Beneath the shiny glass skyscrapers and peak-hour crushes, there’s a bohemian heart pumping life into the narrow arteries of Melbourne’s imposing central business district.

An artist-led renaissance during the 1990s recession transformed the city into an open-air gallery of painted laneways and creative spaces that endure today. The Victorian capital’s charms are not always obvious so don’t be shy about delving into the urban labyrinth. This is a city that constantly rewards curiosity, revealing its surprises in the form of hidden bars, basement dining and rooftop revelry.

05:00 Rug up against the pre-dawn chill for a hot-air balloon flight over this 4.5-million-strong metropolis. Watching Melbourne wake from above is a wonderful sensation, gliding on high and feeling far removed from the commuter crush below. On a clear day, views extend from the Dandenong Ranges to Port Phillip Bay, with the city’s famously flat terrain making it easy to spot landmarks such as the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Florentine dome of the World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building. Global Ballooning Australia offers a convenient East Melbourne pick-up – at an inconvenient pre-dawn hour.

09:00 After Global Ballooning drops you back in East Melbourne, jump in a taxi and head to nearby Church Street in Richmond for breakfast at Top Paddock. Coffee is the lifeblood of the Victorian capital and a sophisticated café society has evolved to satisfy the city’s cravings. Top Paddock is typical of the best; the service is sharp and friendly. The coffee – perhaps Costa Rican or Bolivian single origin – is dispensed from behind a seven-metre-long barista bar and an inspired breakfast menu ranges from blueberry and ricotta hotcakes with berries, organic maple syrup and cream to fried eggs with Padrón peppers and jamón serrano. Work off any excess with a stroll along the Yarra River (mind the joggers and cyclists), where you’ll pass landmarks such as Rod Laver Arena and the Birrarung Marr parklands on the 40-minute walk to the heart of Melbourne at Federation Square.

11:00 The Victorian capital heats up culture-wise in the cooler months with Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, a program of blockbuster events at major arts institutions. Until November 1, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Federation Square is home to David Bowie is. The exhibition features more than 50 costumes, handwritten lyrics sheets, album artwork and rare footage, as well as photographs from the life of the pop icon. Originally curated by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bowie show became its fastest-selling event. Meanwhile, the National Gallery of Victoria presents Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great, featuring the finest collection of Flemish and Dutch art to be seen in Australia. It runs through to November 8.

12:30 Buy a Myki travel card from any 7-Eleven store then ride the number 86 tram from the intersection of Swanson and Bourke streets to stop 17. The Smith Street border between the hipster hotbeds of Fitzroy and Collingwood is well known for contemporary dining (St Crispin, Lee Ho Fook, Northern Light) but less so for its excellent street food – perfect for lunch on the run. Warm yourself over a bowl of noodles at Shop Ramen (329 Smith Street) or join the queue for bánh mì at N Lee Bakery (220 Smith Street). Grilled pork is the pick, stuffed in a crunchy white roll smothered in pork liver pâté and mayonnaise, with coriander, cucumber, carrot and chilli. So delicious and just a fraction more than $5.

13:00 Catch the 200 or 207 bus heading east on Johnston Street, get off at the intersection of Johnston and Clarke streets then walk around the corner to St Heliers Street. A decade after the Abbotsford Convent was handed over to the citizens of Melbourne, it has become a much-loved arts, cultural and community hub. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd would hardly recognise the place these days. The Convent Building, built in 1901 and once home to 150 Sisters, now houses not-for-profit organisations, a well-being centre and artist studios, while its kitchen annex has been transformed into a number of cafés. The complex and its gorgeous riverside grounds attract more than a million visitors every year, with events including annual vegan and guitar festivals and a monthly farmers market. While you’re there, pay a visit to the mighty oak that was planted to commemorate Victoria becoming an independent colony in 1851. Kids will love the adjacent Collingwood Children’s Farm.

14:30 Head to Parkville – a 15-minute taxi ride will be quickest – and explore Melbourne Zoo. Opened in 1862, Australia’s oldest zoo is a world leader in endangered species conservation and innovative animal displays. There are more than 300 species from all around the world, from rare corroboree frogs to Sumatran tigers. New exhibits such as the Lion Gorge – with African lions, wild dogs and the endangered Philippines crocodile – and an island populated by ring-tailed lemurs join old favourites, such as the butterfly house and the western lowland gorilla enclosure. The current star attractions are baby gorilla Kanzi and an adorable pygmy hippo calf that was born in May.

16:30 Grab a taxi back to Gertrude Street, Fitzroy – ground zero of Melbourne’s urban groove. As well as being home to some top restaurants (Cutler & Co, Casa Ciuccio, Moon Under Water), this raffish strip is renowned for its quirky, high-end shopping. Smart Alec Hatters specialises in vintage head wear for gents, from fedoras and trilbies to bowlers and panamas. Third Drawer Down trades in art and design pieces, with edgy, humorous home décor and works created in collaboration with famed international artists – there are frisbees designed by Glasgow’s David Shrigley, pillowcases by American director Miranda July and scarves and tea towels by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. Vinyl is king at Northside Records. Shelves are stocked with the latest in soul, hip-hop and disco, with a burgeoning catalogue of rare and second-hand records. For distinctive fashion, drop into Brisbane designer Masayo Yasuki’s Dogstar or ESS Laboratory, the flagship store for Melbourne-based Japanese duo Tatsuyoshi and Hoshika Kawabata.

19:00 From Fitzroy, catch an 86 tram to Spring Street at the top of the city. Head towards European restaurant (161 Spring Street), push open the unmarked door at its left and climb to the rooftop where Siglo Bar serves up one of Melbourne’s most romantic views – with a negroni on the side. Scoring a table at the city’s top eateries is no easy feat but a seat at the bar is a good compromise. Head to Supernormal, Andrew McConnell’s Asian hotspot, grab an opening at the counter and feast on something raw (tuna, avocado, saltbush and kombu) or something famous (his signature New England lobster roll). If Supernormal’s too busy, continue up Flinders Lane to Coda and nab a spot in its no-reservations area. Chef Adam D’Sylva dishes up gorgeous Asian flavours with a European touch in this sexy basement space.

22:00 Melbourne’s laneways and dead-end alleys harbour all sorts of unique and unexpected establishments, such as The Butterfly Club in Carson Place. This cabaret venue, which opened its doors in 1998, is where musical comedians Tim Minchin and Eddie Perfect honed their skills. Boasting the Southern Hemisphere’s largest collection of kitsch, this three-storey house of fun offers up to 30 performances each week, from sketch comedy and glee club to burlesque life-drawing classes. If you’re not up for a show, the cosy foyer bar is a great place to have a nightcap before calling it a day – or for a couple of cocktails before kicking on. 

SEE ALSO: All our features and tips on the best places to eat, shop, play and stay in Melbourne

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