following the second world war, Melbourne continued to build upon the infrastructure and is now home to the largest operational urban tram network in the world.
The city has modernised its tram fleet over the years, however some of the older historic trams still run within the CBD for the benefit of tourists. These trams operate within Melbourne’s Tram Free Zone making it a great way to sample the trams for yourself.
Just keep in mind that to take advantage of the trams beyond the CBD you will need to purchase a Public Transport Victoria MyKi Card. Something that might come in handy anyway, Melbourne has a great public transport system that could save you from renting a car while you are in the city.
A dominant feature of Melbourne’s Southbank Promenade, the Crown Casino is more than just a casino.
In reality, Crown Casino is more like an entertainment precinct packed with restaurants, bars, night clubs, high-end fashion stores and theatres on the southern side of the Yarra River. On top of the obvious gambling aspect to the casino.
Pro Tip: No matter what your reason for visiting Melbourne, if you are travelling with a group of people and looking for a relatively easy option for a night out, the Crown Casino is a great place to start. From its casual to premium dining options through to sports and cocktail bars, it’s got something to cater for almost everyone.
If that all sounds a bit too much, head out for a stroll along the Yarra after dark and keep an eye out for the nightly fire show, officially known as the Gas Brigade.
If you aren’t aware that it’s going to happen it can catch you a little off guard but these on the hour fireball shows are impressive to see. For the best view be sure to be on the northern side of the Yarra River, near Melbourne’s SeaLife Aquarium.
This one might be for the young, or at least the young at heart, but who doesn’t love some light-hearted fun from time to time?
While Melbourne really isn’t known for its theme parks, Luna Park’s iconic “Mr Moon” face entry is sure to trigger some nostalgia.
Located in the beachside suburb of St Kilda, Luna Park is a simple 25-minute tram ride outside of Melbourne’s CBD.
The historic amusement park’s carnival-style atmosphere makes it a popular attraction for both locals and tourists alike, particularly during the warmer summer months.
Home to the one of oldest continuously operating roller coasters in the world, the Scenic Railway, Luna Park has been open to the public since 1912. These days the park offers a mix of historic and modern rides and attractions for a fun-filled couple of hours by the beach.
If for nothing else, Luna Park is well worth a visit for the nostalgia factor> However it’s also one of only a handful of beachside carnival-style experiences that Australia has to offer.
It’s also worth noting that Luna Park is open year-round on the weekends. However, over the Summer holidays, opens every day of the week with extended hours.
Roam The Lane Ways
If roaming around graffiti-covered laneways chasing the best coffees from a hidden away, ‘hole in the wall’ style cafe isn’t the most Melbourne thing to do on this list, then I don’t what is.
Whether it’s the ever-changing street art or just the hunt for the perfect coffee. Wandering the narrow laneways scattered through the CBD seems to be a way of life for the people of Melbourne.
To get you started on your laneway discovery of Melbourne I’m going to recommend you visit Hosier Lane, just off Flinders Street (across from Federation Square) to sample some of the famous street art that the laneways offer.
While on that hunt for coffee and cafes, Centre Place between Flinders Street and Collins Street (running parallel with Elizabeth Street) will get you going.
From this point its just a matter of walking around the streets of Melbourne and heading down little side access roads to see what you discover. Restaurants, cafes, galleries, there are plenty of hidden away discoveries to be found.
Pro Tip: Don’t be too stressed about getting lost in Melbourne, the CBD is laid out in a neat grid with train lines, the Yarra River and Fitzroy Gardens easily distinguishing the edges of the CBD on three sides. It’s really only the north that you could mistakingly continue walking off towards but in that direction its nearly all uphill. So if you get lost just keep walking downhill until you rediscover the Yarra River and get your bearings back.
Queen Victoria Market
If Melbourne is known for anything, its food and shopping. While the shopping thing doesn’t really appeal to me personally, I can always get behind trying new foods.
Queen Victoria Market in the northern end of Melbourne’s CBD combines the two seamlessly with over 600 unique food and boutique stalls. Making high on the list of foodie experiences that the city has to offer.
