The following Melbourne packing and cultural travel tips post has been submitted by Sarah Edelstein.
After sixteen hours on a plane, a largely inexperienced traveler like myself was expecting to disembark on another planet. What I would eventually discover over the next ten months is that Australia isn’t different from North America on grand cosmic levels; instead, it’s a matter of knowing and understanding the nuanced differences, and then mastering them.
So here I invite you to learn from my many mistakes, touristy letdowns, poor fashion choices, bad meals, and missed trams. Allow me to save you the grief… here’s how to travel Melbourne like the fierce and fabulous local you might someday be.
Your Packing List:
Layers, layers, and layers. Melbourne’s trademark is its ability to host all four seasons in one day. Between the months of March and October (late summer to early spring), be prepared for a wide variety of temperatures, humidity, and precipitation. Melbourne also varies just as greatly on the spectrum of fashion-awareness, from the extremely hip to the downright bogan (an Aussie term meaning something like hillbilly). And while Aussies are kind to tourists, it still feels so much better to not be instantly marked as one.
Here’s a list of fall, winter, and spring essentials:
- a good outer layer that is cute, comfortable, and goes with everything. I love my grey canvas bomber jacket, a delightful hand-me-down that generally keeps out water, wind, and cold (this piece replaced my North Face Denali jacket, after I realized that no one wears those here). You cannot go wrong with a neutral-colored trench, bomber, or a light pea coat. The best option is something light enough to wear solo in the warmer hours, and something roomy enough to throw a jumper (sweater) under once the sun goes down.
- versatile tops in neutral colours. My black and white polka dot Oxford and denim chambray shirt easily goes from city exploring to pub night, and make me feel a bit more structured than I would in a tee shirt. As is true of many cities, in Melbourne you cannot go wrong with black, charcoal, or smart-looking denim.
- a great scarf, my personal favourite is my cashmere infinity.
- black skinny jeans (comfortable and will keep you blended in). The hippest of the local women here go right for the pleather leggings option, but I find well-fitting black denim to be an appropriate compromise. You may even notice most men’s pants are tighter than yours… be prepared.
- a warm, sturdy pair of shoes. Converse and Vans are great for the occasional dry days, but will be soaked in an instant in a sudden Melbourne downpour. I opt most days for my brown leather ankle boots (again, an answer to Melbourne’s slightly more aggressive trend of black platform zip-up booties). Melbourne is a city best seen on foot, so aim for a choice that keeps your feet dry and supported. (Side note: it should be noted that UGGs, while definitely a thing here, are very rarely worn outside the house.)
- lip balm and hand cream for staying pretty in heated buildings and cafés.
Summers in Melbourne are notoriously sizzling (with late January-mid February holding the worst of the high temperatures). With some afternoons reaching 40-45 Celsius, and the ozone layer here being virtually nonexistent (not kidding), keeping cool and protected from the sun is a top priority. Here’s what you’ll need:
- an excellent sunscreen with 100+ SPF. It’s the land that’s meant to be sunburnt, not your lovely face!
- a hat you don’t hate (my roommate made fun of me every day for my giant floppy SPF hat, but this little monstrosity saved my skin).
- sunglasses (or sunnies as they’re called here). You’ll want a decent pair that will protect your eyes and match with everything you’re planning to wear on your travels… and don’t forget a sturdy case to keep them safe.
- light, breathable fabrics. The tee shirt pictured above was purchased at H&M back in the States for a merciful $5, and was easily the best shirt of the summer. Polycotton/elastane made it breathable and soft, but its most redeeming feature was that it kept my back and shoulders totally covered.
- walking shoes that will keep your feet cool. My beloved Tevas made me stand out like a sore thumb, so I took to wearing my TOMS everywhere. Aussies swear by thongs (flip flops), but they aren’t the best pick for a day of city exploration. If you must do sandals, make it a neutral pair of Birkenstocks.
- another long-sleeve layer for sun protection. This can be a lightweight cardigan or denim chambray shirt. Your arms will thank you later.
I cannot overstate the importance of not getting too much summer sun in Australia if you’re not used to that kind of intense heat and exposure. Because of the lack of ozone protection, the sun and heat are much more extreme. Drink water and hang in the shade; all it takes is 20 minutes to leave yourself lobstered.
Knowing Where You’re Going & Not Getting Hit by Cars: A Basic Guide
Now that you’re fully dressed for rain, sun, wind, or awkwardly humid overcast sky (or all four at the same time!), you’re ready for some insider tips on how to function “Down Under.”
- No one calls it “Down Under.” That last sentence was a test.
- Constantly keep in mind the idiom “she’ll be right,” basically meaning, “Everything will be fine, so don’t bother whining.” Australians are oddly resilient. When they say “no worries,” they mean it. This is not a culture that understands American anxiety and neuroticism. Enjoy the break and go with the flow, an easy-going spirit meshes best with local custom.
