Eat, drink, and live as the locals do in the charming suburbs of Melbourne.
By Anna Lavdaras
Melbourne has over 300 suburbs, each offering their own distinct lifestyle. From the grungy inner-city dwellings of hipsters and young professionals, to the ever-evolving outer suburbs with their converted-warehouses and line-worthy coffee houses. If you plan on really getting to know Melbourne, hop on one of the city’s famous trams and explore these neighbourhoods to find the real beating heart of the city.
South Yarra & Prahran
Fashion-conscious South Yarra and Prahran are crammed with bars, eateries and designer boutiques, all conveniently located just 20 minutes from the heart of the city centre. The two adjoining suburbs are linked by the iconic Chapel Street, a main thoroughfare that hums with activity. If you’re hoping to stay locally, the Olsen Hotel is a hotel-size tribute to the famous Australian artist John Olsen. A cross between a chic urban home and a contemporary gallery space, there are original works and prints by Olsen in public areas and rooms alike to view and purchase during your stay. From here, you are perfectly positioned at the north-end of Chapel Street to begin your descent towards Prahran.
Naturally you’ll want to start your day with a coffee, so make a beeline for Two Birds One Stone. A bright, airy café serving sophisticated breakfast and lunch fare. Once you’ve refuelled, explore the array of boutiques which extend from South Yarra through to Prahran and onwards to Windsor. Everything is on offer here, from local emerging brands to established labels. Handworks Nouveau Paperie is a craft-lovers dream while Chapel Street Bazaar is one of Melbourne’s longest running vintage stores. Wander down Greville Street and you’ll discover a string of small businesses selling handmade jewellery, fashion and art. Brother Wolf is an old gentlemen’s social club converted into a barbershop, offering hot towel shaves, quiffs and contours. And Lunar Store stocks some of the loveliest locally crafted ceramics in town. Greville Records is a stalwart on Melbourne’s music scene and has been championing rare vinyl gems from independent labels since 1978.
Once you’ve shopped ’til you’ve dropped, make your way to Prahran Market, Australia’s oldest continuously running food market in operation since 1864. Today the market prides itself on its wide range of quality and organic produce, fresh sustainable seafood and hard-to-find specialty goods. Visit on an empty stomach – you’ll want to eat everything, from Swiss raclette to pomegranate Turkish delight with gold leaf. Then there’s the coffee. Specialty roaster Market Lane Coffee offers a variety of single origins and brewing methods, as well as free public coffee tastings each Saturday.
For another historic taste of the suburb’s legacy, head to Como House and Garden (built in 1847) for a glimpse into the lives of former residents the Armytage Family. The mansion is set on more than two hectares (five acres) of beautifully landscaped gardens, while the house itself remains furnished with the family’s original heirlooms. The gardens are open to the public daily, and house tours run every Saturday and Sunday. While you’re there be sure to visit The Stables of Como, a quaint café nestled within the estate’s former stables that serves a fancy high tea. For dinner, there’s the buzzing Hawker Hall, which offers a menu of more than 50 dishes inspired by the hawker hubs of Singapore and Malaysia – think satay, beef rendang and fried squid. The neighbourhood is also home to swanky cocktail bars, such as Two Wrongs, a lavish venue mixing knock-out cocktails and clever bar snacks, while The Alps has become the go-to for its excellent wine selection.
Federation Square is a unique cultural precinct that brings together world-class events, galleries, restaurants and bars, coupled with a creative program that showcases diverse works throughout the year. Located across the road from Flinders Street Station, Melbourne's major public transport hub, the square is part of Melbourne's free tram zone, in which tram travel is free. More than 2000 events are held here each year, including the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March, Melbourne International Comedy Festival in April and Melbourne Festival in October. It also hosts performances, pop-up exhibitions and free workshops. One-hour guided walking tours are offered each morning from Monday to Saturday at 11am and depart from the Melbourne Visitor Centre.
As for permanent activities, Federation Square is home to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Since openings its doors in 2002, ACMI has cemented its reputation as one of the world's leading moving image centres and is dedicated to screen content in all its forms, including cinema, gaming, TV and digital culture. At Federation Square you'll also find the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, housed within The Atrium. It's the world's first major gallery dedicated exclusively to Australian art and includes photography, prints and drawings, fashion and textiles, decorative arts and a suite of galleries dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
You won't have to travel far to dig in to a classic Australian-style breakfast, served on the terrace at Time Out Fed Square. There are also countless cafés tucked within the laneways opposite Flinders Street station. Federation Wharf links Federation Square with Melbourne's picturesque Yarra River via a series of historic "vaults" that date back to the 1890s. You can discover Melbourne from the Yarra River on one of the city river cruises, or hire a bicycle and explore the city's beautiful parks and gardens. Join an Aboriginal guide from the Koorie Heritage Trust for a cultural walk along the Birrarung (Yarra River) to explore beautiful art installations as well as significant sites that date back thousands of years.
