MELBOURNE HAS A REPUTATION as a buttoned-down town, but arrive on the first Tuesday in November and you might think you’ve stumbled into the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Businesses brandish “closed” signs; blokes don suits and colourful ties; women parade a rainbow whirl of hats, fascinators, and other head-gear; and a general mood of silliness prevails. This is Melbourne Cup Day, the culmination of an annual horseracing carnival, when even those who can’t tell blinkers from bookmakers feel compelled to have “a flutter,” or a bet.
Author Denise Cullen Photography Petrina Tinslay
DAY ONE / Awaken, stretch, and savour views of Melbourne and the meandering Yarra River from your room at The Langham Melbourne. This big hotel boasts a boutique atmosphere and a decorating philosophy that effortlessly melds crystal chandeliers and sweeping marble staircases with comfortable couches and cloud-soft beds. Its understated elegance along with discreet service and an award-winning spa have made it the hotel of choice for high-profile visitors including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Enjoy a sumptuous buffet breakfast at the hotel’s Melba restaurant before taking an easy stroll across the river toward the central shopping district. It’s here you’ll begin to glimpse Melbourne’s many mysterious layers, as the sensible crisscrossing streets are subverted by a honeycomb of semi-secret lanes and alleyways brimming with cafés, shops, and other hidden treasures. The fully restored Block Arcade, dating to 1891, is one of the most beautiful and architecturally significant examples of the Victorian Mannerist style. Howey Place, with its lashings of art and attitude, is also worth a wander. Many boutiques here are exclusive to, or originated in, Melbourne. Particularly recommended are Brimelows for luxury leather goods and La Bella Donna for high-end homegrown fashion. Fancy a taste of what Melbourne’s quirky coffee culture has to offer? Pause to enjoy a steaming double shot in the cosy (some say tree house– style) surrounds of nearby Switchboard.
Walk up Swanston Street to the State Library of Victoria. This is Australia’s oldest library, offering free exhibitions of items including armour belonging to the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. Allow ample time to explore the atmospheric Old Melbourne Gaol. The bleak bluestone building has a history intertwined with some of Australia’s most defining events, including the Gold Rush and the Eureka Stockade Rebellion. As the site of 135 hangings, the prison contains a unique collection of death masks of executed criminals and related memorabilia. A tour of the City Watch House next door, where visitors are “booked” for various offences and briefly locked in pitch-black cells by actors posing as policemen, can be a sobering experience.
The CBD (central business district) lunch crowd will have thinned by the time you reach Nostro Baretto, so pull up a chair and make your selection from an ever-changing chalkboard menu. This newish restaurant has built its reputation on rustic Italian recipes conjured from fresh, seasonal produce. Walk off the zabaglione by weaving through Melbourne’s Chinatown, the oldest area of continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world. Browse the small shops filled with exotic food and knickknacks, and then make your way to the Chinese Museum. Here, five levels of galleries are home to diverse riches, including wedding gowns woven in gold; shoes worn by women with bound feet; the relics of market gardeners, herbalists, and traders; and the Millennium Dragon, the largest Chinese dragon in the world. As late afternoon slides into evening, amble to The Deanery.
This wine bar is tucked away at the end of a dimly lit blind alley, leading you to anticipate an encounter with the city’s seamier side. Instead, the doors open to reveal a sophisticated den with a split-level dining room. The menu is small but selective—after all, your attention will be on the 11-page wine list, which includes a collection of rare and older vintages from around the world.
Savour your last glass of pinot gris; then take a gentle stroll toward the Paris end of Collins Street, so named for its exaggerated tree-lined elegance. Enjoy the bustling atmosphere before turning left onto Spring Street for a performance at your final destination on this first perfect day, The Princess Theatre. This landmark building dates from 1886 and is rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of a singer who died during a performance of the opera Faust.