Melbourne has it all as a top tourist destination

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2006, 12:00am

A slew of international sporting events, including the Commonwealth Games, has seen Melbourne power past Sydney as Australia's premier tourist destination this year.

Tourism Victoria is undoubtedly hoping that the city will keep its engines running at full throttle for this weekend's Formula One Australian Grand Prix.

Once the dust has settled, Melbournians will continue their love affair with God's own game, Australian Rules Football.

Melbourne is the undisputed home of sport in Australia and, as the recent Games showed, few cities in the world are better at organising high-calibre sporting events. But as the cooler months approach, the city offers its visitors much more than the spectacle of big men in tight shorts chasing a ball in the rain.

For starters, there are women in tights, too, hundreds of them, hanging out in the cafes and bars that proliferate in this sophisticated, stylish and cosmopolitan city located on the banks of the

Yarra River.

Melbourne's bar and cafe scene is second to none in Australia. And they are not the loud, brash beer barns that one might associate with Sydney. There are countless smaller bars and coffee houses tucked away in quiet arcades and lanes in the city.

Melbourne's more liberal liquor licensing laws have enabled licensed cafes to emerge, and there are few things that compare with whiling away a sunny afternoon with a friend over a bottle (or two) of rose.

It would not be a stretch to say that Melbourne excels in pretty much all aspects of food and wine, fashion, shopping and entertainment, the arts, history and heritage.

And its hotels are among the best in the world. At the top of the list is the newly renovated Langham Hotel ( on the south bank of the Yarra, overlooking the city skyline. A sister hotel of the Langham in Hong Kong, it lives up to the hotel chain's reputation for excellence.

Rated as the most popular Melbourne hotel for international travellers by Conde Nast Traveller Readers' Travel Awards for 2005, the hotel is a member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World. It is difficult to imagine a better location for a luxury hotel; it is a stroll from the city's business district, fashion precinct, Botanic Garden, alfresco cafes and nightlife, with the Crown Casino a roll of the dice away.

This area is also the hub of Melbourne's art precinct, taking in the Arts Centre, National Gallery of Victoria and Federation Square.

Melbourne's population is nearly four million with a mix of cultures; it has the largest Greek population outside of Greece and many Asian cultures that contribute to its culinary and cultural offerings.

Melbourne now vies with Sydney for bragging rights as the culinary capital of Australia, and some foodies will tell you it has already overtaken its larger rival.

Restaurants such as the upmarket Taxi dining room in Federation Square testify to Melbourne's culinary supremacy. The winner of the 2006 Restaurant of the Year award in The Age Good Food Guide, Taxi offers a Japanese-inspired cuisine, with equally inspiring views of the city.

Somewhat more downmarket is Cookie in Swanston Street. This trendy upstairs restaurant-bar serves up affordable, Thai-inspired cuisine to a full house most nights, then, after dinner, morphs into a funky nightspot with a live DJ.

The term 'inspired by' features prominently in descriptions of Australian cuisine. What is regarded today as 'Australian-style cuisine' is really the continuous reinvention of an art which has traced the nation's pattern of immigration.

Successive waves of immigrants brought with them a culinary heritage that quickly took root in the fertile valleys of their adopted country, and eventually found its way on to the main streets.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Queen Victoria Market. Built during the gold rush some 128 years ago, it is the largest and oldest market in the southern hemisphere. Its historic buildings are a natural heritage site and many of the shops from which traders operate today are largely unchanged from days gone by.

The market covers seven hectares of prime land at the edge of the central business district. Several of its structures were originally grain sheds, dating back to the 1870s and 1880s, and have kept their original feel.

The deli section of the market is housed in a stone and marble art deco-style building, built in 1929 to keep the dairy products cool. Its gourmet foods are southern European-inspired: lashings of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, countless varieties of olives and local cheese from animals you would not think Australia has.

No trip to Melbourne would be complete without a day trip to the Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula wine regions and their many culinary delights. A little further afield, travellers can enjoy spectacular vistas on the Great Ocean Road or the northern snowfields.

Epicurean Food and Wine Tours ( offers a trip to the Yarra Valley that takes in the world-famous De Bortoli Winery, Green Point Vineyard at Domaine Chandon and the birthplace of the Victorian wine industry, Yering Station Winery. Chateau Yering fronts the Yarra River. (