Just because they’re popular with visitors, doesn’t mean they’re lame. These Melbourne tourist attractions are famous for a reason, so stop putting off your visit and find out what all the fuss is about.
For more Melbourne inspiration, check out the 50 things to do in Melbourne before you die, or eat your way around the city with the 50 best restaurants in Melbourne. Our city is famous for its street art; here's our list of the best places to find it.
Tourist attractions that don't suck
If there’s anywhere you can escape the madness of the CBD without actually leaving it, the Royal Botanic Gardens is the place. Located on the city’s fringe, this expansive garden is home to a cool 8,500 plant species, glittering lakes and lush lawns perfect for a little midday pick-me-up or a weekend picnic. Workshops, tours, walks and talks showcase the intricacies of the gardens and the Aboriginal Heritage Walk takes you on a journey into the history of the Kulin nation.
The NGV comprises two venues – the NGV International and NGV Australia – and you could easily spend a day in each. The permanent collection at the international includes a Rembrandt, a Bonnard and a Tiepolo – plus a much loved water-wall at the entrance. Over at Fed Square the Ian Potter Centre houses art from Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians from the colonial to the contemporary.
ACMI is much more than meets the eye. Sure, it's home to Australia's largest moving image collection and the fascinating and fun Screen Worlds permanent exhibition – but it also houses cinemas, blockbuster exhibitions, talks, events and a shop. In fact, ACMI has hosted some of the most exciting and popular exhibitions in Melbourne over the last decade. What makes these so well visited is their broad, pop culture appeal; recent examples include Wallace & Gromit and Friends, David Bowie Is and DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition.
Shop on Brunswick Street
Melbourne’s alternative side is in full-force in Fitzroy, the inner-city magnet for all things cool and kooky. Wandering along Brunswick Street, Fitzroy’s main drag, and you'll find anything from bike shops, cool hairdressers, second-hand bookshops and hometown fashion heroes like Gorman, Búl, Alpha 60 and Kloke. Where Brunswick Street really shines is vintage clothing stores. Places like Hunter Gatherer, Vintage Sole and Yesteryear Vintage Clothing will have you suited up with a new leather bag, a pair of vintage slacks or even a ripper denim jacket from the '80s. It'll take you a while to wash out the smell of mothballs, but it'll be worth it.
The open-air Queen Victoria Market is packed with veteran stallholders who are passionate about fresh produce (and are happy to tell you about it). It's popular with locals as their go-to for fresh produce, meat and a variety of dairy and small goods, but has also become a must visit for tourists. Cafés line the outskirts and heave with brunchers every weekend. Be mindful of the market's opening hours before visiting and be sure to get a hot jam doughnut before you leave.
Head to the seaside suburb of St Kilda
St Kilda is defined by two main strips, Fitzroy Street and Acland Street, with the famous St Kilda Esplanade providing a nice link between the two. While Fitzroy Street is all retail shops, gyms and fancy restaurants, Acland is a haven for cake lovers. The cake shops lining the strip have been making Melbourne a sweeter place since 1934, and are still pumping out Eastern European classics thick and fast: try the plain cheesecake from Europa Cake Shop, the vanilla slice at Le Bon Continental Cake Shop and the chocolate Kugelhaumpf at Monarch.
If you do one thing in Melbourne, we recommend hitting the extremely Melbourne Curtin House on Swanston Street. This six-storey vertical lane houses some of Melbourne's most interesting tenants. There's Metropolis specialist bookshop, Human Salon the hairdresser, bar/restaurants Cookie and Mesa Verde, high fashion mavens Dot Comme, the swanky bar and band room at the Toff in Town, and Melbourne's crowning glory Rooftop Bar right at the top. Visitors can practically get the full Melbourne experience without setting foot outside the building.
Search for hidden bars
Fact: Melbourne does hidden bars like no other city. And yes, we're about to betray every Melburnian and reveal all our underground drinking secrets. We've got a laboratory-themed bar located down a tiny laneway (Croft Institute), one behind a fridge door (Jungle Boy) and a bookshelf (Loch and Key), a secret rooftop bar above a Chinese restaurant (Goldilocks) and a closet of a bar that barely fits ten people (Bar Americano). Sure, it'll feel more like a scavenger hunt than a night out if you choose to uncover these gems, but it's definitely worth it.
Melbourne's Chinatown district is the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world. Plus, it's also the oldest Chinatown in the southern hemisphere, having been established during the Victorian gold rush era in the early 1850s. This colourful area is lined with karaoke bars, duty free stores and so many chopstick and rice parlours it's hard to know which one to choose from. Located along Little Bourke Street and it's fringing laneways and streets, we recommend dumplings at Shanghai Village, mains at Supper Inn, and the desserts at Secret Kitchen.
Itching for a new adventure? Saddle up and explore the city on two wheels. We recommend the easy-ish ride along the Yarra Trail. Starting in Eltham, this trail is a pretty satisfying 22-kilometre ride towards Fairfield that follows the flow of the Yarra. It’s flat most of the way with loads of leafy corridors to pass through. Closer to the city the trail is sealed and your necessary pit stops include the Heide Museum of Modern Art and the colonial-era Fairfield Boathouse for some scones.
Ned Kelly's armour and death mask are the big draw cards at a historical building that stands as a monument to the cruelty of capital punishment. Explore the gaol, experience a modern-day arrest procedure and stand in the dock of the Old Magistrate's Court. The gaol first opened in 1845, making it one of the city’s oldest sites. And old means haunted. In fact, 133 people were hanged here and the Old Melbourne Gaol regularly hosts one-hour tours.
