48 hours in Melbourne

Fine arts, fine dining, and brave architecture. Here--s what to do if you just have a couple of days to spend in Melbourne.
48 hours in Melbourne

The pleasantly shocking thing is the weather. One cruel afternoon, you flee OTG-like conditions in Delhi, and a few bleary-eyed flights later, your flagging spirits rise with a satisfyingly chilly dawn. Or you might be doing it the other way round&mdashswap biting cold for sunny climes. Yes, yes, you know your geography&mdashone axial tilt, two hemispheres, four seasons. When it&rsquos summer here, it&rsquos winter Down Under. Crossing the Equator may be just the fix you need&mdashonly ensure Melbourne is your port of call.

&lsquoMarvellous Melbourne&rsquo the prospectors called it. From tiny pastoral outpost in the 1850s, Melbourne grew rapidly to accommodate over a million inhabitants in less than 50 years. The primary engine of this furious growth was the Victoria gold rush&mdashone of the biggest in history. I am happy to report that it&rsquos only gotten better since then. This utterly hedonistic city topped an Economist Intelligence Unit survey listing the world&rsquos most livable cities. Melbourne is one of the great, clean, bright cities of the world. Savour its sharp flavours on a stopover.

Get your bearings They won&rsquot tire of telling you that Melbourne is laid out in a neat grid of streets. Inspect for yourself at Rialto Towers, the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the southern hemisphere. Climb the 1,254 stairs to the Melbourne Observation Deck for a 360-degree view of its gigantic sprawl. Just kidding, take the lift. Your speedy transport will get you to your floor&mdashthe 55th&mdashin 40 seconds flat. On a clear day you can see 60km to the horizon. There&rsquos a café, binoculars and two outdoor balconies. See www.melbournedeck.com.au.

Out of doors Melbourne lives on its streets&mdashthere are impromptu performances around fountains, open-air concerts, a lively arts scene, and much sport. Soak it all in on a stroll down the Yarra riverfront, the Southbank precinct, and round the Royal Botanic Gardens. Or get to the centre of it all&mdashthe postmodern Federation Square, once a hugely controversial project, now a much applauded city plaza that &lsquohangs&rsquo over Melbourne&rsquos rail lines. The construction of the deck beneath the square is the largest expanse of railway decking in Australia. It is supported by over 3,000 tonnes of steel beams, 1.4 kilometres of concrete &lsquocrash walls&rsquo and over 4,000 vibration-absorbing spring coils and rubber padding. The deck supports art galleries, cinemas, radio and TV studios, restaurants, etc. See www.federationsquare.com.au. The architectural legacy of the gold rush remains in imposing Victorian fa&ccedilades and splendidly restored terrace houses. Interesting reuse of historic buildings is exemplified in the GPO and the Queen Victoria hospital, both upmarket shopping complexes now.

St. Kilda This hip bayside suburb with its sandy beaches was shunned for decades because it was the haunt of prostitutes and druggies. Today, it is enjoying a resurgence and has Melbourne&rsquos highest concentration of restaurants, ranging from glitzy to cheap. The Esplanade hugs a pleasant stretch of beach and there&rsquos an arts and crafts market on Sundays. It&rsquos also home to Luna Park, one of the world&rsquos oldest fun parks, built 1912, where you can ride the historic wooden roller coaster. When you tire, you could tuck into kofta curry at global vegetarian café Soul Mama and watch yachts sail into the sunset or aviators steer their pet tiger moths over the bay.

Docklands The docklands have enjoyed a revival in cities around the world. In Melbourne, they are the biggest development of the moment (www.docklands.com). New Quay on the waterfront has a diverse range of restaurants, shops, and cinemas. To celebrate Australian Rules football, Melbournians constructed a 52,000-seat stadium&mdashthe Telstra Dome (see www.telstradome.com.au for tours). Take a river cruise while you consider buying that riverside apartment (www.melbcruises.com.au).

The Great Ocean Road This delightful road, punctuated by shipwrecks and jaw-dropping scenery, is one of the great coastal drives of the world. There&rsquos nice accommodation along the 400km drive so take your time about it. See www.greatoceanrd.org.au

&mdashQuaint coastal towns on the road include Portland, Queenscliff and Port Fairy. An old whaling station, Port Fairy is now an artists&rsquo retreat and hosts several music festivals.

