Like many cities, Melbourne is more a collection of villages than a single unified city. Each suburb has its own distinct character from its architecture to streetscapes these developed over the city’s varied history.
The city centre and Southbank have the highest concentration of major sights. While other crowd pleasers are scattered around the city’s fringes. But every neighbourhood in inner Melbourne is brimming with accommodation, cool bars, stand-out cafes, international cuisine, lush parks, small independent art galleries and stores to get lost in. No matter where you base yourself, you’ll quickly realise why Melbourne is voted one of the world’s most liveable cities, again and again.
Best for accommodation
The city centre – the locals call it ‘the CBD’ short for central business district – has the highest concentration of accommodation options. From apartments to boutique designer hotels to the luxurious, it’s all here. For something completely different, there’s also a rooftop ‘glamping’ option, where guests stay in 1970s Airstream campervans atop a city carpark.
Staying in the city centre puts you in the heart of the action and you’re spoiled for transport options to visit outlying neighbourhoods. The CBD was once mostly busy with workers and shoppers, but over the last couple of decades high-rise apartments have filled the centre of town with residents, breathing life into the city streets day and night. You could spend a week exploring the small bars, incredible restaurants, laneway street-art galleries, and ornate arcades before you’ve even thought about what’s beyond the city grid.
Best for riverside views
Formerly an industrial zone, Southbank was rebuilt and rebranded as an exciting new precinct in the 1990s. This riverside promenade is peppered with big-name international restaurants and hotels, and buttressed by a big splashy casino that draws the crowds. However, with its Yarra River views and multiple exemplary arts institutions like the NGV: International, this is a perfectly positioned neighbourhood to base yourself for your Melbourne itinerary. It has plenty of accommodation to choose from, and is a short walk to the city centre.
Continue further west by foot or bicycle to where the Docklands have birthed a mini-city of high-rise apartments, restaurants, plazas and public art. It’s a surprisingly good area to visit, yet to many locals, Southbank and the Docklands remain slightly touristy and a little ‘un-Melbourne’. If only they could see them with fresh eyes as visitors do! Put South Wharf’s Boatbuilders Yard; the river bar Ponyfish Island; and a yum cha banquet at Spice Temple on your Southbank itinerary and you’ll be crowing about Southbank to everyone.
Fitzroy & Collingwood
Best for bars and cafes
Despite the lack of tourist sights, there are myriad reasons to base yourself in the leafy northern suburbs of Fitzroy or Collingwood. It’s a short tram ride from the city centre and the food-and-drink scene is off the charts. For shoppers, vinyl and midcentury furniture shops sit beside top-notch contemporary art galleries. Smith and Gertrude Streets are loaded with intimate wine bars and world-class cocktail spots and cafes, while the best local pubs are peppered among the backstreets of Fitzroy and Collingwood, many with leafy beer gardens for sunny afternoons or a log fireplace for extra warmth in winter. For a slice of Australian nature, continue on to Abbotsford for a stroll around the convent gardens and charming children's farm next to the Yarra River.
One of Melbourne’s favourite rooftop bars, Naked for Satan gives you views over the neighbourhood, the perfect spot to orientate yourself over a sunset drink. Stomping Ground, in a former cigarette factory, is a popular brewery and beer hall with wood-fired pizza to keep you going. Pick yourself up with a coffee you’ll never forget at Everyday Coffee or Proud Mary. Hit a back-street public house stalwart like the Napier Hotel for burgers and beers. Then cosy into the moody leather banquettes at Black Pearl, the best cocktail bar for a late-night tipple.
Best for a nostalgic seaside holiday vibe
St Kilda is Melbourne's tattered bohemian heart, a place where a young Nick Cave played gloriously chaotic gigs at the George Hotel (formerly the Crystal Ballroom) and one that's featured in songs, plays, novels, TV series and films. Originally a 19th-century seaside resort emulating England’s Hastings and Brighton, this neighbourhood has played many roles: post-war Jewish enclave, red-light district and punk-rocker hub.
It's a complex jumble of boom-era Victorian mansions, raffish Spanish Moorish apartments, seedy side streets, a vintage roller coaster at Luna Park and nostalgia-inducing theatres including the Art Deco-era Palais Theatre and the picture palace, The Astor; flanked by wonderful dining options in the well-heeled neighbouring suburbs of Elwood and Elsternwick.
Best for families with young children
Home to Melbourne's Italian expat community as well as a strong international student population, thanks to the University of Melbourne. It’s a hop and a skip from the city bordered by the leafy Carlton Gardens where you’ll find Unesco-listed Royal Exhibition Building as well as the kid-friendly Melbourne Museum.
From here, it's a short walk west to Lygon Street, the heart of Carlton, where you can sample excellent Italian cafe life and visit the Melbourne institution: Readings bookstore (there’s a special children’s bookstore next door). Surrounding streets have a pretty village feel, with wide avenues and grand Victorian terraced houses. Finally on the west side of Carlton in Parkville is Melbourne Zoo with its collection of cute native Australian marsupials, and an excellent children’s playground in Royal Park.
Best for lovers of sport
Richmond is the nexus for all things sporting in Melbourne. The neighbourhood's southwestern skyline is dominated by the angular shapes of stadiums, none more hulking than the mighty Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). But it also boasts some great dining options, particularly the Vietnamese enclave around Victoria Street. Bridge Road and Swan Street offer a mix of shopping, storefront cafes and decent pubs (the Corner is a much-loved live music venue).
If you’re a sports fan, this is the neighbourhood for you. The roar of the crowds at the MCG, which hosts up to 100,000 people, is a fixture in winter when AFL (Australian Football League otherwise known as Aussie Rules) matches are held day and night over the weekend. The Melbourne Marathon is held in October and ends here so expect road closures and masses of ultrafit Australians everywhere. In summer, the cricket is held at the MCG including the international Boxing Day Test match, bringing fans from the competing side in droves.
Later in the month, merry-making crowds descend on Melbourne Park for Australia's Grand Slam tennis championship. Along with the tennis, check out the AO Live Stage at Birrarung Marr for live music, a mini theme park for kids. And finally, the Australian Sport Museum at the MCG features exhibits focusing on Australia’s favourite sports and historic sporting moments as well as interactive activities for children – young, and young at heart.
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