If Australia has anything approximating a European city, then Melbourne is it, with the charm of a small town and the hedonism of a modern metropolis. Growing up there, I took for granted all the things that it offers in spades: fashion-forward boutiques, markets, lively bars, and a certain gentility that gets into the bones. Years after relocating to Sydney, I still find myself going back and rediscovering the city all over again. Melbournians know that the very best places are where you least expect them: down cobbled alleyways, in dimly lit basements, and above tiny shops. A recent flurry of urban development has seen the arrival of new places to eat, drink, and feed even the most severe retail addictions.
Melbourne's scene revolves around its two waterfronts: Port Phillip Bay, which laps the shores of two of the city's buzziest suburbs, St. Kilda and Elwood, and the Yarra River, which meanders from the village of Warburton through the eastern suburbs and the city center. The wide, leafy boulevards—and the lack of steep hills—make the city a dream to explore.
BEDS DOWN UNDER Forget the five stars; boutique hotels are where it's at in this town. Pared-down minimalism?The rock-and-roll treatment?Hospitality like your grandma's?Melbourne has it covered.
Shandon 1884 (361 Beaconsfield Parade, St. Kilda; 61-3/9534-0080; doubles from $195), a mansion overlooking Port Phillip Bay, is run by Ben and Kirsten Edwards, a young couple who've filled the house with antiques: Victorian-era chandeliers and Oriental screen prints alongside French provincial chairs and chesterfield sofas. No in-room TV's or mini-bars here, just a home-style welcome (the owners chat with guests over breakfast on the sunny porch), claw-foot tubs, and beds so comfortable it's a struggle to leave them. • The Marque (35-37 Fitzroy St., St. Kilda; 61-3/8530-8888; doubles from $169) attracts an urbane crowd looking for sleek rooms: white-on-white furnishings, Bulgari amenities. Upgrade to one of the suites and soak in a Jacuzzi overlooking a Japanese garden. • The Adelphi (187 Flinders Lane; 61-3/9650-7555; doubles from $295) is experiencing another heyday (the first was in the early 1990's, when its postmodern design attracted a hard-partying rock-and-roll set who loved the stark rooms with expansive mirrored surfaces). Now it's home to one of the city's most talked-about restaurants, Ezard at Adelphi. Another standout: the cantilevered, glass-bottomed lap pool built over Flinders Lane.
MEMORABLE MEALS Whether you're craving a hundred-dollar burger or the iconic meat pie, Michelin-starred chefs, homegrown talents, and traditional family restaurateurs ensure that the food scene in Melbourne stays hot.
The Botanical (169 Domain Rd., South Yarra; 61-3/9820-7888; dinner for two $79) is sizzling right now, thanks to a new chef (Paul Wilson) and a smart redesign. Choose among hundreds of wines (both Australian and imported) from the adjoining shop, or ask one of the ever attentive waiters for advice. Book in advance; it's worth it to sample the soft truffled polenta with poached egg or the yellowfin-tuna sashimi with a mirin-soy dressing. • If the pasta at Lionel's Kitchen (60 Fitzroy St., Rear, St. Kilda; 61-3/8598-9000; dinner for two $38) tastes just like Mama's, that's because the owner, Matt Martino, has his parents at the stoves. The tiny space—with simple bentwood chairs, farm tables, and the daily menu scrawled on a blackboard—is warmed by softly glowing orange lights overhead. • Mrs. Jones (312 Drummond St., Carlton; 61-3/9347-3312; dinner for two $45) is the neighborhood bistro most neighborhoods can only dream about: wood and stone floors, dazzling white walls, and a small menu, which changes daily. Favoritesinclude shredded duck and pickled cucumber salad, prawn and saffron pilaf with fennel, and Kangaroo Island lamb braised with artichokes. • Cult chef Greg Malouf—who introduced Melbourne to Middle Eastern cooking with O'Connell's in 1991—has transformed MoMo (Basement, 115 Collins St.; 61-3/9650-0660; dinner for two $43) into a Casablanca-inspired hit with Moroccan details and flavors: summer couscous, tagine, and b'steeya (Moroccan pigeon pie).
