Melbourne is a big city that feels small, thanks to the compact inner-city grid with its network of laneways running like capillaries off the main arteries. Around corners and down stairs, the city’s history is laid bare in its lanes, alleys and arcades, some furtive and obscure, others loudly proclaiming their presence with lights and layers upon layers of spray paint. Each laneway has something unique about it: a motif, an artwork or a venue; each arcade bears the hallmarks of its era. The only way to find out Melbourne’s secrets is to spend time lost in its latticework of laneways.
A short, narrow laneway that runs south off Flinders Lane between Exhibition Street and Russell Street, it was renamed from the tedious and impersonal Corporation Lane to its current moniker honouring the band AC/DC, the members of which filmed the video for It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) on nearby Swanston Street. Located in the city’s bar district, the newly signposted laneway was announced to the world in 2004 by Melbourne’s then Lord Mayor John So with these immortal words: "As the song says, there is a highway to hell but this is a laneway to heaven. Let us rock."
Running south from Little Collins Street between Queen and William streets, Bank Place is intersected by several smaller laneways including Mitre Place and Roeszler Lane. It’s home to the historic Mitre Tavern, which straddles Bank and Mitre places and has been drawing office workers and bohemian types alike since 1868.
Off Little Lonsdale Street, Bennetts Lane is best known for the now-defunct Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, a venue so revered that when it closed in 2017 after 24-odd years, jazz lovers the world over mourned. And why wouldn’t they? The late, great Prince performed here.
Short and skinny, Bligh Place runs north from Flinders Lane between Elizabeth Street and Queen Street. It connects over Flinders Lane to Mill Place and University Arcade, so you’ll find students stopping to refresh themselves at the tiny restaurants and bars occupying the laneway.
The Block Arcade
The Block is both laneway and arcade: the Victorian shopping galleria The Block Arcade is a heritage-listed beauty of mosaic-tiled floors, elaborately painted ceilings, wrought ironwork, pressed tin ceilings and a high, domed glass canopy. It links Collins Street to Little Collins Street and in the west connects to Elizabeth Street. The Block Arcade meets Block Place, a partially covered laneway that shelters a number of shops and cafes.
The Capitol Arcade joins Swanston Street and Howey Place and goes past Capitol House, designed by Walter Burley Griffin. Upstairs is the Capitol Theatre, described as “the best cinema that was ever built or ever likely to be built” by architectural writer Robin Boyd in 1924.
At the bottom of this dead-end lane that leads south from Little Collins Street between Swanston and Elizabeth streets is The Butterfly Club. A temple to all things kitsch, the bar/theatre space has been hosting cabaret and comedy performers since 1999 – Tim Minchin cut his teeth here. We have it on good authority that the later you turn up, the weirder the show is likely to be.
Often called simply The Causeway, this pedestrian-only laneway between Bourke Street Mall and Little Collins Street is flanked by the Art Deco former Union Bank Building. It’s pedestrian-only and lined with a cluster of eateries that’s busiest at lunchtime.
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You may recall Centre Place from the Victoria tourism commercial in which a young woman pushed an enormous ball of wool around the city. This busy, pedestrian-only bluestone-cobbled laneway between Flinders Lane and Collins Street is recognisable as a quintessential Melbourne laneway and was one of the first in town to get the revitalisation treatment in the 1980s. Centre Place manages to fit a lot of personality into its 50-metre stretch as well as a plethora of tiny eateries, boutiques and graffiti. Things are always buzzing around lunchtime when excellent options abound including The Soup Place (cauldrons of exciting soups and a lovely pay-it-forward soup project for people in need) and Café Vicolino (straight out of Roma with panini, great coffee and pizza). In the evenings, head above ground to Hells Kitchen for a very Melbourne bar scene.
The Centreway Arcade is a warren of little shops and cafes. It was built in the 1980s and provides a handy thoroughfare between Collins Street and Flinders Lane.
Yet another street gallery, the dead-end Croft Alley, off Paynes Place in Chinatown, is a former service alley.
Running south from Flinders Lane, Cocker Alley is a nondescript urban alleyway, a dingy backstreet full of garbage bins and the occasional rat. What makes it notable, however, is its street art, which once notably included a Banksy known as The Little Diver. It was covered with Perspex in 2008 for protection but destroyed by a can of silver paint poured down the back of it, then emblazoned with “Banksy Woz Ere”. Melbourne street artist Phoenix took it upon himself to reinstate the The Little Diver in a work called The Little Diver Resurfaced – though it was vandalised, too.
Dame Edna Place
Renamed in 2007 in honour of Barry Humphries’ beloved Moonee Ponds social climber (it was formerly the rather bland Brown Alley), Dame Edna Place comes off Little Collins Street between Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street. It used to be a lowly service alley but now, like its namesake, it’s moved up in the world and has a cosmos of stars adorning its pavements.
One of the most recognisable of all Melbourne’s beloved laneways, Degraves Street, stretching north from Flinders Street, is permanently thronged with coffee-drinkers, workers on lunch-breaks and street-art gawkers. With cobblestones underfoot and striped umbrellas overhead, the short laneway makes an excellent place to stop and smell the coffee; at its base is the underpass leading to Campbell Arcade.
Degraves Street Subway/Campbell Arcade
Descend the stairs marked with a “Subway to Station” sign from Flinders Street and enter a long, pink-tiled tunnel lined with black granite columns that leads into Campbell Arcade, a 1950s original that was intended to ease foot traffic to Flinders Street Station. The problem was, commuters never used it and it was prone to frequent flooding. Since a clean-up in the 1990s it’s experienced a rebirth. Now it’s chock-full of interesting shops selling vinyl, clothing and vintage; and its subterranean air is redolent of coffee thanks to the weeny Cup of Truth Coffee Bar.
