After a long year, I decided to splurge on a 20 day solo trip to Australia. I picked Australia for the diversity and range of experiences: beaches, city life, wine tasting, great restaurants and food, and warmth in December which is their summer season while things are freezing cold at home. My first stop on the trip was Melbourne where I spent four days and four nights. I wanted to share some of the highlights and tips to ensure you enjoy your time in Melbourne as much as I did.
THINGS TO KNOW
- Melbourne is a food lovers dream. What I loved most about the food scene here was the sheer range of offerings including types of cuisine and affordability. It's easy to find Asian and Indian inspired restaurants lining the streets of Melbourne, but there is also Italian, French, Argentinian, Spanish tapas, and more. Many of the food influences such as Chinese came from the immigrants who moved to Australia during the Victorian Gold Rush in the 1850's. In addition to the diversity of food, every meal I had in Melbourne, even at some of the most popular spots, was affordable compared to meals back home in D.C. or New York.
- Melbournians take their coffee and brunch very seriously. Restaurants in Melbourne serve brunch during the week in addition to on the weekends, which is a welcome change from the United States. The coffee shops in Melbourne are plentiful. Try a Flat White.
- Be prepared for some killer street art pretty much everywhere around Melbourne. While I'm told the city doesn't have the beauty of Sydney (haven't been there just yet), there is a funky edge throughout and the graffiti lined streets are not to be missed. Don't forget to walk down Hosier Lane and Duckboard Place to see some amazing murals.
- If you plan to go to Australia in the summer, be prepared to be attacked by flies. They are everywhere, and they swarm your face and just about every part of your body. I've never seen anything like it. You'll end up waving your hand in front of your face most of the day to shoo away the flies, and I am told that is called "The Australian Salute."
- The weather ranges dramatically in the summer months (December-February). One day will be 93 degrees followed by the next day at 65 degrees. The key is to pack layers!
- Given the amount of stops I was planning to make in Australia I decided to hire travel agents to book the trip for me. I worked with SmartFlyer in the United States in partnership with Southern Crossings in Sydney. They handled all of the excursions, hotels, and transportation while I was in Australia. I think this was well worth it, but definitely not a must.
- Tipping in Australia is closer to 10% than the standard of 20% in the United States.
WHAT TO DO
- Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne: On my first day in Melbourne I wanted to do a lot of walking to get myself acquainted with the city. I ended up walking through the Royal Botanic Gardens and making my way to see the rose gardens and other beautiful areas of the outdoor space. It was a nice walking activity and the grounds are lovely.
- The Ultimate Melbourne Food Tour: This was hands down my favorite thing I did while I was in Melbourne. Booked through Melbourne Food Experiences, I had a four hour private walking food tour around the city with chef and cookbook author Allan Campion. I will admit that I was skeptical as to whether or not this person would actually be in the know when it came to the food scene, and Allan exceeded all of my expectations. We walked through alleyways in Chinatown and visited the hidden cocktail bar Belleville, strolled through the arcades in downtown Melbourne, had a cheese tasting at Spring Street Grocer, visited a famous chocolatier, walked through the famous Queen Victoria Market and grabbed some oysters and a coffee at Market Lane, popped into the lovely Books for Cooks shop, and we ended the afternoon with small plates and a glass of wine at Andrew McConnell's Supernormal on Flinders Lane. Allan's knowledge was extensive, and I was able to weave through areas of Melbourne I never would have seen without the help of an expert. In addition, I loved all of the drinks and bites we were able to enjoy and I really felt like I got an insider's perspective of the city from someone who lives there and loves the culture.
