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A brief guide to the suburbs of Melbourne

Written by 30 July 2014 8 Comments

Melbourne is arguably, and most rightly so, one of the top most liveable cities in the world! I lived there for nearly three years and it is definitely a place that stole my heart – I’ll always think about it with affection and hope of returning. One of the many reasons why I love it is that it is so diverse with a multitude of suburbs that would suit any character or style! This cultural Australian hub contains a range of scenes that broadly vary across the buzzing city and the surrounding suburbs. But as a newbie to the city, it can be a bit overwhelming when faced with the prospect of striking out to explore: Where do you go? Where would you enjoy partying? Where’s the best for vintage shopping? Where do the glam and tanned hang out?  Where serves top coffee? (Note: everywhere!) To help those who are thinking of heading over to the cool Aussie city, I’ve shuffled together a brief profile of the main suburbs so you can calculate your adventure and get ready to potentially fall in love with the city – just like I did!

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The city centre (the Central Business District – CBD) is set out in an easily navigable grid-like system with a cobweb of lane ways and alley-ways weaving their way throughout. It’s impossible to get lost, perhaps just very ‘turned-around’ in the city centre, but that’s the best way to stumble upon hidden bars and eateries when you’re prowling the streets at dusk. You’re guaranteed to find impressive street-art and graffiti that rival NYC and Berlin in these back-alleys, and it’s not uncommon to chance upon a subtle doorway to an eclectic bar next to the art that you were admiring.

There is a mass amount of late-night bars, clubs, and pubs that will keep providing for you until dawn… and there’s of course something for everyone. You can’t get disappointed on a night out: if you’re not feeling the vibe of one place, a tram or cab can quickly get you to a suburb that suits you perfectly.

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Fitzroy

This famous northern suburb lies a mere 2km from the CBD and was the first planned suburb of Melbourne. It’s where café and coffee culture really exploded as unique individual cafes (with excellent coffee) reign supreme here. Mario’s is one of the first cafes to exist on the legendary Brunswick Street, and is nestled at the junction of Brunswick St and Johnston St: the centre of the action. Things get a bit loose and wild late at night on the weekends, with buskers known to beat on giant drum kits or jam on electric guitars on street corners giving quite a festival spirit to the area. A huge amount of grimy or stylish bars and high-end cocktail lounges line Brunswick Street with a range of cosy pubs off in the backstreets where you’re guaranteed to find some impressive street art splayed magnificently. Many compare the vibe and look to Berlin.

For those of you who enjoy a fancy cocktail (or three), hit up The Black Pearl or Polly’s for decadent drinking. Kodiak Club is a rough n ready american-style bar with an impressive cocktail list and spicy chicken wings to face-plant into, plus they have a kitsch tequila bar upstairs, called Little Blood – expect sombreros on the ceiling and hammocks to kick-back in.

Get a birds-eye view of the city at Naked For Satan’s awesome rooftop bar, then get stomping around grimy bars till the wee hours of the morning. I would recommend Bar Open, Old Bar and The Workers Club. This area is also a top place to dine on vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Veggie Bar and Yong Green will blow your mind, and not your wallet, with raw foods and healthy smoothies to heal your body from any partying!

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Who’s there?

It’s definitely THE area for all creative individuals and artists due to its high amount of live music venues, vintage stores, art galleries, studios, and art spaces. During the week, day and night, relaxed but super cool is the uniform; vintage 1950’s styled ladies can walk arm-in-arm with neck-tattooed hipsters, or young purple-haired youths sit in cafes across from the old Fitzroy veterans who have their ‘usual’ whilst quietly reading The Age. However, the reputation of the area attracts all sorts over the weekend, and it’s not uncommon to find out-of-towners dressed up a little too much for their Saturday nights here.

