Standing on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, I am lost in the timeless vibe that encapsulates the very essence of the Victorian capital. The city located on the “lands of the Kulin Nation” was called Naarm by the First People of Australia and the “ever-flowing” Yarra River called Birrarung was their lifeline.
Melbourne’s story however begins a couple of centuries ago as a colonial riverine settlement and it now unfolds into a vibrant tapestry of arts, architecture, traditions, and culture.
From being the cultural heartbeat of Australia to being the sports capital and the coffee country, Melbourne offers a mosaic of experiences at museums, markets, stadiums and gardens. But the heart of Melbourne lies in its labyrinthine lanes, teeming with colourful street art as cafes and restaurants jostle for space.
For those seeking a dash of adventure and romance, there are day trips to islands and valleys where you can spot wildlife, go on a cruise or a coastal road trip, take a cable car ride and even become a gold digger. Add thermal baths and wine tasting with a dash of wellness to your holiday plans. If you are heading to the eclectic Victorian city, here is a list of some of the best things to do in Melbourne for some travel inspiration.
Best time to visit Melbourne
Melbourne is thronged by tourists throughout the year and it is always buzzing with life. The high tourist season is around December to February when you can enjoy a summery Christmas and partake in sporting events and music festivals. Do note that temperatures can soar beyond 40 degrees Celsius as well.
While winter is usually considered the low season, Melbourne invites tourists between June and August with a slew of specially curated events. The shoulder season is from March to May and September to October when you can avoid the crowds.
Best things to do in Melbourne
Best free thing to do in Melbourne: Go on a joyride in the City Circle Tram
Start your journey in Melbourne with a fun and free joy ride on the City Circle Tram. The iconic burgundy W Class Route No 35 starts from the Waterfront City and heads to the Central Business District as you go past Docklands and Harbour Esplanade towards La Trobe and Nicholson Streets before entering Spring Street and the main Flinders Street.
Running in both directions every 15 minutes, for a duration of an hour, the trams are the perfect way to acquaint yourself with the Victorian capital. Hop on and hop off or sit in the cosy seats and listen to the stories and soak in the journey.
Best fun thing to do in Melbourne: Lose yourself in the colourful laneways
The best way to have fun in Melbourne is to literally get lost in the maze of lanes which burst into a kaleidoscopic display of graffiti and are splashed with spray-painted murals. Melbourne was created as a grid (Hoddle Grid) of tiny lanes that crisscross the city and are buzzing with boutique bars, fine dining restaurants, hole-in-the-wall cafés and is a treasure trove of trinkets and trivia. But it is the colourful display on the walls that blinds you.
Head to the cobblestoned Hosier Lane- the Practise Alley where artists give free rein to their imagination. Then visit the AC/DC lane to celebrate Australian rockstars as music and art blend to create a riot of colours. Don’t miss Presgrave Place, Meyers Place, and Duckboard Place for vivid murals and graffiti. While there are over 40 lanes take some time out to go to Royal Arcade where you get a slice of the Victorian era.
Best cultural thing to do in Melbourne: Go museum hopping and visit art galleries
There are over 100 art galleries and museums in Melbourne, but the oldest with two distinct wings is the National Gallery of Victoria. The first thing you notice when you enter the massive NGV is the translucent water wall. The international wing houses over 70,000 artworks from ancient artefacts to contemporary works.
One of the iconic paintings is Picasso’s Weeping Woman which went missing during an art heist and you can even see a self-portrait of Rembrandt. For Australian art, head to the second wing at Federation Square to the Ian Potter Centre. While you are there do not miss the Koorie Heritage Trust which celebrates the culture of the First People of South-Eastern Australia. A little further away is the ACMI or Australian Centre for Moving Image. Melbourne Museum is further away.
Best thing to do with family and kids: Get nostalgic with the Puffing Billy Train
Soak in the nostalgia and become a bit of a time traveller as you board the charming Puffing Billy, the oldest heritage steam train. Chug along the forested tracts of Dandenong Ranges, sitting on the sill of the open carriage, with your legs dangled as you take in the scenery. As the train toots its way through the rainforests, look out for the crossing on the wooden Monbulk Creek Trestle Bridge that seems straight out of a fairy tale.
There are several routes from Belgrave which is just 50 km from Melbourne but the most popular is the three-hour return journey or an hour-long joyride to Lakeside. There are special trains as well including the Train of Lights for magical winter nights and a Dog Express for pets.
Best thing to do for couples: Soak in the warmth of thermal baths
Set against a backdrop of rolling hills and verdant bush landscapes, this is a perfect romantic and therapeutic escape into nature. Soak in the herbal-infused thermal baths, filled with rich natural minerals at Alba Thermal Springs and Spa. There are 32 pools nestled amidst forests and gardens and even a couple of private baths on the rooftop and terrace.
Don’t miss the vortex pools that shower rain and immerse yourselves in the lunar pool or watch the crimson hues from the sunset pool. If this is not romantic enough, then pamper yourselves with massages and spa treatments. At the restaurant Thyme, the dishes are prepared with locally sourced seasonal produce. Located in Mornington Peninsula, it is about an hour’s drive from Melbourne.
