Monday, 16 March 2009

Marvellous Melbourne: My Favourite Things

With all the international travel I've done over the past year, it's easy to forget that my home town, Melbourne, is a popular tourist destination in itself.

But whenever I return from a jaunt overseas and arrive in the city's central business district, I'm reminded what a delightful place it is.

In the 19th century the goldrush boomtown received the nickname 'Marvellous Melbourne' for its prodigious growth and vibrant character.

The marvellousness was lost in the great economic crash of the 1890s but, despite the present economic crisis, I believe it's earned it back in the past decade.

The first thing I do if I happen to return from the airport during daytime hours, is to head to Brother Baba Budan (359 Little Bourke Street) before I even go home.

This cool little cafe serves the best coffee in a city already famous for its great coffee. If you're in the neighbourhood, sit beneath the strange collection of chair legs hanging down from the ceiling and order the character-packed blend of the day (I like the Rwandan MIG).

Now that I've started spilling Melbourne's secrets, here are a few more of my favourite semi-hidden hangouts in the city:
  • Horse Bazaar, 397 Little Lonsdale St: At this cool, low-key bar, local digital artists display their work on the wrap-around screen high up on the walls. Also check out the digital art screening behind the urinal in the men's loo.
  • Caledonian Lane: This alleyway linking Little Bourke and Lonsdale Streets is always smelly and strewn with industrial bins. However, it's also a focus of street artists, and there are always some great paintings or stencils along its walls.
  • Guildford Lane Gallery, 20 Guildford Lane: Recently open artistic space hidden in an old network of red brick buildings and alleys between La Trobe and Little Lonsdale Streets. It's a cavernous industrial space hosting contemporary art.
  • Basement Discs, 24 Block Place: I actually visited this below-ground music shop for the first time just recently, having passed its doorway for years when taking shortcuts from Little Collins Street to Collins Street. On impulse, I riffled through the nearest rack and ended up buying The London Book Of The Dead by the Real Tuesday Weld. Ambient, cool, and a little bit odd.
  • Koko Black, Royal Arcade: Above the ground-level entry to this chocolate shop is a cafe space that resembles a Viennese coffee house in miniature. It serves the best hot chocolate I've ever tasted, made from real Belgian chocolate. It costs A$5.75, but it's worth every cent.
  • Pushka, 20 Presgrave Place: In an alleyway off an alleyway, this tiny cafe is not that easy to spot even when you're standing right outside. Very dressed-down and relaxed, it serves good coffee in cups you can stir with an odd assortment of commemorative teaspoons.
  • The Toff in Town, 252 Swanston Street: Almost every floor of this building houses an interesting bar or creative business, but the Toff is special for two reasons: its train-compartment-like seating which can be closed to outside view, and its music room with a diverse range of live acts.
  • Charltons, 2 Coverlid Place: Seedy but amusing pool hall in a mouldering space above an alley in Chinatown. The place is full of international students playing pool on dozens of tables, with a video jukebox competing with the karaoke in the adjoining bar. Tacky, cheap and lots of fun. If you're ever here on a Friday night and wondering who the idiot was who put Billy Idol's White Wedding on the jukebox... that'd be me.
... and that's just a selection. One thing this city does well is hiding treasures down alleyways, and above and below the street. Try exploring alleyway Melbourne for yourself, the next time you're in town.