48 hours in ... Melbourne

Indulge your sports fanaticism, sample international cuisines, or marvel at exotic plants and animals in Australia's second-largest city, says Richard Bouwman
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Because this is by far the best time of year to see Australia's second city - second in terms of size, at least (don't tell a Melburnian that it comes second in any other way). And because air fares at the moment are wonderfully reasonable - if you can get a ticket (see below).

Beam down

The cheapest airline currently flying to Melbourne from Britain is Emirates Airline, via Dubai, which leaves from Gatwick and Manchester. Both Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) and Bridge the World (0171-209 9000) are offering return tickets for pounds 536 including taxes. They warn, however, that availability is limited.

Melbourne's international airport is about 20km north of the city centre. There's a regular bus service (Skybus, $9 per person, every half hour) into the city centre. Alternatively, a taxi (about $25) will get you into town in about 20 minutes. In Australian cabs, it is normal to sit in the front next to the driver, who will often be a reliable source of information about the city.

Get your bearings

The 19th-century inner area of Melbourne is surrounded by miles of fairly anonymous suburbs. For a short stay, therefore, it's best to head for neighbourhoods like Carlton, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, Collingwood, St Kilda, Richmond and the city centre, where in the third quarter of last century, following the discovery of gold, opulent homes and public buildings went up willy nilly. Melbourne boasts some of the best-preserved Victorian residential streetscapes in the world, with many houses displaying the cast-iron lacework which is unique to the city.

The city is built on a grid system, with wide streets and gently undulating topography: you might get tired covering long distances on foot, but you won't get lost. Visit the Melbourne Tourist Information Centre (130 Swanston Walk) for maps, brochures and expert advice.

You can also pick up one of the six free Heritage Walk guides to the city centre. Best of all, though, there's the free Melbourne Greeter Service (9658 9524), where a guide with interests similar to yours - whether it be shopping, architecture, history or sport - will take you for up to a day's personal introduction to the city centre. Contact the service as early as possible to ensure that someone is available.

Do make use of the famous Melbourne trams. A one-day Zone 1 Metcard, available from newsagents and milk bars ($4.30), gives you unlimited travel throughout the inner area (and on trains and buses too).

Check in

Melbourne has a wide range of accommodation, ranging from backpacker hostels, where you can get a dorm bed for as little as $15 a night, to luxury hotels. Middle-range places are a little rarer, but are increasing in number; Tony Wheeler, founder of guidebook publishers Lonely Planet (who are based in Melbourne), gave me a few recommendations. For a stylish boutique hotel (check out its swimming pool suspended over the street) there's The Adelphi (187 Flinders Lane, City, 9650 7555). There's also the charming Tilba (30 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 9867 8844), the Rydges Riverwalk (649 Bridge Road, Richmond, 9246 1200) and the Magnolia Court Boutique Hotel (101 Powlett Street, East Melbourne, 9419 4222).

Alternatively, AusRes (9650 7721) at the Tourist Information Centre will book a place for you.

Go to market

The Queen Victoria Market on the northern edge of the city centre is a rare treasure; a vibrant, working inner-city produce market. The oldest buildings date from the 1860s and the whole place has a delightful old- world feel. Market Walking Tours (9320 5822) offer a range of guided walks, best of which is probably the Foodies Dream tour ($18, including food tastings). For lunch you can make a picnic of your purchases. Take a No 15 tram down Royal Parade from the Vic Market to the Optus Oval; walk into the park between the oval and the tennis club and you will find free electric barbecues, tables and benches, all in a parkland setting.

Animal afternoon

It's just a short walk back across Royal Parade to the Melbourne Zoo (9285 9300). Head for the newly opened Bushland Exhibit, which - if you're not going to spend a lot of time in the bush - is a great chance to see native Australian animals. The Melbourne City Explorer bus (9563 9788) calls in at the zoo every hour.

The Royal Botanical Gardens, in South Yarra (9252 2300, free entry; take any tram down St Kilda Road) are among the most beautiful anywhere, as well as being a world-class "living" botanical museum; the gardens were originally founded to see which plants could be introduced to Australia. In summer, there is also evening entertainment; this year Much Ado About Nothing (9 Dec-27 March) and an Open Air Cinema are the highlights.

Lunch on the run

Huge competition, fine produce and great variety, plus the lack of a strong gastronomic tradition and an "anything goes" attitude by chefs, mean that Melbourne is a paradise for eating out. Try Cafe Provincial (299 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 9417 2228), Luxe (14 Inkerman Street, St Kilda, 9534 0255) the famous Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar and Grill (333 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 3985), and, for seafood, Toofey's (162 Elgin Street, Carlton, 9347 9838).

For more casual eating, wander around Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Lygon Street, Carlton, Fitzroy and Acland Streets, St Kilda, Greville Street, Prahran, and the eastern end of Flinders Lane in the city, where you will find a vast range of stylish cafes and bars - most opening late and serving food all day.

Finally, there is a lot of cheap and excellent ethnic food: Italian in Lygon Street, Carlton; Vietnamese (Victoria Street, Richmond); Turkish and Middle Eastern (Sydney Road, Brunswick); Eastern European/Jewish (Acland Street, St Kilda); Chinese (Chinatown in the city); and Greek (Swan Street, Richmond and Lonsdale Street in the city). Most of these restaurants offer BYO - bring your own wine. Just look for the sign.

Active alternatives

Melbourne is the most sport-obsessed city in a sport-mad country. For spectators, there's the Boxing Day Test Match between England and Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (9657 8888) between 26 and 30 December, and the Australian Open Tennis at Melbourne Park (18-31 January). Tickets for the latter (9286 1234) are selling well, but it is usually possible to get tickets at the gate, especially for the early rounds.

There are also tours of the MCG: tickets are available from the Australian Gallery of Sport in front of the Members' entrance at the ground. For horse-racing fans, there are four excellent city racecourses, at Flemington, Moonee Valley, Caulfield and Sandown. Buy a copy of a daily paper (The Age or The Herald Sun) for details of meetings.

You can play tennis at Melbourne Park (home of the Australian Open) for about $20 per hour, including racquet hire, and there is a plethora of pools, both indoor (City Baths, Swanston Street, 9663 5888; Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, Albert Park, 9926 1555) and outdoor (Fitzroy Swimming Pool, Alexandra Parade, Fitzroy, 9417 6493).

Sunday-morning: go to the beach

There are miles of sandy beaches nearby, many accessible by tram. For atmosphere and attitude, Kerferd Street beach in Albert Park is fun, as are St Kilda and Brighton beaches. But don't forget sunblock and a hat: to avoid sunburn, but also to avoid being told off by locals, who all take the risk of skin cancer very seriously.

The icing on the cake

The Melbourne Arts Centre in St Kilda Road has a world-class concert hall and several theatres, while the National Gallery of Victoria next door houses a representative collection of Australian painting, as well as everything else you would expect in a major international art museum.

Theatre is lively, and there are many cinemas, both commercial and arthouse.

Or you could just find a cafe, sit back with a latte and reflect on a busy 48 hours.