What to see and what to skip in Melbourne

PHOTO: Great Ocean Road in Melbourne, Australia is pictured in this undated stock photo.Getty Images
Great Ocean Road in Melbourne, Australia is pictured in this undated stock photo.

When the Economist Intelligence Report put out its latest roundup of the world’s most livable cities, something on it looked familiar. Melbourne topped it. Again. For the sixth year in a row, actually. In a respected annual survey that looks at things like safety, infrastructure and the environment, Melbourne ranks number one. And as the buzz about Australia’s second largest city spreads, it tops many travelers’ wish lists, too.

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Melbourne is the capital of the Australian state of Victoria. It’s a thriving metropolis, with tons of culinary and cultural attractions. And its waterfront location, as well as its plethora of options for outdoor fun, only broadens its allure. If you’re planning your first visit, consider this your Melbourne to-do list.

Skip summer, go winter
Sometimes the best way to get a travel deal is knowing when to go,” says Blaire Constantinou, a travel expert in Travelzoo’s Los Angeles office who visited Australia earlier this year. In Melbourne, as in all of Australia, “June-through-September and February-through-March trips – winter and late summer Down Under – offer the most value.” This is when you’ll find sales, especially on airfare and air-inclusive packages, as well as fewer crowds. The weather will be in your side, too – 60s and 70s (though August and September can definitely see cooler days).

Skip the cab, tram It
Melbourne is home to the largest network of trams in the world, with close to 500 trams and more than 150 miles of track. The vehicles are quaint – nostalgic, antique and well-maintained. And the best part? The trams that travel City Center are free.

At the airport, opt for the bus. Skycab runs comfy buses from MEL to Southern Cross Station downtown for $19 one way or $36 round trip (a bit cheaper if you buy your tickets ahead of time online). Hotel transfers from Southern Cross are free. The daily service runs out of terminals 1, 3 and 4, taking about 30 to 45 minutes and featuring free Wi-Fi.

Skip the gallery, stroll the laneways
The art scene sizzles in Melbourne, but you’ll find some of the most eye-popping works on the street. Laneways are Melbourne’s quaint, intimate, stylish alleys – this is people watching and hole-in-the-wall finds at their best. The walls here are sort of an ever-changing canvas, and the murals and paintings are impressive. Cruise Blender Lane, off Franklin Street, and the various laneways off Flinders Lane between Swanston and Russell Streets.

Laneways are also a great way to find bars, restaurants and late-night music venues off the beaten path. And, for those on a tight schedule, laneways can offer a quick yet genuine snapshot of Melbourne’s charm. My brother Luis Saglie, a Chile-based composer who visited Melbourne for the first time last year as part of a whirlwind concert tour through the South Pacific and Asia, only had about five hours to play tourist.

“But even if you have limited time there, if you know beforehand what to see and where to go, you can leave feeling like you really got to know the city,” he says. And his focus on laneways really paid off. His favorites? “Degraves Street is a promenade with an Italian vibe that’s famous for Melbourne’s coffee tradition – full of coffee shops and really great coffee!” he says. “And don’t miss Hosier Lane, with beautiful photo art and spray-paint graffiti.”

Skip the restaurant, all aboard!
“There’s an amazing food scene down there,” says Amelia Stanojevic, a travel expert in Travelzoo’s Sydney office who just returned from a Melbourne vacation. Her favorite food finds include Chin Chin, Magic Mountain Saloon and Tonka. Lunch in the Hardware Lane vicinity is a must, she adds, “and you can’t miss Donut Shop Fitzroy!”

Indeed, international influences make Melbourne a foodie paradise. “Melbourne is to Australia what San Francisco may be to California,” adds Martin Brown, an Australian native who lived in Melbourne before moving to the United States. (The man behind Santa Barbara’s popular Kalyra and Area 5.1 wine labels was my own first introduction to Vegemite!) Bottom line, you can’t go wrong grazing through Melbourne’s cafés and bars.

For a unique dinner experience, hop on the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant, a roving culinary experience that meanders through the streets of this vibrant city while serving up regional foods. The kitchen on each of these glossy burgundy trams is surrounded by seating for 36, and the all-inclusive price includes a seasonal menu and Australian wines. Prices range from $85 for an early-bird three-course meal to $145 for a late-night, five-course feast on Friday and Saturday evenings. The restaurant rolls three times daily, but be sure to pre-book your reservation online to nab your preferred seating.

Still hungry? Take a walk
Urban Adventures recently launched a bevy of walking food-and-drink tours in Melbourne. These intimate journeys are good for both visitors and locals because they "include the main sights while also taking you off the beaten path,” says Greg Kunstler, travel expert at Travelzoo Canada headquarters in Toronto. “The foodie-themed itineraries feature stops at hidden eateries and bars,” he adds; the tours are led by experienced guides and last about three to four hours. The United States of Food tour takes a look at what’s been described as Melbourne’s American food renaissance. Bites include several barbecue options. The Booze Makes History Tour offers much to learn about this city’s rich history – from rebellions to royal visits – while sipping local wines, spirits and beers. Cheers!

