Get us in your inbox

Search
Carlton Exhibition Building
Photograph: Roberto Seba

A local's guide to Carlton

Explore this slice of inner-city Melbourne with our guide to restaurants, bars, shops and more in Carlton

Written by
Jacinta Bowler
Advertising

Update [26/7/21]: During Victoria's fifth lockdown, hospitality venues can only open for takeaway and delivery. You can still support many of these local venues by purchasing food, drinks or products online or over the phone – click each individual venue for more details on what they're currently offering or contact them directly to find out their opening hours. Entertainment venues and non essential retail cannot open during this time, but some venues may offer click and collect services or delivery. Victorian residents cannot travel further than 5km to access essential supplies or exercise during lockdown.

From the riches of 'Marvellous Melbourne' to being designated "slums" in the 1950s, Carlton has lived thousands of lives. Today, the suburb is a mixture not only of cultures but of the past and the present – mixing timeless restaurants and cafés that have existed for half a century with innovative venues pushing the boundaries.

Jump to a section:

What’s Carlton known for?

Carlton is one of Melbourne’s best-known suburbs because of Lygon Street. Although there’s plenty else to see in this jam-packed neighbourhood, Lygon Street is home to Melbourne’s Little Italy and is where you can get some of the best authentic Italian in the city. Carlton is also well known for the historic Carlton Gardens, Royal Exhibition Building and the Melbourne Museum.

Why do the locals love it?

We talked to Mark Rubbo, the managing director of Readings (Carlton’s best-known bookshop), who has been a Carlton regular for decades. “Carlton is a wonderful neighbourhood to hang out in with its wide tree-lined streets and Jewish, Italian and artistic heritage,” he says. On a sunny day, you might see couples picnicking in the middle of these streets on the nature strip, kids running around the Carlton Baths, or teens eating gelato at one of the many gelaterias.

How do I get to Carlton?

Carlton is very easy to get to. It’s the suburb just north of the eastern part of the CBD, and many attractions are walkable from the city or Parliament Station. If you wanted to tram, a 96 will take you to the Carlton Gardens and all the way up the Fitzroy/Carlton border, while the 1 and 6 will take you to the top of the Italian area of Lygon Street.

What’s nearby?

To the east is Fitzroy and Collingwood, where you can enjoy cafés and restaurants on Brunswick Street, clubs and pubs on Smith Street, and incredible street art on Rose Street. To the west is the University of Melbourne campus in Parkville, which has heritage-listed buildings that are more than 150 years old and speciality museums worth visiting.

Map of Carlton

If you only do one thing…

Jump off the 1 or 6 trams at Elgin Street and go for a walk down Lygon to see what you can find. You might end up at one of the many Italian restaurants, stopping for some gelato, grabbing a book or seeing a movie – and that’s just in the first block!

Eat
Photograph: Carmen Zammit

Eat

We’d be doing Carlton a disservice if we didn’t start with Italian. Tiamo (303 Lygon St) has served authentic Italian food and coffee for over 40 years, so you can expect it to be busy whether you show up at 9am or 9pm. “I’ve been going there since 1972,” says Mark.

Further up on Rathdowne is a modern Italian restaurant that you don’t want to miss, Capitano (421 Rathdowne St). Capitano's Detroit-style, cheesy, carby grandma pie is unlike anything else in Melbourne, and drinking the slightly unusual cocktails (like the PB & Miso Old Fashioned) are a fun way to spend an afternoon.

But Carlton isn’t just Italian food. Time Out Food Award winner Kazuki's (121 Lygon St) is one of the newer fine diners on the block, but worth your business. This Japanese-ish, French-ish modern restaurant moved from Daylesford to this location back in 2018.

Just off Lygon on Faraday is another long-term establishment, Shakahari Vegetarian Restaurant (201 Faraday St). Exclusively serving vegetarian food since 1972, this place will satisfy even the staunchest of meat-eaters. We highly recommend the legendary satay.

Abla’s (109 Elgin St) is another Carlton institution. Lebanese immigrant Abla Amad started this home-style restaurant in the '70s and it’s still going strong today. While the chicken and rice is a favourite with regulars, don’t forget to leave room for baklava for dessert.

If you’re looking for an authentic Japanese style lunch or dinner, Sushi Ten (178 Rathdowne St) is worth a visit. Locals know to bring cash, and that the owners don’t always open the doors on time, but the food here is worth the hassle. 

Taquito (350 Drummond St) is a modern Mexican taqueria and bar. All the tortillas are made from scratch in house, the guac is delicious, and you need to check out the selection of rare mezcals and tequilas on offer.

↑ Back to top

Drink
Photograph: Johnny's Green Room/Supplied

Drink

If it’s a sunny day and you’re in need of some vitamin D, Johnny’s Green Room (293-297 Lygon St) is a solid choice. Perched above King and Godfree and only accessible via a back alley, this little rooftop bar does cocktails, pizza and great tunes.

Our Pub of the Year for 2017 was awarded to Carlton's wonderful Lincoln (91 Cardigan St). It's got a heart of a casual diner but the palate of a wine bar with heaps of Aussie wines on menu to try. 

On the corner of Lygon and Elgin sits the vegetarian pub Green Man’s Arms (418 Lygon St). With a good selection of local beers and wines (plus some fun decor), this place is great for after-work drinks or a pub-style Sunday roast.

If you’re looking for something a little fancier, Carlton Wine Room (172-174 Faraday St) is a great date night venue with wines for every occasion and delicious food to match. If you don’t know what you want, ask the staff for their best recommendations.

