I recently had the pleasure of visiting the land down under for the very first time, with Melbourne being my destination of choice. The metropole found in the state of Victoria has been given many names over the years, whether that’s the Australian capital of food, the capital of culture, the best city in the world to live in or one of the top five vegan places in the world. With these many titles come high expectations. But, Australia’s second biggest city – and certainly its coolest one – was everything I could have hoped for and more.
This multi-layered metropolis has a special something that is difficult to put your finger on. Is it the friendly, happy inhabitants? The relaxed attitude? The rich food scene? The beautiful sandy beaches just a few tram stops away? The varied landscape seamlessly mixing old, traditional architecture with modern, imaginative skyscrapers? Or the fusion of western sensibilities with a more tropical, holiday-like feel? Or is it all of those things combined?
Having the opportunity to explore this vibrant place over the course of a few weeks was one of the best times I’ve had in a long while. It also means I now have a few recommendations up my sleeve, whether you’re after an unforgettable meal in a gorgeous setting, a bit of culture or a browse through some unique stores.
What better way to start your day than with brunch? Especially as Australians are known to be the real masters of this mid-way point between breakfast and lunch. It is no coincidence that the now staple avocado on toast was born right here.
Located in the heart of Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD), Higher Ground is one such institution serving up edible art on a daily basis from its signature flower-decorated blueberry and ricotta hotcakes with cream and seasonal berries to an upgraded ode to the aforementioned avocado toast served instead on a pretzel with whipped ricotta, a lime dressing and a poached egg.
Residing within a historical, heritage-listed red brick building, the interior embraces the innate features of the original powerhouse, taking advantage of the 15-metre high ceilings offering multiple levels of seating, large arched windows flooding the space with light and the untreated, rustic brick walls giving the space a touch of industrial dishevelment. This, however, is contrasted by modern, minimalist furniture with a Scandinavian feel, a sea of potted greenery and a glamorous, stainless-steel bar serving both a coffee tasting menu from the early hours and wine from the likes of local Yarra Valley wineries located less than an hour away from Melbourne, on offer until the evening.
Photography by Tom Blachford
If after brunch you’re starved for some culture before hitting the shops, The Lume based in the city’s Docklands is a mere 20-minute walk away. Dubbed Australia’s cultural capital, Melbourne is filled with regular gigs, art and theatre shows, museums and galleries, whether it’s the mammoth National Gallery of Victoria or something as niche as a museum of wool. But the one your Instagram feed will thank you for the most is undoubtedly The Lume where you yourself can step into a painting and be fully immersed within the artwork with the help of surrounding projections.
Launching in 2021 with an event focused on the iconic Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the gallery’s current experience Monet & Friends is centred around Claude Monet and his fellow Impressionists such as Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot. The accompanying music and recreated Cafe de Flore, the iconic Paris institution where artists of the time would regularly meet and where you can now sit, have a coffee and a macaron and take in the experience, help in painting the full picture.
The Lume also offers quite a memorable experience with its yoga classes taught within the vast space surrounded by projections of the space, the underwater world of the oceans and more.
While the busy hustle and bustle of the city centre has its allure, the calm charm of Melbourne’s suburbs is not one to pass up on. These areas are filled with cosy cafes, trendy restaurants and independent shops that are worth making the trip for. If you’re a fan of timeless design and clothing in a muted, natural colour palette surrounded by vintage furniture, then Caro Melbourne in the leafy Hawthorn in the east is the place to be.
Opened in 2020 on the shopping strip that is Auburn Road, owner Caroline Carter “wanted to create a store that women felt inspired and comfortable in with no pressure. Where they can find quality, timeless garments with a modern edge.” Combining her love of people, clothes and creative surroundings, Caroline sources her pieces from independent designers, always looking for strong ethical values, natural materials and colour palette, high quality and timelessness in their designs. Partnering with an antique dealer Erik Barbey, the founder sources vintage furniture and decorative accessories along with the likes of dried flower bouquets looking to inject character and warmth into an otherwise blank, slightly industrial-looking space.
