The soul of modern Melbourne can be found in the heart-shaped swirls on the surfaces of 100,000 lattes. Any visit to the southern hemisphere’s most vibrant and creative city should start with a double shot, preferably in a converted warehouse, down an unlikely alleyway, emblazoned with a two-storey rainbow of spraycan art.
This is Melbourne’s main aesthetic, but it is also effervescent and sophisticated, with ravishing white-iron lacework, lush parks, river gondolas and trams weaving their way through the city. Watching a classic movie alfresco after sunset at the Rooftop Cinema at Curtin House, while the Central Business District’s (CBD) skyscrapers twinkle and pulse neon, embodies the rare urban magic that’s quintessential Melbourne.
Artists thrive here, and in one of 100 old bare-board lofts in the city centre, fronted discreetly with a poster reading “Captains of Industry”, you can get a suit expertly tailored, order bespoke brogues and sip cappuccino, surrounded by vintage bikes and typewriters.
Melbourne’s café culture began in the 1920s at what is now Grossi Florentino. Then a bohemian hangout surrounded by brothels, today it is the most handsome and celebrated fine-dining Italian restaurant in the city, conveniently close to Parliament House (and Prada and Hermès). All of Melbourne’s modern cafés, in fact, have a different visual beat. The coffee at Brood Box, an urban art-space-cum-café in a laneway parallel to Captains of Industry, is made by a barista working from a customised caravan. Further out of town, fast-gentrifying suburbs such as Brunswick now boast huge, high-design coffee houses.
An unexpected highlight of a trip to these cafés is in the bathroom, where visitors are likely to find Aesop handwash and moisturiser. This is the superlative skincare line’s hometown, and in a city that loves all things local, it’s a proud phenomenon. Every morning, the South Yarra branch of Aesop offers 75-minute vitamin C facials – a rare opportunity to get the brand’s full experience.
The monochrome Aesop style could be a manifesto for Melbourne design as a whole. Some think that the city’s love of head-to-toe black began with the widows of Greek émigrés, but the racks at the most directional and exciting boutiques tell a different story. This aggressively modern wardrobe has not so much trickled as cascaded down from the avant-garde Japanese. Eastern Market, for instance, is the place for intellectual, luxe deconstruction, featuring clothes by Sydney-based designer Alistair Trung, Tatsuro Horikawa’s Julius label, and jewellery incorporating elements of taxidermy by local designer Julia deVille. Chiodo, in a vast concrete bunker in the CBD, stocks some of the key Comme des Garçons collections, but also Chiodo-labelled shirts that share a dialogue with the Comme des Garçons range – quirky contrasts, pattern and adornment. The ties, made from antique black kimonos, are particularly beautiful.
But the most interesting clothing can be found a short walk away, in Fitzroy. Ess Laboratory is a label with a chic monochrome palette and a penchant for asymmetry, while the star attraction at gallery-styled The Signet Bureau is the highly sculptural range of women’s shoes by Preston Zly, the store’s co-owners.
For art of the literal kind, head out to the dramatic rusted-container building of the ACCA, a modern exhibition space that has hosted shows by Tacita Dean, Jenny Holzer and Richard Billingham. Then go back to the CBD, to Hosier Lane. Hosier may feel impossibly offbeat, but its twists and turns are the essence of the city. This is embodied by Until Never, a small gallery that punches above its weight with some of the most influential emerging street-founded art in the world. Also on Hosier is MoVida, many a Melburnian’s default destination for irresistible tapas. Dinner here usually sees a mix of businessmen, artisans and creatives. It’s a typically democratic mix – hip but sophisticated, and serious about its food.
For a flirtatious, molecularly inclined venue, go to Vue du Monde, Melbourne’s de facto Very Special Occasion restaurant. Lab beakers are sometimes used to serve reductions and sauces, but at heart this is a serious French kitchen. Beef comes with Roquefort ravioli; truffle risotto is diffused with a Barbadillo dry sherry. Follow with what they call the deconstructed cheesecake with raspberry bubbles. This is food as the most memorable kind of theatre, but with genuine depth.
Over on the Southbank, The Crown hotel complex has done as much to invigorate the city’s dining scene as it has to raise the quality bar for luxury hotels. Taking a card from the Vegas model, it has put some of the very best restaurants in the city – including the Japanese Koko and Neil Perry’s flawless steakhouse Rockpool Bar & Grill – under the same roof as the suites in the Crown Towers and its new, more contemporary sibling, the Crown Metropol. The Metropol has a branch of Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, as well as a new attraction for the city: a dazzling glass-box roof pool deck.
Across the CBD, Park Hyatt Melbourne remains the most sophisticated superstar property in town, with incredible views from its club floor at sunset cocktail hour and the brand’s signature sleek décor, but with notably more opulent touches than are found at its other hotels.
Meanwhile, the smartest and most service-oriented boutique hotel in the city, The Lyall, appeals on many levels, not least for its excellent situation in manicured, leafy South Yarra. On a sunny Sunday, one could do far worse than stroll along the avenues, buying a picnic at the gourmet Prahran Market and heading to the Botanic Gardens to sit and admire the black swans.
The other contender for top Sunday-lunch spot is Cutler & Co in Fitzroy, a fixture for the city’s immaculately coiffed noir-clad ladies. The room is a high-tech, high-gloss spin on industrial derelict: huge, airy, lit by metallic cloud-shaped fittings, with walls bare or partially sprayed black. The delicious Sunday menu is just the right side of unusual, its highlight a set platter of taster dishes, with ocean trout toast, pressed pork and boiled pullet egg among the standouts.
If you prebook a visit to the Lyon Housemuseum, you won’t regret it. Part radical modern suburban family home, part gallery, all architectural marvel, it houses architect Corbett Lyon and his wife Yueji’s contemporary art collection and is open for intimate guided tours.
If the Lyon Housemuseum is a temple to slick modernity, the Immigration Museum is a chapel for the past, illustrating Australia’s short history as a country through the moving life stories of its inhabitants. An authentic recreation of the kind of ship’s cabin used for the epic voyage from the Old World in the 19th century is claustrophobically minuscule.
To delve further into Australian history, head to Birrarung Marr, next to Federation Square. Melbourne’s newest park incorporates Aboriginal traditions, with animal pictograms carved on rocks and a winding pathway representing the eels that were significant to the Kulin Nation people who once fished the nearby Yarra River. ArtPlay, a child-orientated theatre and community centre in the park, features touch-sensitive plaques that play recordings of indigenous people telling the stories of their cultures.
Though Melbourne revels in its urbanity, it’s still at heart a beach town. You therefore can’t leave without taking the tram to St Kilda and the ocean. This has always been a rock’n’roll, bohemian stretch: Luna Park, with its macabre clown-face façade and rollercoaster, is nearing its centenary, and live music still dominates.
Check in at The Prince; the exterior is a breezy, seaside, art-deco delight, while inside you’ll find stark white-on-white bedrooms and one of the very best restaurants in Australia – Circa. Its pressed octopus and Angus and Wagyu steaks stand out on a self-assured menu.
St Kilda is also home to Café di Stasio, which has the feel of a private dining club. The food (particularly the ravioli and the slow-cooked dishes) is of that superlative high-comfort style that only the very best Italian can provide. Look up to see a palimpsest of splash marks across the ceiling; patron Rinaldo di Stasio is renowned for his exuberant way with a champagne bottle. The waiters are white-jacketed, the walls distressed, the diners deep in conversation. And after dinner, the coffee will, of course, be absolutely perfect.