With its backdrop of fire escapes, Equitable Place could fill in for a New York City street scene. Off Little Collins Street between Queen and Elizabeth streets, this little dead-end is full of tiny spots offering banh mi, coffee, salads and other lunchtime necessities.
This is the gourmand’s laneway; running east to west from Spring to Spencer streets, Flinders Lane features some of Melbourne’s best restaurants including Cumulus Inc., Supernormal and Chin Chin (pictured). More of a main (if narrow) passage than a hidden laneway, Flinders Lane is crisscrossed with smaller lanes and alleys ripe for exploration.
Hardware Lane connects Lonsdale and Bourke streets between Queen and Elizabeth streets. Its cobbled pavement, bars and cafés with alfresco seating and live music floating on the air lend Hardware Lane a European-style atmosphere – as do the touts eager for your business. There are several bars, including Golden Monkey and Kirk’s Wine Bar (pictured) as well as Italian, Mexican and Thai restaurants.
Hosier Lane is the most famous of Melbourne’s tattooed laneways – expect tourists snapping away at the ever-changing stencils, tags and murals that adorn its walls round-the-clock. In the evenings go to Frank Camorra’s excellent Movida flagship for tapas.
Extending south from Little Collins Street between Elizabeth and Swanston streets, Howey Place intersects with Presgrave Place and the Capitol Arcade. Its glass archway was built in the 1890s by the eccentric Edward William Cole, proprietor of the famous Cole’s Book Arcade, to attract tenants.
Did you know that Australia is the only country to refer to bed and bath linens as “manchester”? The reason is that much of the cotton used by early European settlers in Australia had to be imported from textile mills in industrial Manchester in the UK. It also explains Manchester Lane’s moniker. Located between Collins Street and Flinders Lane, this area was known for its rag-traders, tailors and milliners. Today, that heritage is commemorated in the name and the enormous zipper pattern along the length of the pavement.
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Manchester Unity Arcade
On the ground floor of the Manchester Unity building on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets is the Manchester Unity Arcade. Built in 1932, the striking building’s basement level is all marble friezes, original elevators and ornate tiles. Stop to admire the surrounds at the diminutive Switchboard Café, a literal hole-in-the-wall that seats approximately eight people in a tiny glassed-in space.
This city lane was home to the city’s first, dearly departed laneway bar, also called Meyers Place, and now there’s barely a city laneway without its own drinking establishment. Running off the top of Bourke Street, Meyers Place is still the laneway bar aficionado’s nightspot of choice, with Lily Blacks, Loop and a sneaky bar hidden behind a black curtain at Pizza, Pizza, Pizza (it would be churlish not to stop for a slice first).
Connecting Little Bourke to Lonsdale Street, Niagara Lane is so-named for the early 20th century Niagara buildings, warehouses that still feature their original pulley and hook stocking systems from the days of horses and carts.
Adjoining Howey Place, which in turn runs off Little Collins Street, Presgrave Place is a laneway par excellence. Not only does it offer some truly eccentric street art (dolls and rats are involved) by prolific installation artist Kranky but it’s home to Matt Bax’s Bar Americano (pictured). The pint-sized venue is standing-room only inside but has recently introduced 32 alfresco seats. From the moment the cdoors open, patrons line the bar, partaking of carefully tuned classic cocktails and old-school ambience. Look for the blue “Tabacchi” sign at the bottom of Presgrave Place.
This ornate arcade is the oldest surviving shopping arcade in Australia, having opened in 1870 – well before Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building in 1898 and the Strand Arcade in 1892. Its Italianate façade fronts Bourke Street and connects south to Little Collins Street while an annex leading from Elizabeth Street was added in 1902. Prominent occupants were the Turkish Bathhouse and jeweller Thomas Gaunt & Co. whose artistry created the enormous clock at the southern end of the arcade. Flanking it are the biblical giants Gog and Magog, whose arms strike bells every hour. Present-day retailers include Babushkas, where you’ll find plenty of the Russian nesting dolls; Hunter Gatherer for hand-picked vintage; and chocolate purveyors Koko Black.
Street art adorns every available surface in Rutledge Lane, not just walls but windows and wheelie bins, too. It forms a horseshoe just off famed laneway gallery Hosier Lane.
Scott Alley and Port Phillip Arcade
Parallel to Degraves Street are the Port Phillip Arcade and Scott Alley which runs south from Flinders Lane. Inside the arcade are a number of cafés and takeaway spots.
Former home to a tobacco warehouse, this narrow laneway going west from Drewery Lane infamously hosts a mural of a topless Kim Kardashian and model Emily Ratajkowski, copied directly from an Instagram post for reasons that have never been elucidated by the artist Lushsux.
Between Swanston and Russell streets, this slender Chinatown laneway extends from Lonsdale Street to Little Bourke Street. Tattersalls offers some of Melbourne’s best Chinese restaurants, such as Shanghai Dumpling House, where queues for the soup dumplings often form. Follow dinner with a drink at Section 8, one of the original shipping-container bars.
This central laneway runs from Bourke Street Mall to Little Collins Street between Elizabeth and Swanston. It’s been a designated canvas for the City of Melbourne’s Street Art Project since 2008; the walkway between towering buildings has 550 square metres of city-approved graffiti wall space.
Image credits: Courtesy of Visit Victoria. Top image credit: Linda Xu/Unsplash
This piece was originally published in 2017 and has been updated.