Three days was just enough to scratch the surface of Melbourne. I rolled in on an overnight bus from Canberra to a city waking up. As I hiked through the empty streets, the lights blinking off as the sun rose, Melbourne immediately presented itself as a viable rival to my new love, Sydney.
What I find most surprising is the two cities present different and complementary identities to the short-term visitor. Sydney is a beautiful, with spectacular architecture and a stunning natural setting. Melbourne, in contrast, straddles a river and presents itself as a rather plain and undistinguished metropolis.
But under that plain exterior lies a city with heart. As much as I love Sydney, Melbourne has real character, a relaxed and confident city bursting with charm. Whereas Sydney felt like a city hurtling toward the future, Melbourne seems content to just be itself. And it’s got no shortage of confidence.
The last thing I did in Canberra was connect with a friend of a friend. I got in touch with Belinda through Elisa, my high school girlfriend, and she brought her daughters, Izzy and Maddie, to dinner. After dinner, we drove the Ainsley lookout for the view of Canberra from above. Clouds were plentiful, but not enough to diminish the experience. And I beat Maddie twice in a race up and down the stairs at the lookout (she’s only 7, and I’m fast!).
With elevation in mind, the first thing I did in Melbourne was visit the observation deck on the 55th floor of the Rialto Tower. Spoiled by the Empire State Building and even the Ainsley lookout, the Rialto was a bit of a disappointment. But getting the lay of the land is a great way to start any visit and it was nice to get the elevation.
The rest of the day was spent exploring. Downtown Melbourne is very walkable, with alleys and lanes to get lost in and cafes and restaurants around every corner. Coffee is popular here, and sidewalks are dotted left and right with tables. With the temperatures hovering between scorching and hellish (Melbourne is in the midst of a massive drought), I was not in the mood for coffee. There’s a bit of Parisian sidewalk café here.
Day two in Melbourne, I hopped one of the city trams for a trip to the seaside neighborhood of St. Kilda. What I hoped would be a funky place to relax turned out to be a bit depressing. Score one for Sydney and its beaches. Melbourne’s beach reminded me of being in New Jersey. ‘Nuff said.
The evening’s fare was much better. Anyone who knows me knows I’m crazy about moving pictures. I embrace any chance to see movies, and Melbourne delivered with Open-Air Cinema, a huge outdoor theater downtown by the Yarra river. An afternoon of rain threatened to turn the night into a soggy experience, but as I walked from Federation Square to the cinema, the rain started to let up and a rainbow arched over the river. I reserved a primo seat for myself, bought at beer at one of the food stalls and read my complimentary copy of The Age (for $21 a ticket, at least there was a free newspaper!). The film was the Australian premiere of “Notes on a Scandal” – superb performances from Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (my new favorite actress), but I felt let down by the third act. Still, the setting was amazing and the evening a success.
My final morning in Melbourne was spent tying up loose ends concerning the rest of my time here in Australia. The country is massive, with enormous distances between destinations, and while I came here hoping I could cover it on the ground, I quickly realized I would have to take a few flights. It’s all settled now and my itinerary has been set for the rest of the trip. The short version is I fly to Bali on April 9.
With business taken care of, I took off walking again. My first stop was Lygon Street, an old Italian section of the city offering pasta, espresso and gelato. I headed straight for the caramelized fig gelato, which wasn’t figgy enough for my taste. The second scoop was macadamia nut, which was nutty and good.
Next up was Brunswick Street, which is the real deal, a truly funky collection of restaurants, vintage clothing stores, bars and nightclubs and cafes, with no franchises in site. Anyone who loves shopping would love Melbourne. I'm no shopper, but even I was drawn into stores by intriguing window displays and original merchandise. I even bought some Earl Grey tea from a really nice local store called T2.
Meandering under the hot sun was taking its toll, so I ducked into a promising place called Bimbo’s, where the lunch special was $4 pizzas. My Agnello pie was piled with spicy minced lamb, pine nuts, rocket and sultanas. Rocket is lettuce and sultanas are raisins – now I know. For a beverage, I had seen the bartender pouring something with a color between ginger ale and beer. It turned out to be something called Lemon Lime Bitters, which I assume is a sugary blend of lemon and lime and bitters. I am a huge fan of lemonade, and this hit the spot. I drank two.
So now I sit here at E:fiftyfive taking advantage of unlimited wireless internet. It’s Valentine’s Day, so the place is rather busy, but still low-key. I leave tomorrow for a three-day trip along the Great Ocean Road. The road is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Can it beat Highway 1 on the California coast? I'll let you know Sunday night from Adelaide.
Flickr Photo Set: Sydney to Melbourne (116 photos)