Tucked away in its south-east corner, Australia’s smallest mainland state is both sophisticated and unspoiled, with a dramatic coastline made real by the amazing Great Ocean Road, one of the best drives in the country, plus lush ski-fields, famous wineries, country towns rich in gold-mine history, and a passion for great produce that make it a great spot for family holidays. And if Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, is the daggy sister to sexy Sydney, then she’s the misunderstood kind: while Sydney is about the show, Melbourne is about the hunt.
Things to do with kids in Melbourne and Victoria
Hang out in St Kilda, which Brits in Melbourne liken to Brighton – it’s a seaside neighbourhood with an alternative edge, consisting of two main streets of shops and eateries. Acland Street is famous for its European cake shops, Fitzroy Street is somewhat seedier but is also home to some of Melbourne’s great restaurants and bars. Formerly the centre for all things illicit, St Kilda has been gentrified at a steady pace, to the dismay of old-school locals, but its commerce reflects its changing role, ranging from fabulous florists to wicca spell shops, from high-street fashion stores to Goth emporiums. Tucked away behind Acland Street, in Neptune Place, St Kilda’s Adventure Playground is a fabulous, hidden, wildly imaginative park built by local parents, with old pianos to bang on, flying foxes and trampolines. Also worth seeing are the old sea baths, refurbished to form a gorgeous complex of hydrotherapy salt pools and spas, plus restaurants and cafés, right on the beach.
Take a walk along Melbourne’s bay towards the leafy suburb of Elwood, and to your left it’s hard to miss Luna Park. A huge smiling clown’s face with a brightly painted open mouth invites you in to this quaint, slightly retro fun-park that has delighted Aussie kids for decades, with rollercoasters and mirror mazes backdropped by the lovely Port Phillip Bay.
Get Melbourned – by which we mean do anything arty and expressive. Take the kids to Federation Square, a newly constructed architectural monolith that is home to the National Gallery of Victoria, including the Ian Potter Centre, where you can immerse yourself in the tangible spirit of Aboriginal art. Afterwards, go to a café in Centre Place or Block Place and sit outside while the kids make their own Aborigine-inspired patterns on napkins while you people-watch. Or go to Brunswick Street in cool Fitzroy (known as ‘the dark side’ to St Kilda types) and have pesto spaghetti at Mario’s – an institution to creative Melburnians – before visiting the comic-book archive store, playing dress-up in the retro clothes shops, going silly in Scally & Trobone, full of hats and buttons, or having an olfactory tour of Kleins Perfumery and the tea emporium T2 Tea. Lastly, put on your cossies and swim at the Olympic-sized outdoor Fitzroy Baths (famous for their almost mythical presence in Monkey Grip, Helen Garner’s iconic Aussie novel about parenthood and more).
The inner city is full of secret bars and clubs that even locals forget how to find (even if, with kids in tow, you never actually visit them, sometimes just knowing these things exist is enough!). Narrow alleys seem nothing more than rubbish depots for neighbouring restaurants, when suddenly you spot a flash of neon and follow it to reveal an urban outdoor gallery of light and graffiti – the city has fostered its graffiti artists and commissioned many works in unsuspecting locations. Meanwhile, the Central Business District (CBD) is so much more than a finance centre, with major and minor art galleries, exquisite gardens, incredible shopping and masses of cafés and restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall espresso merchants to Vietnamese noodle canteens. A free tram, the City Circle, will quickly orientate you around the centre.
Visit the penguins: 90 minutes from the city is Port Phillip Island, a great day-trip for kiddies and a must-do on family holidays. Arrive with a picnic and spend the day at the beach or the Koala Conservation Centre, or take a boat-trip to see the thousands of fur seals on Seal Rocks... But whatever you do, make sure you stay ‘til sunset, because this is when the march of the penguins begins. Standing well clear but within clear view, kids are delighted to see these gorgeous little black-and-white waddlers making their progression up the beach to the sand dunes where their burrows are. Have a fish and chip tea before the drive home, and glow in that magic feeling following a day spent in nature.
Get out of the cosmopolitan traps and see some wild beauty by driving the Great Ocean Road, which winds along the western coast of Victoria, starting about an hour and a half out of Melbourne. It’s where the city surfers escape to in order to catch the famous right-handers of Bells Beach and beyond. Don’t know what a right-hander is? – take surfing lessons while you’re here. Local surfing schools such as Westcoast cater to most ages and abilities.
Ski! Travelling to Australia for the snow may seem a bit ironic, but if it’s a winter holiday you’re planning, know that Victoria has eight alpine resorts, among them Mt Buller, with a kids crèche and ski programs for children aged 3 and up. The conditions can be fantastic, with more than 1m of coverage.
Brighton Beach, Melbourne
Family holidays aren't complete without a trip to the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne (just catch any tram heading north along Elizabeth Street or Williams Street). For more than 130 years this has been the place where Melburnians buy their fruit and veg, cheeses, deli goods, and fresh fish and meat, from south-east Asian, Greek and Italian traders to name just three. Have a coffee, eat a spinach and cheese borek (a $2.50 lunch we defy any child to dislike), then check out the Polish sausages, French cheeses and organic stalls, rediscovering the joy of shopping open-air, listening to the bellowing traders and Gypsy buskers as you haggle the price of mangoes by the dozen. It’s foodie heaven (and there’s a lolly shop too). See also above for some of the city’s best restaurant areas.
Don’t miss St Kilda’s Lentil As Anything, a co-operative veggie restaurant that’s free (well, you pay what you feel is right, or what you can afford) – the food is delicious, the staff kooky. Staff recently opened another much bigger restaurant in an old monastery next to the Collingwood Children's Farm, a working organic sanctuary where you can pet all kinds of furry things, just 10 minutes from the CBD.
Hot-air ballooning over the state
When to go to Melbourne and Victoria
Spring and summer are good times for family holidays in Victoria, as this is when Melbourne starts to party, hosting lots of festivals, outdoor concerts, plays, film screenings in parks, and sporting events such as the Grand Prix and the Spring Racing Carnival, when the whole country puts on a hat, makes a bet, has a drink and stops to watch the Melbourne Cup. August sees the Melbourne Writers Festival, which, as well as events featuring distinctive literary voices such as Patrick White, David Malouf, Thea Astley and Dorothy Porter, includes children’s activities as part of its Under-18s Zone.
Autumn is really pretty in the city: the many parks are planted with mostly European trees that are in full colour, and the weather is crisp rather than freezing. In winter it can be cold – colder than many Europeans would expect from Australia. Take your best coats, hats and gloves – Melburnians love to dress up and are much more fashion conscious than, say, Queenslanders, whose lives in the constant sun necessitate a more casual attitude.
Although getting to Victoria from the UK will never be cheap, the region itself needn't be expensive as a family holiday destination, especially if you camp or opt for another type of self-catering accommodation.
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Flying time22hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
Carbon footprint CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.
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