Melbourne – Intriguing City Precincts

Just as the great sporting nations enjoy a healthy rivalry, so too does Melbourne enjoy a respect among the great city destinations of the world.

With her annual Formula One Grand Prix engaging many millions of television viewers from around the globe, the fast-paced, cosmopolitan face of Melbourne is front-and-centre on the world stage. However, so much of what Melbourne has to offer will always remain hidden from cable channel surfers and TV sports fans. Even Melbournians themselves are only now beginning to uncover some of the secret nooks and crannies of their own city.

To get an idea of this unseen urban terrain, hold your breath as you dangle almost 300 metres above the streetscape from Skydeck on Level 88 of the awe-inspiring Eureka Tower. It’s the highest viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere and the Edge Experience, where visitors enter a glass-floored chamber, is one of the Melbourne’s home-grown heartstoppers.

Almost straight down and to the immediate north and northwest, you’ll see one of the oldest and least-developed parts of the city starting across from busy Flinders Street Station. Ornate 19th Century Victorian buildings, old warehouses and little shopfronts call back to a time before the growth of the mighty glass and marble monoliths just up the street in the big end of town.

Fiona Sweetman

Fiona Sweetman

To properly explore this historic sandstone-walled, mini-jungle, you can pop into any of the information centres and collect a Melbourne Walks No.4 leaflet. Take a 90-minute self-guided tour into the narrow back-alleys of Degraves Street and into the myriad lanes and arcades, or join the popular Hidden Secrets Tour for a full four hour exposé.

Born-and-bred Melbournian, Fiona Sweetman, is your stylish and vivacious guide. Follow her as she swirls and glides along the narrow courtyards and alleys pointing out the history and significant architectural features of the old buildings and shops now transformed into trendy boutiques and irresistible cafés.

“This started a few years ago as a shopping tour for the girls,” says Fiona, “but it’s just grown as people want more. I also do an Art and Design tour that attracts couples and a few single guys too. Everyone seems to have great fun.”

The tour group assembles at the Melbourne Visitor Centre in Federation Square, the new arts and entertainment hub across from Flinders Street station. Anything but secret, Federation Square was completed in 2002 to celebrate the Australia’s “coming of age” in 1901. It houses the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, the state-of-the-art Australian Centre for the Moving Image plus 20 bars, restaurants and cafes centred around the city’s most vibrant public space.

But we’re about to go underground with Fiona, figuratively and literally. She guides us down a set of stairs that takes us below the pavement of busy Flinders Street. Once virtually abandoned, this pedestrian tunnel is part art-space, part funky retail.

“After languishing for many years, these shops have been reclaimed by some innovative designers and retailers,“ says Fiona pointing to racks of racy vintage wear in the memorably named boutique, Lola von Lixx.

We surface in Degraves Street proper, a typically rejuvenated alleyway, now overflowing with cool chic and the unmistakable aroma of freshly ground coffee. A healthy throng of patrons fills the seats, engaged in animated chatter and obviously enjoying the ambiance. Melbourne is a social city, where people eat out, promenade and engage with a sense of community not so common anymore. Fiona throws waves, kisses and greetings to the shopkeepers and staff like a flower girl throws confetti at a wedding.

Our group ogles shoes, handbags and frocks; many are totally unique creations, handmade by the budding designers and fashionistas that make Melbourne famous. Il Papiro, on the other hand, sells an exquisite assortment of stationery and specialty paper products. This delightful store could be just as much at home in the lanes of Venice.

Beyond Degraves is Union Lane. Upon first inspection, you may recoil at the vast graffiti murals, but in this lane at least, the spraycan artform is celebrated. Artists tag their vivid, oversize and abstract portraiture with their street personas: EFC, FT, Trance, SWB TGC, ID Boys, Siloe, Na, Sub rock and Deb.

Homegrown stores with such evocative names as Aesop, Manvious, Shag and Fat perfectly capture the ingenious and irreverent style that gives their products unique flair. Be sure to stroll through elegant Block Place and Arcade for style and grace, then cross over to the elegant 19th Century Royal Arcade – Australia’s oldest. In the ceiling are Gog and Magog, two giant mythological Britons who have struck their gongs every hour since 1892.

Morning tea is a special event in Melbourne. Rest your tired feet and put down those shopping bags, you’ve earned a treat. We’re heading for Koko Black in the Royal Arcade for a hot chocolate that transcends the senses. Want something to talk about? Try the Chilli Hot Chocolate, perfect for a cold winter’s day. Or true ‘chocophiles’ can indulge themselves with the Traditional Belgian Blend. Those on a diet can watch resident chocolatier, Kim Linssen, through the window as she sculpts her latest creamy creations.

Fiona’s tours culminate in a gourmet lunch at Caboose in City Square. Choose a scrumptious tortellini or risotto, or if you’ve really worked up an appetite, go the 300g Angus sirloin with caramelised onions and pink peppercorn jus. There’s a glass of great Aussie wine on offer too. Oh, my!

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Melbourne rejoices in its many cosmopolitan flavours as much as it does its “dinkum” Aussie fare. There’s a lively Chinatown in Little Bourke Street and a little Athens in Lonsdale Street, while a distinctly Parisian feel pervades the designer boutiques of Collins Street.

Café culture is another highlight of Melbourne and its inner suburbs. With strong Italian and Greek influences throughout the city, great coffee was always a part of life.

Maria Paoli, an accredited barista, coffee judge and trainer, runs The Historical Coffee Trek through central Melbourne, visiting the premium coffee houses and cafés. What’s a perfect extraction? How do you tell a top crema? Spend two hours with Maria and you’ll never drink instant coffee again.

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