Australia’s second-largest city is the capital of cool and there is no shortage of things to do in Melbourne. While it may not have the international icons (natural and manmade) found in the northern states, a few days in Melbourne will be full of cultural delights.
Famed for its laneways, street art, and museums, the city is one that needs to be explored and some of the best Melbourne attractions are discovered when you dig a little deeper.
Whenever I visit Melbourne, I like to see the local side of the neighbourhoods, pop into the galleries, and walk along the river. When it comes to cultural institutions like museums, it has some of the best in Australia. But just soaking up daily life is also one of the best things to do in the city.
The food, the coffee, the bars – they are definitely part of the experience of visiting Melbourne. I’m not going to go into much detail about those specific venues, though, because there are so many of them, they constantly change, and they’re easy to find.
Instead, this story is more about the top Melbourne attractions and the best things to see in Melbourne between all that eating and drinking! (Although there are some Melbourne tours I’ll recommend, if you would like a guide to share some local tips).
You likely won’t have time to do all of these suggestions, but I think these are the top Melbourne sites to include in any itinerary – especially for first-timers.
As I mentioned, one of the best things to do in Melbourne is to just wander the streets and explore the city. Unlike some of Australia’s other capitals, there’s heaps happening in the city centre and it’s full of life. These are some of the things you should be looking out for.
Melbourne is famous for its laneways in the city centre. It’s in these narrow passageways off the main streets that you’ll find some of the best coffeeshops, bars, and boutique shops. Many of them have become Melbourne institutions and you really haven’t seen the city until you’ve explored some of them.
The Royal Arcade was opened in 1870 and feels like a grand European shopping strip, as does the Block Arcade, opened in 1892. Centre Place is darker and narrower and has some great coffee, while Tattersalls Lane is covered in graffiti but has some cool places to drink. And then there’s the famous Hosier Lane, which is covered in street art.
To learn more about their hidden secrets, I would recommend this laneways tour with a local guide.
Bourke Street Mall
On the flip side, Bourke Street Mall is one of the main thoroughfares in the centre of Melbourne and is often considered to be the heart of the CBD. This is where you’ll find some of the best shopping, including in the refurbished 1864 post office. There are also usually street performers and other events taking place in the mall.
For an alternative, head to the southern suburb of Prahan to walk along Chapel Street, where you’ll find some of the best shopping in Melbourne. Rather than large department stores, you’ll find local designers and vintage treasures alongside famous international brands.
By the time you’ve wandered down some laneways and ventured into some of the inner-city suburbs, you’re bound to have seen a ton of street art. Melbourne is cool and that’s literally painted onto the walls everywhere you go.
Hosier Lane may be one of the most famous spots for street art, but you’ll also find amazing pieces in the CBD in nearby AC/DC Lane, Meyers Place, Union Lane, Blender Lane and many more spots.
Outside of the city centre, the suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood are best known for their art (and I’ll tell you a bit more about them in a second).
Although I love discovering street art myself, taking a tour is one of the best things to do in Melbourne because it’ll give you so much depth about the pieces. This street art tour is excellent and will even introduce you to some of the artists.
Explore the neighbourhoods
There’s lots happening in Melbourne’s city centre, but it’s certainly worth heading into some of the neighbourhoods, which can be a bit more interesting. They tend to be a bit funkier and represent different cultural communities in the city, from artists to immigrants.
The great thing is that the best neighbourhoods to visit in Melbourne are the inner-city suburbs that you can walk to or reach with a short tram ride.
Fitzroy and Collingwood
In the east, the adjoining suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood are some of the hippest suburbs in Melbourne, where you’ll find fantastic street art (including the tallest in the Southern Hemisphere – on the side of a public housing estate), as well as microbreweries, wine bars, and cafes.
The former industrial areas are in the process of gentrification but the heritage blends nicely with the new businesses. Smith Street was recently named by Time Out magazine as the ‘coolest street in the world’ and the redeveloped Collingwood Yards is home to dozens of small artists, as well as food and a rooftop bar.
I enjoyed doing a tour of the neighbourhoods with Wayward Wanders, or there’s another tour option here. If you prefer to explore independently, I recommend hitting it up in the afternoon to see the art, before finding somewhere for a drink in the evening.
