What parts of Melbourne would you show to visitors?

The other night my son and I had the pleasure of attending a seminar titled Emotional Cities at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne’s wonderful cultural institution for discussion of writing and ideas. The seminar was billed, somewhat pretentiously, as an all-star line-up of literary luminaries discussing the “architecture of the mind and the cities that inspire them”. It was actually much better than that.

We heard moderator Louise Swinn in discussion with Matthew Condon, who’s just published a book titled Brisbane, and Kerryn Goldsworthy, who’s about to publish one titled Adelaide. These are two in a series of books on Australia’s major cities published by UNSW Press – others include Sydney (Delia Falconer) and Melbourne (Sophie Cunningham). What a great idea! Regrettably, I haven’t read any of them yet.

One of a number of interesting questions put to the panellists by Louise Swinn was what places in their cities they’d show a visitor. I’m not familiar enough with Adelaide to appreciate Kerryn Goldsworthy’s picks, but I know Brisbane very well. Matthew Condon said he’d show his visitors Brisbane’s Southbank, starting with the new Gallery of Modern Art, moving through the various buildings in the cultural precinct and on to the pools and palm trees opposite the CBD.

This is an interesting way to think about any place. I concur with Matthew Condon. When I lived in Brisbane in the 90s Southbank was a “must see” for visitors – I thought of it as “the people’s five star resort”. The superb GOMA has made it even better and while there I’d throw in a visit to the nearby Grey Street and Roma Street railyards redevelopments. In my view almost any part of inner city Brisbane is worth seeing for those magnificent ridge lines, timber bungalows and fecund sub-tropical gardens. Even the standard of new building and urban design is generally very good.

Yet notwithstanding Brisbane’s wonderful natural and human-made assets, it seems it might still lack something vital for Gen Ys. We recently had a new graduate from Brisbane stay with us for a few weeks. She told us she knew of seven other Brisbanites in their early 20s who’d also moved to Melbourne from the north around the same time. What’s particularly interesting is they’ve ignored the siren call of Sydney, the traditional “greener pasture” for young Brisbanites. It’s about jobs, culture and buzz – Melbourne’s got it, Brisbane hasn’t. Nor, it seems, has Sydney. (And yes, one should be careful extrapolating from the particular to the general!).

What to show a visitor in Melbourne? That will depend on who you are and who they are. Children make an enormous difference to tastes and practicality, as does the age and interests of your visitors. Our Gen Y friend is likely to have different tastes from some of my baby boomer friends. But there are some universals, like the harbour and opera house in Sydney.

When I first moved to Melbourne from Sydney in the mid 80s some friends took me on a trip that included the unmade portion of The Boulevard at East Ivanhoe, St Vincents Place in South Melbourne, CBD arcades and laneways, various historic buildings in Collins St like the ANZ bank, the reading room in the library, the NGV, Victoria Market and (better then than it is now) Brunswick St. My list of places to show visitors would now also include the Yarra bank opposite Birrarung Marr, the cycling trails in Yarra Bend Park, Federation Square-Southgate, and the Windsor. I wouldn’t bother with Brunswick Street anymore.

And I’d also include the CBD just for the sheer energy and diversity of all those people walking and dining, full of anticipation of the day or night ahead. In fact maybe I’d just take my visitors to the city centre in the early evening and say this is it. It’s not something in particular that makes Melbourne, it’s the whole caboodle. We probably under-estimate how vital our city is. The centres of some places – for example San Francisco – are dull by comparison, relying mainly on tourists for a bit of life.

My friends also had a ‘disasters’ tour of Melbourne that once again highlighted Collins Street, but this time the buildings that had been lost to redevelopment. My memory’s hazy but other disasters included an MMBW building in Spencer Street where the facade was losing panels and of course that great embarrassment for Melburnians, the humiliating (stunted) Arts Centre Spire.

I hope others have ideas about what to show visitors to Melbourne.

15 Comments on “What parts of Melbourne would you show to visitors?”

  1. Nathan Alexander says:


    I grew up on the part of the Boulevard in East Ivanhoe you mention. I have never thought of it as a place to show visitors – but it is an extraordinary place, given its proximity to central Melbourne, and that the road has been degenerating since it was constructed in the 1930’s. Immediately uphill is a Burley Griffin subdivision.

  2. Dfv says:

    Maybe it is because I work there, but to me Southbank is an abomination! If my visitor was inclined towards jogging, the Tan would be a wonderful place to introduce them to in Melbourne.