Fitzroy is truly one of Australia's hippest neighbourhoods, just two kilometres (1.2 miles) north-east of Melbourne’s city centre. If it’s your first time visiting, make the first stop Rose Street Artists Market, tucked just off Brunswick Street and held every Saturday and Sunday from 11am until 5pm. Melbourne’s emerging artists and designers sell their wares here, including handmade jewellery, accessories, art and photography; there are plenty of opportunities to pick a unique gift to take home. When you're ready to take a break from the browsing, stop for a coffee at adjoining Young Bloods Diner, then continue the shopping on Gertrude Street, home to a string of small boutiques selling everything from vintage clothing to designer fashion. Find new and second-hand vinyl at Northside Records or browse through beautiful, locally made women’s fashion at Obüs.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Industry Beans for lunch, a converted warehouse on Rose Street. This specialty coffee roaster serves single origin and blended coffee using a variety of methods, such as espresso, pour over, aeropress and cold drip. Pair your coffee with a pick from the innovative brunch menu. Popular dishes include IB fried chicken burger with polenta chips, cinnamon-dusted brioche and avocado smash. At De Clieu on Gertrude Street choose from the house blend or single origin coffee and try a filter or cold brew. Sit outside at Grub Food Van on Moor Street, an eclectic café decked out with picnic tables, a 1965 Airstream van and garden gnomes. For dessert, you can’t leave Fitzroy without lining up for what is often lauded as the world's best croissant (it's worth the wait!) from Lune Croissanterie. Marvel at the state-of-the-art Lune Lab where diners can sample the latest experimental flavours. If you're looking for something vegan and allergy-friendly, head to Mister Nice Guy's Bake Shop, not far from Flemington Race Course. Or for a scoop of gelato, stop by Messina’s outpost on Fitzroy on Smith Street.
Order your gelato to go and head outside to appreciate some of the best street art in the world. Melbourne is considered one of the world's leading street art cities and many Fitzroy buildings are splashed with large murals, transforming the suburb into a free public gallery. Head to Wood Street to see works by renowned photorealist painter Smug or Leicester Street to see The Bogan, a collaborative work by artists Sofles, Smug and Adnate. Keep your eyes peeled for Rone’s large-scale female portraits, which are celebrated around the world and decorate buildings in New York, London, Tokyo and Berlin. Delve deeper into Melbourne street culture on a guided tour led by some of Melbourne's best street artists. Finish the day with a DIY bar crawl starting at Naked in the Sky, the rooftop bar above Naked for Satan, and watch the sun set above the city. Move on to Bad Frankie to sample a selection of boutique Australian spirits where a friendly bartender will happily talk you through the extensive menu. If you're feeling a little hungry, there's a menu of toasted sandwiches (known as jaffles in Australia), with delicious fillings such as poached chicken or corned beef. End the night at Black Pearl, a buzzy cocktail lounge named in the World’s 50 Best Bars.
There are dozens of ways to enjoy St Kilda, Melbourne's favourite beachside suburb. The best way to get to St Kilda from Melbourne's city centre is by tram number 96, which takes about 20 minutes. Here, you can take a stroll along the palm tree-fringed Esplanade to the St Kilda Pier, home to a colony of little penguins. Afterwards enjoy a sweet treat at one of Acland Street’s many continental cake shops, such as the kugelhopf (brioche cake swirled with melted chocolate) at Monarch Cakes or a slice of baked cheesecake at Europa Cake Shop. If you enjoy people-watching while you brunch, the ever-buzzing GB Espresso on Fitzroy Street is the place to go. If you're after plant-based delights ranging from mushroom lattes to vegan eggs, take your taste buds to Matcha Mylkbar. However, it is Fitzrovia on Fitzroy Street that wins the award for best location, with its perch overlooking verdant Albert Park. This bright, airy café specialises in reinventing breakfast favourites. Try the Coconut, Banana, Chia & Kaffir Lime Vegan Panacotta or, if you are hungry, a door stop sandwich – so-called because of its size – which is piled high with Istra bacon, smoked mozzarella and pear relish.