On the northern fringe of the city, another cool suburb to discover is Brunswick, with an alternative feel and lots of busy bars and live music. Brunswick also has a thriving creative and arts scene, including the Brunswick Mechanics Institute which often has interesting events.
It’s the history of immigration in Brunswick that still influences much of its character. This is where a lot of people from Mediterranean and Arabic cultures settled, and you’ll see it in the food on offer here – from pasta to felafel.
It’s also worth noting that if you’re walking to Brunswick, you’ll likely go through Carlton, which has a reputation for some of the best Italian restaurants in Melbourne, particularly around Lygon Street.
To the west, you will find all sorts of delights in Footscray, another neighbourhood that’s benefitted from its multicultural scene. The Footscray Market gives you a sense of the food scene here, which can be tasted at any of the many Chinese, Vietnamese, and North African restaurants.
The art scene here is not as established as other areas, but there’s often events at the Footscray Community Arts Centre, as well as other venues. Cool bars have live music and there’s no shortage of place to drink.
It’s another suburb that is best explored with a guide, and this foodie walking tour is a great way to get to know the neighbourhood.
Heading south from the city centre, St Kilda is the closest things inner Melbourne has to a beach. Although you may not fancy a dip (it’s cold!), there are lots of things to do in St Kilda. Grunge mixes with luxury to create a neighbourhood that feels very different to other parts of the city.
One of the main attractions here is Luna Park, the small fun park with the slightly creepy grinning entrance. For something a bit more sedate, there’s the historic St Kilda Sea Baths, or you can just stroll the promenade with the skateboarders.
The heritage buildings and the great dining scene give St Kilda a fantastic vibe and it’s a popular area for some afternoon drinks, before the nightlife picks up in the evening. The markets on a Sunday are worth a visit and
Unlike some other cities that have obvious attractions, Melbourne is somewhere that is greater than the sum of its parts, and the more you get to know it with a local, the more you’ll appreciate everything it has to offer.
Joining a guide early in your stay is a great idea. Taking a tour won’t just show you the local secrets, it will give you a good overall understanding so you’ll be able to make the most of the rest of your time here.
General city tour
It was the Victorian Gold Rush in the 1950s that really put Melbourne on the map and, as the wealth flowed into the city, it transformed into one of the world’s grandest urban centres. The impressive buildings that still line many of the main streets are from this time and they’re full of fascinating stories.
To learn more about the history of Melbourne, you can take this walking tour that will lead you to some of the top sights and share their fascinating heritage. This includes the story of Australia’s most infamous bushranger, who ended up at the Old Melbourne Gaol.
The tour includes the street art and laneways that I’ve already mentioned, as well as some tips for good spots to eat and drink.
The dining scene in Melbourne is among the best in Australia and there are always new and interesting restaurants and cafes popping up. There are so many to choose from, plus plenty that you might never find if you don’t know where to look.
That’s why I reckon taking a food tour in Melbourne is such a great way to experience the city’s culinary delights (and get some tips for the best coffee – everyone here has an opinion!). You’ll learn about the heritage as well as some of the new trends that are emerging.
I would recommend this excellent food tour in the CBD that includes some hidden delights – both about food and the city more generally. Or there are some other good options here:
And after all that eating, you need something to wash it down, right? Well, there’s no shortage of cool wine bars, breweries, and other places to drink in Melbourne. But it can be hard for a visitor to know where to start sometimes.
That’s why joining a local expert is a wonderful way to find the best bars in the city. Forget the tourist traps, this hidden bars tour will take you down laneways and to other out-of-the-way spots for drinks at speakeasies and other hip watering holes.
Or, if you’re looking for some other options, there are these other great beer and bar tours, that also include a lot of heritage and local insight:
Now that we’ve covered some of the interesting neighbourhoods and local culture, there are a few important Melbourne attractions that I want to talk about. As I’ve said, the city doesn’t have lots of big sights, but these three are some of the most important and are certainly worth a visit.
