I just returned from Melbourne this morning and you can expect my memories to still be fresh. Even though there probably are half a dozen of Melbournes in the world, this Melbourne of Victoria, Australia is often appearing to dominate that name. And this is not without strong justifications, so below are a few of my humble opinions:
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The City Center or Downtown is conveniently divided by 9 by 9 grid-patterned roads. I wouldn't say that it's the easiest Downtown to navigate (New York City with numerically ordered streets and avenues remains the leader in terms of that), but you can master the streets in a matter of say 3 days without studiously memorising from a map.
You can expect to find most of the city attractions along the rectangular perimeter of the downtown, including the Yarra River, Flinders St. Station, Railto Towers (Tallest bldg in the South), Telstra Dome & Queen Victoria Markets (GREAT bargains!) - all reachable by the free City Circle Tram. Get a 15% discount coupon from your hotel lobby or Airport for a visit to the Railto Observatory for a fantastic view of the city (Night view is recommended as well) BUT check with the cashier the visibility up there lest you risk disappointment.
We all know that New York has the Central Park, but Melbourne keeps at least 4 gardens within walking distance. I personally recommend Fitzroy Garden, which is the biggest, on the east side of Downtown. 3 little lanes flanked by huge temperate trees shedding yellow leaves in autumn is worth a go for. This polemic mix of gothic designs, the modern city scape and beautiful gardens makes this city one of the most peculiar and curious in the world.
GREAT OCEAN ROAD:
World famous 300 km drive to the West of Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road hugs the rocky coastlines to end up in Portland, Vic. You will bypass some of the most beautiful and surfer friendly beaches in the world, gargantuan stacks (12 Apostles) and delicate Arches. I strongly suggest you join a tour so you don't have to concentrate on driving and thus miss the sights.
WILDLIFE TOURS (www.wildlifetours.com.au) offers cheap, personal and excellent touring service which I don't think some of the bigger coach-bus-tour companies (A## Ki#g#/G##y#ine) can provide. Wildlife Tours' guides seem to intuitively know when you need a stop along that full day drive and provide anecdotal information. You can also throw in the Grampians National Park when you tour the Great Ocean Road, rather than driving to and fro (waste of a good 6 hours)
Victoria's biggest ski resort is not famous for nothing. Indeed, the alpine scenery is unsurpassed in many other areas in Victoria. In fact, the drive through the vineyards and low rolling hills resemble that of Wales, if not better. Not many tours go to Mt Buller, and they are usually pricy (AUD107.00 for transport and entry only). I don't recommend a day tour, stay overnight if you want to ski. The AUD16.00 sightseeing ski lift pass is a good bargain if the weather is brilliant. Boots and waterproofing not necessary for sightseers. Just bring a jacket.
I don't see what the fuss is about when people hype about the beauty of Phillip Island. That is only a fraction of what you can get along the Great Ocean Road. The penguins are cute, but tours to Phillip Island is really for the less adventurous or loving couples (young and old), a backpacker wouldn't want to look at koalas, wombats and kangaroos in captivity. Cape Woolamai is quite scenic but that requires a little bit of walking (4 hrs round trip)... Plus another 2.5 hour drive to see this? You decide.
Unfortunately, I didn't explore the City enough to know a lot about food, but here are some tips anyway. Don't buy those microwave food from 7-Eleven etc, try Melbourne's Italian Food. You should be able to get some of the authentic stuff along Lygon St, but you MUST try MELBOURNE PIZZA BAR at 181 King Street (near intersection with Bourke Street) - the pizza there gets my 2 (3,4,5) thumbs up! Bagels are good at Anglesea and Kangaroo Souvlakis tasty at Halls Gap.
Ok,I shan't dwell on this for too long. The trams are the most convenient way to get around Melbourne, rather than the buses. If you intend to travel about Downtown, just use the City Circle, it should suffice. Anyway, you want to explore the streets so full of surprises (gourmet food at cheap rates for eg). However, to get to St Kilda or East/West/North (which are mostly residential), get a 2 hour pass or a day pass. Skybuses are available to get to the airport, but take a taxi if you have 3 or 4, it'll be cheaper.
The Yarra River divides Melbourne into North and South. The River itself is not exactly impressive, but the gardens up river should be quite a spectacle against the backdrop of the city. Cruises are available from AUD15.00, subject to 10% GST.
Melbourne is quite a pleasant city to be in when you need assistance. Melbournites are generally willing to help you to direct you to where you want to go (it's not really needed though). However, people are always in a hurry, so they don't smile at you like they would in, say Vancouver, and in smaller towns.
Melbourne is infamous for unpredictable and variable weather. Temperatures can differ by as much as 6 C between days (It was 13C on one day in winter). That's not as cumbersome as the occurrence of rain. June is supposedly the driest month, but it rains almost every day in a light drizzle. Nov-Jan (Summer) would offer prettier skies, though. Praying would be a good idea, you can never know what weather you get on the day you go visit your sights.
Recommended for families, friends, students and backpackers.
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Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Dec - Feb