Welcome to my (virtual) tour of Marvellous Melbourne

For two years I conducted walking tours around the central business district of Melbourne. I tramped a regular route through Melbourne’s grand boulevards and artistic laneways, relating stories to my guests and imparting local knowledge.

Last week I wrote about my experience and using the Airbnb Experiences platform.

While COVID-19 and other factors mean that I no longer run this tour, I have decided to bring the tour to you! This article works best if you open it on your phone while you’re walking around the streets of Melbourne.

Federation Square

I followed a few main principles when designing my tour:

  1. Stay away from the main streets. Anyone can walk down Swanston St or Collins St. I wanted to show a mix of some grand, famous buildings as well as gritty graffiti laneways that are a bit harder to find.
  2. We can’t see everything. That’s just the way it is. The Melbourne CBD is a decent size and there are countless interesting and quirky places that it just wasn’t feasible for me to include in my tours.
  3. Create an adaptable route. The route should be flexible to be able to lengthened or shortened depending on walking speed. The route presented here is about the average I could fit in to a 2-hour session of comfortable walking.

The Route

  • Starting point: Ormond Statue, La Trobe Street
  • Ending point: Federation Square

Act 1 — Melbourne is ‘found’​(ed)

A Tasmanian farmer named John Batman leads an exhibition party to discover new places to farm in what is now Melbourne. The land looks fertile and Batman ‘buys’ the place from the local Aborigines and intends to name it ‘Batmania’​. The authorities in New South Wales have other ideas, taking control of the settlement and naming it after the British Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.

In 1850, the district is finally given ‘colony’​ status — named of course after the reigning monarch, Victoria. Soon after, gold is discovered and wealth flows through the city streets. Melbourne receives the nickname Marvellous Melbourne, as many grand buildings are erected and people rush from all over the world in the search for riches.

Out of the Gold Rush era comes the story of the Eureka Rebellion and the legend of bushranger Ned Kelly.

Buildings visited during this portion of the tour:

  1. Old Magistrates Court
  2. Old police headquarters
  3. Old Melbourne Gaol
  4. Trades Hall
  5. Royal Exhibition Building — location of World Fair and Australian’s first parliament

Act 2 — Melbourne is the capital (of debauchery?)

Melbourne is designed in a grid formation with wide streets to accommodate the rising population. Unfortunately, Victoria follows its gold rush boom with two heavy crashes and the population dwindles away. The colony is worried about foreign invaders and lobbies to join the other colonies and become a federated nation. New South Wales isn’t impressed with the idea of Melbourne becoming the capital city and the colonies eventually agree to build a new city for the new nation’s capital. While Canberra is being built, Melbourne acts as the capital city for the first 27 years of Australia.

The area next to Parliament House was a red-light district. The location appears to be no accident, with rumours speculating that there was a tunnel leading directly from parliament to the brothels. Melbourne’s most popular brothel owner, Madame Brussels, is the first woman in Australia to have her own telephone, allegedly given to her by the parliament — but for what purpose? In another famous story, a ceremonial mace used in parliament disappears and is said to have been spotted inside a brothel and being used for “unparliamentary acts”.

The government eventually cleans up the area, renaming Romeo Lane and Juliet Terrace to the more boring Liverpool Street and Crossley Street.

Locations visited:

  1. ICI House — first skyscraper in Melbourne
  2. Royal Australian College of Surgeons
  3. Tianjin Garden — a tribute to Melbourne’s sister city
  4. Parliament House
  5. Princess Theatre — the home of the ghost of Federici
  6. Windsor Hotel
  7. Old Treasury Building — designed by 16-year-old JJ. Clark
  8. The Melbourne Club
  9. Meyers Place — green your laneway project
  10. Romeo Lane

Act 3 — Melbourne is multicultural, racist, and puritanical

Melbourne’s Chinatown was born out of the gold rush era and indeed is the oldest continuously existing Chinatown in the world. The Chinese didn’t have an easy time in days past and racism was overt, especially seen in the White Australia policy of the early twentieth century.

Melbourne was a city full of Protestant puritans who believed in hard work and stiff deportment. While there was never total prohibition, alcohol was restricted. Dry areas were created in the eastern suburbs, many hotels were converted into ‘coffee palaces’ and the government mandated that all pubs must close early. Up until 1966 when the law was repealed, Melburnians could not legally buy a drink after 6pm, which gave rise to the term ‘6 o’clock swill’ as punters downed their last beer for the day.

Locations visited:

  1. Chinatown
  2. Croft Alley — home of kooky Croft Institute
  3. Tavistock Place — art laneway project, graffiti
  4. Melbourne Council House 2 — awarded Australia’s first 6-star green star design rating
  5. Presgrave Place — picture frame street art
  6. Union Lane — graffiti laneway

Act 4 — Melbourne is fashionable (self-styled)

Melburnians wanted to show that they were fashionable and European; not some backwater land of convicts. The Marvellous Melbourne architecture can be seen in the Royal and Block Arcades. People used to dress up in their Sunday finest clothes and promenade around a square block — called “doing the block”.

Melbourne’s grid layout, with its proliferation of laneways leant itself to the explosion of laneway bar and café culture in the city. A combination of low property prices and changing liquor laws allowed many entrepreneurs to open establishments in hidden away spots. Investment by the Melbourne City Council has transformed previously empty (and often smelly) laneways into beacons of art and culture. Government policies mandating street shop-fronts for all new buildings have created a strong street-shopping culture.

Originally opposed to the notion of ugly graffiti, the Melbourne City Council latched onto changing public attitudes and has designated a dozen or so laneways as legal graffiti laneways that can be painted with impunity. Hosier Lane, the most famous of the laneways, now attracts busloads of tourists coming to admire the constantly changing, eclectic wall paintings.

Places to visit:

  1. Bourke Street Mall
  2. General Post Office (GPO)
  3. Royal Arcade
  4. The Block Arcade
  5. Centre Place and Degraves Street
  6. ACDC Lane
  7. Hosier Lane — Melbourne’s most popular graffiti laneway
  8. Federation Square
  9. Flinders Street Station

Thank you for joining my virtual tour of Melbourne. I crafted this tour after iterating on hundreds of walks. I hope you have enjoyed it and even learnt a thing or two.

Of course, if you would like an actual, you know, real in-person tour, I’m always happy and generally available to show you around. Please do message me if you’d like to take a stroll with me.

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