St Kilda's signature shopping experience takes place every Sunday, when the St Kilda markets take over the Esplanade. More than 100 stalls showcase the work of Melbourne designers, jewellers and milliners, many of whom are on site selling their wares. The creative community feeling continues at Readings St Kilda on Acland Street, a cherished local bookstore known for supporting independent publishers, writers and artists. If you have a taste for stylish homewares head straight to Scout House on Fitzroy Street, which has one of Melbourne's most enticing selections of furniture and kitchenware. From handcrafted Australian furniture to vintage European pieces, pine breadboards to country-style kitchenware, this is a haven for design fans.
Once you’re ready for your next meal, Mr Wolf on Inkerman Street has some of the best pizza in Melbourne. More exotic flavours are on the menu at Lau's Family Kitchen on Acland Street. The tasty treats on the menu include everything from salt and pepper calamari to sweet vinegar pork loin. If you want to make it a meal to remember, head to local landmark Donovans, overlooking the ocean on Jacka Boulevard. Donovans has a been a special occasion favourite ever since it opened, admired for its elegant beach house decor as for its superb seafood. St Kilda's bars come in all shapes and sizes, but few are as quirky as Milk the Cow. While its decor reveals a cheeky sense of humour, the bar pays serious attention to both its wine and cheese selections. If you prefer quaffing cocktails, try Love and Dysfunction on Grey Street. Choose between the old-school front bar and the intimate lounge, with art deco murals and sink-into sofas.
A place Melbournians largely consider the art and culture epicentre of the city, Northcote is a hipster’s paradise. Located just a 20-minute drive from the city, there is enough to see, eat, and do, to justify a full day spent in Northcote. Get brunching at Barry - no, not a person - a café that will make you feel more wholesome just by reading the menu. For the full wellness experience, try the Californian superfood salad and a banana smoothie served in a pint mug that looks utterly glutenous but is in fact blended peanut butter, almond milk, and frozen bananas with a sprinkling of cacao nibs. Bicycle Thieves and Penny Farthing Espresso are equally delicious brunch destinations, while lunch is taken care of with Welcome to Thornbury. Melbourne's first permanent bar and food truck stop, it was once a car manufacturing factory and is now an enormous beer garden flanked with food trucks at any time of day (they rotate daily).
There are plenty of entertaining ways to pass your afternoon, from a gig at the art deco Thornbury Theatre, an independent flick at the Thornbury Picture House or the Palace Westgarth Cinema, and a quick browse of the new and old vinyl collection at Thornbury Records. Northcote Social Club is a serious destination for Melbourne’s indie-music scene, supporting music acts from interstate and abroad with regular gigs. Finish your experience with a cozy wine at Joe’s Shoe Store, a converted old shoe shop. If you get hungry – order a pizza from the delicious Pizza Meine conveniently located right next door and they’ll deliver it straight to you at the bar.
A quick tram trip or drive will get you to Brunswick, just six kilometres (3.7 miles) north of Melbourne's city center. Traditionally known for its multicultural community, like other inner-city suburbs it has evolved into a cultural mecca with a rough-around-the-edges charm about it. Take your own tour of all the countries that contributed to this neighbourhood with a walk along Sydney Road. Here you’ll find every kind of worldly food offering, from Middle Eastern bakeries and Mediterranean cafes. Don’t walk past Dejour Jeans, an inconspicuous local secret hidden between two bridal shops. Store owner Nam will help you choose a pair of custom jeans; first you pick a wash or cut and then Nam tailors them (for free) on the spot. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself here in March, make sure to head to the annual Brunswick Music Festival, where the Sydney Road Street Party takes place, shutting down traffic for a day and making way for food stalls, live music, and dancing.
As any local would know, the only place to be when the mercury rises is the local swimming pool. Brunswick City Baths have been around since 1914 and are still a beehive of activity during the summer months. Alternatively, you can cool off with a nice cold beer at one of the many drinking holes in the area. Union St Brewers bake their own bagels and pour their own brew, while Brunswick Mess Hall is more a traditional beer bar in a historic atmosphere. Thunder Road Brewery is the home of Brunswick beer, an award-winning local brew. While Mi Corazon Tequila Bar offers a tequila and mescal tasting masterclass.
If it’s a meal you want, the food options don’t fall short. Hellenic Republic is a traditional taverna setting with the feel (and taste) of homemade Greek cuisine. All Day Donuts serve a delightful array of donut flavours, from lime brulee, jaffa, and strawberry cheesecake, and Juanita Peaches serve doughnuts by day, fried chicken by night. And as for entertainment, you cannot turn a corner without the sounds of live music echoing through the streets. From The Penny Black, to the Spotted Mallard and The Howler, whichever night you end up in Brunswick, there is bound to be a live gig happening somewhere.