Since time immemorial Melbourne and Sydney have fought toe to toe over, well, everything really. Australia’s two largest cities; they compete on the football field, on trade, and on ‘capital’ status for all manner of exploits from arts to history and finance. They both fare well in global polls too; Melbourne was recently ranked the most liveable city in the world for the sixth time, whilst Sydney has been voted the world’s most reputable city numerous times on the bounce.
During our travels we were lucky enough to be able to visit both of these wonderful cities, but what if you only had time for one? You’d need to do something the Aussies can’t – decide which is best! But never fear, Mel and Alex are here to help with a Pom’s Perspective on where to place your bets, and why.
Upon heading somewhere new, the odds are that particular somewhere first appeared on your travel radar because of one prominent attraction or activity. When it comes to Australia, the brochure at your travel agent probably has Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, or a combination of the two plastered across the front. Big draws, and rightly so many would argue. But when you tire the main tourist magnets what else is there to see?
We had always planned to spend our first Christmas away from our families in Sydney, attracted by the image described above, and it’s fair to say it didn’t disappoint. During our time there we ticked the main boxes, checking out the Opera House (more on that in Arts & Culture), climbing the stairs to the pylon lookout at Harbour Bridge (we decided to forego the extortionate full bridge climb) and cruising the harbour itself under sail aboard a century-old tall ship. Aside from this, we also took an enjoyable trip to Cockatoo Island, loved the Christmas lights at St Mary’s Cathedral, and were intrigued by the Queen Victoria Building and its letter from Queen Elizabeth, not to be opened until the 2085.
Melbourne on the other hand isn’t as renowned for its world-famous sights, but we were very pleasantly surprised by the amount there was to gawk at, and the amount of it that’s free of charge. We indulged in a tour of Victoria State Parliament, admired the huge domed roof of the main reading room in the State Library, visited the Shrine of Remembrance and checked out Block Arcade and the Royal Exhibition Building, both built during the ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ boom of the mid-late 1800’s.
Irregardless if your choice of destination then, you won’t be short of things to see. Whilst Melbourne does have a number of less well known sights that you can check out for free, first blood has to go to Sydney for containing so many of the ‘must see’ attractions, as well as a smattering of other draws as you’ll discover further down…
Arts & Culture
Having been wandering around for a while now, it takes a bit more than a few old bricks and fancy steel work to impress us! Scratch a little way under the surface and you start to get a feel for what really makes a place tick. So, what opportunities do our competitors offer to do just that?
To start with the obvious – Sydney Opera House. Whilst I can’t comment on complaints about the acoustics in the Concert Hall, the building itself is undeniably iconic, and learning about the treatment of the Danish architect Jørn Utzon paints a dramatic but disheartening backdrop. During our stay we impulsively checked out Club Swizzle, a cabaret taking place in The Studio, which after our initial trepidation was an eye-opening experience!
Meanwhile in Melbourne, our walking tour introduced us to a whole range of different art-y culture-y exploits. We were fascinated by tales of a ghost reserving his favourite opening night seat, still treading the boards at the Princess Theatre. We were intrigued by the abundance of Street Art to be found on seemingly every turn and enticed by the abundance of quirky independent laneway eateries. The first item we chose to explore in more detail was the Ned Kelly exhibit at the State Library. If you miss the free tour as we did, don’t fret, it’s easy to guide yourself round with plenty of background information before you reach the fabled armour worn by the Aussie anti-hero.
Federation Square, a cultural landmark in of itself, sits opposite Flinders Street Station and is home to a number of Melbourne’s museums. We chose to check out the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and man were we impressed! Charting the course of TV, Films and Games through the ages, we got to play some original Tomb Raider, attempt our own Matrix slow-mo segments, experience a VR piece on Aboriginal Australia and defend a virtual castle on HTC Vive. Kids big or little, we really couldn’t recommend it enough.
From moving images in Melbs to static ones in Sydney, housed in the beautiful Art Gallery of New South Wales. Not being art connoisseurs by any stretch of the imagination, I’m afraid you won’t find detailed interpretations here. What I can tell you is the gallery is well lit, spacious and contains works from the likes of Rubens, Picasso, Monet and van Gogh, as well as interesting collections of Australian and Aboriginal art.