Sometimes the simplest things are the best and the Clyde Hotel (385 Cardigan St) is a humble Carlton classic. On most days you’ll find the pub full of uni students, old men watching footy, and parents wanting a quick feed for their kids.

↑ Back to top

Advertising
Coffee
Photograph: Graham Denholm

Coffee

We’re not exaggerating when we say it’s quite difficult to get a bad coffee in Carlton. Nearly every Italian bistro, or hipster coffee shop can make you a good brew, but here are some of the standouts.

Heartattack and Vine (329 Lygon St) is a modern Italian café popular with locals due to their great specialty coffee (which they serve at all hours) and delicious food – especially the porchetta roll.

Ima Project Café (169 Elgin St) is a Japanese-style brunch spot with delicious coffee. Grab a quick flat white and matcha cookie before work, or sit down and enjoy the Japanese breakfast and one of the many green teas if you’ve got some time.

OK, OK, so maybe people don’t go to Brunetti (380 Lygon St) for the coffee particularly, but you can’t argue that coffee doesn’t taste so much better when you get to enjoy it with a delicious éclair or cannoli?

If you’re looking for coffee experts, Vertue Coffee Roasters (8 Raffa Pl) are your people. The location is a little tricky – it’s next to a petrol station and around a tight corner – but just follow the smell of roasting brews and you’ll be sipping the good stuff in no time.

Wild Timor Coffee (251 Faraday St) is a coffee shop in an incredible Victorian-era building next to the Kathleen Symes Library. The coffee is grown in the mountains of Aileu as part of Wild Timor Coffee’s commitment to supporting farmers in Timor-Leste so you’ll feel good while you’re drinking it. As a bonus, the tables out the front of the library are a great place to enjoy some free Wi-Fi.

↑ Back to top

Shopping
Photograph: Josie Withers/Visit Victoria

Shopping

You don’t just need to eat out in Carlton, there are plenty of places to take home some of those top-quality Italian ingredients.

Take for instance Donati’s Fine Meats (402 Lygon St). Leo Donati has been working as a butcher in Carlton since the '60s, and he and his son run the Italian-style butchers together, which is a favourite for the locals and restaurants on the street.

King and Godfree (293/297 Lygon St) first opened as a grocer in 1884 and even though it's closed a few times, even after a huge overhaul, it still has all its charm. Now, there’s an espresso bar and an Italian deli alongside the grocery store, featuring as much wine and Italian items as you can handle.

As a bonus, Pidapipó (299 Lygon St) is on the same block and as long as you’ve got some time to wait in line (and there is somehow always a line), nothing beats 'Pipo's gelato specials on a hot day.

Nearby is bakery Baker D Chirico (178 Faraday St). Pick up a delicious sourdough or enjoy one of the many pastries – though, fair warning, this is another popular Carlton place you might have to wait in line. Pro-tip: picking up a coffee next door at Market Lane makes it go a little quicker.

If you need a book, or just a place to get lost for a while, check out Readings (309 Lygon St), and Readings Kids (315 Lygon St) next door. Mark explains that they’ve been in that spot since 1969, but with regular events and a recent renovation they’ve been able to evolve with the area. “And, if I do say so myself, we are a very good bookshop.”

For music fans, there’s the Music Swop Shop (145-147 Elgin St). The shop is filled to the brim with secondhand guitars and other instruments for sale and is worth a visit even just for a look around.

Far away from Lygon Street, on the border of Carlton and Fitzroy, you'll find a small pastry shop called the French Lettuce (237 Nicholson St). You can’t go wrong with a vanilla slice – which the team will happily tell you was voted best in Melbourne – or a slice of baked cheesecake.

↑ Back to top

Advertising
Things to do
Photograph: Cinema Nova/Supplied

Things to do

Cinema Nova (380 Lygon St) is, according to Mark, “the best arthouse cinema in the country”. Cheap Mondays are absolutely packed, and we can recommend the rowdy late-night screening of The Room that happens every few months.

The Royal Exhibition Building (9 Nicholson St) beside Carlton Gardens is one of the oldest surviving buildings from the Great Exhibition era. If you can get inside on a day where there is a market or an expo, the hall – with all its restored art and huge archways – is stunning.

Just across the way is the Melbourne Museum (11 Nicholson St), filled with treasures such as a living forest, a taxidermied Phar Lap, and some amazing rotating exhibits. There's also the IMAX cinema that shows both documentaries and new-release movies if you need a couple of hours off your feet.

The Carlton Gardens itself is also a sight to behold. The Gardens make up 26 hectares of land, taking up a significant portion of Carlton. A popular picnic spot, the Victorian-era gardens have trees that are over 100 years old and come from all over the world.

If you’re in Melbourne during the warmer months, the Carlton Baths (216/248 Rathdowne St) is a lovely place to cool off. Although the centre is open year-round, the pools themselves are outdoors and are only open from October to April. If you have little ones, there’s a toddler pool area complete with a waterslide.

Then there is La Mama Theatre (1/205 Faraday St), arguably Melbourne’s best independent theatre venue. “Although at the moment it’s being rebuilt after a fire – it will be glorious when it’s reborn,” says Mark. “It’s the spiritual home of Australian theatre.” At the time of writing, the Faraday Street space is still being rebuilt but the Courthouse (349 Drummond St) is currently hosting groundbreaking theatre in the meantime.

Check out more of Melbourne's suburbs

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising