Melbourne is a tricky place for a tourist, as there are few flashy tourist attractions and a visitor usually has to spend weeks or months to really get under the place’s skin.
If you happen to be visiting Melbourne and Google what to do, you’ll be met with a dizzying array of highly repetitive suggestions. The spirit of plagiarism is alive and well on the internet, which helps to explain why so many of these listicles seem identical.
What’s worse, they’re often wrong. Oh, all of the things that are listed do exist, but they’re actually not the best that Melbourne has to offer. They’re tacky, pointless, boring, over-exposed or simply not what living in this city is all about.
Therefore, here is a list of Melbourne attractions to avoid and some more useful alternatives. No doubt there will be people who disagree with my list (it’s the internet, after all!) but I hope I can add a few options to the usual checklists with which visitors arrive. My suggestions all have a local, non tourist-orientated bias. That means that if you’re the kind of visitor who goes to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and then go shopping, this probably isn’t for you. But if you take an apartment in Montmartre, stay for a month and walk everywhere, you are certain to find something to love below.
- Avoid: Degraves Street and Hosier Lane
- Seek out: Literally any other street or back alley in the CBD.
Degraves street is a small pedestrianised alley in the south end of the Central Business District. It’s full of cafes and is constantly bustling. Hosier Lane is about ten minutes walk away and is a permanent open air graffiti gallery which is constantly changing. So far, so good.
However as anyone who has spent time in the City will tell you, these attractions are not unique to these streets. But they tend to crop up on “best-of” lists, meaning that there are more tourists than locals and it’s hard work not being caught in someone else’s selfie.
Melbourne is chock-full of little back alleys that have delightful hipster eateries and odd street art. Truly, they’re everywhere. You just have to hunt.
Try this: whatever road you’re on, walk in a straight line, then take the two next left turns you come across. Look up. BAM – street art. Look to the side. BAM – a boutique coffee shop. Drink a coffee, take a photo and repeat. Don’t be afraid to explore.
- Avoid: Flinders St Station
- Seek Out: Royal Exhibition Buildings
Flinders Street Station is the main transport hub for the city, and is dominated by a giant yellow-and-burgundy building which seems to be constantly under repairs. It’s not bad for a photo, but like all train stations it’s dirty and is mainly used by people who are trying to get somewhere. Most of the interesting parts of the building are inaccessible, so unless you’re taking a train, make your visit brief.
Instead, catch a tram up to the Carlton Gardens where the Royal Exhibition Building is situated. This is a gigantic domed structure which was constructed in the 1880s when Melbourne was just making its name. Dramatic from the outside, if you time it right you might also be able to join one of the free tours run by the nearby Melbourne Museum. The inside is just as ornate and is a fascinating insight into the world 140 years ago. The whole site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is something of an overlooked gem in my opinion.
- Avoid: Fitzroy
- Seek out: Northcote and Thornbury
Fitzroy became famous thirty years ago as a haven for artists and other creative types, and a thriving cafe and arts scene grew up around Brunswick Street. However nowadays the area is profoundly gentrified and is increasingly becoming a party destination. It still has its charms, but if you’re looking for the weird and alternative, jump on the tram towards Northcote and Thornbury.
To be fair, Northcote and Thornbury are also pretty gentrified. But they don’t have the human-zoo feeling that Fitzroy has. The further north up High St you go, the more ratty and fringe the shops get. You’ll find weird little cafes and drinking holes, restaurants of all shapes and sizes, and an arty/ethnic/hipster feel all around. Stick your nose over someone’s fence and check out their organic vegetable garden. Listen in to people arguing alternative politics in a cafe. Then go and have a beer and see a band at the Northcote Social Club.
- Avoid – St Kilda
- Seek out – Elwood
St Kilda. Ugh.
Well known as a bohemian beachside suburb, St Kilda was my home for several years. I rubbed shoulders with junkies and Jersey Shore types alike. However on my recent visits I’ve noticed an increased culture of violence and alcoholism, combined with the fact that St Kilda appears to contain every single British and Irish backpacker who has ever got on a plane.
Seriously. The place is heaving. Innit.
If getting smashed and having a fight on the beach aren’t your idea of fun, move one suburb down the coast and enjoy the tranquility of Elwood. The beaches are just as good, but they’re not full of preening backpackers and there’s a friendly commmunity vibe. Wander inland and you’ll be surrounded by cute 1930s Art Deco apartments in tree-lined streets and comfortable local cafes and drinking establishments.
- Avoid – The Queen Victoria Market
- Seek out – South Melbourne or Prahran Markets
The Queen Vic Market seems to be on many tourists’ agendas, and I honestly have no idea why. It’s smack in the middle of the CBD, so there aren’t really local customers. There’s plenty of food available, but it’s crowded and unfriendly (the Turkish borek stall is an exception). Outside of the food hall, it’s just row upon row of bored vendors selling cheap and nasty tourist trinkets to the Chinese package tourists. Don’t waste your time.
Instead, try visiting the South Melbourne or Prahran markets. Both of these are close to the city and easily accessible, and both are frequented mainly by locals. It’s at these kind of places that you’re likely to get into a conversation about cheese with a stallholder, or find some weird amulet that you can’t live without. Eating (South Melbourne Dim Sims) and coffee options (Market Lane Coffee in Prahran) are everywhere. Afterwards you can explore the local neighbourhoods on foot to get a taste of inner-Melbourne suburban life.
- Avoid – The Yarra Valley
- Seek out – Mornington Peninsula
The Yarra Valley is about an hour’s drive from central Melbourne, and is known chiefly for its wineries (of which there are many). The wine is fine, I suppose. It’s not tremendously picturesque, but it’s not awful either. If you arrange a tour or convince someone else to do the driving, you could spend an excellent day travelling from cellar door to cellar door, becoming gradually less discerning as you go.
However, I’d suggest you head south, to the Mornington Peninsula. It’s roughly the same distance, but it has better wineries (in my view – especially the Pinot Noir), more other activities, and you can easily sleep off your drunken stupour on one of a number of nearby beaches. The small towns in the area are quite charming and all are a convenient place to stop off for a feed.
Just don’t go during the school holidays! The entire peninsula is a holiday getaway for harried families over summer.
The Great Ocean Road is fantastic if you want views of the Southern Ocean smashing against rocks and fertile hillsides. But you’ll also be spending a lot of time looking out of one side of your car (not much fun for the driver), and the frequent twists and turns are not kind to those who suffer from motion sickness.
Instead, consider going the other direction and staying on Phillip Island for a couple of days. The south coast is rugged and scenic (and surfable), but the North coast is sheltered and safe, and totally suitable for families. There are numerous accommodation options, and if seaside views get boring you could always go and see the penguins come ashore at night or the koala sanctuary inland. No motion sickness is anticipated.
- Avoid – Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo
- Seek out – Healesville Sanctuary
If wildlife is your thing, Melbourne Zoo in Parkville and the Open Range Zoo in Werribee are both great. But let’s get real for a moment – you’re in Australia. Why are you going to see African animals?
Instead, drive out to scenic Healesville, 80-90 minutes from Melbourne, and visit the Healesville Sanctuary. Apart from being a profoundly relaxing and soothing place, you’ll be able to see nearly every single type of native animal from Southern Australia, as well as some from the tropics as well. When you’ve had enough, go to the Four Pillars Distillery in the town and partake of some liquid libations.
Visitors, I hope you’ve found a couple of sights here that pique your interest. Melbourne isn’t a very tourist-orientated town, so it’s easy and rewarding to step away from the “must see” sights.
Melburnians, tell me: What have I missed or gravely misrepresented?