Melbourne Australia: First Timer’s Guide to the Best Things to Do

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Gleaming downtown Melbourne, Australia, along the Yarra River.

If Sydney is the L.A. of the Southern Hemisphere, then Melbourne is London with a touch of New York. This is partly a nod to its many ornate High Victorian buildings that are quite European in nature and partly realized by a hectic city center that’s a cross between Piccadilly Circus and Midtown Manhattan. With a population of five million people rivaling Sydney, Melbourne refuses to take second place to any city in Australia, especially for business and art.

This dynamic and diverse city captivates visitors with a highly regarded art museum spanning two campuses and the trendy Melbourne laneways where artistic expression is paramount. Unlike Sydney’s obsession with swimming and sunning at beaches, Melbourne delights in the national parks and stunning coastal scenery of the cooler Southern Ocean.

This is an ideal jumping-off point to drive the Great Ocean Road or to take a day trip to discover little penguins, koalas and kangaroos in their natural environments as outlined in our Day Trip section below.

Whether you’re drawn to nature or culture, Melbourne blends modern attractions and timeless wonders making it an essential destination for first-time visitors to Australia.  

SheBuysTravel Tip: Make sure to have Apple Pay, Google Pay or another pay service on your phone to pay electronically for goods and services. Throughout our two-and-a-half-week stay, we used the phone to pay for everything including transit, small-town gas stations and even vendors at carts in city parks. The only time we used cash was to tip our hotel doorman.

City Circle Tram in Melbourne Australia.
City Circle Tram. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Hop On (and Off) the City Tram

Often when visiting a large metropolitan city, the first full day of sightseeing is best spent in taking a 2- or 3-hour bus tour to orient oneself to the geography of the city, pick up a bit of history and scope out major landmarks. In Melbourne, the City Circle Tram is a free tourist tram looping around the Central Business District (abbreviated as CBD) that stops near popular attractions such as Melbourne Museum, Flinders Street Station, Docklands, Federation Square, SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium, State Library of Melbourne (and its famous reading room), the Old Melbourne Gaol, the Block Arcade shopping center, Chinatown and the Queen Victoria Market. Explore Melbourne on a historic and bumpy ride aboard the heritage W class trams (route number 35) decorated in special maroon and green with yellow and gold trimmings.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Buses, trams and subways are all free in the city center. Make sure to get a transit map showing the free zone before jumping aboard.

Visit the Flinders Street Station in Melbourne Australia.
Flinders Street Station. Photo credit: by R.C. Staab

Meet at Flinders Street Station

Picking up on the historic transit theme of the City Circle Tram, a stop is warranted at the Flinders Street Station, the oldest train station in Australia, dating back to the mid-19th century. The station features a distinctive yellow facade, green copper dome and grand entranceway. Melburnians frequently meet beneath the row of clocks above the main entrance and hang out on the wide steps at the station. It’s the busiest suburban train station in the Southern Hemisphere.

Add visiting the Shire of Remembrance to your list of things to do in Melbourne Australia.
Shire of Remembrance. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Pay Respect to War Heroes

Modeled after the Parthenon in Greece, the Shrine of Remembrance stands as a solemn and majestic monument honoring the service and sacrifice of Australians in war and peacekeeping efforts. The Shrine’s stunning classical architecture is immediately impressive, with its towering columns, stepped pyramid and grandiose scale. Visitors can reflect on the lives lost of Australians in service of their country at the forecourt with its eternal flame and cenotaph, the inner sanctum of the Sanctuary and the Gallery of Remembrance, a museum that details Australia’s wartime experiences.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Unable to squeeze in a visit between 10 am and 5 pm? Then be sure to take in panoramic views of Melbourne’s downtown from the Shrine’s balcony in the morning or evening.

The ACDC Lane in Melbourne Australia.
ACDC Lane. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Get Lost in Melbourne’s Laneways

Is it graffiti or is it art? Melbourne’s laneways let you decide. Winding in a zigzag pattern through the central business district, these narrow, pedestrian-friendly passageways and arcades were originally designed as service alleys in the Victorian era. They’ve been haphazardly transformed, some into street art with elaborate graffiti, others into rows of trendy Italian and Asian cafes and cozy bars with live music.

