Some places have a knack for turning their shortcomings into advantages, and Australia’s most fascinating city, Melbourne, is a prime example. Lacking a dazzling harbor, a piece of iconic architecture or look-at-me features of natural beauty, this metropolis focuses on nurturing its passions and strengths: namely, fine food and wine, an unstudied sense of style, and a devotion to sport that’s almost demonic in its intensity.
As any Melbourne aficionado will tell you, the pulse of this sprawling town (at the last census, the population stood at 3.74 million) beats at its midpoint, a compact area of wide avenues, east-west streets and tiny lanes crisscrossed by the ubiquitous trams. This gridlike center is increasingly the scene of all the action, with new bars, restaurants, shopping sectors and cafés seeming to spring up every few minutes.
Melbourne’s big sister to the north, Sydney, may get most of the international attention, but this little sibling isn’t exactly a wallflower. Its splendid past still echoes. Melbourne was once the seat of power in Australia and the country’s most important metropolis, particularly during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, when the city’s first boom time gave rise to its famous alleys, situated behind ornate public buildings to provide space for the workshops and factories that fed Melbourne’s lust for growth. It was even the capital of Australia for nearly three decades after Federation (it gave up the title to tiny Canberra in 1927; today it’s the state capital of Victoria).
Those prosperous times gave Melbourne plenty of stately Victorian buildings and a reputation for being “European” it’s never shaken. Perhaps the latter has to do with those narrow, sometimes cobbled lanes, with their connotations of Dickensian England. Or with the trams that still trundle up and down the major roads (look out for the occasional quaint vintage tram car). Or maybe it’s Melbourne’s devotion to fine food, wine and coffee that makes visitors think of those cities half a world away, with their steamy coffeehouses and atmospheric bars. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find a town that’s up for anything: a day at the races, a night spent trawling endless hip bars tucked along the alluring alleys, a weekend of credit-card-stretching clothes shopping. Begin at Melbourne’s modern-day gathering place, Federation Square, and start exploring.
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