With its grand Victorian architecture, its vibrant restaurant and art scene, not to mention its unbridled appetite for sport, marvellous Melbourne makes for a visit to remember.
What makes Melbourne so marvellous? Is it its unique identity? Its understated elegance? Or maybe its vast array of hidden gems? There are so many things that make Melbourne an enticing city to visit, and here are some of my favourites.
Is it really the second city?
On the Australian stage, Melbourne is almost universally seen as playing second fiddle to Sydney, but in truth, the two cities are impossible to compare. It's true that Sydney is older, has the larger population and is the business and financial capital. But despite all this, Melbourne's list of leading attributes is pretty impressive.
Melbourne was named Australia's first national capital back when federation took place in 1901, and so it remained until Canberra took over in 1927.
Melbourne is the undisputed sporting capital of Australia, playing host to the Australian Open tennis, the Grand Prix, the Ashes final leg, the golf masters... I could go on. Not only this, but Australia's most popular sport, the AFL (or Aussie-rules football league) is comprehensively based in and around Melbourne, with games frequently packing out the 100,000 seats of the nations largest stadium, the monumental Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
With its low crime rate, excellent infrastructure and abundant parkland, Melbourne consistently pips Sydney (and all other Australian cities) in The Economist's annual review of the best cities in the world to live in (it came 3rd in the world in 2010).
Melbournites proudly consider Melbourne to be Australia's cultural capital. Of course, how 'cultural' a city is can be tough to quantify, though it does certainly have a unique cultural identity that sets it apart completely.
Sydney has the feel of a California with a slightly British twist. It's all about in-your-face aesthetics with the brash, iconic architecture and the outrageously good looking harbour. Life there leans heavily towards enjoying the great outdoors with the multitude of beaches and urban national parks, the cliff-top walks, the boating and the swimming.
Understated Melbourne on the other hand is more akin to a slick, cosmopolitan European city. The Central Business District is riddled with narrow cobbled back alleys, snug cafés and large open squares. The 19th century old-money architecture is far grander than anything you'll find in Sydney and the people themselves are the ultimate urban sophisticates, dedicated to enjoying the very best of city life.
Try the fabulous food
Melbourne can comfortably compete with any city on earth on the gastronomic front, and not only is the food splendid and varied, it is also remarkably good value for money. The problem is that there's simply too much to choose from.
Start the day by tucking into some fresh buttermilk pancakes with syrup and whipped butter at the Pancake Parlour off the Bourke street mall. For lunch, how about getting mama to whip you up some good old pasta and sauce at Enoteca Sileno on Lygon street. Diving into MoVida for some scrumptious tapas takes care of your afternoon munchies. For dinner, why not spice it up with a mouth-watering Indian curry at The Namaste on King Street, or maybe some tender Jamaican firecracker chicken at Yeah Maan in South Yarra. Then, after a night on the tiles, relax and linger over some roast suckling pig at the Supper Inn restaurant in Chinatown.
This is just scratching the surface, I could write a tome and still not do justice to Melbourne's momentous food scene.
Behold the bean on Lygon Street
My fellow caffeine junkies, welcome to coffee heaven! It is on this cherished street that Australia's long love affair with café culture began back in the 1950's. Today suits and students charge over here to get their daily fix and 'doing coffee' is nothing short of a Melbourne institution.
Many of the charmingly old-school Italian cafés and espresso bars are still in the hands of their founding families and serve delicious, authentic Mediterranean snacks to accompany your cup of liquid gold. Try the Universita café bar, a family owned casual café which is allegedly where the very first Italian espresso machine made it to Melbourne in 1952.
Dig up those hidden gems
Captain Cook cottage
This genuine 18th century Yorkshire cottage actually belonged to Captain James Cook's parents. It was brought to Melbourne in barrels to be rebuilt brick by brick in Fitzroy gardens in 1934, an English cottage garden has even been cultivated around it.
Ned Kelly's armour
The legendary outlaws famous suit of armour can be found within the already must-see state library of Victoria - a massive 19th century public building with the cavernous atrium of the La Trobe reading room right in the middle. The armour is found on the upper floor, reachable by elevator and stairs.
Queen Victoria market
Not so much a hidden gem I suppose, given that it is the single largest street market in the Southern Hemisphere. It's a haggler's delight and great for a bit of bargain hunting. The market has been going since 1878 and is set among a site of scattered open warehouses. Click www.qvm.com.au/self_guided_market_history_tour.aspx for a self-guided tour, just in case you find it all a bit daunting.
Australian Shrine of Remembrance
Beside the delightfully landscaped Royal Botanic Gardens is a striking stone monument to those lost in the world wars, and subsequent conflicts too. It makes for a solemn, but reflective visit, and visitors are able to enter the building to view the medal gallery and other extensive memorabilia inside. Out front is the eternal flame, representing eternal life. It is kept alight at all times, in all conditions.
Across the Yarra River from the CBD you'll find the glitzy, modern arts district of Southbank. The long promenade is frequented by street performers of all types, and is lined with classy riverside restaurants. Some of Melbourne's most impressive modern architecture is found here, most notably the landscape-dominating Eureka tower, which at its time of completion in 2006 was the world's tallest residential building.
Being the arts district, Southbank is also home to some of Australia's most prestigious arts institutions. The National Gallery of Victoria cries out for a visit behind its cascading waterfall. What is considered to be Australia's finest collection of art is found here, including famous works by Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso amongst others.
Pancake Parlour: Centrepoint Arcade, Bourke St Tel: 9654 1893 (www.pancakeparlour.com) ($10-20 AUD)
Enoteca Sileno: 920 Lygon Street Tel: 9389 7070 (www.enoteca.com.au) ($20-30 AUD)
MoVida: 1 Hoiser Lane Tel: 9663 3038 (www.movida.com.au ) ($15-25 AUD)
Namaste: 225 King Street Tel: 9642 2264 (www.namasteonking.com.au) ($30-40 AUD)
Ya Maan: 340 Punt Road Tel: 9820 2707 (www.yeahmaan.com.au) ($20-30 AUD)
Supper Inn: 15 Celestial Ave Tel: 9663 4759 ($20-30 AUD)
Universita café bar: 257 Lygon Street Tel: 9347 2142
Captain Cook cottage: Fitzroy Gardens (www.cookscottage.com.au)
State Library of Victoria: 328 Swanston Street Tel: 8664 7000 (www.slv.vic.gov.au)
Queen Victoria market: 155 Victoria Street Tel: 9320 5822 (www.qvm.com.au)
Australian Shrine of Remembrance: St Kilda Road (www.shrine.org.au)
National gallery of Victoria: 180 St Kilda Road, Southbank Tel: 8620 2222 (www.ngv.vic.gov.au)
Getting around in Melbourne is done by tram. The network comprehensively covers the CBD and reaches far out into the surrounding suburbs. See (www.metlinkmelbourne.com.au)
The free City Circle service is a hop-on hop-off tram that runs in a loop around the CBD taking in many of the major sights and comes complete with running commentary to keep you informed. See (www.metlinkmelbourne.com.au/.../free-tram-service-city-circle/)
Where to Stay
Home at the Mansion Backpackers
Right in the heart of the city and set in a gorgeous heritage building, this well-thought-of hostel has everything you could want from a backpackers.
Best Western Atlantis Hotel
Far from slumming it, this 4* hotel has a great central location, and remarkably cheap parking if you're travelling by car.
A real treat, and the only example of this legendary hotel group in Australia. A pure luxury 5* hotel, though I wouldn't bother paying the extra for a river view, the Yarra is far from crystal clear.