Saturday, February 16, 2013

Magical Melbourne: A Town Done Right

We had glorious weather for visiting Melbourne and the clear skies made everything crisp and beautiful, a stark contrast to the high air pollution and damp cold we left behind in Shanghai. But, Melbourne has a lot more going for it than the great weather of summertime. Here are a few reasons this is one of my new favorite cities:

1.  The parks and green space.  As our driver explained on the way to the airport (sadly, leaving), Melbourne was a planned city and the green spaces were well laid out to ensure there's always a park nearby.  I walked for hours each day amongst these beautiful spaces.  There are great paths along the Yarra river where you can watch the rowers go by, an immense botanical garden, Fitzroy Gardens and numerous little parks and green spaces at every turn. 

2.  The lanes: tiny lanes hide cafes, shops, restaurants and stores and make you feel like you are discovering something secret and special.  This is one place where the ideal location for a hot spot is not right up front on a busy street.  This city keeps its treasures slightly hidden, making a walk about town a small voyage of discovery.  A few favorites we discovered were Chuckle Park (a tiny cafe in its own little lane, with the "kitchen" being part of an old travel trailer at the end of an AstroTurf covered seating area), Meatballs and Wine (yum!) and the "graffiti lane"with one of Melbourne's best known tapas bars.  

Chuckle Park cafe

A lane full of great street art
Wolf's Lair rooftop bar
Though it was not in a lane, Wolf's Lair was another one of these Melbourne hidden gems--a rooftop deck attached to a small restaurant and bar, hidden away from the somewhat touristy "little Italy" area of Lygon Street.  We also found it quite clever that someone had taken the tiny pilings along the river under the foot bridge and turned it in to a small bar/cafe.  This seemed to be a favorite summertime spot--what could be better than pulling up a chair (or a keg which they had set up as makeshift chairs and footrests) in the middle of the river and enjoying the sun and atmosphere?

3.  The international flavor.  I often lament that it is going to be a challenge to live anywhere else after Shanghai for the broad range of international dining options we have at our disposal.  Obviously, we get great Chinese food--from all the regions, but we also can get our hands on just about any cuisine, from inexpensive Thai and Vietnamese to old favorites from home like NY pizza and bagels (really!) and some of the best Spanish food I have tasted outside of Spain.  Melbourne has a great Chinatown and though we took the chance for a respite from Chinese food, we've met some Aussies in Shanghai who promise authenticity.  Melbourne has one of the largest Greek populations in the world, Lygon Street and many places throughout the city had great Italian eats and most every Eastern culture was covered along with plenty of European imports and their own great Aussie cuisine. 
We didn't even have to miss out on Chinese New Year celebrations!   

4.  The markets and availability of local produce/fresh food.  We spent half a day walking around Queen Victoria Market, which had wonderful produce, meat, seafood, cheese (and huge piles of fresh Australian butter, which I tried hard to photo for a good friend who LOVES butter--but the glare got in the way!).  It also had a massive junk market, with everything from the requisite Ugg boots to clothes of all types, toys, souvenirs, housewares--completely junky, but fun nonetheless.  This is the most well-known and touristy market, but still a thriving place to get all types of good food.  However, there are many markets throughout the city and even nice little stands selling fruit on the city streets.  We have a lot of access to fruit and wet markets in China, but the food safety issues make it a less pleasant experience.  We buy a lot of the items like milk and meat from Australia and New Zealand, so there was just a comfort in the freshness, safety---and tastiness of it all.  Oh, and I haven't mentioned the seafood and wine!

5.  The architecture and art.  The city seemed to have the perfect mix of modern with wonderful old buildings...and somehow it all works.  The natural beauty of the parks and river somehow blend well with it all too--the planners obviously knew what they were doing and the growth has somehow been managed well (traffic, maybe less so).  It's a great street art city, too!
The train station at night
Windsor hotel, famed for high tea
Federation Square
We also loved the neighborhood of Fitzroy, and I'd probably add "the many different neighborhoods" to this list when we get more time to go back and explore.  We did have fun checking out Lygon Street and the nooks of downtown, but walking up to Fitzroy gave us a peak in to the different neighborhood personalities with its quirky shops, pubs, and restaurants.  We spent the evening popping in and out of places people watching from the many couches and window seats lining the streets.  Naked for Satan (with that name, it has to be good, right?) was our first stop and a great start to the evening--authentic Basque pinxtos (and homemade infused vodkas, though we didn't try those this time) and a popular rooftop party deck.  
One of the many pubs and restaurants of Fitzroy
I'd also have to add "proximity to Yarra Valley" and all kinds of natural wonders an easy trip from the city.  I'll share more about our Yarra Valley food and wine tour soon.  We can't wait to make another trip back to explore more of the natural wonders of Australia beyond the cities.

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