Melbourne: Race into pole position Down Under

As Australia's sportiest city gets set for the Grand Prix, James Litston finds culture and shops galore

Petrolheads are revving up for the return of the Formula 1 motor racing season, which gets under way next weekend at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit with the Australian Grand Prix: a race won last year by Britain's Jenson Button.

Once the grandstands are dismantled post-race, Albert Park reverts to a peaceful oasis just north of the seaside suburb of St Kilda. Start your walk at the park's Carousel Café (00 61 3 8646 6000; foodanddesire.com), whose lakeside deck affords excellent views of the city skyline. Then set out along the lakeshore to your left.

Where the path veers right to skirt around the lake, continue straight along the adjacent paved road – a part of the actual racetrack – and on past the domed canopy of the MSAC outdoor pool, built for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

At the traffic lights just beyond, cross Albert Road and head down Cecil Street: a quiet, residential road of historic architectural styles and shady melaleuca trees, in the suburb of South Melbourne. The street's Art Deco, Victorian and Federation designs symbolise the early decades of Melbourne's expansion.

It gets a bit bland after the attractively tiled Lamaro's pub at number 273, so pick up the pace for the next 100m or so. Look right as you cross Bank Street to see the Parisian-influenced façade of South Melbourne Town Hall. Two blocks on lies the regenerated South Melbourne Market (southmelbournemarket.com.au). Explore the covered marketplace (open Wednesday and Friday to Sunday) to see the colourful produce and exotic Southern Hemisphere seafood, as well as homewares.

Feeling peckish yet? Then head back outside and graze your way around the world at the stalls and restaurants along the market's Cecil Street frontage. Choose from burritos, tapas, sushi and Turkish gozleme pastries, or join the queue at the dim sim stall (number 91) to sample one of these super-size dumplings known colloquially as "dimmies".

Hunger sated, head back to the junction with Coventry Street and turn left. Browse the trendy shops and hip cafés along this attractive Victorian strip, then turn left again onto Clarendon Street. At the next junction (York Street), you can escape the heat by riding the 112 tram for a couple of stops, otherwise continue on foot all the way down to Crown Casino. Dead ahead lies the Yarra River, where a right turn brings you on to the Southbank. This sanitised stretch of riverbank, with its mix of restaurants and street entertainment, has become a tourist hub and is pleasant for a waterfront stroll.

Things get edgier across the river in the Central Business District (CBD). To get there, head left over Sandridge Bridge (a former railway crossing), pausing to take in the whimsical, steel sculptures on the left (another legacy from the Commonwealth Games) and soaring Eureka Tower – the city's tallest building – on the right.

On reaching the north bank, continue right and take the pedestrian underpass beneath Flinders Station. Emerging on Flinders Street, turn right, cross over and go half a block to Degraves Street, the best-known of Melbourne's celebrated laneways.

As recently as the 1980s, central Melbourne held little appeal – a victim of the 1960s "doughnut effect" that saw people desert the city centre for the suburbs. Then a counterculture revolution saw the laneways reborn, with cheap rents attracting the small, independent businesses that now characterise these narrow passageways today.

Regeneration began right here in Degraves Street and rapidly spread to its grungier continuation, Centre Place, and on through the full laneways network. Even the dodgiest-looking, most graffiti-strewn dead-ends can yield welcome surprises, be they off-the-grid fashion stores, hole-in-the-wall cafés or tiny standing-room-only bars.

There are plenty more laneways to discover, but for now, pass through Centre Place and turn right on to Collins Street. Note the imposing 1870s architecture; this was the region's financial and commercial centre during the Gold Rush, when Melbourne was the richest city in the world. Collins Street remains Melbourne's most prestigious shopping destination.

At the end of the block, turn right onto Swanston Street, Melbourne's busiest thoroughfare. Pass the cathedral and cross back over Flinders Street. You're now in Federation Square (fedsquare.com), a major cultural and event space loved or hated for its striking, deconstructivist architecture. Pause at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia (00 61 3 8620 2222; ngv.vic.gov.au) to browse its collection of Australian and Aboriginal artworks.

Finally, pop down the stairs to Federation Wharf and take a pew at Riverland (00 61 3 9662 1771; riverlandbar.com). Order a local chardonnay and watch rowing boats glide along the Yarra: a fitting end to a wonderful day in the sportiest – and most happening – city Down Under.

Fresh cuts

The all-new Ovolo Hotel (00 61 3 869 2077; ovologroup.com), located in the CBD's coolest quarter, is made for city slickers. Each spacious, apartment-style room comes with added extras such as complimentary Wi-Fi, laundry, minibar treats and continental breakfast. The perfect fit for an urban, clued-up crowd. Doubles from A$195 (£130).

Even newer is Captain Baxter (00 61 3 8534 8999; captainbaxter.com.au), an upmarket restaurant in laid-back St Kilda that opened in December 2012. The globally-inspired menu is designed for sharing (a real Melbourne trend). Kick back and enjoy flavourful, modern Australian dishes and uninterrupted views over the busy beachfront boardwalk.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; singaporeair.com) offers four daily departures from Heathrow to Singapore (plus another from Manchester), with onward connections to Melbourne.Return fares start at £1,085.

Melbourne is also served by Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; qatarairways.com/uk) from Heathrow and Manchester via Doha; Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk) from Heathrow via Singapore (from 31 March via Dubai); Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com/uk) from a range of UK airports via Dubai; Etihad Airways (0870 241 7121; etihadairways.com) from Heathrow and Manchester via Abu Dhabi; Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; thaiairways.co.uk) from Heathrow via Bangkok; and Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; malaysiaairlines.com) from Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur.

Staying there

The Prince, 2 Acland Street, St Kilda (00 61 3 9536 1111; theprince.com.au) is a good bet for contemporary seafront style, with a lobby wrapped in gleaming black glass and 40 bright airy guestrooms. Doubles from A$154 (£103), room only.

More information

visitmelbourne.com/uk

australia.com

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