The license plates brightly announced: Victoria—The place to be. Was it propagation, reassurance or a testimonial? I needed none. Not now anyway. Freshly disembarked, the smell of disinfectant from the flight hadn’t even washed off my body. This slogan—which seemed more like a conclusion than a first impression—needed to be obliterated from my mind, if I were to form any sort of opinion. I had just reached the land down under—Melbourne to be precise.
Although, in the age of Internet it would be untrue if I claim I didn’t have the slightest notion of how the city fared in the global mindset. Last year, Melbourne was named the world’s most liveable city by The Economist for the fourth consecutive year. As I watched immigration officers at Tullamarine airport welcome travellers with warm smiles, saying “How are you t’day?” and engaging in friendly chitchat, I considered moving here right away.
There are bigger factors that contribute to Melbourne’s liveability, but this geniality seemed to exude from every Melbournian I met—be it the African taxi driver, the Chinese sales person at the souvenir shop, the Greek ‘hotel concierge’ lady or the English cashier who warned me of impending bad weather and urged me to take shelter. Each one of them made Melbourne more likeable.
Going back in time
Wondering if the city’s cultural diversity and cosmopolitan heart are responsible for its openness and practised ease with foreigners, I entered the Immigration Museum on Finders Street. Turns out, the first immigration to Australia happened in 1788 with convict transportation from Britain. By 1850s penal transportation ceased and in 1851, the newly formed state of Victoria discovered gold beneath its surface, leading to the Victorian gold rush! Melbourne—Victoria’s capital, which served as a major port, experienced rapid growth and soon became the economic centre of Australian colonies. The gold boom brought a large amount of immigrants from England, Ireland, Wales, America, China and Germany.
Although people across the world were willing to migrate to this vast unknown landmass in the southern hemisphere for better prospects, the British were still the favoured kind. Early 20th century saw the imminent ‘White Australia Policy’ meant to eliminate non-European migration.
Not for long though! Australia’s vulnerability after WWII led to calls for Australians to ‘populate or perish’. The British were still preferred, but immigrants from other countries were admitted to push population growth. Immigration policies no longer mentioned race. By the 1980s, family reunions became the most common criteria for migrating to Australia!
I spent nearly half a day reading through the fascinating ‘immigration timeline’, that stated by 1990s—nearly one in four Australians was born overseas. There are people from over 100 countries that are now Australian citizens. It was indeed symbolic that the immigration museum is located inside the beautifully restored Customs House, which was used to control immigration in the 19th century and recorded every arrival at its doors. Exiting the building, I walked towards the iconic Flinders Station. On the way when I heard random gabble in all kinds of languages and find eateries selling pho, dumplings, souvlaki, doughnuts, and pasta in adjoining streets, it all made sense.
Roaming through the heart of Melbourne
Being wonderfully cosmopolitan is one of the many aspects of Melbourne that appealed to me. I am also a sucker for history. The trappings of the 21st century hold abundant allure no doubt, but I’m equally fond of tracing elements of the past in a city’s present landscape. Little did I know that my day spent ambling in Melbourne’s CBD [Central Business District] and around would take me past many buildings featuring ancient architecture from the gold rush times, and juxtapose it with glimpses of the city’s modern, edgy style.
I settled by St. Paul’s Cathedral to watch hundreds of people crisscrossing each other at the traffic lights. Some were swallowed by the arched gate of Flinders Station, some glided into the swanky Federation Square and others cheered their way to Melbourne Cricket Ground [MCG] for the famous Boxing Day test match.
This area seemed to be the city’s default nucleus with emanating arteries carrying restless feet, zooming cars and rattling trams. No one seemed to stop. Everybody was heading somewhere.
So I followed suit and headed into Melbourne’s favourite hangout spots—her laneways. What started out during the gold rush era as dingy rear access to properties has tasted repurposed success today. As I walked along I realised that here, grunge is hip. Fancy boutiques, bookstores, cafes, pizzerias, soup and wrap joints are housed in narrow lanes with exposed wires, pipes, air-conditioning vents, graffiti and poster-covered walls.