- The Penguin Parade & Phillip Island: I was picked up for a small group excursion through Oceania Tours & Safari around 2 p.m. and did not return back to my hotel until after 11 p.m. We started the day with a stop at Churchill Island which is a small farm with pretty views. Our next stop was the Koala Conservation Centre where we were able to see some adorable furry friends up close and personal. I learned some very interesting facts about koalas including that they sleep an average of 20 hours a day! We stopped in the small beach town of Cowes for dinner and then made our way to the main event. The stop at The Nobbies was probably my favorite thing we did all day. The coast is filled with rocks and crashing waves, and the weather was windy and wild. I was almost surprised how much the area looked like Iceland rather than Australia. Gorgeous nonetheless. Finally, we arrived at the Penguin Parade. Allow me to be straight with you: the penguins are adorable, but I'm not sure I'd do this again. A friend warned me in advance and I didn't listen. You pull up to a large outdoor amphitheater with thousands of people staking out seats to ensure they see the penguins. The show goes on no matter how cold or rainy, and even though it was summer when I was there, it was probably 50 degrees and windy so it gets quite chilly. I purchased a VIP ticket in advance which allowed me to watch the event from the skybox which I'd recommend if you do decide to go forward with the tour. From there, everyone sits around and waits for the little penguins to swim onto land and run home with their pals. You are told an estimate of what time the penguins will start arriving on shore, and the rangers are generally pretty accurate. The evening I went there were over 1,000 penguins who came through which is a good amount. They really are cute and it was fun to see, but I wouldn't say it's a MUST. I also think the tours pad the day with a lot of unnecessary stops that I could have done without. Either way, was worth it to see The Nobbies!
- The Great Ocean Road: On the following day I went on a small group excursion through Oceania Tours & Safari of the Great Ocean Road. The tour started with a pickup at 8 a.m. and didn't finish up until around 7:30 p.m. It's an incredibly long day, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. Our first stop was the Split Point Lighthouse located in Aireys Inlet which has breathtaking views overlooking the water. There's also a small shop called Willow's Tea House just next to the lighthouse which has delicious coffee and scones. We made a few stops along the way in the town of Lorne, at a conservation center to see wildlife, and we stopped in the town of Apollo Bay for lunch. The main attraction along the Great Ocean Road is The Twelve Apostles which are rock formations along the Southern Ocean that are part of Port Campbell National Park. There were originally multiple stacks of rock (actually not twelve), but there are only seven remaining now due to a few of them collapsing over time. No matter how many there are, and how many tourists you have to fight with to get a spot with the perfect view, it really is something you should not miss. The views are spectacular and it's hard to imagine how this could possibly have formed on its own. The only downside to this excursion is the three hour drive back into Melbourne from the Twelve Apostles, but it's absolutley beautiful and worth the trek.
- Eureka Tower: This is the tallest point in the city of Melbourne located 88 floors off the ground. I'll admit that I am afraid of heights, but I figured traveling to the top would be worth it to get some great views of the city. It's about $20 AUD just to head upstairs and I probably only stayed for about 15 minutes, but the skydeck does provide a beautiful view of the city from all different angles. It was a quick excursion right downtown, but I think a nice thing to do if you're in Melbourne and want to see the city from up top.
WHERE TO EAT
My list of restaurants to try in Melbourne was long, and I didn't have enough time to even scratch the surface in just four days. However, I was able to check out some of the top restaurants and get a good sense for the eclectic and impressive food scene that Melbourne has to offer.
This was the #1 place that I had to try. I had been warned that the lines can be long and the waits can be 1-2 hours given that they don't take reservations, but I showed up at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night and only waited 25 minutes for two seats the bar overlooking the kitchen. A friend and I walked just down the street for drinks at the Garden State Hotel first which is a very lively multi-level pub with festive and colorful décor. Chin Chin texted us when our table was ready and we walked over and settled into a great meal. The vibe at Chin Chin is buzzy and loud, and the menu is filled with Asian fusion and Thai dishes that are meant to be shared. I was blown away by the kingfish sashimi with lime, chili, coconut, and thai basil. The flavors were amazing, and the citrus with a hint of spice was the perfect start to the meal. We also ordered the butter chicken curry which was creamy and absolutely delicious-- we both couldn't stop dipping our roti into the sauce to ensure we soaked up every last drop. In addition, we had the pad thai which was a good balance with the other dishes and the noodles provided a good base for the other foods. I loved the meal at Chin Chin, and I really loved the atmosphere as well. No frills, not fancy, just great food with a vibrant scene. If I had more time in Melbourne, I would have absolutely gone back. Chin Chin is located at 125 Flinders Lane.