Hosier Lane is perhaps the most famous laneway, renowned for its ever-evolving, multi-layered street art that covers nearly every inch of the bluestone walls. Rock-and-roll fans will want to stop at ACDC Lane, named after the iconic Australian rock band.

SheBuysTravel Tip: For a deep dive into the laneways, guided walking tours are available.

Visit the National Gallery of Victoria’s Great Hall in Melbourne Australia.
National Gallery of Victoria’s Great Hall. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Visit Australia’s Impressive Art Gallery

As Australia’s oldest and most visited art museum, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) houses an impressive and diverse collection, representing the world’s most important art movements across many cultures and disciplines in its large building complex along St Kilda Road. The collection includes a wide range of artworks, from ancient civilizations to contemporary pieces, encompassing paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, decorative arts and textiles, plus major international exhibitions.

Nearby in the architecturally distinctive Federation Square, the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia houses a comprehensive Australian and Aboriginal art collection, including remarkable indigenous people’s works that artistically stand alongside any European-influenced collection.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Don’t be shy, Melburnians will approve. Enter the Great Hall of the NGV building on St Kilda Road and lay back on one of the bean bag chairs in the middle of the floor to marvel at Leonard French’s enormous colored glass ceiling from the first NGV gallery built in the 1960s.

Visit the Melbourne Skydeck and enjoy views of Melbourne Australia.
View from Melbourne Skydeck. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

See the Sites from the Heights

The Melbourne Skydeck at the Eureka Tower offers visitors a panoramic experience in the heart of Melbourne. Standing at an impressive 297 meters tall, the observation deck on the 88th floor provides 360-degree views of the city’s stunning skyline. For the more adventurous, the Edge attraction is a glass cube that projects out from the building, giving the sensation of being suspended in the air.

There is a Max VR Experience that includes sitting in comfy chairs on the ground level with a VR headset to explore the city virtually. A second VR experience is available on the 88th floor observation deck. With a headset on, participants stand on a plank and hold on to a bar above to enhance the experience of walking on the top of a skyscraper.

The Royal Botanic Gardens are a sight to die for while you are in Melbourne Australia
Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Discover a Serene City Oasis

The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne is a lush, 93-acre oasis that rises from the Yarra River on hills east toward the Shrine of Remembrance. The gardens are formal and densely planted with more than 8,500 plant species from around the world. Visitors can stroll through the serene gardens, sit by a man-made lake, sip tea at a cafe, follow a guided tour or relax and unwind to enjoy the flora and fauna.

Unlike most botanical gardens in the U.S., the Botanic Gardens are free and open early at 7:30 am. Located in the heart of the city with nine gates, start your day with a walk here.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If time allows, cross the Yarra River past the Melbourne Cricket Grounds (MCG) to Fitzroy Gardens in East Melbourne.

Remember to visit the Luna Park’s roller coaster in Melbourne Australia.
Luna Park’s roller coaster undergoing renovation. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Have Some Fun in Beachside St Kilda

Situated just a few miles south of Melbourne’s city center, the vibrant suburb of St Kilda offers an expansive beachfront, St Kilda Pier, a palm-lined boardwalk, the Palais Theatre and a funky cultural scene with live music. Think Venice Beach meets Coney Island. At the heart of St Kilda is the iconic Luna Park, a historic amusement park that has been delighting Aussies since it first opened in 1912. Walk through its famous mouth-shaped entrance for a mix of heritage-listed rides, including the world’s oldest continually operating roller coaster.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Though seven miles from the city center, the traffic to St Kilda is miserable on weekends and during rush hour. Take the tram!