On the northern side of the city, Preston is a varied suburb with much to offer. But if you find yourself in the more residential area of Gilbert Road, then definitely don’t skip on visiting the local gem that is Pinky’s store. Started by stylist Beckie Littler and jewellery designer Emily Green, whose studio is situated right behind the shop, the joyful space is dominated by a large floral mural on the wall but it presents an explosion of colour everywhere you look with the products themselves displaying a bright colour palette.
As mothers of young children who became friends after meeting at a playgroup, the pair made the store very family and child-friendly with a designated play area for the little ones to allow mums to browse, and a wide assortment of children’s books, toys and kidswear in playful patterns on offer. But if you’re child-free, then there are plenty of homewares, jewellery, hair and fashion accessories, books, stationery and more to look forward to, all hand-picked and sourced by Emily and Beckie from both local and international brands and designers focusing on ethical production, durability and minimal plastic.
Industry Beans Fitzroy
Another excellent choice for brunch, lunch or simply a cup of specialty coffee is Industry Beans in the trendy and cool area of Fitzroy. Australia takes its coffee culture very seriously, being the birth place of the flat white and one of the first to embrace specialty coffee. It is said that Melbourne specifically has more cafes per person than any other city in the world, so there is plenty to choose from. But we’d choose Industry Beans Fitzroy, the headquarters and original location of the venture founded in 2010 by brothers Steven and Trevor Simmons that now encompasses a handful of cafes across Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Melbourne sprawls across a vast area bigger than London with only half the population, which results in an abundance of space. Both restaurants and living quarters tend to be larger, broader and airier than its picturesque and often crammed European counterparts. And this applies to Industry Beans Fitzroy too. Housed in a converted, architecturally designed warehouse with a minimalist, all-white look accented with natural materials, the coffee shop is rather inconspicuous from the outside despite its colossal size, as it is located on a quiet back street of the otherwise bustling area.
Inspired by the third-wave coffee movement focused on high quality coffee sourced from individual farms and employing new and experimental roasting and brewing techniques, the space is as much a coffee roastery as it is a cafe and a coffee bar offering its own blends that you can take home with you, alongside a seasonal brunch menu and innovative creations like the coffee bubble cup – a cold brew coffee with coffee-soaked tapioca pearls.
Taking a short stroll into the adjoining neighbourhood of Collingwood, one of Melbourne’s top dining and cultural areas with the same level of cool as Fitzroy. It’s here that you can find the funky, newly-opened fine ice cream shop playfully named Fluffy Torpedo after the owners’ two fluffy poodles that are fast as torpedos.
Similarly to coffee, the city offers a bounty of choice when it comes to authentic gelato, owing to its heavy Italian influence from Italian immigrants that have settled here between the 1950s and 70s. But you would be hard pressed to find a place with flavours and interior as imaginative as that of Fluffy Torpedo run by Cherry Rainflower and Adam Semple. This place has some of the wildest yet so delicious ice creams – from a taste of salted dulce de leche, bacon cream and coffee to a white chocolate and vegemite blend, honouring the local culture as the vegemite spread is a national treasure that Australians swear by and regularly smother their toast with.
While devouring your gelato, you are welcome to sit on provided benches made from repurposed pine wood sourced during the demolition of the previous store. Marvel at the sizeable counter made from repurposed bricks, fun fabric menu doubling as a wall tapestry, a colourful floor made from hand-laid 200kg of authentic sour strips and a large dotted canvas on the wall set against orange-painted walls. This place just screams fun.
The Hub General Store
Staying in Collingwood, walk over to The Hub General Store to savour the old world charm of this concept store stationed within a traditional red-brick facade. The common thread uniting all the products displayed on and within vintage pieces of furniture is utility, as well as a certain level of aesthetic appeal. Everything here is a functional tool designed to last and serve its users in their everyday lives.
