Melbourne again

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 51, Summer 2017

Page 60

Sydney, watch out, says Bruce Palling. The world's 'most liveable city' is now the creative heart of Australia too

Sydney and Melbourne have a life-long rivalry: the former is considered a sun-drenched hedonist, the latter a frumpish maiden aunt. It is no coincidence that both Barry Humphries and his suburban alter ego Dame Edna Everage are Melburnians. When I was growing up there in the Sixties, Melbourne's prudery was stultifying: a copy of Michelangelo's David required a strategically located fig leaf before it could be put on public display. Anglophilia had deep roots – Melbourne's Victorian era Fitzroy Gardens were laid out using the Union Jack as a template.

Despite its prudish past, Melbourne has been playing serious catch-up. It now arguably offers more than Sydney in the way of café culture, cuisine and the arts. And then there are the international events – the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Open, the Grand Prix and, earlier this year, the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards.

One excellent development is that public transport within the CBD (Central Business District) is now free, so anyone can catch the scores of trams and buses there. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is set in two locations. The original one, along St Kilda Road, now houses the international collection and is Australia's pre-eminent state gallery, with one of the largest collections anywhere of William Blake. Then, opposite Flinders Street Station, Federation Square is the site of the Ian Potter Centre, home to the NGV's collection of Australian art, as well as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and theatres. It's an eight-acre site that revitalised Melbourne, drawing together the city and the Yarra River, with the large parklands and botanical gardens beyond. This zone also includes Melbourne's opera house and concert hall.

The best place to start exploring what is happening in the arts is in and around Flinders Lane, now the hippest and most creative part of town. Arc One Gallery, which opened at the turn of this century, represents some of Australia's leading artists (Janet Laurence, Robert Owen, Imants Tillers) and international stars like Guo Jian.

Just down the hill is Anna Schwartz Gallery, a fixture for more than three decades. It focuses on a wide range of conceptual and post-conceptual artists, among them international names such as Joseph Kosuth and Jenny Watson, an Australian who works in Europe. The city has been described as the world capital of street art: many of the best graffiti-inspired works can be found along Hosier Lane, which intersects with Flinders Lane, with some pieces by Banksy among them. Even the footpaths and rubbish bins are part of the act. Just around the corner from Flinders Lane is the Tolarno Gallery, which started life in the Sixties in bohemian St Kilda, where it showed major Australian art, not least Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly series. Its current show is from Brook Andrew, a prominent Aboriginal artist, who also has a major exhibition at the NGV called The Right to Offend is Sacred.

There is far more to Melbourne than its artistic core, which is perhaps why it has been awarded the World's Most Liveable City accolade by The Economist Intelligence Unit for the past seven years. The architecture is a blend of Victorian landmarks from the Gold Rush and contemporary buildings. A policy of keeping skyscrapers back from street level also adds to a sense of harmony in the CBD. There are plenty of stylish streets: the sophisticated shops along Toorak Road in South Yarra, the strong Italian heritage of Lygon Street in Carlton, the art galleries on Fitzroy's Gertrude Street and the local market on Commercial Road in Prahran are particular favourites. South Melbourne Market and Victoria Market are also superb, with the latter the biggest of them all. It was a long-standing tradition when I lived here to walk down to Victoria Market just before dawn on a Saturday morning to purchase the fruit, vegetables and fish shortly after they arrived. All of these destinations can be reached on the highly efficient tram system, again typical of Melbourne.

Another aspect of Melbourne that has altered dramatically in my nearly half-century absence is the contribution of immigrants from around the globe. In my time, the majority were British, Greek, Lebanese and Italian, who made their mark by eradicating the culinary wasteland that existed prior to their arrival. Nowadays, the Vietnamese surname Nguyen is the second most common in the Melbourne telephone book after Smith, sizable numbers of Indians and Sri Lankans have settled in the city, and there is a new wave of affluent Chinese. Melbourne may be the most European of antipodean cities, but its casualness and openness are distinctly Australian. It's worth more than a detour.

Bruce Palling began his career on the Melbourne Age. He now writes on food and travel for Newsweek.

Where to stay

Melbourne's best accommodation is around Collins Street or Flinders Lane, or on the banks of the Yarra at Southbank. The Grand Hyatt Hotel ( is the best of the city's international hotels, at the 'Paris End' of Collins Street. It is virtually walking distance to the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground), Australia's most famous sports stadium, which also hosts Australian Rules Football. Just around the corner from the Hyatt in Flinders Lane, The Adelphi ( couldn't be more different. Opened more than 30 years ago, it has only 34 rooms and suites, in 'warehouse chic' style. It boasts of being Australia's first 'dessert hotel', which means the puddings are very special, and has a swimming pool with a glass bottom that juts out from the roof. The other, slightly larger design hotel worth considering is the QT Hotel ( [pictured top], a converted cinema near the corner of Bourke and Russell Streets. Corner suites have baths overlooking the street and there is a rooftop bar [pictured above]. Several leading restaurants are a walk away. In the Southbank Complex, close to the National Gallery of Victoria, is the five-star Langham (, with nearly 400 rooms and suites. It has spectacular views and an indoor pool.

Where to eat

Melbourne offers a huge range of restaurants, pubs and bars, many of them world-class. The most talked about is Attica (, one of only two Australian entries on the World's Top 50 restaurants list. Chef Ben Shewry creates masterful dishes from foraged ingredients.[pictured below]. For a more laid-back experience in bohemian Fitzroy, Cutler & Co. ( is superb, with classical yet contemporary cuisine and effortless service. Owner Andrew McConnell has a string of other establishments in Melbourne, including Cumulus (, a hip all-day place in Flinders Lane, below Arc One Gallery. With its open kitchen and simple industrial décor, Cumulus would be at home in the Lower East Side or Shoreditch. At the top of Bourke Street, near the Houses of Parliament, is Grossi Florentino (, one of the oldest Italian restaurants in the city, with a relaxing ground-floor bistro and fine dining above. The best Chinese food anywhere south of the equator is at The Flower Drum (, with outstanding Cantonese cuisine. B.P.

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