Melbourne v Sydney: for me, it's no contest

Greeted by wet-nosed sniffer dogs, a tropical rainstorm, and an episode of Australia's Funniest Home Videos blaring from a screen above the baggage carousel, my new life in the sun didn't get off to the most auspicious start. I'd jacked in my job,

Greeted by wet-nosed sniffer dogs, a tropical rainstorm, and an episode of Australia's Funniest Home Videos blaring from a screen above the baggage carousel, my new life in the sun didn't get off to the most auspicious start. I'd jacked in my job,

rented out my flat and set off with high hopes of harbour views and a surf lifestyle. But no one warned me about the rain in Sydney. And as I traipsed between internet café, fruitlessly applying for jobs, and grotty hostel, it didn't let up for a fortnight.

Things got steadily worse. I fell in with a crowd of expats. They hung around Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, did yoga, went surfing and talked endlessly about their fabulous lifestyles but were all stuck in jobs they couldn't bear, for the sake of a visa. I didn't get the logic. As I flat-hunted among the dingy rooms of Dulwich and Kings Cross, I began to wonder what the point was of ever leaving London. I stayed for a month, and the day after Mardi Gras boarded a plane to Melbourne.

Australians say that people tend to fall into one of either two camps, Melbourne or Sydney, and the rivalry between the two cities is legendary. Sydneysiders think Melbournites are a bunch of fey, cappuccino-sipping, liberal snobs who have a reputation for always dressing in black. Melbournites think Sydneysiders are shallow, a little slow-witted and care more about the car they drive than anything else. I'm not sure what this says about me, but as I boarded the bus from Melbourne airport and headed down the highway into the city centre, it felt right.

Melbourne may not have the surf beaches of Sydney, the glitz of Darling Harbour or the iconic architecture of the opera house; instead, it's low key, understated and savvy. You have to dig a little to get under its surface, but once there, you'll find a perfectly-formed example of a sophisticated, ultra-modern city. Melbourne seems a little more sure of itself than Sydney does, less eager to prove to the rest of the world that being down under, with seasons that are all out of sync, doesn't necessarily mean it's inferior. While Sydney tends to look further afield for inspiration, particularly to America, Melbourne has the confidence to look more locally - to Japan, for example, which makes a very strong cultural impact there. If you were to compare them to cities in the States, Sydney would be flash, brash LA, and Melbourne, gritty New York.

And just like New York, Melbourne is built on a grid system so its instantly navigable geography, as well as its excellent tram system, makes it feel friendlier and immediately familiar.

The city has undergone something of a renaissance. The new centrepiece is Federation Square, a feat of engineering which straddles the dense railway artery of Flinders Street Station. Eight years in the making and vastly over budget, it opened to rapturous applause. Shortly after, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) also opened - a vast, rusting edifice that rose up, in inner city homage to Ayres Rock, or Uluru, on Melbourne's Southbank.

Both these seemed to supply the city with an infectious spark of energy. Artists, designers and entrepreneurs seemed to inhabit every bit of space in the network of laneways in the heart of the city. Centre Place, a graffiti-covered passageway, and home to a couple of pungent wheelie bins and piles of bird droppings, became my regular haunt. This was City Lights, a lightbox art gallery in the street and magnet for every type of local boho, artist and hanger-on. The parties there were legendary - classic block party style with sound systems and beer served straight from the "slab". We had to outwit the local council by staying one step ahead. It was all a far, far cry from glamorous Sydney.

This enterprising spirit typified Melbourne's nightlife, and is probably what makes it have more in common with London's Shoreditch than Sydney. On one of my first nights in the city I found myself at the grungy Ace Morning Bar, via Honky Tonks in the city before going on to stumble up the steps of Revolver on Chapel Street which, at the weekend, simply never bothered closing. It was easy to lose entire weekends this way. Over the space of a year it never ceased to amaze me how there'd always be someone who could take me down another unlikely dead-end or cobbled backstreet and unearth yet another bar to me. Each was completely different but all were stamped with a distinct Melbourne identity. There was the Croft Institute in an alley just off Chinatown, an old science lab turned vodka den, Prudence, a pub literally set up in someone's front room, and my favourite - Misty, a bar set up by five locals who were canny enough to pool their resources and open a bar that they could all drink in.

Maybe it was just the people that I met, but Melbourne seemed far more political as well. There was no talk of fabulous lifestyles, and within weeks of landing I was whisked away to Woomera, a town in the south Australia desert, a 24-hour drive away, to join a protest about the treatment of asylum-seekers locked away in the detention centre there.

But all this didn't make it any easier to find work and one drawback is that jobs are quite hard to come by there. Most of the media is based in Sydney and in Australia bar work is considered a career rather than a filler; I waitressed for one night and was never asked back. I tried flogging mobile phone packages for Optus. For the fortnight that I stuck it out, I'd get shipped out to Coburg, Essendon and Moonee Ponds with a perma-grin and a clipboard. The job was grim but the insight into provincial Australia was fascinating. For someone who'd watched far too many episodes of Neighbours in their youth, the suburban hell of Madge, Harold, Mrs Mangle et al came alive before my eyes. This was pure Erinsborough country where clipped lawns, oversized dogs and complex security systems are de rigueur. Everyone lived in great, sprawling bungalows. The sense of space may be tremendous, but the distance I had to trudge between houses annoyed me intensely.

Back in the city there's no need to concern yourself with what's going on in its exterior, unless of course you've read, and were taken in by, Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach about a nuclear holocaust creeping towards the city. Ava Gardner or Gregory Peck descended on Melbourne in 1959 to make a film of the book. It was a huge novelty for Melbournites at the time who weren't accustomed to have such Hollywood A-listers in their city. But more famous than the resulting movie was Ms Gardner's opinion of her host town. Melbourne, she is reputed to have said, "is the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world". Oh how times have changed.