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Brunswick

Due to the CBD slowly expanding out into the inner suburbs, the independent and unique cafes/bars are being pushed further out into the suburbs for cheaper rent. Brunswick has been dubbed the “New Fitzroy” as it is apparently similar to how Fitzroy was a few years ago before the ‘cool’ reputation got the better of it. It has hippies, hipsters, scene-sters, hip young families, many dog-walkers, and general cool kids eating and drinking in the laid-back Northern suburb (approx. 6km north of the CBD). Brunswick is a pretty multi-cultural neighbourhood and is definitely an unpretentious area with a green, environmental, community-minded scene.

Be sure to check out all the small and arty cafes, like Carolina, with milk-crate seating that line Sydney Road. Perve on the vintage cars that are parked in the backstreets of Brunswick, by the homely Victorian cottages that line the streets. And there are plenty of awesome bars, such as, The Brunswick Green, with unusual décor and mismatched vintage furniture. Big beer gardens are a theme round this way and you’ll be sure to find great live venues, like The Penny Black.

I do highly recommend checking out all the “Op Shops” (second-hand charity clothes stores) in Brunswick. ‘Savers’ is a huge warehouse chain that resides in Victoria and is stocked to the brim of amazing vintage clothes and wares. Velvet sofas, leather loafers, plaid shirts, 90′s maxi dresses – you’ll be soon singing ‘Thrift Shop” as you dance down those aisles!

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Who’s there?

Due to the cheap rent, students, young professionals and the arty crowd make up this suburb. The dress code is so laid-back, you could be horizontal (and extremely comfortable). Vintage flannels, beanies, Doc martins, skinny jeans, vintage tea-dresses, and dreadlocks can all be found around here…with soy lattes in hand.

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Carlton

This Italian district has a European atmosphere throughout its long Lygon Street precinct of outdoor cafes and restaurants. You fee that you could be in Italy when walking down the street with the waiters authentically waving their menus in your face. None of the restaurants have overly quirky personalities as larger chains rule the streets here. It’s the top place to head for authentic Italian dishes, delicious evening gelato, and the odd art-house movie at the awesome Cinema Nova. Take a glass of wine into your screening or go for an old-school choc-top ice cream to embrace the retro spirit of the cinema!

There are some hidden back street delights off from Lygon that are good to explore since the main strip gets heaving on warm balmy summer nights, but not much stays open super late. Cafe Lua has a superb menu that never fails to satisfy and opposite, there is the punk, sailor-dive bar, The Beaufort, which serves up great rum. Do check out the Latin-fusion restaurant, Popol Nah, for food that stands-out from the immense pasta selection.

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Who’s there?

Tourists flock here as it’s quite a historic street, and once a gangster/Mafia member got shot in one of the Italian restaurants. Due to its close proximity to Melbourne University, students are found to be prowling around… especially on Thursday nights where they all congregate (sometimes in fancy dress) in the big Irish pub, Pug Mahones.

Collingwood

This grimy but cool suburb lies 3km north-east of the CBD and is a cheaper neighbour to Fitzroy. You’ll rarely get a bad coffee here and there’s a fantastic range of cuisines to choose from. It’s full of an eclectic range of gastro bars, chicken shops, Vietnamese bakeries, a random cheesecake shop that never seems to be open and insanely high quality cafes. The streets are littered with outlet clothes stores so you’re bound to pick up a bargain, or prowl around in the many vintage furniture shops for some great finds (albeit a bit ridiculously expensive). Warehouses surround Collingwood and many have been transformed into amazing apartment blocks or art spaces. Keep your eyes peeled for fashion shows round these parts during Melbourne Fashion Week. The partying scene can be found at the end of Smith St which is closer to the city (the end that is intersected by Gertrude St).

Live music and partying here is off the hook with many great clubs and bars, such as, Mr Wow’s Emporium, Kent St & Ya Ya’s. There are loads of fun gay clubs to have a dance in too, like The Peel, and hole-in-the-wall garage bars, such as 99 Problems. The vibe is very quirky in this suburb so if you’re in the area, you should definitely get on it as you’re bound to have fun!

