Sometimes absurdly competitive for the mantle of the country’s "greatest" city, Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s two largest cities both offering a similar abundance of quintessential Australian experiences for travelers. However they are really very different beasts, appealing to visitors of different stripes.
Sydney, Australia’s first European city, has a reputation for sunshine and spectacle that Melbourne cannot match. Often wrongly assumed to be the nation’s political seat, it’s in fact the unchallenged capital of finance, celebrity culture, and tourism, best suited to those who crave beaches and bling. Yet many visitors find Melbourne more to their taste. Its myriad bars, street art, creative culture, major events, and more “European” cityscapes make up for its lack of stunning natural beauty and climatic deficiencies.
Location, location, location
Sitting pretty on Australia’s Pacific coast around 550 miles (885km) northeast of Melbourne on one of the world’s great urban harbors, Sydney definitely boasts the better location. Distances are vast in Australia, which is roughly the size of the continental USA, so Sydney’s greater proximity to other great Australian tourism experiences including the Blue Mountains, Byron Bay, and the beaches and rainforests of Northern NSW, plus Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef makes it a natural choice for many.
Yet Melbourne has its advantages too: access to mountains and ski fields such as Mt Buller and Mt Hotham; proximity to the beaches of the famed Great Ocean Road; and an overnight ferry to the incredible island Tasmania, where stunning produce and pockets of the virgin rainforest that once covered Gondwanaland can be found.
Outdoor sports and activities
Ringed by the azure haze of the Blue Mountains and fringed by iconic beaches such as Bondi and Manly, Sydney is more of an “outdoors” capital than Melbourne. Kayaking on Middle Harbour, weaving between multi-million dollar yachts and secluded bushy coves is a joy on a warm day, while climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a true bucket-list experience.
Melbourne can compete to some extent, however, offering excellent bike trails, hot-air ballooning (one of the few cities in the world that you can float above as the airport is so far from town) and hiking in the Dandenong Ranges that mark Melbourne’s eastern border.
Both cities are close to rugged, eucalyptus scented national parks, but Sydney, with Ku-ring-gai Chase, Marramarra on the enchanting Hawkesbury River and the dramatic cliffs of Royal National Park is blessed with more nearby options.
You’ll eat like royalty in either city: Australians are spoiled rotten with an incredible global dining scene and access to top-notch fresh produce. While Sydney is more readily associated with serious fine diners such as Aria, with its unmatched view of the iconic Opera House, or wunderkind chef Peter Gilmore’s Quay, in reality both cities hit the culinary high- and low-notes with equal assurance.
Melbourne’s dining scene, for example, surrenders nothing to its northern counterpart in the astonishing food at Gimlet, the latest jewel in the city’s “kitchen king” Andrew McConnell crown, while Sydney institutions such as Surry Hills Thai nirvana Spice I Am can match anything in Melbourne’s thesaurus of cheap-yet-unforgettable Asian treasures. Melbourne also has a global reputation for taking brunch – and coffee – to higher levels: try The Kettle Black in South Melbourne, or Rudimentary in Footscray.
Pubs, clubs, and bars
Small bars, live music and back-street pubs are one area where Melbourne definitely has the advantage over Sydney. Liberal liquor licencing laws translate into an abundance of after-hours options, whether your whim is cocktails-as-art at The Everleigh, or losing yourself in the city’s legendary rock scene at the iconic Cherry Bar, once again thriving after its pandemic hiatus.
Sydney’s stricter licencing regime, including controversial “lock-out laws” make it less of a draw for night owls looking to bar- and club-hop till dawn. Instead expect glamorous roof-top bars or sprawling neighborhood beer gardens to enjoy a relaxing outdoors drink. And Sydney’s status as the queer capital of Australia is celebrated at venues such as Erskineville’s Imperial Hotel (featured in the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Redfern’s Bearded Tit, while Darlinghust is not only busy with clubs and pubs it’s the epicenter of Pride celebrations during Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras.
Art galleries and museums
Both Sydney and Melbourne abound in excellent galleries and museums. Australia’s millenia of pre-colonial history and long-since vanished megafauna are explored at Sydney’s Australian Museum, or immerse yourself in science, technology and modern design at the Powerhouse Museum. For large art collections, Sydney has the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the cutting edge White Rabbit gallery dedicated to Chinese contemporary art.
Melbourne keeps its end up with the two campuses of the National Gallery of Victoria, one for its international collection and touring exhibitions, the other – the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square – is exclusively for Australian artists including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. The city center laneways are awash with street art as well as huge multi-story murals. And finally, the city’s natural and cultural history is on display at the Melbourne Museum.
There really isn’t much to separate the two cities when it comes to shopping: both abound in local boutique clothing stores, vast malls with international brands, plus traditional food markets selling Australia’s seasonal bounty.
In Sydney, Oxford Street is the place for fashion; Darling Street is best for boutiques and bookstores; and Paddy’s Market in Haymarket is ideal for gimmicky Australian souvenirs to take home. Sydney also has a strong makers market and vintage scene with small markets around Paddington and Glebe.
Melbourne’s city center is good for shopping, and is complemented with more options in Fitzroy and Prahran. Queen Victoria Market is a Melbourne must-visit, devoted to clothes and Australiana souvenirs, as well as top-notch produce and a handsomely-tiled deli hall packed with foodie treats. Once a week a night market brings in the crowds for hawker style food with live entertainment.
Where’s best for weather?
It’s T-shirt weather for a lot of the year in Sydney, where average maximums only dip below 68°F (20°C) in winter (June to August), whilst visitors to Melbourne should pack some warm layers (just in case of a “cool change”). But in changeable Melbourne, temperatures can be roaring hot especially from January to March, with daily maximums of more than 100°F (40°C) not uncommon.
Always plan for rainfall in either city: whilst droughts are on the increase in Australia these days, Sydney in particular can be wet at any time of the year, and is always more humid than its southern counterpart.
What about costs and transport?
While the cost of living in Sydney is high, falling just below that of famously expensive London, Melbourne isn’t far behind. Expect to pay at least AU$100 for a mid-range meal for two in either city, and around AU$4.50 for a one-way ticket on public transport networks that are adequate, but well below the standards set in many other cities of comparable size throughout the world.
Both cities spread into seemingly endless suburbs and neither is very easy to travel around quickly by car due to traffic congestion (a by-product of slow public transport investments, which are now finally being prioritized). Cycling has taken off in both cities, although Melbourne is definitely more cycle-friendly with off-road cycle routes on former train lines, as well as generally being a lot less hilly than harborside Sydney.
Melburnians are proud of their extensive tram network, and vintage trams are a treat to catch around the city center. However, Sydney has its ferries – truly an incredible way to get around.