How does a city obsessed with an oval ball have enough passion left over for cool design and a cranking food culture? We hit the streets and gets between the layers of Melbourne’s urban soul.

There’s a story told about Flinders Street Station, the grandly decaying landmark – designed around the time of Federation – at the cultural axis of Melbourne. The rumour goes that the architectural plans shipped from London were somehow mixed up with blueprints intended for Bombay – which is how Melbourne wound up with an ornate, grandiose and sprawling central station with a vaguely “days of the Raj” feel. 

It’s a great tale, though sadly apocryphal (the other great station legend – that there’s an underground bowling alley and its closed-off upper levels contain a ballroom – is wonderfully true). However, it shows that Melbourne’s design obsession, rather than being new, has been endemic for well over a century. 

Like all great cities, Melbourne is a palimpsest – a series of layers, the past discerned in shadowy outline beneath the present. It certainly isn’t a box-ticking destination. Sure, the first-time visitor can see the Shrine of Remembrance and the contradictorily named National Gallery of Victoria then swing by bright and shiny Federation Square or the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building. Only a hack could fail to make Brighton Beach’s colourful bathing boxes look pretty on Instagram. But the truth is that while some cities reveal themselves to you instantly, others need coaxing.

How Melbourne Became Cool

If Melbourne’s old charms have been somewhat buried – Ava Gardner was once famously misquoted calling it “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world” and the sobriquet stuck – the past 20 years have seen a renaissance of underground art, design, food and culture that has propelled the city overground.

Visit the top end of Bourke Street, the bustling European core of the city where footpath tables spill over with diners eating calamari fritti and bistecca, and imagine the weekend ghost town of 20 years ago. 

“I can remember kicking a footy in the middle of the road on a Sunday afternoon,” says Jerome Borazio, who revved up Melbourne’s cultural capital in 2004 with the simple yet revolutionary act of opening a tiny bar in a gritty laneway behind the Myer department store, using milk crates for seats.

The milk crate is emblematic of the analogue pleasures of the Melbourne brand (the ground zero of yarn bombing, natural home of the fixie bicycle, scene of the Brylcreem quiff revival that is the London Barber Movement); it’s a design motif borrowed by endless cafés and bars – much to Borazio’s bemusement. “My attitude was: it’s a bar and you should be standing up but if you want to sit down, have a milk crate.” St Jerome’s bar was lost to the development of the Emporium shopping centre but its left-of-centre legacy lives on at St Jerome’s – The Hotel, which offers luxury camping in the CBD on the AstroTurf roof of Melbourne Central shopping centre.

Melbourne Hotel Review: St Jerome's – The Hotel

“Melbourne has an amazing, unique style that’s different to every other Australian capital city,” says Borazio, who has spent the past 12 months scouting the nation for the location of his second hotel. “Having traversed the country, where do you think we wound up? Melbourne.”

His empire flourishes in the city’s quirkier spots – none more so than Ponyfish Island, a floating bar in the middle of the Yarra River that’s accessed via the pedestrian bridge connecting Southbank to Flinders Street Station.

How Melbourne Became Cool

The river precinct is rich with historical reclamation. To the east of Ponyfish is the outdoor Arbory Bar & Eatery running along Flinders Street Station’s former Sandridge railway line. Further north, Riverland bar inhabits Federation Wharf’s once-decrepit bluestone vaults. This previously Dickensian stretch of the Yarra has transformed in a few short years from a no-go zone into a must-do.

None of these fortuitous meetings of history and hopes can be accessed by car, which introduces another point essential to the enjoyment of Melbourne. It’s a city best explored on foot, thanks to a serpentine network of laneways and arcades that can feel like an urban sophisticate’s version of Snakes and Ladders. It’s the only way to discover the Art Deco, stained-glass wonder of the Cathedral Arcade on Swanston Street, with its edgy local fashion boutiques. Or the echoing and mysterious Nicholas Building directly above it – a vertical village connected by a juddering elevator where ateliers, studios and galleries form a thriving creative hub. Among other activities, life-drawing classes are held there three evenings a week.

How Melbourne Became Cool

The visitor might note that Melbourne is a contrary beast. The term “world-class” is bandied around with wearying regularity but as a lived-in city it’s all about small scale and boutique. It’s a place in thrall to homegrown quirk, summed up as the twin peaks of fashion – the dark and directional Alpha60 label ( is the de facto uniform of the creative class – and a booming food, coffee and bar scene based on a fiercely fought competition to find the most outlandish real estate. Hence the improbably small Switchboard café (220 Collins Street, Melbourne; 03 9619 1111), housed in a former switchboard room and window display in the historic Manchester Unity Building; and newcomer Whitehart Bar, which wins the Melbourne design-trope trifecta by colonising a former car park in a dead-end laneway using shipping containers – the architectural answer to the milk crate.

They’re not always easy to find – which is exactly the point, says Miss Pearls (aka Paula Scholes), hostess at one of the city’s original rooftop bars, Madame Brussels on Bourke Street. It’s designed like an English garden-party fantasia, complete with waiters clad in tennis outfits. “It’s all about feeling rewarded when you find the small doorway, the hidden laneway… Melbourne really makes you work for it.”

SEE ALSO: An A-Z Guide to Melbourne’s Best Laneways, Alleys and Arcades

The practice of perambulation will inevitably reveal Melbourne’s strong suit in street art, a subject with which the city has an uneasy relationship. Only recently the council ordered the removal of a work by lauded artist Vincent Fantauzzo, while a piece from shadowy UK-based artist Banksy famously fell victim to an overzealous cleaner. Hosier Lane is the flashpoint of the street-art scene. Look back towards Flinders Street for the money shot: the honeycomb steel and glass of Federation Square’s The Atrium, sandwiched between stern 19th-century walls. ACDC Lane and Duckboard Place are among other tributaries also affording aerosol riches. 

Street artist Kaff-eine swapped her career as a public servant for art several years ago and hasn’t looked back. Look out for her trademark whimsical figure high up on Rutledge Lane. Her own favourite piece is by German duo Herakut, in Fitzroy North, opposite the Edinburgh Gardens on Brunswick Street: a fey, two-storey image of a girl riding a monkey – “It’s beautiful, poignant, powerful street art” – that provides an arresting backdrop to the full-throated support of grassroots football on the Fitzroy Reds’ home ground each winter weekend.

How Melbourne Became Cool

Even art of a more codified kind embraces the city’s love of the unique. In the well-heeled, leafy suburb of Kew, the Lyon Housemuseum is an appointment-only gallery where one of the largest private collections of contemporary Australian art is displayed in the home of architect and owner Corbett Lyon. Once you’ve digested the thrill of works by the likes of Howard Arkley, Polly Borland and Callum Morton, you’ll appreciate Lyon’s clever ploy to dissociate art from the traditional gallery.

On that note, you might also want to visit Morton’s red scaffolding-like installation boldly framing the doorway of St Kilda’s Bar Di Stasio, a wickedly inveigling kind of place where people pop in for a quick drink, only to emerge five hours later. Bon vivant owner Ronnie Di Stasio can often be found sitting at the bar with his poodle, Roscoe. The bar-restaurant is really Melbourne in a nutshell: art, booze and the best spiced pigeon cherry pie you’ll ever eat. What more could you ask for? 

SEE ALSO: One Perfect Day in Melbourne

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