Superb restaurants, rousing nightlife and a wealth of architectural and cultural delights - Frank Partridge visits the most sophisticated of Australian cities

Australia's second city may not have the glamour of Sydney, but its colonial heritage and multicultural dynamism more than compensates. Although November marks the start of summer, pack for all four seasons - when the wind changes the temperature can drop by 10C in minutes. March is the most reliable month - which is when the city is to host the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

TOUCH DOWN

You can fly direct from Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) or Qantas (08457 747 767; www.qantas.com.au). One-stop connecting services are available on several other airlines, including Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) via Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. Melbourne airport is 15 miles north-west of the city centre. The red Skybus leaves every 15 minutes from outside the arrivals hall, and stops at Spencer Street coach terminal (1), where you can transfer to a smaller coach that tours the hotel district. The one-way fare is A$13 (£5.50).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Melbourne developed on the north bank of the Yarra river. The central area is a rectangular grid, a mile long and half a mile wide. The city's hub is Federation Square (2), ingeniously constructed over 10 railway lines emerging from the lovely Flinders Street Station (3) across the road. The square is a glassy, post-modern amalgam of art, exhibition and event centres, cafés and restaurants. There's also an excellent Visitor Centre (00 61 3 9658 9658; www.thatsmelbourne.com.au; open 9am-6pm daily).

CHECK IN

High-rise Melbourne is best viewed from south of the river, and the Langham Hotel (4) on Southbank (00 61 3 8696 8888; www.langhamhotels.com) is ideally placed. It has an huge Waterford crystal chandelier in the lobby, Italian marble floors and a spa. Doubles start at A$300 (£135), with breakfast A$26.50 (£12) each. Hotel Lindrum (5) at 26 Flinders Street (00 61 3 9668 1111; www.hotellindrum.com.au) is a billiard hall that has been converted into a 59-room boutique hotel. Doubles from A$215 (£97); breakfast is an extra A$19 (£8.50). Melbourne's lively seaside suburb of St Kilda has one of the new breed of deluxe hostels. Take a number 16 or 91 tram to Base Backpackers (6) at 17 Carlisle Street (00 61 3 8598 6200; www.basebackpackers.com), which has en suite double rooms at a bargain A$95 (£43) a night, excluding breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

Hop in the lift (or climb the 1,254 steps) to the 55th floor of the Southern Hemisphere's tallest office building, Rialto Towers (7). On top is the Melbourne Observation Deck (00 61 3 9629 8222; www.melbournedeck.com.au) at 823 feet. It opens 10am-10pm daily, admission A$13.50 (£5.75).

TAKE A HIKE

To get a sense of Melbourne's history and architecture, start at the west end of Collins Street outside Le Meridien Hotel (8), which occupies the best of the buildings from the financial boom of the 1880s. Heading east, you pass a series of magnificent bank and insurance buildings, theatres, churches and Victorian arcades - small wonder "marvellous Melbourne" in its heyday was compared to Paris. At the end of Collins Street, turn left (north) into Spring Street, passing Parliament House (9) on your right, and take another left turn into Chinatown - officially known as Little Bourke Street (10). Finally, head through Carlton Gardens to the Renaissance-style Royal Exhibition Building (11), where in 1901 the Duke of York opened the first Australian Parliament.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The covered food court at Queen Victoria Market (12) offers a bewildering selection of fast food: fish and chips, sushi, noodles, nachos, mezes, burgers and Cantonese. Or load up with an Aussie all-day breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages and tomatoes.

TAKE A RIDE

Melbourne has Australia's only tram network, and you can enjoy a free ride - legally - by boarding one of the burgundy and gold vehicles that circle the city centre between 10am and 6pm. The more adventurous can cover more ground on the back of a Harley Davidson. Harley Rides (00 61 3 9877 3004; www.hdride.com.au) will pick you up anywhere in the city and take you wherever you want to go. An hour's ride costs A$100 (£42).

WINDOW SHOPPING

Melbourne has a warren of narrow Victorian "laneways" and arcades connecting the main shopping streets. Designer clothes, shoes and gift shops abound, especially in the mosaic-floored Block Arcade (13) and exquisite Royal Arcade (14), with Little Collins Street (15) running between them. The revamped GPO Building (16) contains one of the best malls. The massive Queen Victoria Market (12) contains everything from fruit and veg to clothes and art. Outside the central area, Chapel Street and Toorak Road in South Yarra (17) and Brunswick Street in Fitzroy (18) are buzzy, quirky and packed full of surprises for shoppers.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The National Gallery of Victoria (www.ngv.vic.gov.au) fills two buildings, one on either side of the river. The Australian collection (00 61 3 8620 2222) resides at the dramatic, angular Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square (2). Work your way up the four floors, appreciating how both Australia, and the artists who captured its development, grew in self-confidence. NGV International (19) at 180 St Kilda Road (00 61 3 8620 2345) houses the European works. Both open 10am-5pm daily except Monday; admission is free.

AN APERITIF

In a city of 3,000 bars, you're never far from a drink. Young and Jackson (20) at 1 Swanston Street (00 61 3 9650 3884) is a Melbourne institution - a meeting place that used to serve servicemen off to war with their last drink, and the first on their return. The Transport Public Bar (00 61 3 9654 8808) on Federation Square (2) has glass walls, exposed pipes and an impressive list of beers.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Also on Federation Square (2), Taxi (00 61 3 9654 8808) is superb. The food is Asian-dominated, but eclectic - the Mexicana Sushi, for example, is a nori roll filled with sushi rice, braised mung beans and mozzarella cheese, topped with tomato salsa, guacamole, sour cream and crisp potatoes: a whole world of taste for A$21.50 (£9). Among the dozens of restaurants in Carlton's Lygon Street (21), Balzari at number 130 (00 61 3 9639 9383) is outstanding. Fitzroy's Brunswick Street (18) also spoils you for choice, both Asian and European.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Both the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals reflect Melbourne's vast wealth after the gold rush. For something less showy, St Francis of Assisi Church (22) on the corner of Lonsdale and Elizabeth Streets, has an exquisite Ladies Chapel that was described by John Betjeman as "the most beautiful Gothic structure on earth". Sunday morning services are on the hour from 7am, with a choral service at 11am.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Green spaces are abundant in Melbourne, but the Royal Botanic Gardens (23) at Birdwood Avenue in South Yarra (00 61 3 9252 2300; www.rbg.vic.gov.au) should not be missed. Melbourne's temperate climate supports species that would wilt elsewhere in Australia, and there are glorious vistas across the lawns and lakes, which attract a profusion of birdlife.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Next to the Visitor Centre in the Botanic Gardens (23), the Observatory Café (00 61 3 9650 5600) is a great brunch stop. Much of the produce is grown in the adjoining herb and vegetable gardens. Sheer glass walls provide panoramic views of the plants and trees. Or back in town, secure an outside table at the hugely popular Café Segovia (24) at 33 Block Place (00 61 3 9650 2373).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The Commonwealth Games lend weight to Melbourne's claim to be the sporting capital of the world - a city where you can walk from the commercial centre to the opening ceremony in about 15 minutes. The Games' showpiece will be the awe-inspiring Melbourne Cricket Ground (25), venue of cricket's first-ever Test Match (1877). There are daily tours of the ground and its museum; A$10 (£4.25); (00 61 3 9657 8864; www.mcc.org.au).

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