Melbourne, the capital of the Australian state of Victoria is a city that, in theory, should have a chip on its shoulder. With a population almost as high as Sydney (4.1 million in Melbourne vs. 4.6 million for Sydney,) Australia’s second largest city struggles for attention in a world more acquainted with the major Sydney landmarks such as the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The citizens of Melbourne simply shrug this controversy off, however, and go on their way building an pleasant, architecturally magnificent, and diverse city near the southernmost point of the Australian continent.
My travels have taken me to Melbourne twice, which is significantly less than the 17 times I’ve been to Sydney, a city I covered in a recent blog post. Despite only having visited twice, I find myself impressed at this Victorian city, and made it a point to explore it as much as possible.
The first thing to understand about Melbourne is that it’s not pronounced the way you think it is…or at least that’s true for most of us who speak American accented English. The closest pronunciation of the city sounds something like ‘Mel-Bun.’ Australians are too polite to make a big deal of it, but the truth is that the name of the city is routinely slaughtered (something like ‘Mel-Born’ is the most common mispronunciation.) You can go a long way towards making friends here simply by pronouncing the name of the city properly.
The city of Melbourne is a very button-up, dignified, and down-to-business type of city. Walking around the Central Business District (CBD) of Melbourne, one finds a much higher percentage of suit-wearing businessmen and women than you would in most Australian cities, Sydney included.
While the clothing might be quite straight-laced here, the citizens still have the relaxed attitude that most Australians do, and you can find them relaxing in cafes or lounging in the many city parks.
Melbourne had a late start compared to Sydney and even compared to the cities of neighboring Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land. Settlers from the city of Launceton on that island arrived in the area in 1835 and founded the city on the banks of the Yarra river. Melbourne remained a sleepy village, however, until the discovery of gold in 1851 and the subsequent Victoria gold rush took place.
As a direct result of the economic boom provided by the gold rush, Melbourne became the richest city in the world during the late 1800s, and was the second largest city in the British empire after London at that time. Much of the architecture from this area still exists as well, and can be found scattered throughout the city. One can easily find the legacy of this architectural heritage simply by taking a short walk through this very walkable city.
One recent controversial addition to the architectural landscape in Melbourne is the area known as Federation Square, a deconstructivist style complex of buildings built to mark the centenary of the Federation of Australia.
While controversial in design, most Melbournians have warmed to the square, or at least have gotten used to it. Despite what you think of the architecture itself, it’s undeniable that the plaza is used extensively by the locals, who you can find lounging around the complex on sunny days.
Victoria Parliament House
For several decades, Melbourne served as the capital of Australia from its federation on 1 January 1901. The first Australian federal parliament convened in the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens and later moved to what is now known as the Victoria Parliament House. In 1927, the capital was later moved to a newly built city named Canberra, a city strategically placed midway between Melbourne and Sydney as a power-sharing compromise between the two rival cities.
The Melbourne Tram Network
One of the most unique and interesting features of Melbourne is the extensive and comprehensive network of streetcars and trams, which holds the distinction of being the largest tram network in the world. Unlike most modern cities, which may have one or two lines of tram tracks, Melbourne has over 30 routes, 1763 tram stops, and 250 total kilometers of track.
The City Circle route is of particular note as it is a free service, looping through the CBD by the major tourist sites, and operating with vintage streetcars, as opposed to the newer trams that operate on most of the routes. Jumping aboard a city circle tram and cruising around the city is often the highlight of a trip to Melbourne.
During the gold rush of the 1850s, a large number of Chinese immigrants came to Melbourne, creating what is today known as the Melbourne Chinatown, the second longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world after the one in my hometown of San Francisco. Melbourne’s Chinatown is unique with its continuous line of Chinese-inspired gates that you pass through on the way down Little Bourke Street.
Parks and Gardens in Melbourne
Melbourne is often referred to as the garden city of Australia, and for good reason, the city is lined with multiple parks, greenways, and open spaces, each filled with extensive and beautiful gardens and exotic Australian vegetation.
The premier gardens near the CBD are known as Fitzroy Gardens and the adjacent Treasury Gardens, which are extensively used by locals and tourists alike, due to their central location and amenities offered.
The Fitzroy Gardens are the location of Cooks’ Cottage, a building originally built in England and used by the parents of Captain James Cook. Deconstructed brick by brick and shipped to Australia, it was reconstructed in the park.
Melbourne Cricket Ground
It is impossible to understand the culture of Melbourne and Victoria as a whole without first understanding the impact of Australian rules football on the psyche of the community. The center of this is the vaunted Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG, or simply ‘The G.’)
The MCG holds the distinction of being the 10th largest stadium in the world, the largest in Australia, the largest cricket stadium, and also the stadium with the highest light towers at a sporting venue. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is still used for Cricket, but the majority of its use comes from the use of the facility for Australian rules football, also affectionately known as ‘footy.’
Australian rules football is a sport that is best described as a cross between rugby, American football, and soccer. I still don’t really understand exactly what is going on when I watch the sport, but I do know there is an inordinate amount of kicking going on during a match, and the players wear very little padding, despite the roughness of the game itself (nearly equivalent to an American football game…but without the pads and helmets.)
What’s unique about the MCG as a venue is that it nearly always the location for the championship game of Australian Rules Football, known as the (AFL) Grand Final.
It’s an interesting concept, the equivalent of every single American football Super Bowl championship being held in the same facility. But it really does underscore the role that this building plays in the psyche of Australian sports. Indeed, it is often referred to as the ”Spiritual Home of Australian Sport.”
The MCG has been expanded and remodeled several times over the years, and now supports attendances as high as 100,000. The record for attendance for a match (121,696) was actually set before the entire facility was fitted with seats, as more people could fit into the space while standing. Since that record in the 1970 VFL Grand Final, the facility has since been fitted with permanent seats throughout, reducing the total amount of spectators that can fit inside.
Melbourne: a Tribute
Melbourne is a fascinating city to visit, one that was the once the richest city in the world and one that remains an incredibly important city not just in Australia but in the broader Asia-Pacific region as a whole. With that said, I’ll leave you with a picture of the sunrise over Melbourne, a beautiful and fascinating Australian metropolis that I hope to have a chance to visit many times over the coming years.