Enjoy the sea life in Melbourne Australia at the SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium.
SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Go Down Under at SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium

Squarely aimed at families and children, the SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium offers visitors a captivating underwater adventure, showcasing a diverse array of marine life from around the globe. Visitors can explore the aquarium’s various themed zones, including the Coral Caves, Shark Tunnel and Penguin Playground, where they can observe and learn about a wide range of aquatic creatures, from colorful tropical fish to majestic sharks and playful penguins. For a truly unique experience, visitors can even book private dining packages that include a self-guided tour and a three-course meal with a view of one of the aquarium’s stunning underwater habitats.

You will encounter animals like kangaroos in the zoos in Melbourne Australia
Kangaroo. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Encounter Australian Animals at the Melbourne Zoo

The Melbourne Zoo offers visitors an immersive and educational experience with over 320 animal species from around the world. As you stroll through the zoo’s diverse habitats, encounter iconic Australian animals such as kangaroos, koalas, wombats and emus, as well as elephants, lions and orangutans from beyond the Australian continent. The zoo’s well-designed exhibits and enclosures provide the animals with natural environments, allowing visitors to observe their behaviors and learn about conservation efforts.

While in Melbourne Australia, shop for produce at Queen Victoria Market.
Shopping for produce at Queen Victoria Market. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Queen Victoria Market

As one of the largest open-air markets in the Southern Hemisphere, the Queen Victoria Market is home to more than 600 small businesses offering an array of fresh produce, specialty goods and unique handmade products. Wandering through the market’s bustling laneways and heritage-listed food halls, visitors can indulge in a sensory feast, from the aroma of freshly baked bread to seasonal fruits and vegetables at street food stalls and specialty delis. Depending on the season, there’s a popular Night Market on Wednesdays.

Day Trips from “Town”

Out on Phillip Bay with fellow adventure-seekers, we asked a woman where she lived. She said her family had a small seaside condo in Sorrento, but her primary residence was in “town”, meaning the city of Melbourne. Like so many Melburnians, she chose to spend her weekends south of the city along the shores of the bay or at the oceanfront. Some people head along the eastern side of the bay to the posh Mornington Peninsula; others want to experience wildlife and nature at Phillip Island. Others head southwest to favorite surfing towns Torquay and Bells Beach, where Australian surfing was born and Rip Curl and Quicksilver surf brands were founded.

Visit the Philip Island Nature Parks to witness little penguins in Melbourne Australia.
Small group tour walking to witness little penguins at Phillip Island Nature Parks. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Witness the Penguin Parade

At sunset year-round, rain or shine, for 100 years, visitors have congregated at Phillip Island to watch the Penguin Parade of “little penguins” waddling out of the ocean. (They were formerly known as “fairy penguins” but that was changed to a more pc-friendly name.) Some have been swimming for a few days, others a few weeks, some haven’t returned for more than a year, but their instincts direct them to their burrows where they were born. They wait until nightfall to cross the sand to avoid daytime predators and humans.

Although penguins have been protected for decades, it was only in 1996 that environmentalists recognized that the little penguins were endangered and created a non-profit organization, Phillip Island Nature Parks, to provide a comprehensive approach to conservation, research and ecotourism. In 2010, they led an effort for the government to buy back a 42-home community. They tore down the houses, rid the land of invasive species such as foxes and returned the land to nature.

Most people choose to view the penguins at the spacious, modern visitors center with restaurants and shops selling all kinds of penguin dolls and gifts. However, it’s worth a few extra dollars to take a fully accredited, small-group guided tour. On the Ultimate Adventure Tour, journey to a secluded beach to watch the penguins emerge and walk across the sand – sometimes within feet of the group. Help the naturalist literally count the number of penguins that make it to their burrow and add to research to chart the health and growth of the penguin colony.

You can also head to Phillip Bay for an amazing sight of Dolphins in Melbourne Australia.
Dolphins in Phillip Bay. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Swim with Seals and Dolphins

Nowhere in the continental United States is it permissible to swim in the wild with seals or dolphins. In Melbourne – and other parts of Australia – swimming with these playful sea creatures is permitted under the watchful eye of licensed guides. Here at the very tip of the Mornington Peninsula by the Phillip Bay inlet to the Southern Ocean where fish are abundant, dolphin and seals can frequently be seen.

