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O'Donnell Gardens, St Kilda, Melbourne
Photograph: Josie Withers

A local's guide to St Kilda

Explore the hidden gems of this popular seaside suburb, from the best local cafés and bars to restaurant institutions and not-to-be-missed activities and attractions

By Bonnie Ziegeler
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St Kilda’s past is as colourful as its present. Long considered Melbourne’s seaside playground, it was first known for its elite holiday culture in the mid-19th century, before moving into its chapter as a red light entertainment district in the 1950s and '60s. 

The suburb soon became a haven for artists, musicians and a diverse LGBTQIA community thanks to its carefree bohemianism that lingers to this day, attracting hordes of backpackers each summer and all walks of life year-round.

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What's St Kilda known for?

Today, St Kilda maintains its vibrant sense of culture and pride (the Victorian Pride Centre will soon be unveiled on Fitzroy Street) and is increasingly known for its cosmopolitan inner-city lifestyle. Thanks in part to two seasons of The Block, which transformed the infamous Gatwick Hotel and Oslo Hostel, the grit and grunge continue to gentrify at a rapid pace – but if you ask many of the locals, it’s exactly this contrast of character that defines St Kilda, making it different from anywhere else in Melbourne – and perhaps the world.

A stone’s throw from the CBD, the 3182 postcode is inexhaustible in its list of all that it has to offer. Home to many famous tourist attractions, a trip to Melbourne is not complete without a visit to St Kilda and its strip of palm tree-lined beaches, heritage buildings and eclectic dining scene, reminiscent of a curious cross between Venice Beach and San Francisco.

Why do the locals love it?

St Kilda Twilight Market event director, known to locals only as Oakies, says that “one of the things about St Kilda is its really strong creative community, not just artistically creative but also in terms of being entrepreneurial”.

“St Kilda is always changing – it’s gone through several different stages of gentrification and it has still got this edge, this vibrancy to it that the locals just love. I think that’s due to its transient nature. 

“St Kilda is a meeting place for people. It’s kind of known as Melbourne’s beachside playground. Then with Luna Park there – there’s a carnivalesque vibe that I don’t think will ever change.

“Everyone leaves something of themselves in St Kilda and they pick up something to carry with them forever.” 

How do I get to St Kilda?

Though it doesn’t have a train station, St Kilda is easy to access via public transport, with three trams (12, 16 and 96) running from Melbourne’s CBD to or via Fitzroy Street. Several other St Kilda Road trams will drop you at St Kilda Junction if you feel like a leisurely stroll past Albert Park and the excellent selection of restaurants and cafes opposite. There are a number of bus lines, too. If you’re heading to or from the airport, the SkyBus has four convenient stops around St Kilda.

What’s nearby?

St Kilda occupies prime real estate on Port Phillip Bay, between Middle Park to the west and Elwood to the east. Windsor and Prahran are a short walk to the north.

Map of St Kilda

If you only do one thing...

Pick up a selection of sweet treats from one of Acland Street’s many famous cake shops, harking back to the summers of the 1950s when European holidaymakers would descend upon the suburb. Share them with friends on the St Kilda foreshore or at the nearby Catani Gardens or St Kilda Botanical Gardens.

Noodles at Cafe Di Stasio
Noodles at Cafe Di Stasio
Photograph: Graham Denholm

Eat

Don’t be fooled by the flashing neon sign out the front - Pars Kebab (25 Fitzroy St) is far from just another kebab shop in St Kilda. A newcomer to the Fitzroy Street dining scene, Pars Kebab is already a firm favourite among locals, specialising in Persian street food – think fresh lamb, chicken and falafel wraps, platters, salads, pita bread and hummus, with picnic packs to share.  

For one of the most authentic Italian dining experiences outside of Italy, look no further than Autentico Restaurant (103 Grey St). The wood-fired pizzas are made to order with a range of traditional toppings, a thin base and perfectly light and puffy crust, and the homemade pasta or breakfast bomboloni with jam, Nutella or custard fillings are also must-tries. Quaint, cosy and very Italian, the restaurant offers some tables to dine inside or on the street.

