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.