The bustle of life is spilled right on the city’s cobbled street, with its tiny chairs and stools. I hunched over a ‘flat white’ [yes, this city has its own coffee style] on Degraves Street and watched tanned and toned Melbournians zip past. Suddenly, I was painfully conscious of the calories piling with every bite of my crepes with vanilla ice cream that I gorged on at Café Andiamo. With such scrumptious ‘MasterChef’ quality food available especially on the streets, I wondered how anybody could stay in shape.
Discovering the diversity of the people
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how Melbournians stay fit. The fact is that Melbournians love any kind of heart-pumping activity. This isn’t just manifested in establishments like MCG and Rod Laver Arena, which host prestigious championships, but also from watching every other person walking, running, cycling, rowing or hiking somewhere in the city. And if that’s not enough, I’ve watched many people shop, run errands and even dine in spandex and sneakers, as if it’s some kind of code for ‘I’m always on the go’.
However, the more I wandered, the more convinced I became that these denizens of fast life are, in fact, multifaceted. Like their city, they’re a heady mix of Victorian refinement and contemporary ‘cool’. On one instance I saw them drinking cups of ‘Snow White’ tea at Hopetoun Tea Rooms inside the 19th century Block Arcade, dressed in brocade, silk scarves and pearls. At other times I found them in baggy overalls, spray cans in hand, making edgy art on the graffiti-covered walls of Hosier Lane. On yet other occasions they were decked up in Goth necklaces and skull-printed stockings queuing outside the Moorish Forum Theatre.
Peace in the midst of the bustle
Realising that I needed to recuperate, I decided to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens. Painting by the ornamental lake in this vast park still remains a fond memory of mine. While the tranquillity repaired my mind’s restlessness from an active day of sightseeing, my eyes feasted on the variegated foliage, mixed and matched to form the most pleasing landscape reflected in the water. Sulphur-crested cockatoos screeched in the branches and a lone duck waddled in search of food. I could have lounged here for hours.
Where Melbourne rates in my liveability index
Given the experience in Melbourne, it was hard to not get ahead of myself and indulge in harmless daydreaming. What if I moved here and wanted a place to stay? Well, I’ve my heart set on idyllic East Melbourne. I’d probably settle somewhere on George Street, Hotham Street or Gipps Street. This area has rows of 19th century Victorian era houses with elaborate iron lacework that could make anybody weak in the knees. I’d pick a quaint house here and ditch the flashy condos I see in construction everywhere else.
As I roamed the streets aimlessly, an avuncular resident watching me stopped to check if I needed assistance. “Are you looking for something?” he asked with the same warmth and concern I’d encountered many times before. I smiled at him. It was my last evening in Melbourne. “Not today,” I replied. But maybe someday, who knows!
GOOD TO KNOW
Accommodation: For a quiet yet convenient place to stay, choose Radisson Flagstaff opposite Flagstaff Gardens, near QVM.
Dining: I’ve pigged out at Cumulus Inc. more times than I’d like to admit. The fried cauliflowers are dangerously addictive! Melbourne’s Greek, Chinese and Italian precincts offer ample choices. Also try any farmer’s market or QVM’s deli section.
Getting Around: From 1st January 2015 all trams in Melbourne’s CBD have become free. To get your bearings, board the heritage city circle tram that loops around the CBD and listen to the audio commentary about landmarks and major attractions.
What to wear: Melbourne is known to have four seasons in a day. Dress in layers that you can peel off or add on as needed. Carry an umbrella/rain jacket. If you really want to blend in, wear black!
Travel tip: There are seven kinds of ‘Melbourne walks’ available at the Visitor Centre, as foldable palm-sized guides with maps. Use these excellent trails to explore the city.
For dramatic sunsets, visit St. Kilda Pier. Heads up—around dusk, little penguins waddle back to their nests among the rocks! Please respect their space and refrain from using flash, if clicking photos.
- The crowds thronging Federation Square: Pic: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from Xiquinho Silva [flickr]
- The iconic Flinders street station: Pic: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from Attribution 2.0 Generic [flickr]
- The Royal Botanical Gardens, an oasis in the midst of chaos: Pic: Licensed under [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Daderot [wikipedia]
- Always on the go, most Melbournians lead a fit lifestyle: Pic: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from Savio Sebastian [flickr]
- The crowds at MCG on Boxing Day: Pic: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from cmrlee [flickr]
- The bustling laneways: Pic: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from Attribution 2.0 Generic [flickr]