48 Hours In: Melbourne, Australia

On the eve of the Commonwealth Games, Tony Wheeler reveals the sophisticated spirit behind Australia's sports-mad second city



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WHY GO NOW?

Because the Games kick off in just four days. Given the city's passion for sport, the atmosphere is going to be awesome. Sydney may have the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, but Melbourne has all the big sporting events, including the Australian Grand Prix in April, the Melbourne Cup in November and the Boxing Day cricket Test. The city's "four seasons in one day" climate is famously changeable, but right now is one of the best times of the year for reliably good weather.

TOUCH DOWN

You can fly direct from Heathrow on Qantas (08457 747 767; www.qantas.com.au). Several airlines have one-stop connecting services, such as Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysia-airlines.com) and Singapore Airlines (0870 608 8886; www.singaporeair.com). The best range of services is on Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) via Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Tullamarine airport is 22km north-west of Melbourne, and is a much more relaxed affair than Sydney's crowded airport. The red Skybus leaves every 15 minutes from outside the arrivals hall, stopping at Southern Cross Station (1) on Spencer Street where you transfer to a smaller bus that tours the hotel district. A one-way fare is A$15 (£6.50). A taxi into the city is about A$45/£19.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Melbourne is an expansive, low-density city, comparable with Los Angeles for urban sprawl. Yet the centre - the "Golden Mile" - is a compact, rectangular, sky-scrapered block right beside the muddy Yarra River. A good place to start exploring is Federation Square (2), an architectural delight across the road from the busy Flinders Street railway station (3). It is the home to the Melbourne Visitor Centre (00 61 3 9658 9658; www.thatsmelbourne.com.au), open 9am-6pm daily.

CHECK IN

The Hotel Lindrum (4), convenient at 26 Flinders Street (bookable through 0870 730 1332; www.hotellindrum.com.au), occupies an interesting old building which used to be a billiard hall and is now a boutique hotel. The name commemorates the game's greatest player, Walter Lindrum. Doubles without breakfast start at around A$250 (£105).

Astoria City Travel Inn (5) at 288 Spencer Street (00 61 3 9670 6801; www.astoriainternational.com) offers honest, old-fashioned value in the city centre with rooms for A$100 (£40), excluding breakfast. Just avoid the streetside rooms, which can be noisy.

Near the bottom of the price range is Base (6), at 17 Carlisle Street in the beach suburb of St Kilda (00 61 3 8598 6200; www.basebackpackers.com). It is a stylish example of the hotel chain Accor's foray into the backpacker business. There's everything from a bar to high-speed internet connections as well as the usual communal kitchens and dining areas. Dorm beds run from A$30 (£13), or you can have a no-frills room from A$50 (£21), excluding breakfast. During big events such as the Commonwealth Games, room prices can double - if you're lucky enough to find one.

TAKE A VIEW

The tallest building in the city centre is the dark glass Rialto Building (7) with a spectacular view from the top (A$13.50/£6, open daily 10am until late; 00 61 3 9629 8222; www.melbournedeck.com.au).

TAKE A HIKE

The Visitors Centre in Federation Square has an excellent collection of free Melbourne Walks maps, detailing strolls that take around two hours. They include a riverside walk "On the Waterfront", and an exploration of the city's hidden thoroughfares, called "Arcades and Lanes".

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Try the popular Chocolate Buddha (00 61 3 9654 5688) in Federation Square (2) for a wide range of noodle dishes. Or cross the river to Pure South (8) on the River Level in the Southgate precinct (00 61 3 9699 4600; www.puresouth.com.au), which features food and drink from Tasmania. There are plenty of other dining options at both these riverside centres.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Melbourne is Australia's fashion capital and the exhaustingly noisy Chapel Street (9), in South Yarra between Malvern and Toorak Roads, is where it's all happening, on both sides of the shop windows. Bridge Road (10) in Richmond is the second centre, between Punt Road and Church Street. Richmond is still the home of Melbourne's rag trade, although the actual manufacturing has shifted to China. In the city centre, Victoria Market (11) is the place to buy anything from cheap souvenirs to the freshest vegetables and gourmet delights.

AN APERITIF

"I want to see the sun go down, from St Kilda Esplanade" goes Paul Kelly's love song to St Kilda, and Donavans (12) (00 61 3 9534 8221), beside the beach, is a great place to do it with a drink or a meal. Or get a cold VB (Melbourne's working-class lager) at the down-and-dirty Esplanade pub ("the Espy") (13) at 11 Upper Esplanade, the city's rock band centre.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Wander along Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, just north-east of the city centre, for a never-ending parade of weird and wonderful restaurants, shops and people. A long-time favourite is Piraeus Blues (14) at number 310 (00 61 3 9417 0222), which serves appealing home-cooked Greek food.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

There's a cathedral choice: St Paul's Anglican (15) across from Federation Square or the Catholic St Patrick's (16) just outside the centre in East Melbourne. Or join in the hearty singing with one of the town's Pacific communities at the Richmond Uniting Church (17), 314 Church Street, Richmond.

OUT TO BRUNCH

In St Kilda, check the cake shops along Acland Street and grab a window table at Donovans (12), a lunchtime favourite for terrific food and the beach life just the other side of the glass.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The venerable Melbourne Cricket Ground (18), venue for the first Test Match (1877), will be the main arena in the Commonwealth Games. Although the rebuilt stadium accommodates over 100,000, the capacity will only be 85,000 for the Games' athletic events. Daily tours of the ground and museum (00 61 3 9657 8864; www.mcc.org.au ) have been suspended for the Games, but will begin again shortly after - admission A$10 (£4.50).

Meanwhile, the vast Albert Park south of the centre is part of the city's sporting fabric: 58 circuits of the road around the lake comprises Australia's Grand Prix, which will take place on 2 April.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The terrific Australian art collection in the glossy new Ian Potter Centre (00 61 3 8620 2222; www.ngv.vic.gov.au/ngvaustralia) in Federation Square (2) follows Aussie art from the colonial period via Norman Lindsay's nudes to a superb section on indigenous Australian art. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free. A cultural refresher? The Transport Bar's extensive international selection of beers is also in the square.

WRITE A POSTCARD

... while you float downstream. At the mouth of the Yarra the suburb of Williamstown still has a salty, seafaring flavour although now it's marinas and seafood restaurants more than boatbuilding. Get there by the Williamstown Ferries (00 61 3 9682 9555) service from the city centre, for A$20 (£9) return.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Time to get some exercise. Melbourne is remarkably bike-friendly, especially along the Main Yarra Trail which follows the river for 38km from the centre. Hire a Bike (00 61 417 339 203) rents bikes from Federation Square (2) for A$15 (£6) for the first hour, A$5 (£2) each additional hour; prices include a helmet and lock. Cycle tours of the city also operate from here for A$50 (£21), including bike hire. You can take a coffee culture tour, or a ride out to the beach that takes in a lap of the Formula One track along the way.

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