If you are looking to lap up the real Australian culture, head to Melbourne. Initially the city took us by surprise. We had heard SO much about it and our curiosity was quite piqued. As soon as we stepped off the Airport Skybus and out the station, we gulped in the city. It didn’t quite WOW. But we had been hasty. Melbourne is like that cup of tea with the tea bag slowly infusing flavor and each sip is better than the one before. Try not to drink it all in immediately. Let the city charm you. Melbourne has sneaky ways to make you fall in love with it. It will continue to charm you till you are totally smitten.
Things to do in the city with the little folk:
Melbourne Cricket Ground
I am no cricket fan, but I found the MCG truly enchanting. As soon as you enter you are stunned by the glittering green, the sheer symmetry and the magnitude of the place. You have no choice but to take part in the frenzy that surrounds you. There was not a single empty seat the day of the Boxing Day test match. Crazy fans come in all shapes and sizes and seem oblivious to the harsh weather – the stinging sun and the pelting rain (in the same half hour). For Pakistanis the ground holds special importance as this was where we won the 1992 World Cup against England.
Royal Botanical Gardens
Honestly, after the Gardens in Sydney, these were a bit disappointing. I guess the alfresco cinema nights must be fun, but we couldn’t manage those with the toddler. So we dedicated a morning to the place. The lake was filthy and the shrubbery surrounding it quite unimpressive. And sadly it was a super hot day. There were many nice picnic spots here and there, so maybe if one was to pack a basket and a good books, it may serve to please.
Think edgy, cool, new age architecture surrounded by a vast split-level open, situated across the street from old structures – THIS is Melbourne. Where the old and new co-exist peacefully and in fact complement each other. We sat on the steps there and spent an entire evening soaking in the sights and sounds of Melbourne all around- Flinders Street station, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Yarra River. Melburnians love to hang around here to enjoy the open-air theatre and let the city throb around them. Great sunset photo-opp.
Flinders Street Station
We chanced upon this charming structure on our way to the Federation Square. Located in the heart of Melbourne this railway station serves the entire metropolitan rail network. I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say this but there is hardly a busier station is all of Australia, besides being the very first in any Australian city. Built around the turn of the century (completed in 1909) the architecture screams French Renaissance. The famous saying, ‘meet me under the clocks’ originated here. Even if you have no train to catch, the place is a must-see. If you are not too mesmerized by the building itself, sample a coffee and churro at one of the stands, you won’t regret it.
Right across the road from Flinder’s Street station, something bright and beautiful is bound to catch your eye. The walls of narrow, undulating alleyways serve as a canvas to many a gifted street artist. Breathtaking graffiti, so very finely detailed but managed only with can of spray are a sight to behold. These alleyways wind around a whole block or more and you will find tourists jostling against each other for a picture. We couldn’t do a complete round as the toddler wanted to wriggle out of the stroller now and again, but managed a few pictures.
Now those of you who have watched nearly every episode of Masterchef Australia are privy to the fact that Australia is big on GOOD FOOD. Yes, I say that in caps because the hype is all true. And it holds especially true for Melbourne where every few steps you’ll find some fantastic joint for an amazing culinary experience. There is hardly a cuisine in the world that you will not find in this amazing city. And besides the restaurants, the street food – SCENE ON MAN. There are streets and streets chock full of ‘hole-in-the-wall’ type operations serving up some gastronomical delight with not a table empty and crowds waiting to pounce on a vacant seat. Honestly. We saw people sitting on crates over the gutter with elbows rubbing with people on the next table. And they were all oblivious to the cramped situation so luscious was the burrito about to enter their mouth.
Great Victoria Market
Ok so here’s the secret answer to the question why Aussie food is so fabulous- Australian produce simply rocks. You bite into an apple or a pear and the sweetness simply jolts you. Since my husband is a sucker for fresh, organic food, we obviously headed to the Great Victoria Market – its major claim to fame is the ‘largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere’. There are massive halls with bustling stalls of fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy; besides this you will also find general merchandise. It’s like a flea market meet farmer’s market, but really huge. There is hardly anything you won’t find there. And no fret if you are not in a mood to shop, it’s fun just hanging out just gazing at the stalls and the crowds bursting with colour, sounds and smells.
State Library of Victoria
The city’s library took us by surprise as it sprung on us during one of our leisurely strolls through the central business district. The structure is vast and impressive with grassy lawn and ponds surrounding it. Oh people with little ones, this is your haven. It has a splendid Play Pod for toddlers with comfortable bean bags all around for parents. Well stocked with toys, books and material for craft, the Toddler was immediately at home here. And we found ourselves unwinding here in the cool confines of this gorgeous place. Be it a sweltering hot afternoon or a rainy day, head to the Play Pod and the hours will slip away peacefully and tantrum-freeeee.
The Melbourne Star is a giant Ferris wheel in the Waterfront City precinct in the Docklands area of Melbourne. Surrounding it is an outlet mall, a strip of eateries, a Costco and a small theme parkish area for tots. The little one wanted to sit on every ride including the dodgem cars which had a height restriction he didn’t quite fulfill. Try explaining that to a 22 month old high on gelato. Did I say gelato? Who? What? I didn’t give him any gelato! What are you talking about.
[Where we stayed
We carefully chose a toddler-friendly apartment hotel under the Adina chain. It was centrally-located, very clean and spacious and with a well-stocked kitchen. So except for a bad experience at check-in, which I will just get into, I may even recommend it.
Bad experience: we checked into our room and the air-conditioner was on. Since we were to stay there for the next week, I decided to quickly unpack and also put in a laundry load before heading out for lunch. After loading the washing machine and unpacking (which included toiletries being arranged on the bathroom counter), we discovered that the carpet under the AC was sloshing wet-the AC had a leak. Again let me go into further detail here and tell you that we were travelling since early morning, had caught the flight from Cairns, hauled over luggage and the baby quite a bit (on and off a bus and then about four blocks, and THEN had arrived at the apartment starving). Sadly my OCD-induced organization got the better of me this time. BUT here’s the irritating bit, when we complained to the reception they were quite uppity about it and simply said the wet patch under the AC is because the carpet was steam-rolled! Having received such an inane response we simply requested them to have the room checked and then left for lunch. Came back and discovered the same chick at the reception admitting that the AC indeed was the problem and that the room would have to be switched. NO APOLOGY at all. Nothing for our trouble (recall overtired bones and laundry in the washing machine). With toddler in tow we switched the room after repacking the entire luggage AND with a bag of soaking wet laundry. Guys, it WASN’T fun. Since the husband requested I not throw a fit at the reception lady, I controlled myself and instead threw a fit at him. Lol. Would I stay there again? Ummm perhaps not. ]
To sum it up, the city has literally everything to offer: the beach, the dock, the river and its banks, the happening downtown, the vibrant art and culture, charming history, the squares, the rich and diverse culinary experience, lush green parks, cathedrals, hospitality, fun and funky inhabitants. How is Melbourne different from other major cities of the world? I think it lacks arrogance. This place has it all, but has demurely held it all together with grace.