Manu of Manu’s Bistro (17 Fitzroy St) took the plunge by opening at the beginning of Melbourne’s first lockdown, thinking he would ease into his new venture after working as head chef at some of the world’s top restaurants. Needless to say, his homemade international cuisine has been exceedingly popular – choose from herb-scented gnocchi with roasted butternut squash and walnuts, authentic Sri Lankan lamb curry with freshly grilled roti or a Mexican corn fritter burger, among many, many other breakfast, lunch and dinner options. The one-man-band makes the entire menu by himself and bakes fresh bread and other goodies from scratch every morning.

Blu Oyster Co (45A Fitzroy St) is another St Kilda newbie, an oyster bar already highly rated by locals, shucking and serving fresh Blackman Bay oysters and Mooloolaba prawns to order and eat on the spot or take home for dinner. Pick up a dozen to enjoy on St Kilda Beach at sunset, with your drink of choice from St Kilda Cellars next door.

If it’s silver service you’re after, St Kilda also delivers in spades. Melbourne fine-dining institution Café Di Stasio (31 Fitzroy St) blends exceptional service with its gritty Fitzroy Street charm as part of restaurateur Rinaldo Di Stasio’s exploration of “Italianality”, creating an ambience you will find nowhere else in Melbourne. Similarly, Stokehouse (30 Jacka Blvd) offers excellent Australian-inspired beachfront fare, with an awarding-winning wine list to match.

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Outside at The Espy
Outside at The Espy
Photograph: Graham Denholm

Drink

Little Prince Wine (2 Acland St) has filled a gaping hole in St Kilda’s foodie scene with its boutique cellar and gourmet deli options. Pick up some charcuterie to go with your favourite drop or perhaps something new, recommended by resident sommelier, Laurent Rospars. The contemporary wine bar and bottle shop forms part of the fully renovated Prince Hotel, alongside Prince Public Bar, Prince Dining Room and the newly opened (dog-friendly!) Prince Rooftop. If you want to try all the Prince has to offer, you can also book an overnight staycation.

For one of the most popular views in St Kilda, Luna’s Food & Wine Bar (30 The Esplanade) is the place to be. Not to be confused with Lona St Kilda (64-66 Acland St), although both venues are well worth visiting, Luna’s occupies prime position on the Esplanade opposite Luna Park and the Palais Theatre, ideally located for an Insta-worthy sunset. The best part? They’ll treat your dog as part of the family with healthy homemade dog treats, while you make your way through the creative cocktail list.

Fondly known by all as the Espy, everyone has a story about their time(s) at St Kilda’s Hotel Esplanade (11 The Esplanade). Since reopening in late 2018, the Espy has again become a vortex in St Kilda, drawing all who visit in for an afternoon or evening of entertainment. Whether you’re dropping in for a sunset cocktail, catching a gig or indulging in the flavourful Cantonese cuisine of Mya Tiger, there is no pub quite like The Espy.

Oozing moody period-era charm with its original art deco décor, St LuJa’s (9 Fitzroy St) killer selection of carefully curated cocktails is complemented by an extensive whiskey list; pick your poison and then pick a table on the street to watch the sun set on St Kilda’s palm trees. Thursdays are steak night – get a 250-gram porterhouse steak cooked to your liking, with chips, salad and a glass of the house red or white for $20.

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Coffee

Mrs Hyde’s Café (107 Grey St) was opened by mother-daughter team Neena and Erin Gordon in the midst of Melbourne’s stage four lockdown, after the pandemic rendered three of their family unemployed. In true St Kilda community spirit, the locals have rallied to support the family venture, popular for its homemade choc chip cookies and dog-friendly rear courtyard (if your pooch is on its best behaviour, it may even be treated with a homemade “prize”).  

Neena says the local support has been invaluable in getting the café off the ground during such a challenging time for everyone. She sat a pair of giant teddy bears in the window to “bring a bit of cheer to everyone’s day”. 

“At the time, people were only allowed outside for an hour of exercise so we wanted to bring a little bit of love and life back to the community,” Neena says. The bears have started to attract visitors from neighbouring suburbs and have become such a beacon for passers-by that Neena says they’re now here to stay. You can follow their antics on Instagram.

Acland Street stalwart, Leroy Espresso (191 Acland St) has been pouring coffee for the people of St Kilda for the past 15 years. A favourite among locals, grab a coffee from the takeaway window or dine in the eclectically decorated café for breakfast and lunch or afternoon cocktails. 

Pick up a fresh loaf of bread or buttery pastry to enjoy with your coffee at Rye + Dough (149 Fitzroy St), St Kilda’s popular artisan bakery that bakes everything from organic European and Australian ingredients daily.