&mdashSet high in the Otways overlooking Bass Strait, Chris&rsquos Beacon Point is a must-stop for gourmet travellers. The cuisine is Greek.

&mdashAt Port Campbell National Park, you&rsquoll meet the Twelve Apostles&mdashgiant rock stacks, silent sentinels of the coast for over 20 million years&mdashor are there nine Well, they keep collapsing, so get there fast.

&mdashCheck out the new multimedia laser show at the Warrnambool Maritime Museum, which recreates the wrecking of the Loch Ard.

&mdashIn the hinterland, don&rsquot miss gold rush era town Ballarat. Attractions include a recreated gold rush township&mdashSovereign Hill&mdashand a free-range zoo where you can cuddle the koalas and feed the kangaroos.

Not just cricket I don&rsquot watch cricket, but for those who do, a visit to the 102-year-old Melbourne Cricket Ground is a pilgrimage. MCG tours are available daily (excluding event days) between 10am and 3pm (duration 1hr15min www.mcg.org.au).

Eating out Melbourne has my vote for world hogging capital. Throw a kangaroo jerky over your shoulder, and you&rsquoll hit a restaurant&mdashMelbourne has the largest number in Australia. Italian, Greek, and Chinese come tops, reflecting the dominant ethnicities of Melbourne, with superlative seafood all around.

&mdashThe latest offering from star restaurateur Paul Mathis, whose restaurants are inspired by transportation, is Taxi, the Japanese dining room attached to his Transport hotel & bar in Federation Square (www.transporthotel.com.au). Cutting-edge d&eacutecor, great service but meagre portions. After turning veggie, Mathis has opened Soul Mama in St Kilda (www.soulmama.com.au).

&mdashThe premier joint in town though has to be Grossi Florentino&rsquos Italian offering (www.grossiflorentino.com), comprising a fine dining restaurant, a grill and a cellar bar. Grossi himself is a generous, warm, sexy Italian man (say hello to him). Try one of Grossi&rsquos divine desserts. The Budino di Cioccolato e Fichi (macerated dry figs and Valrhona chocolate steamed with citrus pudding) is recommended, which I have tried and tested for you.

&mdashIn this city of trams&mdashjust like Cal&mdashwhy not dine in a glossy historical tram Take the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant (www.tramrestaurant.com.au).

&mdashYes, there&rsquos Indian too, but frankly not like home. Nirankar (www.nirankar.com.au) is a much-feted restaurant (best Indian restaurant award and all that), but I wouldn&rsquot approach their gulabjamuns with a barge pole.

&mdashFor a truly novel experience, try Dracula&rsquos Cabaret restaurant for a blend of fetish rock and gothic opera and some weird waiters (www.draculas.com.au).

Where to stay

&mdashThe Crown Casino complex offers two hotels the luxurious Crown Towers and the somewhat cheaper Crown Promenade. See www.crowncasino.com.au.

&mdashThe Windsor is a Victorian-era luxury hotel run by our Oberois (see www.oberoihotels.com).

&mdashFor more options, check out the Melbourne Accommodation Guide (email info@destinationmelbourne.com.au for a free copy).

Need to know

&mdashMelbourne Visitor Centre. A one-stop shop for all the info you&rsquoll need plus Internet facilities accommodation and tour bookings, ticket sales, etc (open daily 9am-6pm Corner Flinders & Swanson Sts, Fed. Square). See www.thatsmelbourne.com.au.

&mdashCity Ambassadors. Look out for these cheery volunteers in bright-red shirts roaming the city centre for any questions, directions or activity suggestions.

&mdashCity Circle Tram is a free service that will get you around Melbourne in a jiffy. The tram passes through major attractions, shopping precincts and theatres.

&mdashDon&rsquot take any open food items into Australia. There are strict quarantine restrictions&mdashand sniffer dogs to enforce them.

&mdashIf you will only shop, consider booking a shopping tour (www.shoppingspree.com.au). Note that most stores&mdashbarring supermarkets&mdashclose by 6pm.

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