48 hours in Melbourne

Food, opera and mad festivities. Now's the time to tackle Oz's rainy second city



October is the big month for culture in Melbourne. From next Friday to the end of the month, thanks to the Melbourne International Festival (www.melbournefestival.com.au), you can hardly move for street performers, puppetry, jazz, opera, theatre productions, lectures and exhibitions. For thongs without the throngs, don't miss the Fringe Festival Parade on Brunswick street, Fitzroy. It's as mad as Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras without the crowds. For more information, Tourism Victoria in the UK is at Melbourne Place, Strand, London WC2B 4LG (0171-240 7176), but you may be referred to the high-priced Australian Tourist Commission brochure line (09068 070707) - a three-minute call will cost a challenging £1.80.


The most competitive deals are often available on Emirates from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester via Dubai and Singapore, or on Malaysia Airlines from Heathrow and Manchester via Kuala Lumpur. Through discount agents, you could pay around £650 return between now and the first week of December. Fares then rise sharply for Christmas and New Year, fall again in January and hit rock-bottom between April and June. The airport is 15 miles north of the city centre; a taxi costs about £12, while the Skybus (every half an hour stopping at various central points) costs £4 one way.


Australia's second-largest city (after Sydney), Melbourne was founded and prospered during the reign of Queen Victoria. There are some fantastic buildings paid for by the Gold Rush boom such as the Old Treasury and Parliament House. But the overall feel is of a vibrant, multicultural city (at least 60 different ethnic groups, speaking 170 languages) split into fashionable inner-city suburbs and bordered by the mesmerically muddy Yarra river (its colour has earned it the local nickname 'the upside down river'), which itself bubbles with joggers, rowers, and revellers on their way to the South Bank casino.


The Adelphi Hotel (187 Flinders Street, 00 61 3 9650 7555, email: info@adelphi.com) is a stylish classic, from the glass-bottomed swimming pool that juts out across the street below to the dizzy city views from the stark glass-walled bar. Rooms start from £100. Attracting a similar crowd is the newly opened and dangerously hip Prince of Wales over at 29 Fitzroy Street in St Kilda (00 61 3 9536 1166). Budget travellers should visit the Toad Hall Hotel at 441 Elizabeth Street (00 61 3 9600 9010). It's funky, central, has a lovely garden and dorm beds cost just £8.


Melbourne has an excellent public transport system. In the centre, the main function of trams seems to be to terrify tourists but, away from the pedestrian malls, they're great for zapping between the shops on Toorak Road. Fares start at under £1 for two hours of unlimited travel within the central area. The City Circle tram is a free, mobile antique which makes a one-hour circuit of the centre. Or take the ferry over to Southgate - home of the Victorian Arts Centre and the controversial new Crown Casino. The 30ft art installations, in front of the casino shoot out flames every 15 minutes.


... or a bike or a pair of in-line skates, and take a whirl around St Kilda, Melbourne's groovy seaside suburb. The number 16 tram will deposit you at the end of Acland Street, the Jewish Quarter and one of Melbourne's favourite eating areas. From here cut down to Luna Park, an old-fashioned outdoor amusement park. Steady your nerves at the Esplanda Hotel (the Espy), the focal point of St Kilda nightlife: grunge bands, stand- up comedy and Cooper's Ale.


Australian culture is part British, part American. Thankfully they inherited the Americans' love of eating out. As a result, Melbourne is great for cheap eats, whether it's spicy noodles for a couple of quid from the millions of tiny cafes in Little Saigon, Melbourne's Vietnamese Quarter in Richmond or one of the Italian, Japanese, Thai or Chinese cheapie food stalls at Southgate's Wharf Food Market.


Sydneysiders (and arch rivals) like to say that Melbourne evolved culture only as a result of endless days indoors sheltering from the rain. The National Gallery of Victoria on the South Bank is under renovation until 2001, but some of its best examples of Australian traditional and modern art are on show at the handsome old State Library of Victoria (10am-9pm on Mondays to Thursdays, 10am-6pm from Friday to Sunday), which occupies an entire block at Swanston and La Trobe Streets.


Where ever you're staying you probably won't be too far from the Yarra. Go down onto one of the well-lit cycle paths as the sun sets and stand completely still. Overhead the eucalyptus trees make the air so pungent, it's as if someone's just opened a huge jar of Vick's vapour rub. The scent is caused by the possums you'll see scrambling around in the branches of the trees crushing the leaves, and the huge fruit bats that patiently swing upside down, waiting for night to fall so they can fly off in search of food. The cicadas will rasp and you will fall in love with this deceptive, seductive city.


The 'footie' season has just finished (not real football as we know it but Aussie Rules: an unlikely and enthusiastic cross between rugby and basketball played by men with calves bigger than sideboards). So instead, head over to the Natural Herbarium just inside the Royal Botanic Gardens. Established in 1853 to identify plant specimens, one the Herbarium's responsibilities is to test plants suspected of being marijuana. Apparently the souvenir shop is always very popular.


Bridge Road in Hawthorn has a whole stack of little cafes that understand and gratifyingly fulfil one's expectation of the first Sunday cappuccino. Enjoy one - or several - at The Groove Train (314-16 Bridge Road) along with one of their huge, satisfying brunches of eggs, hashbrowns, own-recipe baked beans and French toast (about £4).


Take a walking tour of Melbourne's historic churches. St Paul's Cathedral on Flinders Street across from the station is an impressive example of Gothic Revivalist architecture, with towering stained glass windows. St Patrick's Cathedral is also renowned for its stained glass: it has one of the city's finest collections. The Scots Church (1873) and St Michael's Church (1866) are between Russell and Swanston Streets, but the city's oldest building is St James' Old Cathedral (1842), which was moved to Kings Street in 1913.


Flower Drum, 17 Market Lane, off Little Bourke Street, isn't cheap but it does the most extraordinary Cantonese food this side of Hong Kong. The Stokehouse over at St Kilda (30 Jacka Boulevard) is chic and modern, and upstairs has fantastic views of Port Phillip Bay. Back at ground level in Southgate, Blakes is comfortably hip and has gorgeous food with a great wine list.


Again like the Americans, Australians demand the right to drink in style. Fortunately, like the Brits, they don't feel having more than three drinks makes you an alcoholic. Cool bars are: the Hairy Canary, 212 Little Collins Street downtown - the drum'n'bass end of hip; the Bluebar, 330 Chapel Street, Prahran - guest DJs and groovy guzzlers; and the Blue Train Cafe in Southgate - perfect sundowner views of the Yarra from sofas deeper than Nietzsche.


Toorak Road in South Yarra has designer stores selling clothes and accessories that will have you shivering with lust and your bank manager coming to look for you in person. For a less financially abrasive encounter, Brunswick Street in Fitzroy does the groovy end of grunge; Greville Street in Prahran is the right spot for retro and the corner of Bridge Road and Swan Street in Richmond is full of bargain seconds outlets. Be prepared for a fight: this is where budget-stretching locals come.

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