Prince Public Bar (29 Fitzroy St) also makes an excellent Niccolo coffee.

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Shoppers browse stalls at the The Esplanade Market in St Kilda
Shoppers browse stalls at the The Esplanade Market in St Kilda
Photograph: Supplied

Shopping

The St Kilda Esplanade Market is a popular year-round attraction, drawing artists and makers from all over Australia to display their work and promote their wares, from jewellery and original clothing to olive oils and other gourmet food products. Successfully operating since 1970, the market is a must if you’re in the area on a Sunday. 

Specialising in bringing the people of St Kilda items they never knew they needed for the past 24 years, Urban Attitude (152 Acland St) is a one-stop gift shop filled with novelty items and limited-edition collector pieces. While Captain Planet air fresheners and SpongeBob SquarePants socks make perfect stocking fillers, you’ll also find hilarious greeting cards to suit any of your friendships and an extensive range of eco-friendly homewares.

If you want to spoil your fur babies, look no further than Since Paws (151A Fitzroy St), home to quirky and boutique pet products, including cactus-shaped cat scratchers and avocado-shaped dog beds. You can also book your dogs and cats in for grooming services.

Roller skating never went out of fashion at St Kilda’s Rolla Bae Skate and Wellness Club. Buy or hire your favourite pair of Impala skates and cruise along the St Kilda promenade towards Port Melbourne in one direction or Elwood in the other. If you’re after a lower impact form of exercise, Rolla Bae also offers beach yoga and strength and conditioning classes. Look for the pink caravan next to the Marine Parade skate park.

You’re bound to find a bargain at the Sacred Heart Mission Op Shop (87 Grey St) or Salvos Stores St Kilda (116 Carlisle St), with both regularly replenished with pre-loved furniture and clothing. 

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Luna Park at Around St Kilda
Luna Park at Around St Kilda
Photograph: Graham Denholm

Things to do

Australia’s oldest theme park, Luna Park, opened its doors to its first visitors in 1912 and has since welcomed millions of excited people through Mr Moon’s giant smiling mouth. The heritage-listed Great Scenic Railway wooden rollercoaster (which inspired the famous Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York) remains the heart of the park, providing riders the best (and most exhilarating) views of Port Phillip Bay, especially at sunset. 

Opposite Luna Park, the Palais Theatre makes up the other half of St Kilda’s iconic duo. Built in 1927 as a pivotal aspect of the suburb’s seaside entertainment precinct, the Palais’ ongoing refurbishment will ensure its hallowed stage hosts the world’s best entertainers for generations to come. It would be remiss to visit St Kilda without visiting the duo, if only for a photo. 

Then there's the St Kilda Ferry. Embarking on its maiden voyage across Port Phillip Bay to Williamstown in 2016, and offering a cool vantage point towards Melbourne’s CBD, the Coastal Flyer has proven popular among day-trippers and those wanting to escape Melbourne’s heaving road traffic. Route options include a pitstop in Beacon Cove, Port Melbourne. You can phone ahead to bring your bike for transport at the other end.

To witness something really special, head to the end of the St Kilda pier to the St Kilda breakwater shortly after sunset any night of the year. There you may be lucky to spot St Kilda’s colony of more than 1,000 little penguins (St Kilda Penguins), standing on top of the rocks or waddling from one side of the breakwater to the other. Remember to keep your distance and turn the flash off your camera.

Random International’s Rain Room has also set up stumps in St Kilda. Housed in the Jackalope Art Pavilion and accessed via the lift in the Prince Hotel’s car park off Jackson Street, this internationally renowned interactive art instalment lets you walk around in a raining room, without ever getting wet.

If you’re craving some drama, Theatre Works (14 Acland St) has been sharing powerful and culturally relevant performances with the people of Melbourne from an old Parish hall in St Kilda for the past 40 years. Check out what's showing right now via the website.

A wide shot of crowds and stalls at the St Kilda Twilight Market
A wide shot of crowds and stalls at the St Kilda Twilight Market
Photograph: St Kilda Twilight Market

Mark your calenders

Head along to the St Kilda Twilight Market in the O’Donnell Gardens over summer, where you can eat, drink, enjoy live music and browse locally handmade arts, crafts, health and wellbeing products and other creative merchandise, all in the shadow of Luna Park every Thursday evening.

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