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Who’s there:

Good-looking hipsters and hippies populate the area which still looks pretty industrial with its old factories/warehouses, old shop fronts, and historic pubs.

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Prahran

Pronounced “Pra-an”, this flashy suburb lies 5km South-East of the CBD and is the leading suburb in what Melbournians label the “Southside”. There is fantastic shopping which requires a fat wallet due to the upscale and expensive boutiques/designer stores. The famous street of the suburb, Chapel Street, has been dubbed ‘the longest catwalk in the southern hemisphere’ because of the sheer volume of stores that will drain your bank account. You’ll get a lot of flashy designer stores, plus the odd treasure trove of vintage stores so it’s rightly so that the immense shopping scene attracts many celebrities.

Obviously you’ll want to shop till you drop! But if you want to head this way to party then you’ll be spoilt for choice for bars and clubs. There are some hoity toity places, like the classy Electric Ladyland  ’part fashion house, part exclusive club’, and the wonderfully styled  Morris Jones bar/restaurant. Commercial Road is where to go for the buzzing gay scene of the South, and international and local DJ’s spin tunes all over the place.

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Who’s there:

The crowds who populate this area both day and night enjoy expensive tastes and are beautiful, sophisticated, shiny, and modern. The vibe isn’t terribly laid-back; people dress to impress and heels are expected. The fashion police that bounce the entrances are known to turn you away for any outfit mistakes (forget it if you love to live in sneakers) so ensure you look as glossy and polished as the patrons that surround you. All of this gives Prahran a reputation that is both bling and snooty, but it makes the perfect environment for glam nights out in slick clubs. You just better have a passion for fast cars, designer labels, and tanned men/women.

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Windsor

This small suburb is a pocket of southern suburban bohemian charm making it a contrasting neighbour of Prahran. It resonates the vibrant coffee culture of the North side of the city with its eclectic independent cafes that blur into bars in the eve with good music. Do check out the likes of Mothers Milk for great cocktails, Boston Sub for delicious american style sandwiches and then pop through the secret entrance into the hidden cocktail lounge, Jungle Boy. Yellow Bird is fab for some relaxed eating and incredible Bloody Marys!

The attitude is more relaxed than Prahran with Indie fashion styles, but it still is relatively polished. Chain stores are slowly taking over, but the area holds onto its charm with its remaining vintage stores and the odd Burlesque bar. Some have deemed Windsor as an ‘Oasis of the South’, but we can safely assume it was a North-sider who made that statement.

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Who’s there?

A mix of Prahan regulars and eclectic cool folk. People who enjoy delicious cocktails, chilled out stubbies, quality espressos and inventive dishes congregate here. It really brings in a range of styles so you’re bound to feel comfortable no matter what kind of evening you’re after!

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Richmond

Richmond has the tastiest and cheapest Vietnamese you can find! Its large Vietnamese population has made Victoria Street THE place to head for authentic and tasty dishes. The cheap Pho keeps “Little Vietnam” pumping, as people flock here for tasty nourishing meals. During the day, there is plenty of shopping in the form of factory outlets and fashion designer stores, but the night brings a seriously pulsating live music scene on Swan Street filled with good-looking people. Also, be sure to enjoy the bars with airy rooftops and courtyards when the weather is nice. My personal favourites are The Corner Hotel and The Vic Bar – perfect for sipping in the sun!

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Who’s there?

This suburb is a pretty old (and large) area 3km south-east of the CBD which has led to a very mixed crowd who roam the variety of bars, pubs and cafes: from bohemian types to waxed hunks – all are welcome!

