Population-wise, Melbourne is Australia's second-biggest city after Sydney, with almost five million inhabitants. In the next few years, however, Melbourne is set to surpass Sydney as the city grows – visible in the construction of massive high-rise apartment towers in and around the city center. Located in the state of Victoria, Melbourne sits in the continent's southeastern corner.
While it's a little less internationally known than Sydney, those in the know are well aware of Melbourne's coolness. It's a vibe that is open and transparent, yet can also be underground and hidden. For example, the numerous bars, cafes and street art murals within its downtown obscure downtown laneways. The city's art and cultural scene is vibrant, with daily events and annual film festivals.
Melbourne is also famous for its coffee, by the way, so take advantage of the many independent local coffee shops.
Beneath Melbourne's stunning modern skyline along the Yarra River lies a walkable, pedestrian-friendly downtown (Australians use the term 'CBD' for downtown – 'central business district'). The streets here are in a grid pattern, so it's very easy to navigate. And in contrast to the mega-skyscrapers above, at street level many of the buildings are well-preserved historical gems, such as the iconic Flinders Street Station. Directly across the street from this busy train station is the equally lively Federation Square, a great place to sit, hang out and people-watch.
The city's population is hip and interesting and diverse – with all types of subcultures and ethnicities represented – which reflects in the selection of international restaurants. Melbourne actually has the world's largest Greek population outside of Greece as well as sizeable Chinese and Vietnamese populations, ranging from poor refugee families to high-end millionaires from Shanghai rolling in cash.
What to do & see
Within a short walk from the CBD are numerous inner-city neighborhoods. Anywhere that can't be reached on foot can easily be reached via Melbourne's extensive tram ("trolley," for you San Diegans) system that covers the entire city. The closest is the adjacent Southbank, a short walk across any of the bridges over the Yarra River. This area houses another set of massive skyscrapers, including the luxurious Crown Casino complex (yes, gambling is fully legal in Australia) and the Eureka Tower – the tallest building in all of Australia, with an observation deck that's open to the public and offers a panoramic view of the entire city. Southbank includes a picturesque pedestrian promenade that runs alongside the river with views looking back towards the CBD.
Other neighborhoods of interest include:
South Melbourne: Just south of Southbank, this was historically a Greek neighborhood and still contains the famous South Melbourne Market, which sells all kinds of international food produce and is a great place to meander on a weekend morning.
St. Kilda: Although Melbourne's beaches aren't as spectacular as Sydney's (or San Diego's), St. Kilda is still a pleasant spot to hang out - not so much for beach itself as much as the bohemian vibe of the area, with its bars and pubs along palm-tree lined streets (though palm trees do appear a little out of place in Melbourne). Two of the main thoroughfares are Acland St. and the coastal Esplanade. You'll need to take a tram here, as it's a little far to walk from the CBD.
Carlton: Back on the north side of the Yarra River, this area has an established Italian community and, consequently, infinite restaurants and cafes concentrated along Lygon St. It's walking distance (northbound) from the CBD. Along the way, you might want to stop at The Queen Victoria Market, a lively indoor/outdoor market (the city's biggest) that in addition to fresh produce, also has numerous specialty shops and stalls selling arts, crafts, books, clothes and all kinds of stuff.
Fitzroy: A funky artistic and bohemian 'hood (just a stone's throw east of Carlton), Fitzroy is famous for its indie cafes, shops and galleries. The main thoroughfare here is Brunswick St. and surrounding streets such as Gertrude St.
South Yarra: Southeast of the CBD is this exclusive neighborhood, well-known for its fashionable boutique stores, especially concentrated along Chapel St. Bring a wallet loaded with cash and cards to this place!
Also worth noting are the beautiful green parklands and Royal Botanic Gardens that surround the city on all sides (except for the industrial west): perfect for a stroll, especially on the less crowded weekdays, if you want to reconnect with nature and get away from the bustling crowds for a few hours.
The massive Melbourne Cricket Ground, home to Australian Rules Football, has space for 100,000 in COVID-free times. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
And finally, no trip to Melbourne would be complete without watching an Australian Rules football game! Most Americans can't figure out what the hell is going on (just like most Australians don't understand NFL). But regardless, the atmosphere at one of Melbourne's stadiums for a big match more than compensates. The AFL (Australian Football League) runs from March through September. Matches are played at the Docklands (Marvel) Stadium on the west side of the CBD and at the massive MCG (capacity 100,000) a short walk southeast of the CBD. The big local teams include Richmond, Collingwood, Essendon and Carlton, so ideally, try and catch a derby between any two of these aforementioned teams. If that's not possible, then just get to any match you can - Melbourne has eight teams in the AFL, so there'll always be a match on.
Temperature-wise, Melbourne has warm, dry summers (comparable to Southern California) and coolish to mild winters (comparable to the SF Bay Area, perhaps). However, year-round, the climate can be slightly unpredictable and change drastically from one day to the next, or even within the same day.
Visa-wise, Australia is pretty receptive to Americans, and (once this whole virus thing dies down) there are direct 16-hour flights from LAX to Melbourne on QANTAS. Americans still do need an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) authorization to enter Australia as a tourist (good for up to three months) but these are fairly simple to obtain.
Cost-wise, the American dollar has a favorable exchange rate against the Australian dollar. Having said that, Australia isn't exactly cheap. At least here, tipping is never expected anywhere, and all sales taxes on anything are already included in the price. (Note that with the virus panic, the Australian dollar is currently at an all-time low against the US dollar, so the upcoming months could be an ideal time for your trip).
Accommodation-wise, anywhere in the CBD or Southbank is great if you want centrally located. If you want a funky, bohemian vibe, then the Fitzroy and adjacent Brunswick areas are good options, too. And if you're loaded with cash, the luxury Crown Casino also houses an exclusive hotel... just be sure not to blow all your funds at the roulette wheel.