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Almost a year had elapsed since my last trip back to Australia so I was eager, as usual, to see what was new, what had changed, which of my favorite haunts had been refurbished and what was planned for the coming year. For a city of only three million people, Melbourne is constantly in a state of flux with developments, dozens of new bars and restaurants and an endless selection of ways to spend the warm summer nights.

When I say that Melbourne was sizzling, I'm not kidding. The day I left to return to the U.S. it was over 100 degrees and a huge chunk of what we Australians call "the bush" was engulfed in flames. Bushfires were and still are ravaging large sections of rural Victoria, causing a smoke-like haze to descend upon Melbourne and water restrictions are in place to conserve the precious resource during a year of extended drought. Having said that though, in some respects you would hardly know that Melbourne was suffering at all, in fact the city was alive with Christmas shoppers, bars were over-flowing with festive revelers and I did my best to uncover more of Melbourne's hidden treasures and secrets.

Melbourne is definitely one of those cities best experienced from a local's perspective. If a bar or restaurant is advertising in a tourism magazine or visitor's guide, you probably don't want to go there. The gridded central business district that Melburnians refer to as "The City" is the location of literally hundreds of both hole-in-the-wall and larger bars, each offering a unique insight into Melbourne's social, cultural and design aesthetic traditions. While you might be tempted to spend your evenings in seaside St. Kilda or waterside at the Docklands, give the City at least a night or so to show off her charms. Summer is certainly the season for enjoying a quiet drink or two on any night of the week in Melbourne, so here are a few venue ideas where you are sure to quench that thirst.

One new and very chic venue for the 30-something crowd is Comme, 7 Alfred Place (tel. 03/9631-4000; www.comme.com.au), a slick and streamlined three-story wine bar located at the old Mietta's site in Alfred Place. On the night I visited it was full of well-dressed professionals sipping summer cocktails with a black tie 40th birthday taking place on the upper floor and a bachelor party spilling out on to the courtyard street area from the downstairs area. Drinks are pricey here but remember -- you're in Australia -- so tipping for drinks is completely optional (and not that common).

Staying in the City, we moved on to The Melbourne Supper Club (tel. 03/9654-6300) -- not a new venue, but still as popular as the day it opened. This Spring Street haunt, situated across the road from state parliament, has a casual elegance, a huge wine list and as the name suggests, is open until the wee hours for your drinking pleasure. Relax on eclectically put together vintage sofas and velvet chaise lounges in separate smoking or non-smoking rooms.

Alley Bar (tel. 03/9663-2323; www.thealleybar.com.au) in ACDC Lane (yes it was named after the band) which runs off Flinders Lane is one of those venues that looks ominous from the outside (with no real signage to guide you) but once you enter, you immediately feel at ease. The venue features DJs and live music performances in a sophisticated and intimate setting.

Tucked away on Croft Alley that runs off one of Melbourne's labyrinth of laneways is The Croft Institute (tel. 03/9671-4399; www.thecroftinstitute.com.au). Although this bar has been around for a little while now, it offers an interesting environment with subliminal architecture, a laboratory cum hospital theme and a cool crowd for after work or weekend drinks.

The Long Room (tel. 03/9663-7226; www.thelongroom.com.au) is located in one of my personal favorite buildings, the old Georges department store on 162-168 Collins Street. Once the classic department store closed in the early 1980s, the space was converted several times and has now become an elegant drinking establishment with several bar areas, function rooms and a tapas bar featuring luxurious sofa seating and a design style that is rather difficult to describe (something like a mix between Moroccan romance and 1980's glamour).

You'd never find 6 Links, 228 Flinders Lane (tel. 03/9650-2977; www.6links.com.au), unless you knew where to look in the basement of a building in Flinders Lane. There you step into a futuristic and sleekly designed space that still has a budget traveler heart with happy hours and cheaply priced drinks.

Madame Brussels, 59-63 Bourke Street (tel. 03/9662-2775; www.madamebrussels.com), on the third level near at the top end of Bourke, has a distinctly Australian suburban feel, complete with astro-turf and outdoor garden furniture in this very city-located outdoor terrace bar with a view. The crowd is young, cool and eclectic but very welcoming (plus the staff are pretty damn cute too).

Also running off the top end of Bourke Street is a laneway called Meyers Place -- home to a few notable and visit-worthy bars including 20 Meyers Place (tel. 03/9650-8609), Lily Black's (tel. 03/9654-6499; www.lilyblacks.com.au) and Loop (tel. 03/9654-0500; www.bar-secrets.com.

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