It had been a number of years since we last visited Melbourne. On this trip to Australia, we especially wanted to make a repeat visit. We remembered it as a very kind city (truth be known, most Australian are kind. But when Joyce had a delayed reaction to the sun right after we had ordered our food in a restaurant many yeasr ago, the restaurant not only packed up the food to take back to the hotel on plates, but they came by the next day to pick up the plates.)
Melbourne was founded in 1835 and initially grew rapidly by selling property to early settlers. It exploded when gold was discovered 70 miles away in 1851; quadrupling its population in a mere 10 years. These gold riches funded the building of wide streets, large parks, museums, colleges and many grand, stately Victorian buildings. While much younger than its rambunctious rival city Sydney—which has long-since surpassed Melbourne in size—it has been viewed, and generally acted as the staid, refined and responsible sibling to its older, prodigal sibling.
Although it took a long time to dispel this image, Melbourne has grown into a much more cosmopolitan city of more than 4 million people (in the metro area) from 110 different ethnicities, who speak 130 different languages. It has fostered and developed cutting-edge arts, its restaurant and nightclub scene has exploded and its adventuresome side has been exposed, such as in its funding of dozens of avant garde buildings, its efforts to keep the city (and its extensive tram system) running 24 hours a day, and its efforts to encourage and permit large bodies of street art.
Touring Melbourne’s Evolving Central Business District
We reacquainted ourselves with Australia’s grande dame by taking a very informative, three-hour walking tour with “I’m Free Tours”. This tour, as with many others we have taken, integrated a history of the city into an overview of many of the city’s primary sites and a number of tips as to how to take advantage of what the city has to offer. First for the history:
Victoria and the Melbourne area have been home to aborigines for an estimated 40,000 years. In 1835, an English-born Tasmanian land speculator named John Batman came to what is now Melbourne and crafted an agreement (which the indigenous people could not read) to “purchase” 600,000 acres of land for a bunch of blankets and tools. Although the agreement was declared invalid, Tasmanian farmers bought land from Batman and poured into the fertile land, which grew to a population of 77,000 in 20 years. This created a fait a complete and the government eventually endorsed the sale.
Bolstered by this growth and the difficult communication with Sydney, the much older, larger capital of New South Wales, the Victorian government petitioned England to become an independent colony. A mere couple weeks after this petition was formally accepted, gold was discovered nearby hills in 1851. This led to a Gold Rush which proved to be larger than those of California, Alaska and Canada combined. The population exploded and, since Victoria had become an independent colony, the vast majority of the wealth remained in the state, rather than being funneled off to Sydney. Melbourne grew so rapidly that it not only became larger than Sydney, but also the second largest city in the British Empire, behind only London. And since so much of the wealth remained in Melbourne, it became also temporarily, the richest city in the world.
This wealth led to the economic boom of the 1880s and the funding of huge infrastructure projects and grand Victorian buildings—both public and private. By 1893, the wealth and the building boom crashed. Melbourne fell into a deep depression and 50,000 people left the city (which resulted in Sydney recapturing its initial position as the country’s largest city, a title it has retained ever since. It finally took its place in the “civilized” world when it finally created a modern sewage system in 1897.
In 1901, the growing number of Australian colonies united into a single country. Since neither of the country’s two major cities could agree on which should become the nation’s capital, they entered into the same type of bargain that resulted in Washington D.C. becoming a new, planned capital city that was created in the swamps. The country decided to create its own new, planned, capital city of Canberra, roughly halfway between the two large cities. In the 27 years that it took to create this new capital and prepare it for occupancy, Melbourne was named as the interim capital.
Our tour took us past a number of the central city’s most historic sights, down its most notable streets, and through many of its most popular arcades and vibrant lanes and alleyways. Among these sights are:
- Victoria State Library, where the tour began, is a lovely, classical domed 1856 building that now houses interesting displays of the city and the state’s history, as well as books (see below discussion);
- Old Magistrate Court, which was the state’s first Supreme Court;
- Old Gaol, which is now part of a university, and the place that the place where the Robin Hood-like tale of folk hero Ned Kelly came to an end, when he was hanged. Kelly and his gang, were bushrangers (i.e., outlaws) who developed into folk heroes by robbing from banks and destroying documents through which mortgages and loans were enforced. His legend was reinforced by the suit of hand-made armor that he wore that is now on display in the Victoria State Library (see below discussion on library for a picture of the armor). Kelly, however, was only one of the 930 people who were executed at this facility.