  3. Bruce Dickson says:

    Just take them to a coffee shop – just about any Melbourne coffee shop – and then to any average authentic Italian Australian restaurant or pizza place. And then point out that the universal quality of the coffee is no accident … the Italians did that to Australia too! And that Melbourne is the best place for Italians and their influences in Australia. Then point out that Australia’s laid back reputation really fundamentally comes from its Aboriginal not white culture but that the Italians had a perfect marriage here as well. Not to forget Melbourne’s Greeks, and later Vietnamese and …

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    Had a quick look at the intro blurb to Condon’s book on Brisbane … not a great enticement to buy and read on further … some sort of crap about the quality of the light!?? Harsh like everywhere else in mainland Australia. Only Tasmania escapes this curse. Nearest equivalent is an overexposed photograph. That’s sunshine in Australia. The real essence of Brisbane (and Queensland) is accurately pinpointed by you Alan … even if I don’t know what ‘fecund’ as in ‘fecund sub-tropical gardens means! It’s that absolutely stunning tropical scent in the air … those remarkable flowering plants, their equally amazing colours, that sense of lushness from all the gardens, the ceaseless growth each year of all plants … that sign of relief when the evening finally comes and you can escape the stinking humidity and actually finally find the energy to breath in and appreciate those ubiquitous flowering trees and tropical delights like fresh fruits and seafood …

  5. Bruce Dickson says:

    … incidentally how the hell did you overlook taking your visitors to an Aussie Rules match at the MCG Alan! Shame!!

    • Alan Davies says:

      It’s quintessentially Melbourne alright, but most visitors I know would kill me if they had to sit through any football match, much less one in a code they don’t know! I guess a visitor who wants to understand Melbourne has to go to the G but a visitor who wants to enjoy Melbourne shouldn’t (sports nutters excepted!).

  6. Oz says:

    Once you pass the wind blasts at the base of Eureka, a trip to the top and its views is a 10/10 spatial inroduction for visitors to Central Melbourne.

  7. heritagepoliceman says:

    Yes central Melbourne, especially the lanes and arcades. Not forgetting to look up and note that the retail heart of the CBD is mainly older buildings. Once heard it described as the ‘medieval old town’ of melbourne. Certainly very rare for any modern western city.

    As to Brisbanites skipping the bright lights of Sydney for Melb, in the late 1980s I met a whole extended bunch (in fact share a house now with one) – I actually asked and part of the answer was ‘well, Sydney’s just a more crowded version of Brisbane, why would you want to ?’. New Zealanders I know here have the same response.

    I think there’s a marvelous self selection going on that maintains the cultural difference between the two cities – people from NZ and Bris do go to Syd, but only those that like the bright lights, fast furious, splashy wealth etc etc. while another segment who are looking for more, culturally speaking, come to Melbourne. Nice isnt it ?

  8. Nici says:

    The Heide gallery in Bulleen is a great place to take visitors or yourself. Between the art, the history, the gardens and sculpture and the cafe, there is plenty to enjoy.

  9. Tanya says:

    Hahah…what about the Melbourne Eye, or whatever it’s called, somewhere in the charming Docklands. It’s worth it just for the spectacle of an unfinished ferris wheel.
    But seriously, Melbourne is probably something different to different visitors, depending on where they come from. Some visitors have been bowled over by the Victorian boom architecture, others by the design of recent buildings and structures and the public art scattered around, some by the parks and others by the cafes and old cinemas….

  10. Moss says:

    I think a walk down Collins St to look at the neogothic façades is a must for anyone interested in architecture, plus a drop-in to see the internal dome at 333 Collins. Wow.

  11. As you’ve said, it’ll depend on the visitors.

    If I’m in the city and a visitor wants lunch I’ll almost always take them to Degraves St/Centre Place. Whilst I think there are better places for lunch in the city, the energy there is amazing, especially for visitors.

    Most of my visitors want to see some night life, so I’ll generally drag them along to at least one of the many live music venues, one thing I certainly love about Melbourne is that any night I feel like watching a gig, it’s just a matter of picking which one!

    During the day, and given some time there are also a plethora of good galleries to see, again the choice of gallery will depend on what’s showing!

    On a separate issue, am I the only Melbournian that likes the Arts Centre Spire?

  12. apsheko says:

    I certainly agree that the arcades and laneways are worth a visit. If you start from Bourke St and make your way through to Flinders St (via Royal Arcade, Block Arcade, Centre Place and Degraves St), you can see quite a bit quite quickly and then go on (via the quirky collection of shops in the Degraves Street Subway connecting to the Flinders Street Station underpass) to Southbank.

    In good weather, I would take visitors along Southbank and for a drink at Ponyfish Island (a small bar/cafe underneath the footbridge near Prices Bridge– unsure of its actual name) and also for a walk through the Alexandra and Botannical Gardens.

    In less pleasant weather, I would likely stick to cafes and shops, perhaps go for a drive along the bay and have lunch somewhere with a view of the beach.

    Williamstown is also good. Visitors are always struck by how quaint it is for its proximity to the CBD. The icecream there is good and the park is a good atmosphere for a picnic or fish and chips. Then take the ferry back to Melbourne in the late afternoon.

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