Dreamt up by Jacqueline Foti-Lowe, who is also the founder of the design furniture showroom Hub Furniture, The Hub General Store opened its doors in 2017 but was about 20 years in the making prior to that. The owner spent decades travelling and collecting everything from tools and soaps to stationery and beautiful vintage objects from all over the world, often purely because of a deep-seeded inability to see a beautiful or rare object and walk away without getting it and giving it the appreciation it deserves.
The inspiration for her general store also came from Jacqueline’s move to a small town outside of Melbourne where the local general store was a nurturing space, “a place where the sense of belonging to a local community was real, operating on first-name basis, sitting on the verandah with the owners for a chat and where forgetting your wallet made no difference.”
Peruse the multi-leveled space filled to the brim with the likes of Japanese ceramics and hot water bottles, sitting alongside cleaning brushes, handmade soaps and kitchen linen made from natural materials, all while sipping on a glass of cordial. “Each thing comes with a tale, has been found somewhere in my travels or has been shown to me by someone who knows how much I care for the little things,” explains Jacqueline.
Walking through the streets of Melbourne, one is struck by the amount of stylish salons and barbers whose owners clearly put a lot of thought into the design and customer experience of these spaces. This is certainly true of the Everyday Salon in Brunswick, a zero-waste hair salon with a low carbon footprint located in the heart of this multicultural hip suburb known as a prime destination for live music and upbeat pubs.
Creating hair for the everyday befitting the client’s personality and lifestyle and embracing low-maintenance styles, simultaneously Everyday also forged a creative environment that you will want to take a few snaps in before exiting. A minimalist aesthetic of this light-filled loft-style space is livened up with funky accessories and design furniture in a monochrome and pastel colour palette. Nothing too harsh on the eyes to distract from your fabulous new hair.
One of Melbourne’s charms is surely its original and imaginative architecture. With that in mind, Hotel NO is the perfectly unique place to wind down after an eventful day of exploring the city. That is if you can find it. Nestled right in the urban oasis of the city centre only a few minutes away from the iconic landmark of the Flinders Street railway station, Hotel NO is an experience in its own right. Located atop a car park and behind a single door without a reception or concierge, the hotel is made up of a series of vintage American travel trailers known as Airstreams arranged atop the rooftop offering unmatched views.
Brainchild of James Fry, who is also the owner of the car park the hotel rests on, the founder wanted to utilise the undeveloped potential of the structure’s rooftop. Disillusioned by most hotel experiences lacking in local character, James wanted to capture the essence and grit of Melbourne through this anything but ordinary, adventurous concept.
The metallic silver surface of the trailers reflects the street art spray-painted on the side of the neighbouring building which is very Melbourne indeed. And while it is untraditional in many ways – guests are emailed a code to swipe to get in, for example – the ‘rooms’ are as comfortable as those of any luxurious hotel, equipped with a queen-sized bed and a fully functioning bathroom.
Marion Wine Bar
The aforementioned area of Fitzroy is the place to be not only during the day, but also once the sun sets. Its exciting nightlife offers several cool bars and eateries including Marion Wine Bar on Gertrude Street in the heart of Fitzroy. Opened in 2015 by Melbourne-born chef and restaurateur Andrew McConnell with several ventures under his belt, from an ethical and sustainable butcher to a Pan-Asian restaurant in the centre of the city, Marion is a relaxed neighbourhood establishment made for true wine lovers. And in Melbourne there are many, with around 300 vineyards and some 150 wineries located in the region, including the Yarra Valley which makes for a popular day trip for locals and tourists alike.
Surrounded by white-washed brick walls and filled with intimate round tables and leather benches, the rustic wine bar offers a wide selection of grape tipple sourced both locally and from around the world, displayed on what can only be described as a library of wine covering the entire breadth of a wall, floor to ceiling. And even though the wine is the focus here, you can be sure that in a place run by such an esteemed chef the food will be just as delicious. The menu is constantly changing, focusing on seasonal produce and displayed on chic wooden letter boards on the wall.
Photography by Harvard Wang