While open year-round, during the summer months, Queen Victoria Market’s really comes alive with its Wednesday Night Markets which feature street food vendors, bars, live music and entertainment.
Definitely grab yourself some of the Dutch Pancakes while you are there.
Queen Victoria Market is also a good spot to pick up any touristy trinkets that you make like to acquire during your travels.
If you happen to be based on the Southbank side of the city, South Melbourne Markets is also a good alternative.
Until recently, Eureka Tower was the tallest building in Melbourne.
While it no longer holds that mantle, the Eureka Tower’s Skydeck is the highest public viewing platform in the city offering stunning views out over Melbourne and its surrounds.
If you ask me, the best time to visit the Eureka Skydeck is late afternoon/early evening to watch the city transition from day to night. That experience certainly makes the price of admission worthwhile.
There is an extra charge to do “The Edge” experience which is a glass box that juts out from the tower allowing you to look clearly in all directions, including the 300 meters straight down. Personally, I wouldn’t pay the extra but it could be worthwhile if the tower is particularly busy.
Pro Tip: Tickets purchased online are valid for 12 months, so you can purchase them in advance and wait for a clear day to make sure you get the most out of the experience.
For something similar, yet more formal and much more expensive, there is also a restaurant and bar above the Eureka Skydeck called Eureka 89 which you can also check out.
Flinders Street Station/Federation Square
Ok, so technically these are two separate attractions, but they are literally side by side and I find the contrast between the old and new of Melbourne part of the fascination of the city.
The heritage-listed Flinders Street Station is easily one of the cities most recognisable landmarks in Melbourne and Australia’s oldest train station. Also one of the busiest in with nearly 110,000 commuters passing through it each day.
Flinders Street Station as we see it today was built in 1910, but the site has been used as a train station dating back to 1854.
Obviously, the building’s facade is the key attraction and truly impressive then it’s lit up at night, but inside the station has plenty of history as well. Although a lot of those aspects of Flinders Street Sation, including the famous ballroom, have been closed off to the public for many years.
That said, it still operates and a train station however, you can join the thousands of people who use it every day to see the inside of the building. You’ll just need a PTV Myki card.
By contrast, the modern Federation Square was completed in 2002, as a venue for arts, culture and public events.
As a public space, there is always something going on in Federation Square. An event or an art installation or something making it worthwhile just wandering past any time you happen to be in Melbourne.
And while the architecture of the site has received much criticism Federation Square also houses number key Melbourne attractions including the aforementioned NGV Australia Gallery as well as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the Koorie Heritage Trust.
Depending on what part of art and culture takes your fancy, Federation Square is a good place to explore more of what Melbourne has to offer.
Drive The Great Ocean Road
Ok, so technically not in Melbourne, and you are most certainly going to need to rent/borrow a car to make the most of it. The Great Ocean Road is one of the iconic Australian drives and at least some of it can be done as a day trip out of the city.
I’ve touched on everything that the Great Ocean Road has to offer in my driving Adelaide to Melbourne guide, but you can do an abridged highlights version by taking the M1 Motorway/Princes Highway out of the city until the C163 route (Timboon-Colac Road) exit.
From there its just a matter of following the signs to the Great Ocean Road/ Twelve Apostles to get you started. You will miss some of what the full route has to offer, but you can always come back at a later and do the full trip over a couple of days.
I would highly recommend leaving early to beat the crowds and the traffic (particularly the tourist busses) all trying to do the same thing.
From the Twelve Apostles, continue north/west along the Great Ocean Road towards Warrnambool to take in as much of the route as you can before linking back up with the Princes Highway for the return trip back to Melbourne.
It works out to be about six and a half hours of driving (roughly 550kms) but you can’t go past these remarkable limestone structures if you have the time.
My personal suggestions include stopping in at Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge, The Arch and The Bay of Islands to get in as much as you can into the day.
If you’d like to get some more information to help in planning your trip to and around Australia… I’ve got a whole series of blog posts with all sorts of tips and advice to you.
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