Feeling festive in Melbourne

by sgl4maj

If you are heading Down Under over the British winter then 1) I'm very jealous, and 2) Head to Melbourne!

While Sydney gets all the headlines, there can't be any better place to be than Victoria’s state capital in December and January, with world-class sporting events, brilliant sunshine, and one rather large New Year’s party. Having spent three weeks in Melbourne over the festive season while backpacking in Australia, I thought I’d share some of my fondest memories of the city.

Christmas Eve – carols by candlelight

To get into the festive spirit, head down to Federation Square on Christmas Eve for carols by candlelight. With everyone’s favourite Christmas carols relayed on the big screens from the Sidney Myer Music Bowl across the city, a family atmosphere prevails amongst the sing-a-long crowds in Melbourne’s greatest open space. With temperatures at this time of year often soaring as high as 40°C, there is a great chance of a nice balmy summer’s evening to celebrate a Christmas away from home.

The Boxing Day Test match

The Boxing Day Test match is an Australian institution, and a must on any Christmas visit Down-Under. Held at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) every year, this must be the most entertaining test match anywhere in the world - and that has got little to do with the cricket! I did wonder what all the fuss was about after settling down in my seat in the MCG’s infamous Bay 13 on Boxing Day morning. It seemed a relatively sedate atmosphere with the stands populated by a well-behaved bunch of bronzed young Aussies chilling out in the sun.

About an hour into play (incidentally it was Australia v India), the beers were flowing and the first Mexican Waves started taking flight around the ground. Suffice to say, that by mid-afternoon, the shackles had been well and truly broken off. Cue some terrible renditions of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, streakers racing across the outfield, and multiple ejections of those too drunk to stand, greeted by boos from 60,000 cackling Aussies. The Boxing Day Test at the MCG –surely the quintessential Aussie experience! And the score? Well I can’t really remember!

See the sights

Melbourne is a great city to amble around, and with four days to kill between the Boxing Day action at the MCG, and the greatest New Year’s Eve party of your life, now is the time for some exploration. Architecturally, Melbourne is stunning with graceful Colonial era buildings nestling amongst the skyscrapers of the CBD. Nowhere is this contrast greater than at Flinders Street Station (cnr Flinders and Swanston Streets), where the ornate facade of the bustling transport hub of Melbourne sits opposite Federation Square, a striking modern cultural precinct, and open space with some remarkable modern architecture.

Head along the Southbank for a stroll along the Yarra River, and great views back to Flinders Street Station and the CBD. The sprawling Royal Botanic Gardens, and Albert Park (also the site of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, another of Melbourne’s great sporting events which will be held between 24 -27 March 2011) with its glistening lake to the south of the CBD are perhaps the greatest of Melbourne’s many green spaces. Look out for the ubiquitous possums scaling the trees at dusk. Quirky, seaside St Kilda is home to the iconic Luna Park amusement park and Melbourne’s best beach as well an impressive range of eating and drinking options.

It is well worth stepping back in time at the Old Melbourne Gaol (377 Russell Street; 03 8663 7228), where the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged in 1880. Today the gaol has been converted to a museum, with fascinating displays on some of the former inmates set among the spartan cells. The main emphasis is unsurprisingly placed on Kelly – as well as the gallows where Ned met his maker, the museum also displays his death mask and pistol.

And then of course there’s Neighbours - the soap opera that brought us Kylie, Jason Donovan and Holly Valance amongst others is set in the Melbourne suburbs. Official Neighbours Tours ($50; 03 9629 5866) take in visits to Ramsey Street, and Erinsborough High, with a ‘meet the star’ encounter outside the studios. And if that’s not enough, true Neighbours fans can be royally entertained by Alan Fletcher (AKA Karl Kennedy) and his band the Waiting Room at Neighbours Nights held every Monday at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow pub in St Kilda (169 Fitzroy Street; 03 9534 7888). There are further ‘meet the stars’ opportunities, and the chance to enjoy the somewhat surreal experience of sharing a few beers alongside some of your favourite TV stars is not be missed!

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve in Melbourne – surely one of the greatest nights out in my life! After a few wines too many at the hostel, we headed to Federation Square around an hour before midnight. The party was already in full flow with live music lapped up by thousands of revellers dancing the night away in barmy temperatures above 30°C. A genuinely friendly atmosphere prevailed amongst the rather merry, cosmopolitan masses, and midnight brought the most spectacular fireworks display you could ever wish to see. Just don’t make too many plans for the next day!

Stay a while longer ... the Australian Open Tennis

If you are really finding Melbourne to your liking, why not stay another couple of weeks for some world class tennis action. The Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam Tournaments, is held in Melbourne Park every January. Tickets for the Rod Laver Arena (centre court), will guarantee seeing some of the biggest names in tennis in action – I was lucky enough to see the likes of Andy Murray and Serena Williams battling it out. The 2011 tournament runs from 17 – 30 January, and tickets for the Rod Laver Arena start at $64.90 for the early rounds.

The practicalities

With a prime location on the corner of Federation Square, the modern and laidback bar Transport (Federation Square, Swanston Street side; 03 9654 8808) is a great place to kick of a night out. They also do a mean fish and chips. Young and Jacksons (cnr Flinders and Swanston Streets; 03 9650 3884) is an atmospheric traditional Aussie pub at the other end of the spectrum. Always busy, and with a great range of beers and ciders, this is a good place for a drink at any time of time of day or night.

Dining out options were sadly limited due to a miniscule budget – the Supermarket chain Coles (Elizabeth Street & Flinders or Latrobe Street) is a good first port of call for the self caterer, carrying a great range of meat and fresh salads perfect for taking to the BBQ at one of Melbourne’s many green spaces. The Queen Victoria Market (cnr Victoria and Elizabeth Streets; 03 9320 5822) is another great place to pick up some fresh produce with a range of meat, fruit and vegetable and specialist stalls.

Greenhouse Backpackers (228 Flinders Lane) is a modern and efficient hostel in a great location near Federation Square, with the MCG and all key sights within walking distance. Free breakfasts, walking tours and free dinner once a week are a plus, while the pub crawl (A$5 including three drinks) is a great way to get to know people.

Melbourne is a compact city with most key sights within walking distance. The tram network is a cheap and efficient way to get around the city centre. Get your bearings on the free City Circle tram, with an audio commentary adding colour to the sights along the way.