Australia's second city is a place of contradictions and hidden charms. A leafy, bayside community on the 'upside-down', brown Yarra River, it is cosmopolitan, suburban, cultivated, football crazy, conservative and a haven for the avant-garde. Visitors come for its shopping, restaurants, nightlife and sporting calendar, encouraging many Melburnians to believe that they live in one of the most civilised cities in the world.
Population: 3.4 million
Time: GMT/UTC +10
Telephone Area Code: 03
Melbourne's suburbs extend around the huge Port Phillip Bay, into the plains to the west and east and out to the foothills of the Dandenongs. With a population of over three million to house, this sprawl extends for more than 50km (30mi) from east to west and 70km (43mi) from north to south, covering a massive 1700 sq km (663 sq mi). This huge area of settlement has been necessitated by the dying but intractable goal of the Great Australian Dream - a detached home on a quarter-acre block, 2.5 children and two cars.
The city centre is about 3km (1.8mi) inland, on the north bank of the Yarra River. It consists of a mixture of elegant and kitsch 19th-century architecture and self-important skyscrapers. The main north-south artery is Swanston St, while Bourke (a pedestrian mall for part of its extent) and Collins Sts, which cross it, are the city's other two main shopping thoroughfares. The Yarra forms the city area's southern boundary. Melbourne is notoriously flat, but this lack of definition makes it an easy city to get around. Transport is also assisted by the network of trams - a mixture of characteristic old green-and-yellow rattlers and more modern pneumatic monsters. The city's airport, Tullamarine, is 22km (14mi) northwest of the city centre. The interstate train station (Spencer St) and the main metropolitan station (Flinders St) are both in the city centre, while the bus station is just to the centre's north.
Melbourne's excellent eating opportunities have been a welcome feature in the last few decades. They range from Chinatown in the city and Richmond's Victoria St (commonly known as 'Little Saigon') to the Italian fare of Carlton's Lygon St and the numerous cuisines available in Southgate in the city, Fitzroy's Brunswick St, Prahran's Chapel St, and Fitzroy and Acland Sts in St Kilda.
Melbourne's accommodation options are almost as varied as its cuisine. Bottom-end choices can be found in the city centre and in the nearby suburbs of North Melbourne, Carlton and Fitzroy. However, the beachside suburb of St Kilda is the budget accommodation centre. Good B&Bs, guesthouses and hotels can be found in the centre and in any of the inner suburbs - East Melbourne, Parkville, Carlton, South Yarra and, again, St Kilda. South Melbourne, East Melbourne and South Yarra are the best places to look for serviced apartments. Top-end hotels are to be found in the city centre. The best entertainment venues tend to be in the city centre, Fitzroy, South Yarra and St Kilda.
When to Go
Just about any time of year is a good one to visit, although summer is the most popular. Melbourne's climate has an unfortunate reputation: wet, windy, unpredictable and liable to extremes - very hot or very cold and often both on the same day! On the plus side, Melbourne's multitude of parks makes it a beautiful place to witness the changing seasons. It is rarely unbearably chilly - in winter the average temperature ranges between 6°C (43°F) and 13°C (55°F), the mercury rises above 35°C (95°F) only a few times each year and Melbourne's soggy reputation outstrips the reality - it receives only half the average rainfall of Sydney or Brisbane.
Although mystery surrounds many aspects of Australian prehistory, it seems certain that the first humans came here across the sea from Southeast Asia around 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. There were about 38 tribal groups living around Victoria when white people arrived. Aborigines were traditionally tribal people living in extended family groups and using the environment sustainably. It is believed that Aboriginal people were the first to make polished, edge-ground, stone tools, to cremate their dead and to engrave and paint representations of themselves and animals. Although their society was technologically simple, it was culturally sophisticated, using complex ceremonies which integrated religion, history, law, art and codes of behaviour.
Aboriginal people around Victoria resisted white settlement (which began in 1803), and although some settlements had to be abandoned, the original inhabitants were really just postponing the inevitable. Soon after settlement, the Aboriginal people had been dispossessed of their lands and massacred in their thousands. Estimates suggest that the pre-contact Victorian Aboriginal population was between 60,000 and 100,000. Between 1834 and 1860, this figure dropped from 15,000 to 2000, and by the 1880s there were just over 800 Aborigines left in the state.
Melbourne was established in 1835 by a group of Tasmanian entrepreneurs, and is the youngest city of its size in the world. Although the settlement was not named until 1837, its characteristic grid layout was imposed by military surveyor Robert Hoddle the same year, and by 1840 over 10,000 people had been attracted to the area. The colony of Victoria was formed in 1851, with Melbourne as its capital, neatly coinciding with the discovery of gold which swiftly and inexorably transformed them both.
Gold brought a huge influx of immigrants from around the world, and the wealth it generated created a city of extravagant proportions. In 30 years the designs of the city's architects, the skills of its many European tradespeople and the designation of large areas of the city for public parkland had established what was known as 'Marvellous Melbourne - the Paris of the Antipodes'. This progress was, however, temporarily halted in 1890 by the first of many devastating financial crashes which have afflicted the economically vulnerable city.
The ethnic mix of Melbourne's population has always been an important influence on the city's character: the Chinese and Irish diggers attracted by gold in the 19th century and the postwar arrival of refugees and migrants from all over Europe (particularly Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Poland) and more recently from Vietnam and Cambodia, have all contributed elements of their cultures to what could otherwise have been a conservative, passionless English society. These migrants have boosted Melbourne's population to 4 million and their influences are witnessed in Melbourne's robust and varied architecture, restaurants, festivals and entertainment.
After WWII, Melbourne went into a long period of stable conservative government, until the '80s, when the Labor party took office and the city hit boom times. Land prices just kept going up, and so did buildings, until 1990 when the whole thing fell in a heap. In 1992 radical conservative autocrat Jeff Kennett took the reins, provoking ire and admiration in seemingly equal doses. Under Kennett, Melbourne waved goodbye to social services and healthcare, and gave a hearty hello to the Grand Prix and the Crown Casino. Kennet's Liberal government was comprehensively ousted in 1999's state election, and a refurbished Labor party is now busily reinventing Victoria.