It’s hard to avoid Federation Square, the dazzling modern complex right opposite Flinders Street Station. Since it opened in 2002, it’s been used for some of the city’s biggest events and, although its design with angular ochre-coloured buildings is still controversial, it’s become an icon of the city.
There are often activities taking place in its main plaza but, for visitors, the most interesting things are the three main institutions that are now housed here.
There’s the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), which is an excellent museum about film, television and video games, with an emphasis on Australia but with exhibitions about other parts of the world too.
There’s also the Ian Potter Centre, which is the Australian section of the National Gallery of Victoria. There are more than 20,000 works here including come of Australia’s most important masterpiece from artists like Sidney Nolan, Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts.
And there’s the Koorie Heritage Trust, a modern space with Indigenous art and cultural collections. The exhibitions change regularly and the centre also organises Aboriginal Walking Tours, which are an excellent way to learn more about the history here.
Melbourne Cricket Ground
If you come from a cricket-playing country, you’ve probably heard of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG, or just The G), one of the most famous cricket grounds in the world. Opened in 1853, it’s been renovated several times and can now hold more than 100,000 spectators, making it the largest stadium in the Southern Hemisphere.
For people in Melbourne, it’s almost more important as an AFL ground than a cricket ground, though. AFL is at the heart of so much of Melbourne culture and this is where the Grand Final is held every year (along with many other games during the season). Ask a local what the most important site in Melbourne is, and they’ll probably tell you the MCG!
As well as attending a game here (a great thing for visitors to do!), you can take this guided tour of the MCG, which will lead you into places like the players changing rooms and even out onto the grass itself.
The MCG is also home to the Australian Sports Museum, which has exhibitions about cricket and AFL (of course), along with other sports like rugby, soccer, tennis and the Olympic Games.
Royal Botanic Gardens
Another of Melbourne’s main attractions is the Royal Botanic Gardens, a large green site on the Yarra River that was founded in 1846 and has grown to hold a special place in the heart of the locals. It’s not just a beautiful spot to walk around, it’s full of interesting botanic sights, with more than 50,000 plants and 8,500 different species.
If you’re feeling fit, you can join the joggers who run along a 3.8km track around the Botanic Gardens, affectionately called ‘The Tan’. Or, if you would just prefer to stroll, there are often events that you can discover.
One activity in the gardens worth considering is the Aboriginal Heritage Walk that offers insights into the Indigenous culture through the local plants and how they were used for everything from food, to tools, and medicine.
And then there’s the Yarra, the river that flows through the centre of Melbourne and defines so much about the city. It’s unavoidable and you’ll likely cross it or end up alongside it many times when you visit Melbourne.
The Yarra River is an attraction in itself, though, and there are quite a few things you can do. The easiest way to enjoy the river is to walk or cycle alongside it, and the main Yarra Trail extends for about 33 kilometres along its route, from the mouth near the West Gate Bridge, all the way into the suburbs.
To relax and just let it all float past, this Yarra River cruise is a wonderful way to see Melbourne from the water.
There are dozens of museums in Melbourne and each of them has its own story. From history to art, immigration and sport, visiting some of these institutions are among the best things to do in Melbourne. They’re not just highlights in their own right, they all come together to paint a picture of this vibrant city.
I’ve already mentioned a couple of them, but I want to highlight a few more of the most important. To find out what else there is, you can read my story on the best museums in Melbourne.
The name says it all – this is probably the best museum about Melbourne and it’s packed full of fascinating exhibitions. It actually feels a bit like visiting a series of smaller museums and it’s said to be the largest in the Southern Hemisphere!
One of the most popular sections is the Science and Life Gallery, which has 17 skeletons of dinosaurs on display. In the section about Melbourne, one of the highlights is the body of Australia’s most famous racehorse, Phar Lap.
Another really important area of Melbourne Museum is the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, developed with Indigenous representatives, that tells the story of the region’s Aboriginal heritage, which I think can sometimes get overlooked amongst all the talk of coffee and laneways.
National Gallery of Victoria
Usually just referred to as the NGV, the National Gallery of Victoria is the oldest and largest art museum in Australia – and it’s without doubt a highlight of city. I really recommend finding some time to visit it at one point – and, as a bonus, it’s free!
