Visitors to Australia often overlook Melbourne in favour of flashier Sydney, but once they have discovered her charms, many are hooked forever. As Australia's second largest city, Melbourne has carved a niche as the hipper of the two, with a European style that her northern rival can't match. The capital of the state of Victoria has elegance and edge in equal measures.
1. Melbourne has a strong connection to Australia's indigenous people. Before European settlement, the land that Melbourne is built on was inhabited by the indigenous people of the Boonerwrung and Woiwurrung (or Wurundjeri) nations. On the surface, it might be easy to think that there's little left of the city's Aboriginal heritage, but delving deeper reveals several ways of learning about it. Follow an Aboriginal guide through the Royal Botanic Gardens and you'll be encouraged to make your own connection with the land, as well as learning about the traditional uses for various plants as medicine or food. At the inner-city Koorie Heritage Trust Cultural Centre (295 King St.; tel. 03/8622-2600; www.koorieheritagetrust.com), an historical exhibition and art gallery are worth exploring, as is the fascinating Bunjilaka Aboriginal centre at the Melbourne Museum (11 Nicholson St., Carlton; tel. 131-102; www.museumvictoria.com.au), which tells the "shadow story" to official colonial Australian history.
2. Port Philip Bay is home to pods of wild dolphins. You don't have to go to the more commercially famous Monkey Mia in Western Australia or Moreton Island in Queensland to get up-close-and-personal with Australia's wild dolphins. The huge sheltered bay on which Melbourne is located is home to around 150 to 200 bottlenose dolphins. From Sorrento, on the Mornington Peninsula, 112 km from Melbourne's city centre, you can get in the water with the dolphins on a tour run by Polperro Dolphin Swims (tel. 03/5988-8437; www.polperro.com.au). The half day tours run between October and April, and you'll also likely see a rich array of birdlife including cormorants and gulls. All gear, including wetsuits to combat the sometimes chilly water, is included.
3. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is also the home of Australian Rules football. The MCG (Brunton Ave., Richmond; tel. 03/9657-8864; www.mcg.org.au) is very much hallowed ground in this sports-mad city, and the two top favourites are cricket and Aussie Rules. If it's summer, cricket matches are played here, if it's winter then it's "footy"...and in Melbourne, that means this unique all-Australian code. Ask a local to explain it, adopt a team and you'll never be short of a conversation-starter. On days when there is no game on, you can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the MCG, and your ticket price includes entry to the fabulous new National Sports Museum (www.nsm.org.au), also at the MCG. On major event days, entry to the museum is half price (A$7.50 for adults) but only open to event ticket holders.
4. Melbourne's most interesting places are often hidden in a blind alley or cobblestone laneway. Back streets have become havens for creative souls and you're likely to stumble on street art and graffiti and the best little coffee shops or galleries in the city. Don't know where to start looking? Try Hosier Lane for some of the best street art, or there's Rutledge Lane, Caledonian Lane, Croft Alley, Duckboard Place, and ACDC Lane among others. Or just wander along Flinders Lane and let your instincts guide you. A more structured option and join a Hidden Secrets Tour (tel. 03/9329-9665; www.hiddensecretstours.com). As the name implies, this is a true insider's tour that takes you into the lanes and arcades of the city, revealing specialty shops, fashion finds and street art you may not discover alone.
5. The cheapest and quickest way to get around the city is on Melbourne's free City Circle tram. The distinctive burgundy-and-cream heritage trams run every 12 minutes on a circuit around the inner city. If you don't get off, the loop takes 45 minutes, and there's a commentary on places of interest near each stop. The route runs along Flinders, Spring and La Trobe streets to the Docklands precinct. Trams have been Melbourne's favourite form of public transport since the 1880s, but these days onboard tickets on regular trams are coin-only -- so make sure you have plenty of loose change in your pocket when boarding them. For a splurge, take the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant (tel. 03/9696 4000; www.tramrestaurant.com.au) for a classy lunch or dinner as you rattle along.
Lee Mylne's latest guidebook is Frommer's Melbourne Day-by-Day. Mylne is also the author of Frommer's Portable Australia's Great Barrier Reef and co-author of Frommer's Australia. She is a freelance travel writer for many Australian newspapers and magazines and is a Life Member and former president of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.
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