Need a few? Hit us up for a festive season special order ????????donutshopfitzroy@gmail.com #donutshopfitzroy

A post shared by DONUT SHOP DONUTS & COFFEE (@donutshopfitzroy) on Dec 6, 2016 at 7:29pm PST

Eat, then smile
Some dining and wine spots here give you plenty to look at. They’re perched so well, they’re known as much for their menus as for the selfie ops they offer. Fitzroy is a bohemian enclave teeming with art studios, funky shops and buzzing restaurants; here, drinks at both Upside Rooftop Bar and Naked in the Sky means relaxing on an open terrace with wide views of the city and bustling Brunswick Street below. Stanojevic really liked Siglo and The Toff Stage & Carriage, and Goldilocks and Transit always get high marks.

In Melbourne’s Southbank precinct, Eureka Skydeck is known as the tallest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere; at 1,000 feet up, its far-as-the-eye-can-see 360-degree views are breathtaking. Five days a week, Eureka 89, one floor above the Skydeck, serves up gourmet dinners with a generous side of those sweeping views; $220 gets you a seven-course degustation menu with wines.

Skip the bar, visit the stadium
Melbourne loves sports. Actually, “it’s sports crazy,” insists Martin Brown. “It’s all about the sport!” So forget catching a game at the local sports bar. In Melbourne, you can catch the action live at Australia’s largest stadium (and, with a capacity for 100,000 cheering fans, the largest cricket stadium in the world). Melbourne Cricket Ground hosts Australian football matches in winter; the game resembles rugby but is a purely Australian display of speed and contact.

In the summertime, watch a live cricket match. The revered Melbourne Cricket Club hosts competitors from all over the world. MCG is also home to the National Sports Museum and offers behind-the-scenes tours that include walking on the turf and catching beautiful city views from the terrace. MCG is only about a half-mile from city center and can be reached by train, tram or bus.

Want more sport? Near MCG, Melbourne Park’s two arenas host international tennis, cycling and basketball matchups. Catch rugby action at AAMI Park.

Skip the museum, go to prison
Old Melbourne Gaol is a 19th-century relic that remains one of Melbourne’s oldest buildings. This huge bluestone building once housed some of Australia’s most infamous criminals, like gangster Squizzy Taylor and bush-ranger Ned Kelly. Scope out the cells during a self-guided tour; in the police watch house, guests often find out what it’s like to get arrested. Feeling brave? The gaol hosts several one-hour late-night tours (which are not recommended for kids under 12): opt for a candlelight storytelling tour of the building’s purported ghosts or the Hangman’s Tour, which recounts the 130-plus hangings that took place here.

Go native
The Koonie Heritage Trust is all about preserving and promoting southeastern Australia’s native peoples. The group’s headquarters in the heart of Melbourne city center features changing programs and exhibitions year-round, including works of modern-day indigenous artists and permanent displays of oral history recordings and photos. The gift shop carries authentic aboriginal arts and crafts. The Trust also leads walking historical and cultural tours throughout the city, many of them for free.

Another great shot from our guests! Use the hashtag #sealifemelb to keep sharing with us! ????

A post shared by SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium (@sealifemelbourneaquarium) on May 30, 2017 at 4:16pm PDT

Go wild
You’ve got plenty of ways to connect with nature here. The Melbourne Zoo is home to more than 300 species amid rainforests, bushlands and underwater displays. At the SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium, take a break from the 12 exhibit zones to catch “Finding Dory and Friends: The Experience,” a first-of-its-kind aquarium display created in partnership with Disney Pixar, featuring moments from the hit animated film.

The Royal Botanic Gardens are an oasis in the heart of town, with 8,500-plus plant species set within a colorful labyrinth of calm lakes, rolling lawns and towering trees; the interactive Children’s Garden features a bamboo forest and kitchen garden. Melbourne is also home to several wildlife tour companies. Wildlife Tours Australia offers day treks to visit the penguins on Phillip Island and the kangaroos at Grampians National Park.

Skip the city, drive
Great Ocean Road is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. This 150-mile road can make for an awesome day trip, since it features a variety of jaw-dropping natural sites, like the 12 Apostles, rugged rock stacks that jut out of the shoreline, and The Otways, home to lush rainforest and cascading waterfalls. Get schooled at the Australian National Surfing Museum before you catch your own waves at Bells Beach or Anglesea.

In Warrnambool, watch for whales and visit historic lighthouses. Also, browse through the fishing town of Port Fairy. When it’s grub time, order up local cheeses and chutneys at any of the quaint family-run eateries you find along the way; wash it all down with pinot noir and riesling from the Henty wine region. Great Ocean Road is registered as an Australian National Heritage Site.

Skip Melbourne, head to Tasmania
Before you return that rental car, steer toward Tasmania. The overnight ferry ride aboard Spirit of Tasmania takes you (and your car) from Melbourne to Devonport in about 10 hours. That means you’re ending your day on the mainland and waking up on the shores of Australia’s smallest state. This 200-cabin Finnish-built vessel is a ferry, not a fancy cruise ship, but it underwent a major refurbishment in 2015 and features several bars, two cinemas and Wi-Fi. TMK (the Tasmanian Market Kitchen) features Tasmanian wines and cheeses.

Once you’re on Tasmania, “enjoy eating fresh produce found at the farmer's markets, drinking fine wine, wandering around the MONA and driving along the deserted and pristine coastline,” says Sammy Gilbert, a deal expert in Travelzoo’s Sydney office. “Because you'll have your car, you can check out Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park -- it's well worth the journey.” Prone to seasickness? Winds can make waters on the Bass Strait choppy. Need to get there more quickly? Nonstop flights take about an hour.

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on vacations to Australia at www.travelzoo.com. Have your own favorite Melbourne spot? Let him know: @gabesaglie.