COFFEE CULTURE Melbournians feel about their coffee the way New Yorkers do about their bagels, and caffeine aficionados (that's pretty much everyone) wouldn't dream of dropping into a Starbucks. Don't come expecting a bottomless cup of joe; this is pure espresso territory. Café Racer (15 Marine Parade, St. Kilda; 61-3/9534-9988) is a sexy, beach- side stop for beautiful girls and boys who park their Italian scooters out front and vie for attention in the cramped but stylish café.• Wall Two 80 (280 Carlisle St., Rear, E. St. Kilda; 61-3/9593-8280), a tiny hole-in-the-wall, dispenses sandwiches made on toasted Turkish bread, neighborhood gossip, and some of the best coffee in town. • Pellegrini's (66 Bourke St.; 61-3/9662-1885) has been keeping literary, art, and film industry types happy for decades with authentic Italian cuisine. • Grinders Coffee House (277 Lygon St., Carlton; 61-3/9347-7520) supplies many of the city's best cafés. The signature blend is a mixture of South American beans that makes a powerful cup.
WHAT'S IN STORE Many Sydneysiders make the 1 1/2-hour plane journey religiously to shop in Melbourne boutiques such as Flinders Way (238 Flinders Lane, Shop 1; 61-3/9654-3331), where racks of Marc Jacobs and Akira Isogowa swing alongside Rogan, Rick Owens, and YPV, all immaculately laid out in a polished shrine to chic. Here it's all about high-sheen floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the kind of hushed reverence beautiful clothes deserve. • Cactus Jam International (729 Glenferrie Rd., Hawthorn; 61-3/9819-0348) showcases both local (jeans geniuses Sass & Bide and Tsubi) and international (Chloé, Matthew Williamson, and Vanessa Bruno) labels, all in a slick, girlie interior. • Call ahead to visit Melbourne fashion institution Le Louvre (74 Collins St.; 61-3/9650-1300), and have owner Georgina Weir show you dress after exquisite dress by John Galliano, Martine Sitbon, and Rebecca Moses that all cry out to be belles of the ball. • If design's more your speed, hit Plasma (2A Cecil Place, Prahran; 61-3/9525-1271) for everything from Eames to Noguchi, with many a foray into classic Australian designers (like local legend Grant Featherston, whose namesake chairs are collector's items). • St. Kilda's House of Balscheit (1-3 Inkerman St., St. Kilda; 61-3/9593-8744) and the White Elephant (167 Barkly St., St. Kilda; 61-3/9534-2999) both deal in pristine 20th-century pieces reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
TO MARKET WE GO Whatever you want, be it Ugg boots, a piece of 1950's kitsch Australiana, truffles, or baby zucchini flowers, the city's markets have it all. Head to Prahran Markets (163-185 Commercial Rd., Prahran) for Melbourne's best selection of wild mushrooms, chiles, and artisanal cheeses. • Queen Victoria Markets (513 Elizabeth St.; www.qvm.com.au) has every coffee bean under the sun, ground to your specification, as well as sublime buffalo mozzarella.• Head to Cecil Street in South Melbourne for discounted almost-designer clothing. • The Sunday flea markets in Camberwell (Station St. Carpark) sell just about everything else. Make like the locals and get there at 6 a.m. with a flashlight; it will be worth the excess-baggage fee.
OUT ON THE TOWN An insider tip for barhoppers: befriend a local if you want to find the really happening spots.
Housed in the former Communist Party headquarters, Kookoo (252 Swanston St., First Floor; 61-3/9663-7660) is vast, with a bar running the entire length of the space. The tables (and the beautiful people at them) are packed in like sardines, which just adds to the buzz. A grainy print of a student protest fills one wall. Buy you a drink, comrade?• The Deanery (13 Bligh Place; 61-3/9629-5599) is a must for wine aficionados, with a long wine list and a massive cellar, where visitors can store their own bottles. (What better excuse to buy fine Australian wines and stash them for your next visit?) • Double Happiness (21 Liverpool St.; 61-3/9650-4488) is possibly the smallest and most fashionable bar in Melbourne. Admire the original People's Republic propaganda posters and sip a Great Leap Forward cocktail, made from fresh ginger, longan, and vodka. • The cool set loves Honkytonks (Duckboard Place, 61-3/9662-4555), a late-night gem whose seedy, peeling-paint exterior conceals a glamorous den where guests can chill, sip champagne, or dance the night away next to a grand piano that doubles as a DJ booth.