Melbourne has just got the nod (again) as the world’s most livable city but it’s also a city that rewards you for being nosy. I’ve lived in Melbourne most of my adult life but with more than 240 lanes, arcades and alleyways running off a meticulously designed grid, it’s not surprising that many of the city’s charms remain closely guarded secrets even to locals. So, to find out what makes it tick, I decide to take a tour.
Probably as a reaction to seeing groups in matching caps trudging behind flag-waving tour guides, I’ve always avoided guided tours like the proverbial plague. However, MelTours’ Jerome Miller quickly assuages my fears as our small group scurries behind him through a laneway, past crowded cafes and down Degraves Street Subway’s steps to discover the forgotten Art Nouveau Campbell Arcade where indie artists and designers display their work.
Jerome puts his passion for Melbourne’s hidden delights down to alcohol. “I was working in IT and exploring new bars for that end-of-week drink led me to discover some amazing places.” For the next two and a half hours, he spins the threads of Melbourne’s history creating a canvas embroidered with mid-19th century gold rush tales and a time when foreign capital investment made it one of the world’s richest cities.
We pause in streets where bullock drays once turned and horse bazaars stood, enter a hidden doorway off Royal Arcade and into a former Turkish Bathhouse that until its closure in 1929, was a popular haunt for local gangsters and house rules insisted they check their weapons at the door. Crossing a narrow street, we enter the gracious Block Arcade where the belles and beaux of the late 19th century promenaded or ‘did the Block’ and where in 1892, Lady Hopetoun established The Hopetoun Tea Rooms. Judging from the queue corralled behind the velvet rope, it’s as popular as ever, something that Block Arcade’s new owner, Grant Cohen, is looking to leverage off with weekend classical performances under the arcade’s beautiful dome.
Plunging down graffiti-scrawled laneways, cafes form organic pockets of intimacy colonized by Gen Xers who come to shop and eat in places once derelict and dangerous. Old warehouses, some still with original barrel hoists dangling overhead, house hidden bars that resonate with a speakeasy decadence. Rankins Lane looks empty but a couple of fashionably-dressed girls are the only clues needed to guide us to Manchester Press, one of the city’s original printing works and now a hot café.
Melbourne cognoscenti know where to find Bar Americano in tiny Presgrave Place where cocktails are mixed according to your taste profile or hole-in-the-wall Switchboard Café in the Manchester Unity building, Melbourne’s finest Art Deco interior space.
Melbourne’s cosmopolitan kaleidoscope of idiosyncratic bars and cafes, experimental art galleries, chic couture and cutting edge design means there’s a tour to suit every taste. Fiona Sweetman’s Hidden Secrets Tours have developed programs that showcase a contemporary, creative city.
“Whether their interests lie in the city’s café culture, taking an architectural walk or visiting places that originally made Melbourne UNESCO’s second City of Literature, I like visitors to know what’s happening now,” she says.
I love the idea of frocking-up for a chauffeur-driven vintage shopping outing and I’m not alone. A hit with visiting style mavens keen to unearth vintage treasures, a pit stop for cup cakes at Madame Brussels and stylish luncheon only ups the glamour stakes. But wait, there’s more. From August 30 to September 7, Melbourne’s fashionistas will be flocking to runway shows as Melbourne Spring Fashion Week readies for take off. www.thatsmelbourne.com.au/msfw or ticketmaster.com.au/msfw
Or for a taste of Melbourne’s multi-cultural cuisine, Hidden Secrets’ three hour Sommeliers City Walk takes small groups to three restaurants where wine waiters skillfully guide them through a flight of wines paired with signature dishes that reflect Japanese and European culinary arts.
Ghost busters and skeptics have been gathering outside The Haunted Bookshop, Australia’s leading occult bookshop, every Saturday night since Drew Sinton founded the Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour on Halloween almost 20 years ago.
“Some think it’s a load of rubbish, others are true believers,” says Drew who sometimes dresses in vintage gear and swirling cape while playing hide and seek down a complex web of alleyways. In the darkness, he reveals morbid tidbits while bringing people face to face with Melbourne’s haunted past sending shivers down the spine. Keeping it weird and wonderful, his tour program changes regularly designed to keep both visitors and vampires on edge.
“Melbourne is the chocolate capital of Australia,” declares tour operator Suzie Wharton while guiding sweet-toothed travelers into the laneway lairs of chocolatiers and patisserie shops on one of her Chocoholic Tours. Decadent tour treats include chocolate ice cream, fine handmade chocolates and afternoon tea. There’s even a chocolate and fashion walk although I’m tipping you’ll be a dress size bigger by the end of it!
“My Walk to Art tour is about accessing spaces that wouldn’t ordinarily be available,” says Bernadette Alibrando, the art world’s go-to girl, ready to plug visitors into Melbourne’s quirky street art, video installations and painting scene. “People come to art tours from all angles so it’s important to meet up and connect as a group over a coffee before setting off,” she says. Slowing it down and making it fun, tours start in the city followed by a tram ride to artists’ spaces and boutique galleries before a lively debrief over a farewell wine and cheese. What better way to cap off a great tour!!
BOOK YOUR TOUR DATES HERE
MEL Tours 0407 380 969 www.meltours.com.au
Inner Melbourne Tour 0424 986 345 www.innercitytours.com.au
Hidden Secrets Tour 0418 332 027 www.hiddensecretstours.com
Chocoholic Tours 0412 158 017 www.chocoholictours.com.au
Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour 03 9670 2575 www.haunted.com.au
Kayak Melbourne 0418 106 427 www.kayakmelbourne.com.au
Walk to Art 0412 005 901 www.walktoart.com.au
Most tours meet outside the Visitors Information Centre at Federation Square opposite Melbourne’s Flinders Street Railway Station.
For general tourism information www.visitvictoria.com
Please look above at In The Picture and get a pictorial flavour of this month’s edition.