- It’s not just the seasons here that are opposite. Drivers are on the right side of the car, and the left side of the road. Yes, this is totally disorienting, and yes, you can totally handle it! Remember to look right, then left when crossing the street.
- The backwards road rules also apply to public transportation, but don’t let this scare you out of making use of Melbourne’s trains and trams, especially if your lodging is outside the city. Download the PTV (Public Transportation Victoria) app, and let it do the work for you. Purchase a public transport card (called “myki”) at any 7 Eleven, and you’re good to go. You can “top up” at kiosks by any train station, and “tap on” on the electronic pads on each train or tram.
- If you’ll be in Australia more than a couple weeks, I’d highly recommend buying a temporary SIM card from a company like amaysim. This will save you time and hassle, especially if you’re trying to find your way around using your phone (free wifi is not a common thing here like it is in the US). Unlimited data is approximately a $40 investment, a small thing that will make a big difference in your comfort level during your travels.
Fulfilling Your Stereotypes: The Aussie Bucket List
Dressed and still unscathed by insane Melbourne drivers, you’re boarding trams like you’ve been doing it since Junior Kinder. Now it’s time to partake in some typical Melbourne activities… and find some places to fulfill just a few of your secret touristy dreams.
The Café Scene:
Coffee person? Great, you’re going to love this city. The café scene here is off the charts, so don’t be caught dead in a Starbucks. Sure, it hurts to pony up $4.50 for a coffee that will seem pint-sized in comparison to the grotesque Venti salted caramel frappuccino you’re used to, but oh is it worth it!
In order to look like a pro, you’ll need to know that all coffee here (with the rare exception of extremely hip places that do “pour-over” or “cold brew”) is espresso. Therefore, understanding how to order espresso is key. Check out this helpful guide for full specs from an Aussie expert. The main differences are the existence of the “flat white” (essentially a low-foam latte, served in a bowl-like ceramic cup, sometimes featuring beautiful foam art), and low-fat milk is just called “skinny.” Frappuccinos do not exist, but are happily replaced by iced coffee: espresso, ice cream, and whole milk. If you want the cold but not the cream, try a skinny iced latte.
Note: don’t tip. Gratuity will always be included in the price*, as will tax. What you see is what you pay! On the flip side, don’t expect excellent table service. Most casual dining places will expect you to approach the register to pay your bill, will give you a bottle of water for the table that you can refill at your leisure, and will expect you to flag down a waiter if you wish to order anything else. It is rare to find a server who will check in throughout your meal outside of a fancy restaurant. This rule also applies to most retail stores.
*Editor’s note: It was kindly pointed out that the “gratuity” doesn’t really exist in the first place, so is not actually included.
Sushi is the street food of this city… easily the cheapest to-go (takeaway) meal around. Pick a place that looks relatively clean and enjoy! You also can’t go wrong with a peek into Chinatown for dim sum or Little Saigon for pho (be brave and lean in to the awkward – sometimes the most bizarre of places have the most delicious offerings). Also check out the market scene in Prahran, or the famous Queen Victoria Market. American brands like Subway, KFC, and McDonalds exist here (Burger King is trying to keep a low-profile by disguising itself as “Hungry Jacks”), and work in a pinch, but dare to explore! There’s so much to eat!
Don’t order a Victoria Bitter unless you’re desperate. Cheaply priced favourites of mine are James Squire One and Fifty Lashes, Little Creatures Pale Ale (check out their beer hall and lots of other hip and lovely things in Brunswick), and pretty much anything produced by Mountain Goat Brewery. Pot = small, scooner = medium, pint = large.
From graffiti to street performers (“buskers”), Melbourne’s public art scene makes it a fabulous city to simply wander through. If you’re looking for that perfect graffiti shot, try Hosier and Rutledge Lane (near Flinders Street Station and Fed Square). In the inner suburbs, there is awesome artwork to be found along Chapel Street in Prahran/South Yarra. Street artists line the area around Southgate, Bourke Street Mall, and Swanston Street in the city, with everything from break dance troupe battles to acoustic jam sessions to magic tricks.
St. Kilda beach is lovely and convenient for city explorers. However, if you’re willing to make an Aussie beach expedition into a day trip, try Sandringham, Half Moon Bay, and Black Rock. These beaches (hosted by lovely little beach towns) are great places to relax and enjoy Victoria’s natural beauty, without the throngs of tourists.
Belgrave is a great place for a hike (“bushwalk”). The Mornington Peninsula and Red Hill (where more affluent Melbournians keep their holiday homes) is unmatched when it comes to gorgeous scenery, and winery tours and tastings (scope out winery websites to pick a lunch spot, and then hop around from there, many feature sculpture gardens, free tours, and lovely views. Most will let you try their whole line from about $5.) Both Belgrave and Red Hill are around an hour away, and are a worthwhile trek when it comes to seeing more of Melbourne than just the urban sights.
