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Often compared to San Francisco without the fog, just halfway through my trip, I realized that San Francisco was really Melbourne with fog. The southern port city of Melbourne has grown to become Australia’s food and wine capital, drawing on the abundant local produce and seafood, an ethnically diverse population and wine regions that are less than an hour’s drive away.
From the original British settlers in the 1830’s, Melbourne became a haven for immigrants from Europe and the Middle East post WWII, and then Asia in the 1960’s under skilled migrants, student and political refugee programs. Today in the city of Melbourne, 44% of residents are born abroad representing more than 140 nations. It is this cultural diversity that is the driving today’s exciting food scene.
This ethnic diversity is striking when one visits central Melbourne, a vibrant and youthful city where elegant Victorian Gothic architecture blends seamlessly with modern skyscrapers. It is one of the most well-planned grid cities designed in the 1830’s by Robert Hoddle, with wide 30-feet avenues lined with shady plane trees connected by charming laneways and covered arcades. It is a city that is meant to be walked and explored.
The city centre is a compact rectangle marked by a free City Circle tram that is also easy to walk and navigate. Get a sense for older Melbourne by walking the Collins Street environs and the Golden Mile – a trail marking the city’s historic institutions such as the Gothic Bank. Explore the city’s uncovered laneways which provide an intimate network to the city’s grand avenues for some of the best alfresco cafe, trendy bar and shopping options such as on Degraves Street or Centre Place, or for colorful street art on Hosier Lane. There are seven shopping arcades between Elizabeth and Swanston Streets, with entry off Little Collins, the most distinctive being the 19th century European-style Block Arcade and Royal Arcade with their mosaic floors and skylights. The heart of Chinatown district, with origins from the 1850’s, is on Little Bourke St.
At the southern end of the city centre is the beautiful Yarra River and just beyond, the Southbank, a short pedestrian bridge away for more hotels, restaurants and shops. Also just south of Yarra River is the Royal Botanical Garden – 38 hectares of lush, tranquil formal gardens created in 1846. A popular running venue for Melbourners and visitors alike is the “Tan” track, a wide loop encircling the botanical gardens with just one uphill segment.
Melbourne loves its festivals so check the tourism site for performances and fairs going on when you’re in town. But the best thing about Melbourne, like San Francisco, is the vibrant food and wine scene and its proximity to world-class chardonnay and pinot noir wine regions. You can experience the best of Melbourne dining and learn to create the dishes during the annual Melbourne Food & Wine Festival in March.
Where to stay
If you spend all your time in the city centre, you can stay almost anywhere and be within walking distance of where you want to go. Melbourne is abundant with boutique, luxury and chain hotels, as well as very nice convenience apartments, which you can peruse here. I stayed at the Langham on the Southbank and found it couldn’t have been a better location being a little more quiet and closer to the Tan track for jogging. The hotel even gave me a tag to wear around my neck with a map of the Tan and the hotel, but I didn’t need it.
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