Hey, Sydney Trippers: Don’t Sleep on Melbourne

Five reasons why Australia’s second city rocks harder than its first.

Jeremy Helligar
Jun 3, 2020 · 7 min read
Melbourne’s central business district (All photos by the author)

Remember going on holiday? Those were the days. They’ll come again, and when they do, the first international flight I book probably will be back to Australia.

Few places on earth are farther from the U.S., so a trip to Australia requires endurance and commitment. When visitors travel from the U.S. to Australia, they generally pounce on Sydney, spreading so much hype about Oz’s unofficial epicenter. American tourists who puts all their eggs in Sydney’s basket don’t know what they’re missing.

Before my first visit to Australia 10 years ago, when I told people I was planning a month-long adventure down under, with an emphasis on Sydney, those who’d been to the capital of the Aussie state of New South Wales told me I’d fall fast and furiously in love so overpowering that I’d want to stay for longer than a month, if not forever.

But what did they know? I’ve never been quite in sync with popular opinion when it comes to cities. Paris, arguably the most overrated city on the planet, bores me. I prefer Madrid to Barcelona, São Paulo to Rio, Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. And oh, how I despise Miami! (Sorry, Golden Girls!)

Once again, I’m challenging popular opinion by declaring Melbourne the far superior Australian metropolis, so much so that four days in it was not enough. Neither were two weeks. When I departed on October 13, 2010, I’d spent a total of five weeks falling deeper and deeper for its charms.

A view of Melbourne from my friend Kimba’s roof in St. Kilda
A view of Sydney’s Opera House and Harbour Bridge from the city’s best running route

I’ve since returned to Melbourne for various extended stints (living there on-off from March of 2011 to April of 2013), and for two and a half years (from October of 2014 to June of 2017), I lived and worked in Sydney. So I feel particularly qualified to choose one over the other. At the end of it all, I still feel like an honorary Melburnian.

The weather can be capricious, and it’s more often cloudy and/or rainy than sunny, but London is my favorite city in the world, so clearly sunshine is not my priority. There’s a reason why Melbourne keeps getting voted the most livable city on the planet.

My friend Lori, via her colorist, once made the perfect comparison of the two not-so-twin cities in an email to me: I talked to Bryan my colorist about it on Saturday, and he says Sydney is the lifestyle (i.e. beach, chill-out) city; think Orange County, Calif. Explains why you don’t love it. Meanwhile, he says Melbourne is very European — which explains why you love it.

Here are five more reasons why my heart belongs to Melbourne.

Melbourne’s got soul.

Consider “Ain’t That a Shame,” a 1955 hit co-written by Fats Domino and later turned into a number-one pop single by Pat Boone, who, laughably, wanted to re-title it “Isn’t That a Shame” in order to appeal to a larger (i.e. Caucasian) audience.

Wouldn’t that have been the shame? Boone’s version is white, clean, and neat, so perfect for mainstream consumption that at the time of its release, it overshadowed Domino’s version on the charts. It’s Sydney. Domino’s rendition is darker and grittier. It may not be as pretty on the outside, but there are far more layers underneath.

It’s the version people with good taste in music think of when they think of the song today. That’s Melbourne. It’s cover may not be as attractive as Sydney’s, but once you get into Melbourne, it’s a more engrossing experience (at least it was for me).

Flinders Street Station, arguably Melbourne’s most beautiful building.

Melbourne boys are hotter.

When my Melburnian friend Marcus compared Sydney’s Los Angeles to Melbourne’s New York City, he was talking about the overall feel of the two cities, and he nailed it. But that comparison would also apply to the guys in both cities. The boys of summer in Sydney are bronzed, polished, styled to within an inch of their work- and image-obsessed lives. They’re a dime a dozen, and with one tall, blond exception, I honestly can’t recall a single one I saw the entire seven days I was there during my first visit.

That’s so L.A. There’s definitely the overly bronzed, overly polished, overly styled element to the Melbourne boy scene, but for someone like me, who prefers a guy who is artsier, messier, and a bit more rock & roll, Melbourne delivers — just like New York City does.

Melbourne looks cooler on the inside.

The farther inland you move from the Sydney Opera House, which is far more spectacular in photos than in person, and the city’s quite dramatically picturesque harbour and beaches, the more ordinary Sydney becomes. Once you leave the water behind, Sydney is a lot like any other city. Well, actually, five or six other cities. It’s kind of generic, lacking a really specific look or feel.

Melbourne doesn’t have that one landmark to reel visitors in, and its beaches don’t wave back, but look around. There’s beauty everywhere — in all the glass facades and glass balconies, in the various light displays that break the night with color, in the undulating terrain, which makes it challenging for runners but won’t leave pedestrians as breathless as Sydney’s frustratingly steep inclines.

Sydney is a glamour queen, but Melbourne is gorgeous in a different way. She’s a lady who still looks great without a stitch of make-up and nary a nip nor a tuck.

Federation Square, the gateway to Melbourne’s central business district.

Kylie Minogue is from Melbourne.

Could it get any better than that? And to borrow from the lyrics of the closing track on Kylie’s Aphrodite album, which was a hit during my first trip down under, can’t beat the feeling of strolling through St. Kilda (my first adopted neighborhood), South Yarra (my second adopted neighborhood), Prahran (a later adopted neighborhood), Fitzroy, Chapel Street, and Hardware Lane — or spending a cruisy Sunday drinking at the Espy, enjoying Australia’s best chicken parma at Windsor Castle, or having the world’s best burger in Moonee Ponds. There are so many gorgeous neighborhoods to choose from, and they all have such specific vibes.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve gone on long runs all over the world and few running routes can compete with the one along the Sydney Harbour, from the Opera House to the Royal Botanic Garden. Meanwhile, an early morning sprint across the Harbour Bridge (before the crowds arrive) offers views that will take your breath away if the aerobic exertion doesn’t do it first.

Melbourne also offers excellent running routes and, for the most part, they aren’t packed with other people who had the same idea. “The Tan” (which circles Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens), Albert Lake, St. Kilda’s Beach, and numerous parks around the city keep long runs in Victoria’s capital interesting.

I didn’t have to be born there like Kylie to feel like I belonged in Melbourne. After two and a half years in Sydney, aside from my lovely apartment on William Street overlooking the Domain, I never found a single spot that felt like home. Melbourne was home sweet home from the start.

Look what I ran into on Hardware Lane!

I left my heart in Melbourne … and she gave it back to me.

I met the man who eventually would become my husband in Melbourne during that first trip. Thank God, I ditched Sydney after one week and headed south for the rest of my holiday, where I found my future less than a week before my departure.

He was an Aussie from a little country town called Trafalgar just two hours outside of Melbourne who, amazingly and coincidentally, lived just a block or two from my first Melbourne rental apartment, on Clyde Street in St. Kilda. As with the city, it was love at first sight. After three years of on-off, followed by six of radio silence and quality time logged in dozens of countries on five continents (by me), we too became one again — where else? — in Melbourne.

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