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Southbank

The nucleus of Southbank is the huge Crown Complex which is Australia’s largest Casino. The casino and many of its bars stay open 24-hours, making it a good destination to head to if you’re not quite finished with your night. Massive clubs with national and international DJs reside here and there are more restaurants than you can shake a fork at. Just don’t go expecting an Australian Las Vegas as it’s not comparable. Despite the lack of character, the Complex is still damn impressive! It lies by the Yarra River on the south of the CBD and has majestic fire-balls that gush out of towers that line the river bank every hour between 8pm – midnight. The Arts Centre lies nearby, and a small selection of bars litter the streets.

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Who’s there?

The Crown attracts a huge amount of tourists who are usually game for a laugh as the night draws on. And apparently, Southbank also has the highest number of single men living there… so it could lead to an interesting night for all!

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St Kilda

St Kilda has a chequered past since it went from a posh seaside destination to a seedy rough area in the 1980’s. But over the past 20 years, the southern suburb has been gentrified with expensive apartment developments and it has cleaned up majorly! Nearby St Kilda Beach makes a popular destination for those hot summer days where all you want to do is mooch about on the beach (it’s definitely not the cleanest or most scenic beach though). Be sure to hit the trendy cafes/restaurants before rolling onto the pumping bars and clubs. There’s still a seedy edge to the area, but it attracts a cosmopolitan market due to its gourmet food places which stay open late to feed the night-owls/drunks. Expensive and cheap eateries are lined side-by-side down Fitzroy Street, while Acland Street holds quirkier bars and grungy live music venues which reflect the 1980’s explosion in alternative music. It’s a crazily busy place though so be prepared for a fun night!

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Who’s there?

It now buzzes with a mixed crowd that spans arty types, young professionals, families, and live music enthusiasts. This suburb also has a load of backpacking hostels which means travellers and holiday-makers keep the area jam-packed.

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The people of Melbourne will consistently wow you in the fashion stakes. The attitude and style of the inner suburbs vary in both music tastes and fashion, and can be distinctly opposing in comparison. For example, Prahran’s glossy, high-heeled and polished tastes are a world away from Fitzroy’s grungy, gritty, laid-back vibe (Doc Martins and skate shoes preferred). This illustrates Melbourne’s division: the North vs the South, where music, lifestyle, clothes and cocktail choices are as different as chalk and cheese: Which side will you prefer?

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Image 1, 5, 21 Ella Hope, Image 2, 6, 7, 14 Jennifer Aitchison, Image 3 nakedforsatan, Image 4, 10 Julia V Howland,  Image 8 bcl, Image 9 Heidi Bendall,  Image 11 thepeoplesreign, Image 12 acclaimmag, Image 13 findhereating, Image 15 thetokyofiles, Image 16 Samantha Waite, Image 17 & 18 Sophie Saint, Image 19 themelbournecommunicator, Image 20 wotif.com

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8 Comments »

  • rebecca said:

    thats a really good guide! exactly what I was looking for! thanks :)

  • Stef said:

    I lived in beautiful Brunswick for 2 months. Loved it there. Everything is pretty close, relatively cheap for Australian standards and the atmosphere was a bit alternative.
    I also enjoyed being in Fitzroy, Carlton, South Bank and St Kilda.

  • Sophie (author) said:

    Ah I absolutely loved Fitzroy. I lived in carlton for a while – the perfect spot! Walkable to the city and borders on so many great suburbs!

  • brooke said:

    As if revolver was not mentioned in Prahran :) great article!!

  • Sophie (author) said:

    @Brooke – *GASP*!! how could i forget!!! :P good shout!

  • Rhonda said:

    Hi Sophie, great article.
    I’m a 6th Gen Melburnian (South side) and maybe Brighton might have been mentioned. Even more upmarket than Prahran, with fabulous shops, eateries etc, AND the famous Brighton Beach with the turn of the 20th century bathing boxes, lovely clean beach with stunning views from there of the city. Fairly WASPy, great people watching.

  • Laura said:

    This makes me miss Melbourne SO much! I lived in Fitzroy for a short time and it stole my heart. Great photos! you captured the Melbournian perfectly.

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