Melbourne can be a confounding town on the surface. Many of its jewels are hidden, tucked away in shadowy alcoves or sitting in plain sight among a clutch of pretenders. It’s only when you spend time exploring that its true attractions swim to the surface.
Here’s our guide for how to spend 24 hours in Melbourne.
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9am – Breakfast at Higher Ground
In the early noughties, Melbourne cafes were a display of clever scrimping and making do. As long as the coffee was decent, mismatched vinyl chairs and op-shop decorations were good enough. Back then it would have been hard to conceive of Higher Ground – a meticulously designed space that could impress in any major world city: waiters are uniformed, breakfast includes cured kingfish and there’s a well-stocked bar.
The space was inspired by, and has been designed to replicate, the day-to-night service of boutique hotels in New York and London. There’s a mezzanine level with couches where you can lounge for hours, and if you stay long enough, the daytime menus swap over for dinner. And look up – the city site used to be a power station and the ceilings stretch 15 metres high.
11am – Explore the Royal Botanic Gardens
After breakfast, walk south-east until you hit the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street (which continues south as St Kilda Road). From there, cross the river and pass through Alexandra Gardens and Queen Victoria Gardens until you get to the big kahuna – the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Many Melburnians tend to just jog around the perimeter here and actually forget to spend time inside. It’s genuinely world-class, with more than 10,000 species of plants (many of them native) across 38 hectares. Although the famous grey-headed flying foxes have been relocated, you can still look out for black swans (watch it, they’re not shy), eels in the lake, wandering turtles, and occasional foxes. From sundown between December and April, Moonlight Cinema screens on the lawn – mostly new releases with some classics thrown in.
1pm – Lunch at Pontoon in St Kilda
Jump on a tram at St Kilda Road and head south to the beach. Back in January 2014, long-standing beachside restaurant and St Kilda icon, Stokehouse, burned to the ground here after a fire broke out near the end of service. In December last year, the rebuilt Stokehouse was reopened as a three-in-one – a fish-and-chip kiosk (Paperfish), a fine-diner upstairs (Stokehouse), and a casual restaurant and bar downstairs (Pontoon).
The casual good vibe of Pontoon is perfect for a low-key summer lunch and people-watching by the beach. Much of their menu is straight off the four-metre-long grill – Moreton Bay bugs, prawns, smoky chicken ribs. There are a few pizzas too – good for soaking up the mojitos.
3pm – David Hockney: Current at National Gallery of Victoria
Get on a tram back into the city – you’ve got a couple of hours before closing time to work your way through the NGV’s latest major exhibition, David Hockney.
If you’re a fan of the 79-year-old British painter’s earlier work, you’re in the wrong place. This show features more than 1200 pieces, just from the past decade. While there are paintings on show (including a room filled with 80 acrylic personal portraits), the star is Hockney’s iPad drawings. If you don’t expect digital drawings to be lush, moving and depict light, reflection and texture in intelligent ways, the results will surprise you. One of the most enlightening elements of the show is an animated time-lapse of how, stroke by stroke, Hockney drew a landscape of Yosemite National Park on his iPad.
If you can’t get there by the time it closes on March 13, take in the moving images of Japanese contemporary artist Miyanaga Akira, absorb one of the thousands of international pieces on display, or just gawk at the pink carwash by M@ Studio Architects out in the back garden.
5pm – Shopping in the city
If you like wearable art as much as looking at it, head into the city and check out eg.etal on Flinders Lane, a subterranean gallery and store for local contemporary and handmade wearable pieces. There’s also Dinosaur Designs in The Strand (via Elizabeth Street), where you can find chunky resin necklaces and bracelets in vibrant colours.
For interesting fashion in beautiful spaces, drop into minimalist Melbourne label Kuwaii at its store in Cathedral Arcade, a heritage shopping laneway with an arched, stained-glass ceiling. Another Melbourne label, Alpha60, has a new store over at Chapter House, an elegant and lofty hall in a cathedral-like space. Or to hit a few cult stores within a few minutes of each other, stick around Flinders Lane for Incu, Nique and LIFEwithBIRD, or head to QV and visit A.P.C., Saturdays NYC and Aesop all in one go.
7pm – Snacks and wine at Embla
Time to eat, but go easy – there’s dinner to come. That said, it’s hard not to go overboard at Embla, the moody wine bar and restaurant that became an instant haunt among Melbourne’s hospo scene when it opened on Russell Street in December 2015.
Just the oysters, you’ll say. If you’re having that, might as well have the crunchy anchovy toast, then the snapper carpaccio – before you know it you’ve worked your way through the whole menu and perhaps wondering if you should start again from the top.
Grab a seat and watch the chefs work the wood-fired grill – it’s responsible for many of the charred, smoky flavours throughout the menu. Embla’s also one of the best places in the city to get a glass (or bottle) of natural wine from the people who live and breathe it. Have faith and put your evening in the somm’s hands – they know what they’re doing.
9pm – Movie at Rooftop Cinema
You’ve done enough walking today – its time to plop down into a comfy deckchair and lose yourself in someone else’s adventures. There have been a number of open-air cinemas popping up around Melbourne over the years, but Rooftop Cinema, which sits at the summit of seven-storey Curtin House, really can’t be beat for location or views.
The season runs from December to April, and shows a thoughtful mix of left-field and arthouse cinema, documentaries and cult classics. There’s also easy access to the bar, where you can grab wine, beer and cocktails whenever thirst strikes. We know we said there was no more walking, but a heads up: the elevator never works. And there are a lot of stairs.
11pm – Late dinner
Even if you went to town on snacks at Embla, surely you’re ready for round two. Smart Euro-bistro The French Saloon (just upstairs from Kirk’s Wine Bar on Hardware Street), is now open for dinner until 1.30am from Monday to Friday. It’s a shortened menu but will get the job done – including oysters, housemade charcuterie, steak frites and a cheeseburger.
If you’re in town on a weekend, the Saloon won’t be open – but for late-night dining try upmarket Thai at Magic Mountain on Little Collins or a round of tacos and mezcal at Mamasita on Collins. If all else fails, Shujinko does a decent, flavoursome ramen and is open 24 hours on Russell Street.
1am – Drinks at Heartbreaker
At evening’s end, there’s one neon-lit bar calling your name. Heartbreaker is not where you go to have a quiet, civilised cocktail (if that’s what you want, you’re after its sister bar in Fitzroy, The Everleigh). Heartbreaker is where you find yourself shouting a round of Negronis to the new best friends you just met at the bar, while belting out along to Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon on the jukebox though you don’t think you’ve ever actually listened to it before.
You’ll be hoarse the next morning, you’ll spend way too much money on both beer and fancy cocktails, and a night there almost always requires a debrief over breakfast – preferably something fried. It’s a night you might forget, but you’ll have a hell of a time before you do.
2am – Sleep at QT Melbourne
Take yourself to bed at Melbourne’s newest boutique hotel in the centre of town. The 188 rooms are spacious and industrial in feel, with concrete ceilings and sliding bathroom walls, which can be opened up completely. The beds are custom-made with a gel-topped mattress, and the minibar is filled with quality spirits (such as Grey Goose vodka and West Winds gin), wine, snacks and a bottle of hot sauce. There’s also two in-house restaurants, Pascale Bar & Grill and the Hot Sauce Laneway Bar, should you decide to stick in town for round two.