Best thing for nature lovers: Watch the adorable Penguin Parade at Phillip Island
As the stars shine down and the sea breeze caresses your face, prepare for one of the most surreal spectacles in Phillip Island, just 90 minutes from Melbourne. Stand on the viewing platform or at the boardwalk on the seashore and watch the tiny penguins, donning white and blue feathers, waddle their way from the ocean to the land.
As the skies darken, little colonies huddle together in a flock called “rafts” and then they slowly totter around, waiting for a call from a partner as they head to their burrows to breed or to raise their young. You can watch this Penguin Parade which happens every evening sunset from any of the grandstands or even from underground hides, especially during winters. There are also guided tours here at night with rangers.
Best thing for adventure/thrill seekers: Float with the clouds in a hot air balloon
There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing dawn break over a verdant valley of vineyards, surrounded by mountains, spotting wildlife as the Yarra River flows below you. Float over the scenic Yarra Valley from a hot air balloon and lose yourself in the breathtaking vistas. The flight is about an hour as you glide with the wind.
There are hot air balloon rides in Melbourne as well where you can soar over the Victorian capital at sunrise. Enjoy the picturesque views of the serene Yarra flowing amidst the towering skyscrapers as you feast your eyes on the landmarks like MCG and Shrine of Remembrance, amidst other landmarks. The balloon rides also culminate in a gourmet breakfast with a glass of champagne. While there are several operators, it is important to check the weather conditions the day before you book your flight.
Best thing to do at night: Let your hair down in the lively bars
Melbourne is a lively pulsating city by night and is teeming with corner pubs and bars, nightclubs and discotheques, Alfredo dining and fine dining restaurants. All roads lead to the laneways, where you will find an eclectic mix of quirky hidden bars, housed in a basement or tucked away on a rooftop in an alley. Head to Section 8, known for its street art decor and epic dance parties, located off Tattersalls Lane.
Her Bar is a beautiful and warm watering hole and is a four-storey venue with a restaurant as well. Tucked away in the Flinders Street precinct is the cocktail bar, Eau De Vie with the 1920s vibe. You can also do more bar hopping and head to Little Lon, Troika, Beneath Driver’s Lane, Nick and Nora, Gin Palace, and Union Electric among others in the laneways.
Best thing to do in summer: Go wine tasting at Yarra Valley
On a beautiful warm sunny day, go on a heady escape to the lush vineyards of Yarra Valley for some wine tasting. There are over 80 wineries here and while Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the headliners, you must try the Shiraz here. Most of the estates are family-run boutique wineries and while you are here, visit some of the cellar doors for tastings.
Head to Dominique Portet winery which was established a couple of decades ago by the 9th-generation winemaker from Bordeaux. Coombe Yaara Estate combines old-world charm and heritage and is the home of the renowned Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba and is a fascinating gourmet destination also serving regional wines. Domaine Chandon is known for its iconic sparkling wines.
Yering Station is one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Don’t miss the delicious farm-to-plate lunch at Oakridge Wines. TarraWarra Estate on a hilltop is a destination by itself known for its art museum. While you are here, don’t miss the Healesville Sanctuary which houses over 1,500 rescued animals and even has a hospital.
Best thing to do in winter: Wake up and smell the coffee
In Melbourne, coffee is not just a beverage but an emotion. There are cafes in every nook as Melbourne is known for innovative roasters and lively baristas who are always trying a new brew and have transformed coffee into art. When the temperature drops, snuggle into one of these cosy cafes and enjoy a cup of speciality coffee.
Head to the lively Brother Baba Budan Cafe which serves the expresso blend from the roastery Seven Seeds along with customised single-origin coffee as well. Patricia Coffee Brewers and Industry Beans are roasteries and cafes which are always buzzing.
While Market Lane is a chain of cafes, you can even learn a bit of coffee appreciation at Sensory Lab. Right next to Proud Mary Coffee Roasters is Aunty Peg’s which is popular among caffeine addicts for pure black coffee. And for a taste of Melbourne’s original coffee brews, head to St Ali Cafe.
(Hero image credit: David Billings/Unsplash, feature image credit: Jesse G-C/Unsplash)
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
– What are the best cultural places to visit in Melbourne?
You can visit the National Art Gallery – the International Wing with over 70,000 artefacts. The second wing is at the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square. You can also see Aboriginal art and culture and learn more about the First People of Australia at the Koorie Heritage Trust. Also, don’t miss the Australian Centre for The Moving Image dedicated to films.
– What are the best beaches to visit in Melbourne?
Head to St Kilda but the most iconic is Brighton Beach known for the colourful 80 Brighton Boxes on the beach. Willy or Williamstown Beach is another favourite while Half Moon Beach is secluded. Sorrento Beach outside Melbourne is one of the best beaches as well.
– What are the best cruise ships from Melbourne?
Cruise ships embark and disembark from Station Pier in Melbourne. You can sail to New Zealand or Fiji or sail along the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean and even visit islands around Victoria and South Australia. Some of the best cruise ships are Princess Cruises, Virgin Voyages, Cunard Line, P&O Cruises, and Celebrity Cruises among others.
– What are the best things to buy in Melbourne?
Besides souvenirs, you can buy cheese, chocolates, wine, and local art including boomerangs, opals, cosmetics, shoes and boots.
– What are the best adventures to take in Melbourne?
You can go on a hot air balloon ride and even try skydiving You can also snorkel, surf, kayak and even go ice skating in winter.