With a dual reputation as the culinary capital of Australia and "World's Most Liveable City" by The Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit for five years running, Melbourne emanates an obvious appeal for both travelers and the fortunate 4 million to call the city home.
The winding Yarra River forms a flowing epicenter of activity, with multi-colored kayaks, canoes, and river cruise boats plying its waters flanked by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne Park, and the bustling CBD (Central Business District) before spilling out into Port Phillip Bay.
From the hip, vegetarian enclaves of Fitzroy to the culinary heavy-hitters on Flinders Lane, there is something mouthwatering being prepared on just about every block of Melbourne. The coffee alone is worth a visit in a city where baristas' skill in brewing a perfect latte is rivaled only by their uncanny command of presentational artistry.
Urban edges are softened in surprising ways—rainbow chard and beets growing in community gardens weave vibrant greenery through once-gray forgotten corners; rooftop beehives drip sweet and golden Melbourne City Rooftop Honey. Spend a weekend in Melbourne switching gears between the frenetic pace of the markets and city center and languid mornings lingering over espresso in leafy riverside cafes and find out what "livability" really means to Melbournians.
Begin your weekend in Melbourne in comfort with a conscience by checking into eco-friendly front-runner Alto Hotel on Bourke Street, just a couple of blocks from Southern Cross Station. If the complimentary espresso, fresh local fruit, and live streaming footage of the rooftop beehive aren't enough to persuade you of the property's commitment to sustainability and unique approach to personalized guest service, perhaps the mounting collection of environmental accolades hanging by the front desk will.
The hotel owners' dedication to minimizing their footprint (inspired by a trip to the Maldives and seeing tourism's negative impact on the ecosystem there) is reflected in some impressive statistics as well as rewards. The hotel has the lowest water and energy usage, carbon emissions, and waste to landfill in Victoria. It was named the World Wide Winner of Conde Nast Traveler World Savers Awards for Environmental Preservation amongst a plethora of other sustainability and service awards. You can also rest easy there with their "Sit Hospes Rex" policy—”the guest be king."
After a shower and maybe a reviving shot of espresso at the hotel, stroll 15 minutes to the riverside and take in the Friday evening social parade. The Arbory is a lovely spot to stop for a beer or a glass of local shiraz and watch the world go by, perched on a stool at Melbourne's longest bar, overlooking the Yarra River and surrounded by foliage.
From there it's another short walk to Mesa Verde at 252 Swanson for dinner, but you will have to exert a little energy to earn your meal as it is six flights of stairs to the restaurant. Hopefully you've worked up a thirst as there are some phenomenal cocktails on order at the softly lit bar. How about a "True Blood" margarita made with Milagro tequila, beetroot, citrus, and bitters with a black sea salt rim, or maybe the "P.G." with an unexpectedly delicious muddling of Plata Azul tequila, snow peas, citrus, and green tea served up?
The chef's tasting menu is available fully vegetarian and the herbs and other hard to source produce are grown right here on sight in Melbourne's first rooftop worm garden. A closed waste system is utilized here, with organic scraps from the restaurant going back to the feed the garden's inhabitants.
The pumpkin quesadilla with smoked pepitas and the farro salad with goat cheese and sunflower seeds are standouts. Finish the evening with a nightcap at Rooftop Bar next door and enjoy the sparkling panorama of downtown Melbourne lit up below.
Sleep in a little Saturday morning and grab some quick coffee and eggs at Alto (fair trade and organic and free-range, respectively) to save your appetite for the Real Melbourne Bike Tour you've booked with Rentabike in Federation Square. The tour runs from 10 am to 2 pm and shares a side of Melbourne not every tourist gets to see, whilst eschewing dull traditional city tour structure and focussing on hidden treasures, like a tucked away Greek taverna with no menu and the striking street art of Fitzroy. The leisurely tour includes a full lunch as well as gourmet treats from beer tastings to ice cream depending on the group's preference. If you prefer to go solo regular bike rentals are also available.
After the tour you do get to keep the bike for the rest of the day free of charge (and the 8-10 miles you cover in four hours aren't exactly grueling). If you still have some energy, pedal down to St Kilda and spend the afternoon relaxing on the beach there with a book. There is an incredible community garden there called Veg Out on the corner of Shakespeare Grove and Chaucer Street, where everything from heirloom tomatoes and strawberries to pumpkins and sunflowers are grown 100 percent organically and chemical free.
Have dinner back in Carlton, close to your hotel, in the pretty outdoor courtyard of all-vegetarian Shakahari on Faraday Street. The restaurant has been in business since the ‘70s and still employs some original staff, which is lofty praise for the owners in such a high turnover industry. The starter of avocado wedges, wrapped in eggplant and tempura fried, is excellent, as is the main course "Laksa Habat,"—udon noodles in a rich coconut milk and lemongrass broth with spinach, mushrooms, tofu, tempeh and fresh cilantro.
Start your Sunday with a brunch of organic poached eggs over sweet corn fritters with mango salsa and avocado mashed in the courtyard of Slowpoke Espresso on Brunswick Street. This breakfast spot is a local, organic, and biodynamic venture from former environmental resource manager Curtis Riddington.
Spend a relaxing morning wandering the vast Queen Victoria Market on the corner of Victoria and Elizabeth. The produce is every color of the rainbow, from brilliant crimson tomatoes and cherries to fresh, bright green local peas, artichokes and brussel sprouts. The market itself is "green" also, with a commitment to sustainability supported by over 1,300 solar panels, five worm farms, and a water catchment system. At the time the solar panels (covering one third of the market's roof) were installed, it was the largest solar project in the southern hemisphere.
When it's time for lunch, head to Radhey Kitchen and Chai Bar, also on Brunswick Street, for some "vegetarian soul food." You can order from the small Mediterranean and Southeast Asian inspired menu or just choose from the freshly made salads and hot items prepared daily, like tofu vegetable Korma or roast pumpkin and fresh spinach salad. Most items are vegan and their raw vegan dessert, called a "raw bounty bar," is chocolate and coconut decadence. Sip a sweet and spicy chai and linger a little longer, as Melbourne is so "livable" it can be hard for the visitor to depart.
Ins and Outs
Melbourne is only an hour and a half flight from Sydney, or a gorgeous 10-hour coastal drive, which can easily be split up over several days for a leisurely road trip. The best time to visit is early- or late-summer, when the weather is mild and comfortable, and the courtyards and rooftop terraces beckon. Climate can be temperamental even then, so a few layers and a small umbrella are essential to include in your packing. Skip your tightest jeans as you won't want to resist indulging a little in a city so packed with culinary wonders.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.