The Ashes, international cricket's most high profile event, played out between Australia and England, are in full swing across Australia right now and both nations are gripped. But while the cricket’s been pretty engrossing – or depressing, depending on which team you bat for – the host cities show off the best of urban Australia. Brisbane and Adelaide may have had their tests but there’s still Perth, Melbourne and Sydney to go.
If you're visiting the host cities but want to get away from the cricket, here are some suggestions to getting the most out of your time:
Third Test: Perth
Planted by the Swan River in Western Australia and almost permanently housed under a great blue sky, the city of Perth takes natural beauty to extremes. Its heart is down the beach, tossing around under clear ocean surf and stretching out on the sand. Sightseeing is best married with the outdoors: view buildings and landmarks from the Swan River or the heights of Kings Park, or take an even more leisurely pace in the Swan Valley. Many of Perth’s sights are in the Cultural Centre, which includes the Art Gallery of WA, the Western Australia Museum and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
19km from Perth and situated at the mount of the Swan sits Fremantle, more like another suburb these days than a city of its own. Freo’s home to some fantastic museums, historic buildings, galleries, pubs and cafes. Creative, relaxed, open-minded: Freo’s spirit is entirely distinct from Perth’s. Perhaps it has something to do with the port and the city’s working-class roots. Or the hippies, who first set up home here a few decades ago and, today, can still be seen casually bobbling an old bicycle down the street. Artists always make a difference, and painters, writers and musicians have been toiling away here for years. While here be sure to check out the Fremantle Market to pick up some souvenirs.
Fourth Test: Melbourne
Melbourne is Australia's second-largest city and the nation's artistic centre. Driven by the ravenous cultural appetite of a dynamic population, the city shuns fads and instead embraces the best of its evolving multiculturalism, slaps its own spin on things and then nurtures the result till it becomes a classic. Melbourne has lots to offer visitors, including a world-class restaurant scene, boutique shopping down the city's labyrinthine alleyways, Federation Square, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Immigration Museum and a city-wide obsession with, and pride in, coffee. While you can get a bird's-eye view of Melbourne from the Eureka Tower and Skydeck, take it down a little and take in the city from its many rooftop bars (some with outdoor cinemas - the quintessential Melbourne summer city experience.)
Spoking out from the centre you'll find varied suburbs to explore. Fitzroy is home to Melbourne’s bohemian subculture, with Northcote coming a close second. Carlton is the Little Italy of Melbourne, Brunswick hums to a Middle Eastern beat, while Victoria St in Richmond transports you to Asia with an epic boulevard of Asian grocers and cheap, deceptively delicious restaurants. To the south sits St Kilda, a seaside suburb which maintains a perpetual state of fascinating flux. Hotels, dance halls, sea baths, theatres, galleries and fun parks have all found their place here over the decades, and this seedy and glam, alternative and mainstream pocket remains a place of extremes. Be sure to catch the penguins who have made an area near the St Kilda pier their home; Penguin Waters will take you there.
Fifth Test: Sydney
Sydney is dazzling: a hyperenergetic, ambitious marketplace of the soul, where anything goes and everything usually does. Of course, the stage for all this activity is just as important as the performance itself; shimmering Sydney Harbour is the city’s greatest asset. Here you'll find the obligatory tourist attractions, Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Add hip bars, grungy pubs, breezy cafes and glass-walled restaurants to the equation, and you’ve got a town with the perfect balance of outdoor and indoor, natural and contrived.
Sydney’s not a hard city to explore, but to really get under its skin you’ll want to look beyond the obvious as there are worthy sights dotted throughout. There’s a cache of colonial history out west in Parramatta, and some beautiful parks, beaches and historic buildings in the affluent harbourside suburbs heading east from Double Bay to Watsons Bay. The city’s suburbs now stretch south to ensnare Botany Bay, Captain Cook’s landing point and the British government’s planned location for Sydney. Further south, Cronulla has one of Sydney’s best surf beaches. The Northern Beaches make for a low-key, sandy day trip. Keen walkers should make the most of the paths and scenery at Sydney Harbour National Park, or see the area from a kayak for a different perspective.
No one knows Australia like Lonely Planet... remember, we live here! We know where Sydney's best surf beaches are, where to get the best coffee in Melbourne's cobbled lanes, and how to cross the great red plains in a van without getting scorched.