The NGV has more than 70,000 works of art that span thousands of years and present a huge range of styles and disciplines. There are the big European names like Cézanne, Monet, Picasso, and Rembrandt. But the Asian art collection is also impressive.
There are always special exhibitions (usually with an entry fee) that can be quite spectacular, so check out what is happening when you’re in town.
As I mentioned earlier, the Australian art section is now housed at Federation Square, so you may want to visit both sites.
Heide Museum of Modern Art
Although there are quite a few smaller art museums in Melbourne, one that is particularly interesting is the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Although it has some modern buildings on the site, part of the gallery is still in the original home of art supporters John and Sunday Reed.
After they started living here in 1934, John and Sunday welcomed contemporary artists into their home, creating an intellectual environment. Many of those people, including Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, would become some of the country’s most famous artists.
There is also a market here every second Saturday of the month, which is an additional treat if you can coincide your visit for one of those days.
I’ve talked about Melbourne’s multicultural neighbourhoods a few times, and there’s no doubt that immigration over the decades has had a huge impact on the city that you find today.
If you want to know more about Melbourne’s heritage and culture, a great way to do it is to visit the Immigration Museum in the Old Customs House on Flinders Street. It looks at how and why people left their homes to move to Melbourne — and how their arrival shaped the course of the city. Immigration has had a huge impact on so many things here, from the coffee to the music.
Over three levels, there is a series of exhibitions, plus space for temporary shows. The courtyard is also regularly used for festivals and other cultural events.
Some of the most interesting tourist sites in Melbourne are related to the city’s history, especially from the period when the riches from the Gold Rush were used to start building a stately city to compete on the world stage.
Royal Exhibition Building
The Royal Exhibition Building is Melbourne’s only World Heritage Site (and one of only two in Victoria) and for this very reason I would recommend it as one of the top things to see in Melbourne.
It was built in 1880 to host an international fair, as was the trend in the developed world during this period. As the site for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, and then the larger Centennial International Exhibition in 1888, it helped introduce Australia to the world.
The Royal Exhibition Building is also historically important because it was used for the formal opening of the Australian Parliament when the country was officially created in 1901.
These days, exhibitions are still held here regularly. But when nothing is on, you can join a guided tour to see the inside of the building, which has been restored to some of its original interior design.
Old Melbourne Gaol
The first gaol buildings were built here in 1839 and it was used as a prison until 1929, during which time it held some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, including the bushranger Ned Kelly. It was the site of more than 130 executions.
In 1972, Old Melbourne Gaol was turned into a museum and the exhibition here have only grown since then. You can walk down the corridors and look into the cells. There are information displays about some of the prisoners, as well as some rather morbid memorabilia like death masks.
If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can join one of the night tours the gaol runs, looking for ghosts and hearing the creepy tales of those who were hanged here.
Queen Victoria Market
Featuring on the National Heritage List, the Queen Victoria Market is an important landmark in the city, and a reminder of how Melbourne once looked during the Victorian era.
It was opened in 1878, although a range of markets had operated on the site before then. Covering two city blocks, some of the original buildings still exist, including the facade of the Meat and Fish Hall building, and shopfronts on Victoria and Elizabeth Streets.
The markets are open most days of the week, with a seasonal night market on Wednesdays. Weekends are obviously the busiest, but you’ll be able to see the heritage at any time.
There’s plenty of history in the walls of the State Library Victoria, which was established in 1854 and was one of the first free libraries in the world. Over the years it gradually expanded until it finally filled the whole city block in 1992.
While there are important documents kept here and interesting exhibitions are regularly held, it’s even just worth popping in to have a look at the La Trobe Reading Room. Opened in 1913, it’s a cavernous octagonal space that is very popular with photographers (particularly from the viewpoint on level six).
But even beyond that, I think the State Library is significant because it shows the commitment that Melbourne has had for more than a century to culture, the arts, and intellectual thought.
Melbourne is not Europe, and the main churches in the cities here are not necessarily the exciting tourist attractions they would be there. Still, there are a couple of churches in Melbourne that are quite impressive and are interesting enough to pop into.
