I promised to write a little more thoughtfully about my trip down in Melbourne, but I’ve been a little lazy and it’s been over a week. Apparently, the longer you leave it, the rosier your memories become, so I may very well be extolling non-existent virtues of Melbourne.
So, the hard question first up: is Melbourne better than Sydney? In some respects, yes. Just like this Heckler heckles, Sydney’s CBD is becoming increasingly hollowed out by the dearth of things to do in the heart of the business district — this is none more evident than in the area just south of Circular Quay. (For those of you who don’t know me well, the ample abundance of clubbing does not count.) Melbourne, on the other hand, lives up to its reputation as being a “network of villages” — pockets of life are sewn together by a carpet of restaurants and cafés that spill out into the street, odd pieces of street furniture, often slightly eccentric, and the well-designed public spaces that make you want to appreciate the city’s beauty at night. Clearly, it hasn’t worked everywhere though; the Docklands was something I was looking forward to see, but although the sleek, modern buildings complemented the smooth tranquility of the waterfront, it was devoid of life — but perhaps it was just the wrong night for that. During the day, Melbourne’s full of the hustle and bustle that you’d expect to find in a city that’s confident of itself and how it can make its own way without blandly copying what others have done before — it’s easy to get lost just wandering around the shopping centres (Melbourne makes shopping centres sexy) and the alleyways that the city is famous for.
The other thing that I’ll comment on is the transport, and for this I’ll drop the rosy language and get a little more objective. Trams are a fantastic idea, but I can see why it might not work so well in Sydney. Trams steam ahead without being forced to start and stop and start and stop by the rest of the traffic on the road (buses in Sydney make me think of priority inversion), but in order to achieve this, you need dedicated tram lanes — Melbourne’s main streets are noticeably wider than than those in Sydney (say, compared with George, Pitt and Castlereigh Streets) and thus you can afford to give an entire lane to trams. If you’re hopping around the CBD, you don’t really have to walk a lot because of how the lines are set up — which is how public transport should be — hop on, hop off at will. Trains were bewildering though. I don’t understand how you can run a train system where you can get from A to B by train, but there’s no way to get from B to A without taking a tortuous route (the station staff just told us to catch a tram instead). Seemingly obvious (to tourists at least) routes between popular stations just don’t exist, and if you’re just hopping around the CBD, you’re best off pretending the trains don’t exist. Southern Cross station, however, is one impressive piece of architecture, and it just shows how Sydney has fallen too far in favouring utilitarian function over form.
Will I be visiting again? Yes, definitely, if I’m after a break in civilisation (as opposed to a break with rocks and trees and things), Melbourne is the place to be. As you probably noticed, we spent the entire trip basically in the CBD — next time, I’d be sure to have a look a little further out, and see what gems lie outside the (attractive) stainless steel and glass jungle.
Lots of photos: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
P.S. Wikitravel is quite useful and clearly contains tips from everyday locals who know best: see, for example, the Melbourne entry.