For a shorter escape from the city, try Abbotsford Convent (and grab a one-of-a-kind, pay-what-you-wish vegetarian communal meal at Lentil As Anything). The beautiful gardens play host to a whole collection of locals and backpackers alike, plus a couple horses, cows, walking paths, and even some weddings!
Australian Rules Football (aka “The Footy”):
When you hear people talking about football in this country, especially within the state of Victoria, they’re referring to Australian Rules Football. This is a fast-paced, high-adrenaline game that I’d explain to you if I had any real idea of how it works. Regardless, a trip to the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) is an excellent addition to any Melbourne trip, and when combined with a beer and a meat pie is a true Aussie experience. Everyone here has a team, even the uninformed Americans (go Richmond, carn the Tigers!). Note that it’s very important to say that you “go for” a team… to “root” means, well, uh… just don’t say it, okay?
Meeting a Kangaroo:
You may worry about returning home from Australia without one essential piece to share with your loved ones: a picture of yourself with a new marsupial friend. While these iconic creatures don’t exactly run wild around the city streets, there are places to find them in their natural habitat. However, if you don’t wish to try your luck with a bushwalk sighting, your best bet is Ballarat’s Wildlife Park. One hour outside Melbourne (accessible by train), this park beats the rest when it comes to actual up-close encounters with Aussie wildlife. For a $28 entrance fee, you can hang out with baby kangaroos that have about the same social sense as golden retriever puppies. Skip the zoo; this sanctuary is the place to be. Even in a drizzle, this was some of the best fun I’ve had on this continent.
So turn your thank you into a hearty “cheers, mate!”, grab a pint of Little Creatures, tune in to the triple J hot 100, and rejoice! You are now an Australian, young and free!
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About the Author: Sarah is a native Californian with a fondness for short stories, tall trees, and strong coffee. Her post-grad adventure is currently unfolding in Melbourne, Australia, where she is an intern by day and open mic songstress by night. Follow along on her blog or Twitter.
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Great article! Very helpful!
Neat! Thanks for the tips. One of my good friends will be studying in New Zealand in a year, and I intend to visit her and head to Australia, since I’ll already be in the neighborhood!
Reading this as an Melbournian makes me smile, our sun is brutal.
I agree with day trips to Mornington peninsula especially if you like beach culture or wine as there’s some surf beaches and loads of wineries.
Best sushi in Melbourne is tokui sushi near Melbourne Central on Lonsdale, so good and so cheap.
For the more hip/artist/veg crowd head to Brunswick Street or Smith street you’ll love it there. So many good bars.
Also try Footscray for a culture shock, very different to the rest of Melbourne. African food meets Vietnamese culture… Need I say more!
Also we just got H&M and a new shopping mall in the CID which would be good to check out.
Ps I’ve been reading this blog for a while for my upcoming Europe trip so thank you for all the tips 🙂 hope mine help some readers too.
Thanks for the additions, Mallory! Hope you have a lovely trip to Europe – we’d love to hear about it! 🙂
Glamourous Traveller says
How cool and cute!
As a frequent traveller to Melbourne I found myself smiling at some of these recommendations (and peppering of the Aussie slang into the article <– bonus points!)
Great tips. Especially highlight the sun exposure. Even though I'm from Malaysia (tropics/ equator/ direct sunlight), even that's not as brutal as the Australian sun. One should always pack sunnies even if the (current) weather forecast says its going to be a gray and gloomy day. You never know with Melbourne!
As an aussie who lived in Victoria and now Queensland, even I get confused with the names given to the size of glasses for beer. The example given are the names used in QLD – Pot = small, scooner = medium, pint = large, in Vic they are glass = small, pot = medium pint = large.
Don’t forget Healesville sanctuary for a great day out to see the local fauna.
Katy McCourt-Basham says
Very helpful. Thanks Brooke! I can’t wait to move to Melbourne in October!!
Such a big help tips. Wish I could visit Australia soon:)
Speaking as an Australian, something else that I think deserves a mention as far as coffee is concerned is that Gloria Jeans is pretty much the Australian equivalent of Starbucks and for a real coffee experience it should also be avoided.
Thanks so much. I’ve been devouring info on Melbourne, and there are some new tips here that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Much appreciated.
Well observed – im an Australian (“aussie”) from Sydney but regularly travel to Melbourne
Great guide to our culture especially beer choices and our extensive coffee choices!!
Peter Palmer says
I have been to Australia four times and have travelled all over . One thing I found overpowering was their air conditioning , great for the first hour but soon gets too cold to enjoy . I always take a jacket with me to wear later.