The first is St Patrick’s Cathedral, the main Catholic church in Melbourne, on the eastern edge of the city centre. Construction started on St Patrick’s in 1858 and its based on the gothic style of medieval English cathedrals. It is the largest church building in Australia.
The other particularly notable one is St Paul’s Cathedral, the main Anglican church, which is in the centre of the city opposite Flinders Street Station. Construction started in 1880 and the site was chosen because it is where the first public Christian service was held in Melbourne (in 1835).
While Melbourne’s streets are fun to explore, you’ll get a whole different perspective from above, and there are a few things to do in Melbourne that take you way up high!
OK, it’s no Burj Khalifa, but Eureka Tower is still pretty impressive. At 297.3 metres high, it is the third highest building in Australia (and was the world’s tallest residential tower when it was opened in 2006).
The tower’s observation deck – officially called the Melbourne Skydeck but often referred to as the Eureka Skydeck – fills the entire 88th floor of the building and, at 285 metres high, is almost at the top. There’s also a bar, a cinema, and a glass box that will feel like you’re suspended in mid air.
Obviously you can visit the Skydeck yourself, but there is also this interesting tour that includes the entrance fee, plus then takes you around the street art and food scene back on the ground.
As of September 2021, the Melbourne Star is permanently closed, but I’m still mentioning it here because it hasn’t yet been dismantled so you will probably still see it when you’re in the city.
The 120-metre-high wheel has had a controversial history because it was closed because of structural defects after just 40 days of first opening in 2008. It didn’t reopen until 2013.
Until it closed again in 2021, a full rotation on the wheel would take 30 minutes, offering pretty incredible views of Docklands, the CBD, across Port Phillip Bay, and even all the way to the Dandenongs. Oh well, RIP Melbourne Star… Nobody will really miss you.
Hot air ballooning
Something you can still do – and is pretty special – is a hot air balloon ride across the city. Melbourne is one of the few major cities in the world where hot air balloons can fly right over the top of the centre, and you get some incredible views this close up!
For the best flight, it’s worth taking off at sunrise from the outskirts of the city and watching the sky change colour as you approach the CBD. Seeing the MCG and the Yarra River from up here is stunning and, if you haven’t done it before, you’ll be surprised at how peaceful a hot air balloon is.
Kids are going to enjoy some of the main Melbourne attractions, particularly the activities along the Yarra and some of the museums (ACMI is a great one for kids). But if you’re looking for some more family-friendly things to do in Melbourne, here are a few extra suggestions.
Sea life Melbourne
The city’s main aquarium, right on the Yarra in the CBD, is Sea Life Melbourne, a large complex that extends more than metres down below the surface.
Spread across four levels are a number of exhibitions with animals from across the world, although the penguin playground and the Antarctic fish display (with real ice) are a couple of the highlights. The main attraction, though, is the enormous ‘oceanarium in the round’ where sharks and up to 2,000 other animals swim around you.
To guarantee a ticket and skip the line, you can book in advance here.
The city’s main zoo, Melbourne Zoo, is a few kilometres north of the CBD and is considered to be one of the best in Australia. It has more 320 species from arround the world, including lions and tigers, a gorilla rainforest area, a special section for elephants.
The Australian bush section features icons like emus, kangaroos, and wombats – and you can even buy an early entry to explore this area before the crowds arrive.
The science and technology museum, Scienceworks, is in a new building but the architecture reflects a nearby pumping station, an homage to Melbourne’s industrial side. While the exhibitions inside tell some historical stories, they also look to the future.
One of the most popular sections is the Lightning Room, where there are regular performances involving a giant Tesla Coil which is able to produce three-metre lightning bolts!
The museum is great for kids and the price is right – children up to 16 years get in for free, just like Melbourne Museum (which also runs Scienceworks).
The Legoland in Melbourne is unashamedly for young kids, with more than a dozen play zones across the site, including rides and a 4D cinema. There are displays of world landmarks built out of Lego, and you can play with blocks to build your own creations.
Other than a representation of the city in one section, there’s nothing particularly ‘Melbourne’ about this Legoland Discovery Centre, but it’s certainly a fun way to entertain your children for a couple of hours