Australia: The bridesmaid catches the bouquet

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The Independent Online
Australia's second city is tops for food, gardens and Victorian town halls. Tony Wheeler toasts his adopted home of Melbourne

It seems impossible to mention Australia's number two city without comparing it with the number one. But there can be distinct advantages to having a more glamorous sibling - even one as sexy as Sydney. OK, nobody wants to be the ugly sister, cruelly forced to remind the beautiful Princess of her place in the universe, but having somebody else frying under the spotlight, besieged by spotty teenage admirers and stalked by obsessives can be relaxing.

It is no bad thing, after all, to be able to find a table free in a favourite restaurant. And if you don't yet have a favourite, just wander down crowded and colourful Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, which seems to have dedicated itself to providing at least one restaurant for every cuisine on earth. Personal recommendations include the Provincial Hotel (now very un-provincial, rather stylish, in fact), The Fitz (one of the best breakfast spots in Melbourne) and Charmaine's (for the city's best ice cream).

In fact, the range from Ethiopian to Thai along Brunswick Street is only the start. You can catch the sun at the restaurant-packed riverbank South Gate Centre and head for France in Simply French or Bistro Vite.

For people-watching, countercultural St Kilda is probably the place, whether it's in sophisticated Madame Joe Joe's or hip places like the Dog's Bar or Greasy Joe's. You can even enjoy your Melbourne meal while trundling around the city on one of the famous trams, the nearest thing Melbourne has to an instantly recognisable symbol. Never expect great food in any restaurant that moves, floats or rotates is a time-honoured maxim, but perhaps trundling is a bit different; the food on board the tram is pretty good.

The city's upside-down river, the brown (muddy, not dirty if you don't mind) Yarra coils through the city, providing entertainment all the way. Hire a bicycle from the riverside bike rental agencies and you can pedal your way past the barbecues, following one of the longest bike tracks in Australia, a car-free route along the riverbank which stretches for more than 20km from the very centre of the city.

If you like your boating with a glass of wine in hand, rather than an oar, head in the other direction where the river widens out, past the skyscrapered city centre and Melbourne's busy container port, and on under the soaring West Gate Bridge to the huge sweep of Port Phillip Bay. Cruise boats start from the riverbank near Flinders Street railway station in the centre of the city and shuttle up and down this working stretch of the river. On weekends, the waters of the bay are dotted with sails ranging from countless windsurfers to hulking maxi-yachts.

There's plenty of bluster, too, in the State Parliament - one of the less well- known tourist attractions. A couple of years ago, Australian politics seemed to be heading towards terminal boredom until Melbourne (and the state of Victoria) elected Jeff Kennet. He quickly became Australia's best known and most quoted politician. Our Jeff, as even the most rabidly anti-Kennet Melburnians find themselves fondly referring to him, is an antipodean Maggie Thatcher: a right-wing pit bull dedicated to putting his boot into everything from unions, to his own mouth, to the accelerator of his car. When he was nabbed for breaking the speed limit while taking a Mercedes full of German businessmen on tour, the story pushed all other news off the front page of Melbourne papers for days.

Perhaps he'd already hinted what was going to happen, for one of Jeff's first moves after his election was to get rid of the state's nice green- and-white car licence plates proclaiming that you were in the Garden State, and replace them with something much more zappy announcing that Victoria was "On the Move". Nevertheless, the city's parks and gardens remain a delight. The Golden Mile of the inner city is virtually ringed by parks, including the Fitzroy Gardens, where you can stumble upon Captain Cook's cottage, bought, dismantled and shipped out to Australia from its native Yorkshire back in 1934.

This is certainly a green city and there's nowhere greener than the stunning Botanic Gardens; back in 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proclaimed them absolutely the most beautiful place he had ever seen and, if anything, they've improved since then. If you're wandering the gardens, make sure to look for the colony of Queensland flying foxes, giant fruit-eating bats which have taken up residence here, far further south than their normal habitat.

After hours, Melbourne also has a lot going for it, including one half of the world's best opera house. (The entirety of this popular mythical beast is a combination of the exterior of Sydney's opera house and the acoustics of Melbourne's.) If opera is too rarefied, Melbourne is equally active at the other extreme of the musical spectrum; this is Australia's rock'n'roll capital, with sweaty pubs where every Aussie rock act worth an encore has cut its teeth. Try places like the down and dirty Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda or the smart Continental in Prahran.

Names like St Kilda and Prahran soon become familiar to Melbourne visitors because this is a city of localities, each with its own character. It's a factor of the city's gold rush origins: when gold was discovered in Victoria in the early 1850s, Melbourne exploded, pushing out in all directions. A network of suburban railway lines rapidly followed. Melbourne quickly outpaced Sydney and for many years was Australia's largest city. Imposing Victorian town halls, products of that gold rush wealth, mark these cities within the city. The inner-city suburbs include areas such as Richmond, at one time Melbourne's Greek centre but now taken over by Vietnamese and the Melbourne rag trade. Or South Yarra, young and stylish, with Chapel Street the most fashionable road in the city. Toorak is the home of Melbourne's old money and retired politicians. Carlton is the Italian centre which partied all night long when Italy won the football World Cup and it's the site of the manic annual waiters race - a 100-metre sprint and don't spill the cappuccino on the tray. There's great competition between Carlton coffee bars to have the fastest waiter on Lygon Street. And what about Moonee Ponds, home to one of Melbourne's best known absent citizens, Dame Edna. Now (s)he is surely the envy of Sydney.

Tony Wheeler is founder of Lonely Planet, whose second edition of the `Melbourne City Guide' is published in Britain this month, price pounds 6.99.