- Royal Exposition Center, the grand, domed, 1880 Victorian building in Carlton Gardens that was built to host the Melbourne Exhibition of that year and later hosted the opening of the country’s first Parliament. It was also the first Australian building to be named a World Heritage Site.
- Parliament Building, the Victoria State Parliament, which served as the colonial capital during the period in which Victoria was a separate colony, and between the 2001 unification of the country and 1927, when the Canberra capital was ready for occupancy, as the interim parliament of the unified country.
- Old Treasury Building, a lovely 19th-century gem that was built during the gold rush;
- Bourke Hill, which used to be the city’s primary Red Light District;
- Chinatown, which was created by Chinese Gold Rush prospectors and claims to be the oldest continually operating Chinatown in the Western world (while San Francisco’s Chinatown was destroyed on the 1906 earthquake and has since been rebuilt so it is the oldest continually operating Chinatown).
- Greektown, which claims to have the third largest Greek population in the world.
- Arcades and Malls, including the genteel, Queen Victoria arcade, a lovely glass-covered domed arcade (modeled after the one in Milan) that houses specialty shops and tearooms, the pretty Block Arcade and the Center Mall, a more rambunctious, open-air alley that has become one of the city’s most popular place for quick-stop cafes and coffee and tea bars.
- Collins Street, the city’s main street that houses the city’s largest department stores and most prestigious luxury brand store on one side, and on the other side, serves as home to its banking and finance industry.
- Lonsdale Street, with its well-maintained Victorian buildings.
- Street Art Lanes, such as Hozier, Stevenson and AC/DC Lanes, that have been designated as an official street art venues in which owners can commission street artists to paint or stencil murals on their buildings. These officially sanctioned works, which typically remain about six months before being painted over, are not graffiti, which is illegal.
- St. Paul’s Cathedral, an Anglican cathedral built from 1880 to 1891 on the site of the city’s first Christian service.
- Flinders Street Station, the first railway station in an Australian city was the busiest station in the world in the 1920s and remains one of the city’s most important meeting places
- Federation Square, an initially, highly controversial development that was completed in 2002 after a 170-entry architectural competition, is built around an avant-garde structure that appears to be in stark contradiction to its Victorian neighbors (St. Pauls and Flinders Station). It has, however, opened up the square and has become one of the most popular meeting places in the city and the site of a popular night market. And behind the main square are children playgrounds, and plenty of space for exhibits, such as the below-discussed “Art of Banksy” exhibit that we attended
- Fine Arts Precinct, which is marked by its 350-foot latticed spire, art gallery, three theaters and concert hall, is billed as the largest arts center in the Southern Hemisphere.
- Shrine of Remembrance, which can be seen from anywhere on Collins Street, is a memorial to Victoria’s ANZAC soldiers who died in the World Wars.
- And almost as interesting as the history, the neighborhoods and the buildings of central Melbourne, we learned so valuable cultural tidbits. We had long learned that Aussies abbreviate almost every multisyllabic word. We, did not, know, however, that multinational corporations sometimes adopt this conventions, even at the risk of diluting their highly valuable global brands. We were, therefore, surprised to see signs and hear radio advertisements not for McDonalds, but for the Aussie abbreviation—“Maccas”
We also explored the interior of some of the CBD and neighboring sights on our own. Among these were:
Victoria State Library, with its beautiful dome that spans what used to be a large reading room, but is now an internet access room. The library also has a number of rotating exhibits that explore different parts of the state’s history. One, for example, examined the 40-year history of RRR, an independent, community-supported, un-playlisted radio station that champions local, alternative, independent music that is sometimes recorded, and sometimes played live on the air.
Of greater interest to us was a large exhibit that explored “The Changing Face of Victoria. The exhibit described and presented archived artifacts and photos that traced the history and culture of the state from its founding by John Batman, through the 1850s Gold Rush, the population and economic boom of the 1880s, the depression of the 1990s, the state’s status as an independent colony and its incorporation into the Australian nation, its participation both World Wars, its hosting of the 1956 Summer Olympics and the evolution of its culture (from football through classical music and from auto travel to public protests). Although the entire exhibit was interesting, we were especially taken by suit of armor worn by bushranger, Ned Kelly (see the above discussion of our CBD walking tour for a discussion of the exploits of Kelly and his gang).