Leaving from the dock in Sorrento from November to April, Polperro Dolphin Swims offers daily tours of the bay including Swim with Dolphins & Seals – Mornington Peninsula. After climbing into wetsuits, swimmers jump aboard a small vessel with a crew of friendly boaters who have been escorting tourists for two generations. Once dolphins are spotted and appear friendly, swimmers jump in the water behind the boat, holding on to ropes and floats with dolphins cruising within feet. While dolphins can not always be spotted, seals and birds on outcroppings can be viewed on almost every voyage. Experienced snorkelers may enjoy the chance to dive below the surface with the seals who playfully interact with humans. For less experienced swimmers, guides hold a float in the water so snorkelers can float and see the seals and sea life by the outcroppings.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Searoad Ferries runs a daily car/passenger service connecting Sorrento and Queenscliff across the inlet where the bay meets the ocean. Taking the ferry allows visitors to circumnavigate Phillip Bay or just take a 90-minute round-trip journey to enjoy the waters and perhaps see dolphins who love to play in the waves of the ferry boats.

See a joey at Koala Conservation Reserve in Melbourne Australia.
See a joey at Koala Conservation Reserve. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

See Koalas in a Natural Environment

If watching a cuddly Koala snack on leaves and climbing a tree is a must for an Australian vacation, then make sure to stop at the Koala Conservation Reserve, which is part of Phillip Island Nature Parks. The koalas are kept in a way that allows them to live in their natural habitat, rather than in captivity like at a zoo. The reserve is made up predominantly of lush eucalypt woodland, where the koalas are free to roam as they do in the wild.

Visitors wander through the Australian bushland along two elevated boardwalks where koalas are happily eating leaves or sleeping high up in the tree. With any luck, juvenile joeys – baby koalas – are visible in a separate part of the reserve.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Spend a full day on Phillip Island and save with a combination ticket to see the Penguin Parade and the Koala Conservation Reserve.

Surf in Torquay Melbourne Australia.
Wide bays and regular surf near Torquay. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Surfs Up in Torquay

Near the gateway to the Great Ocean Road, Torquay is known as the surf capital of Australia, with a strong surfing culture and history. It is home to the surf brands Rip Curl and Quiksilver, which were founded there. Nearby world-famous Bells Beach is also renowned for its surfing and as the home of the annual Rip Curl Pro surfing competition.

Stay at the Vibe Hotel Melbourne in Melbourne Australia.
The Vibe Hotel Melbourne. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Where to Stay in Melbourne

As one of the major financial centers of the Southern Hemisphere, Melbourne has its share of large high-end luxury hotels in the Central Business District and near the Yarra River, including the Crown Towers Melbourne with a casino as part of hotel complex, the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, the Grand Hyatt Melbourne and the Melbourne Marriott Hotel. For a more engaging hotel experience with a hip, upscale vibe, stay at the Vibe Hotel in a great location for sightseeing in the Central Business District along the Yarra River.

Enjoy breath taking sights while looking across the bay from Port Nepean National Park in Melbourne Australia.
Looking across the bay from Port Nepean National Park. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Where to Stay in Sorrento

Akin to the Hamptons in the New York area or Carmel in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sorrento at the tip of the Mornington Peninsula is an idyllic seaside town known for its upscale charm and natural beauty. The town’s historic limestone buildings, boutiques and art galleries create a sophisticated small-town ambiance. Nearby is Port Nepean National Park, a stunning natural park featuring dramatic coastal scenery, with panoramic views of Bass Strait, the Rip, and Port Phillip. The park’s rich history is also on display, with well-preserved colonial and Commonwealth military structures dating back to the 1880s-1940s and remnants of the former quarantine station.

The premiere luxury hotel on the Mornington Peninsula is the historic InterContinental Sorrento Mornington Peninsula overlooking Phillip Bay.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Between Melbourne and Sorrento is the Yarra Valley with its famous wineries that kick-started Victoria’s wine industry in 1838.

R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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