Round-the-world: Why Melbourne is the best city in the world, part one

If it is difficult to write about a hometown, it is also difficult to write about a city you wish were your hometown, a city to which you’ve fantasized about relocating. I’ve fantasized about moving to a number of places (Lisbon, Auckland, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Valencia, Chicago) though none of these more than Melbourne.

I first visited Melbourne in 2004. The climate, the restaurants, the city’s scale, the ethnic diversity, the architecture were all incredibly appealing, but what really got me dreaming about uprooting to the other side of the world was something far more intangible, something atmospheric. Melbourne is worldly yet unassuming and people are friendly, frank, and occasionally loud. It achieves its goal of being a world-class city smoothly, effortlessly, and (rare for Australia) across four distinct seasons.

It’s not a surprise that Melbourne ranks so high in world livability surveys. The city is a magnet for foreign and domestic migrants alike. Anecdotal accounts suggest that Melbourne is the sort of city that residents leave only temporarily, with the aim of returning with new energy and ideas.

Suffice it to say that returning to Melbourne was a central priority of this round-the-world jaunt.

Before I get into why I love Melbourne, here are the logistical details: we spent six nights in Melbourne, at an extended stay Quest Apartments flat in St. Kilda. The flat won’t win any design awards, but it was perfectly adequate. It was great to have access to a kitchenette and a washer and dryer in the middle of a five-week trip, and the location, a few blocks from a tram stop and close to the thick of St. Kilda, was convenient.Why is Melbourne the best city in the world? I’ll take a stab at answering with a little list, which I will continue later this week.

1. Laneways. Melbourne’s laneways give the city a hidden grittiness, a secretive interior. The laneways are very appealing social spaces and stand in marked contrast to the modern, shiny architecture throughout the Central Business District. They’re full of cafes and shops and passers-by. Despite the fact that they feel secretive, they are nonetheless buzzing with energy during peak hours.

2. Striking public architecture. The Southern Cross Station, designed by UK-based Grimshaw Architects, is a thrilling marvel of contemporary architecture, with a dramatic undulating roof. Federation Square, with its museums and restaurants and other facilities, is similarly dramatic. Good, challenging architecture–in particular architecture that has a public use–makes cities more exciting.

3. Trams. In general, the public transportation system is good and it’s easy to get around Melbourne. But the tramlines are especially great, as they clatter down streets across the city and make Melbourne’s neighborhoods feel densely connected at the street level.

4. Coffee. You can find bad coffee in Melbourne, though you’ll have to search for it. That several Australian cafes have cropped up in New York and London makes a lot of sense. People take their coffee seriously here, and do a very good job with it. (On the down side, this local expertise will occasionally mean that your single serving of French press coffee will take 20 minutes to arrive and cost 9 Australian dollars.)

5. Footscray. Two different Melburnians, neither shy nor timid, cautioned against a visit to Footscray, claiming that it is a high-crime neighborhood with little in the way of interesting sights. How wrong they were. Crime statistics may tell a different story, but in actual practice Footscray feels to an American visitor at any rate like a middle-class urban neighborhood. It has a very strong immigrant presence, fabulous Vietnamese restaurants, and a cool produce market. It may be scrappy at the edges but danger is the last thing on a visitor’s mind. Footscray is also home to the Footscray Community Arts Centre, an internationally-recognized contemporary arts center with a strong focus on the various immigrant and ethnic communities of Melbourne West. (Travel guide geeks will of course observe that Footscray is also the world headquarters of Lonely Planet.)

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route round-the-world trip series here.