A glorious, sprawling space filled with themed displays, interactive areas, Imax cinemas, postmodern art and no end of surprises, Melbourne Museum rewards first-time visitors and repeat patrons equally. For recent initiates, the sheer scope of the permanent galleries (including one just for children) can be intimidating, but for those who aren't intent on digesting it all on one visit, the greatest treasures – including Phar Lap’s preserved body and a fascinating exploration of the history of mental health treatment in Australia – can be taken in over several visits.
Go on a road trip on the Great Ocean Road
Head southwest from Geelong and you’ll soon see it: the faded log arch announcing your arrival at the Great Ocean Road. Sandwiched between dense coastal eucalypt forests and the ocean, the road is one of the most spectacular drives in Australia. Technically the road starts just outside of Torquay but the best ocean vistas happen between Airey’s Inlet and Apollo Bay, where you’ll drive right along the precipice of the coastal cliffs. There’s regular opportunities to stop at beaches and koala sightings are not uncommon. Travel off season to avoid crowds – the road is just as great in the cooler months.
Two and a half hours out of Melbourne lies Phillip Island: a little chunk of coastal heaven known for its penguins, motorsport, seals and Hemsworth brothers. The craggy shoreline is peppered by beaches perfect for swimming, surfing and seal watching: the island has more fur seal than human residents in fact. Competing for cutest tourist attraction alongside the seals are Phillip Island’s Little Penguins. Every night like clockwork you can watch the petit penguins come ashore at Summerland beach and march like tiny, feathery soldiers into their sandy burrows.
It’s amazing how quickly suburban Melbourne gives away to the lush, rolling green hills of the Yarra Valley. It’s one of Victoria’s premier food and wine destinations and just over an hour from the Melbourne CBD. The valley is awash with wineries offering tours, cellar doors and gourmet dining experiences: take your pick from locals like De Bortoli, Rochford Wines, Kellybrook and Coldstream Hills. Even those looking for more ‘child-friendly’ attractions won’t leave disappointed. You can keep the kids (little and big) quiet with a trip to the heavenly Yarra Valley Chocolaterie and Ice Creamery.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Parkville anymore. This inner-city oasis – which happens to be Australia’s oldest zoo – is home to hundreds of creatures great and small, all of which are living in beautiful, stimulating environments. Watch penguins and seals slipping through blue water in the Wild Sea exhibit, then head to the sprawling Orang-utan Sanctuary, where a family of intelligent orang-utans swing from tree to tree. Leave plenty of time for the Trail of the Elephants; an immersive South-East Asian village and garden where you’ll learn much about our long-nosed relatives.
You’re a fan of locally made beer or cider – but how much do you know about how your favourite brew is made? Get to the source at this super-popular brewery tour company, who run trips to the breweries of the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and the inner-city. Your knowledgable guide will introduce you to brewers and cider-makers, teach you about the difference between a lager and a stout, and take you behind the scenes to watch the magic happen.
Take in the sights and shops of Lygon Street
There are so many things to love about Carlton’s famous strip, which has long been Melbourne’s Little Italy. Gone are the irritating restaurant touters; these days it's all about top-notch bars and eateries like Heartattack and Vine and Milk the Cow, pizza at DOC or Tiamo, and tasty charcuterie and cheese for later at French deli La Parisienne Pâtés. Culture-lovers flock to Cinema Nova, the huge Readings Bookstore and independent theatre La Mama.
Make no mistake: this bar has been instrumental in making Melbourne the nation’s live music capital. Not too much has changed about this rough-and-ready dive bar in its 17 years; you’ll find it down AC/DC Lane, its soft red glow illuminating the graffiti. Bands play pretty much every night here, and vary from up-and-coming local acts to major players from Australia and beyond.
You can feel the weight of the past as soon as you step into the grounds and look up to the gothic spires of the Abbotsford Convent. The complex began as a convent in the late 1800s, and was also a commercial laundry, orphanage and aged care facility. These days, it’s a hub for artists, makers, community radio broadcasters and teachers – as well as a beautiful place to explore. Check out the work of local artists in the galleries, then roam the green hills and gardens and have a vegetarian feast at Lentil as Anything; the restaurant run by volunteers where you pay what you feel the meal is worth.
Melbourne’s central community hub is, shall we say, divisive – its geometric design isn’t loved by all. But architecture aside, it’s always buzzing with events, screenings, talks, performances and activities. Whether it’s a weekend craft market, an exhibition at NGV Australia or a panel talk, you’re almost guaranteed to find something to pique your interest.
Did you know Melbourne has a hidden subway system? Sure, it's not as prolific as New York's, but many a Melburnian has unknowingly wandered into Flinders Street Station's Campbell Arcade and wondered what kind of bizarro underground world they've stumbled into. This subterranean secret dates back to 1956 and functions as part-thoroughfare and part-shopping precinct, home to a record shop, jewellery and women's clothing stores, a unisex hairdresser and a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop. With its salmon-pink tiled walls, black granite columns and Art Deco signage that has remained largely unchanged since the '50s, you'll feel as though you've time-warped back to the good old days.
It doesn’t get much more Melbourne than cheering on your favourite team at the ‘G, piping hot meat pie in one hand, cold beer in the other. But AFL isn’t the only thing that’ll get your blood pumping at the Melbourne Cricket Ground; as the name implies, cricket is the go during summer, and the fascinating National Sports Museum is open throughout the year.
Hear that? That’s the sound of glass cracking, as you stand in a glass box (known as the Edge) that extends three metres out of the 88th floor of Eureka Tower. Thankfully, the sound effects are fake – but the experience of seeing the city from the highest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere is truly mind-blowing. You can choose to brave the Edge for an extra $12, or stay safely on the Skydeck for $20. Either way, you won’t get a better view of the Melbourne anywhere else.