This was my first stop in Melbourne as soon as I showered and started to explore the city. I had read a lot about Chef Andrew McConnell and his many restaurants, but Cumulus was at the top of my list. I arrived to the inviting space with high ceilings and a packed dining room and was immediately greeted by the friendly staff who got me a seat at the bar and kindly brought me books and magazines to enjoy during my meal. I ordered a glass of the Sorrenberg Sauvignon Blanc and from that point on, I was officially on vacation. All of the plates at Cumulus are meant to be shared, but the waitress was kind enough to suggest some half portions for me so I had a chance to test a few dishes. I ordered four things and each one was better than the next. The halloumi with fennel and burnt honey, the green bean salad with cured egg yolk and herb dressing, the tuna tartare with crushed green pea salad, and the black barley and farro salad. Not one bite was left on any of the four plates when I was done with this meal. The tuna is the dish Cumulus is most well known for, and the whipped ricotta on the bottom of the plate is divine. If you are in Melbourne, Cumulus is a must. Especially because they are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They also have a wine bar upstairs called Cumulus Up which is a great spot for drinks before or after dinner. Cumulus is located at 45 Flinders Lane.
Before my afternoon trip to Phillip Island I decided to find a great cafe for an early lunch/brunch. At the urging of a friend who I had dined with at Chin Chin the evening before, I decided to check out Higher Ground. It also happened to be on The Infatuation's Melbourne food guide, so I trusted that this spot was worth a try. As soon as I arrived at Higher Ground I was wowed by the incredible space. It's housed in an old converted industrial building with stunning exposed brick and a clientele that is young, attractive, and cares a lot about the quality of their food and coffee. There were also a lot of people pounding away on laptops while eating pastries and sipping coffee. The menu is very eclectic and I ordered what I was told was the most popular dish on the menu: the spiced cauliflower scrambled eggs with curry leaf and roasted chili on top of a housemade flatbread. The dish was almost too pretty to eat! Luckily, I took a few pictures and then dug into this delicious invention. Higher Ground is the perfect place for coffee, brunch, or an afternoon bite. Higher Ground is located at 650 Little Bourke Street.
At the end of my food tour with Allan Campion, we stopped at Supernormal to taste a few small bites and a glass of wine. This is another restaurant from Chef Andrew McConnell and this one focuses on Asian dishes, specifically dumplings, bao, and other interesting small bites. The restaurant is loud and packed, but has a great energy about it. We enjoyed the New England lobster roll which was a small bite on a buttery and toasted bun which could go head to head with many of the ones I've enjoyed in Maine and Nantucket. We also had the chicken and prawn dumplings and the duck bao which was excellent. The fried duck leg was served with vinegar, plum sauce, and small Asian buns so we could assemble our own bites. Supernormal has only been open for a few years, but it's clearly already a staple in the Melbourne food scene. Supernormal is located at 180 Flinders Lane.
For my last night in Melbourne I wanted to ensure I had a great meal. Tonka is an upscale Indian restaurant located in the back alleyway of Duckboard Place. I had read great things, but I wondered if a table for one person would be possible, or if I would need a reservation. Instead, I just walked in and the front area of the restaurant is called the Thali Bar which serves a slightly smaller version of the full menu via table service. It was a really good place for a solo diner, and the waiters were all incredibly friendly and provided great recommendations. I had the butter chicken, the fried cauliflower (a MUST at Tonka), as well as some naan and rice. It was a lot of food for one person, but it allowed me to try a few of their best dishes, and everything was spot on. Tonka is located at 20 Duckboard Place.
Other restaurants on my list included Cutler & Co. (another Andrew McConnell joint), Vue de Monde, Attica, Embla, Lee Ho Fook, Movida/Movida Next Door, Ezard, and Lui Bar for a cocktail. Unfortunately I didn't have enough time to make it to all of these, but I now have great reason to head back to Melbourne. It is a city filled with sophisticated, fun, and diverse food in addition to great people and a unique edge. I am so glad I had the chance to visit and am excited for the next stop on my Australian trip: Adelaide.