Parliament Building, where we took a tour to learn the history of, understand what goes on in, and to see the details of this 1850-60-era building that was designed and built during and funded by the Gold Rush. It was intended to demonstrate the wealth and grandeur of what was then, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The tour took us through, and fully explained the functions and operations of the structure’s five most important rooms: The
- Vestibule, a grand domed and columned room whose floor consists of a mosaic of the Royal Crest.
- Legislative Assembly Chamber, which is decorated in green, is dominated by two pairs of Ionic columns that surround the Speaker’s chair and by the three crystal chandeliers.
- Legislative Council Chamber, decorated primarily in red, surrounded by gold leaf-topped Corinthian columns and “presided over” by the Royal Lion, Crown and Unicorn that sit over the President’s chair.
- Library, where we spend most of our time in the Central Reading Room the Balcony, although we also got brief looks at the smaller Member’s reading rooms and, from the library’s window, the large excavation that will soon house member offices and meeting rooms.
- Queen’s Hall, a multi-level, columned room in which receptions, dinners and special events is held, is presided over by a marble sculpture of Queen Victoria and lit by 22 semi-circular windows and two huge crystal chandeliers.
Our guide explained the imagery and symbolism of the images in each of the beautiful chambers, how each one was constructed in only 10 months and the relative role of each chamber in the legislative process. He explained and displayed the sometimes rowdy processes by which they went about their daily business and then staged a mock debate and vote to demonstrate the process. We learned about the some of the world firsts that occurred in these chambers (such as the first eight-hour work day and the first mandatory seat belt law). We even saw the graffiti that journalists in the press gallery created while waiting for news that they could actually report. Overall, a nice overview of a wonderfully impressive building.
Hotel Windsor, the grand 1887-era hotel which has and still plays host to royalty and stars, and still serves High Tea every afternoon.
Bourke Street Mall, which was all decked out for the Christmas season with model tree ornaments hung above the mall and the annual display of Christmas windows at the Myers department store (similar to Macy’s in New York).
South Bank of the Yarra River, including the striking Convention Center and Exhibition Center with its cantilevered roof, the Southgate restaurant and shopping complex and most impressive of all, the huge, upscale Crown complex. This latter complex contains dozens of upscale restaurants that span a large portion of the river bank, a hotel, casino and a lovely upscale shopping mall that has one of the most amazing Christmas displays we have ever seen. In addition to a huge, elaborately decorated tree, it has a highlight display that changes every year, This year’s was a display of about dozen roughly 12-foot tall Christmas ornaments that line a large staircase. The ornaments open in sequence, with each displaying an elaborate Christmas scene.
Queen Victoria Market, a two-square block, 17 acre landmark is the largest open-air market in the southern hemisphere. Built in 1878, it was initially dedicated to produce, but has since been expanded to add meat, seafood, deli, specialty foods and a number of non-food items. It isn’t that we losing interest in markets. We would absolutely love to have one just like this near our own home. But after visiting and gushing over the selection of fresh everything in so many markets around the world, we are running out of superlatives to describe them.
National Opal Collection, a “museum”/retail store where we began by going through a high-level computer-guided overview of the origin, the mining and the classifications of opals—about 70 percent of the world’s production of which is in Australia.
Street Entertainers that are spread across the city, in every CBD mall, all along the riverfront, in parks and on a number of street corners.
The interplay of the old and the new, with 19th century Victorian masterpieces and two-story terraced homes with cast-iron-laced balconies and fences, with modern skyscrapers and modernist buildings.
The overall youth and vitality of the city, where people seem to be taking full advantage of and contributing to the atmosphere of the young and dynamic city.
The comprehensive mass transit system, which includes a huge tram system that is claimed to be the largest in the world, with 250 kilometers of tracks and 500 cars. All tram rides are free within the CBT trams (and extend for miles out of city to distant suburbs and connect with trains to more distant locations). The free service includes a free Circle Line (around CBD) that uses vintage cars that run around the city (every 15 minutes in each direction) and includes a narration with many interesting facts and descriptions of sites that are accessible from each stop.