A short walk around the corner you’ll find another heritage building we visited during our stay – Hyde Park Barracks. Situated alongside The Mint (which itself occupies the South
wing of the original Rum Hospital), the barracks were the first stop on dry land for many convicts arriving in the settlement, where they’d either be assigned to private contracts or conscripted to a government work gang. It’s now a museum, and houses all manner of interesting stories and artifacts that offer a glimpse into the lives of some of the first European arrivals.
Really, as the length of this section demonstrates, there is plenty of culture ripe for the picking in both cities. However, to paraphrase a comment I read online; ‘Sydney has things to see, Melbourne has things to do’. And I think that perfectly encapsulates why Melbourne is promoted as the cultural capital of Australia – it’s all about the experience. Many of the big draws entail you watching, reading, eating, drinking or learning. You’re always doing something, always getting involved, and it’s these experiences that have really stuck with us.
Nature & Wildlife
For all of our various opinions about the land down under, the one thing that you can’t question is its natural beauty. From coastline to crocs, parkland to parrots, it has it all.
Of course, if you think Sydney and nature, you’re going to pretty soon hit the jackpot – Bondi Beach. We spent Christmas Day here, a surreal contrast to cosying up indoors at home, but pretty special all the same. Aside from the occasion the beach itself is great, although with did both find ourselves enjoying the broader expanse of sand and generally more laid back feel at Manly a bit more. Swap sand for grass and there are plenty more options including the wonderfully manicured Royal Botanic Gardens which themselves contained a range of wildlife, including a tree overrun with Lorikeets!
Speaking of birds, whilst Mel did make a handful of Cockatoo friends near our hostel’s rooftop bar, in Melbourne she was dumbstruck to be treated to a whole crackle of them flying around by the highway! From this positive start we then also enjoyed Carlton Gardens, home to the impressive Royal Exhibition Building mentioned above and a lot of naughty Possums. The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne were an oasis of calm and tranquility, whilst St Kilda was another world altogether. Akin to stepping back in time to a 1920’s seaside town, it is also home to a colony of Little Penguins that nest at the end of the pier, returning around dusk after a hard day’s fishing.
A difficult comparison you might say, but there can only be one winner. In this instance Sydney just clinches it thanks to the range of scenery right on the city’s doorstep. In fact, I just realised I didn’t even include the Blue Mountains… case in point!
Running on a tight budget, or as best as Australia would allow us to anyway, I’d forgive you for not expecting much from this section. But please, don’t skip straight to Infrastructure as I know you’re desperate to! There’s a, perhaps surprising, range of culinary delights to be discovered here.
The attractions in Sydney are a bit more geographically dispersed than in Melbourne, and the same can be said for its foodie hotspots. Surry Hills is supposed to be full of indie joints, but being in town over Christmas ment many we went to try had closed up for the holidays. We did however manage to get across to Spice Alley in Chippendale, a really cool little back street chock full of specialist vendors serving up all manner of tasty Asian cuisine.
We also visited Monopole in Potts Point (whose interior is Melburnian-designed, just saying!), where we created our own sumptuous tasting menu of cured meats and seafood as a bit of a festive treat. Finally, proving the dispersion point, a shout out has to go to Moo in Manly for one of the best burgers we’ve tasted in the last 6 months.
Much unlike Sydney, in Melbourne it’s super easy to stroll from your front door either straight to dinner, or to a handy tram to take you there. Our civilised highlight definitely has to be Sarti, a contemporary Italian in the Central Business District (CBD). Their winning combination of quiet location, decadent interior and delicious food made for the perfect birthday treat. We enjoyed selections from their lunchtime set menu, including Prosciutto, Slowly Braised Lamb, Basil Pasta and an incredible 5 layer hot and cold Tiramisu.
Bringing it back down into the everyday affordable, the city is famed for its laneways – pedestrianised streets, often not much more than three people wide. With such a densely packed CBD, a change in licensing laws enabled enterprising folks to set up all manner of shops, bars, takeaways and restaurants in almost any little nook and cranny. There’s so much to try, really you need to spend months to uncover every hidden gem. Amongst our favourite were Manchester Press, a delicious bagel joint and Cup of Truth, a highlight of the city’s thriving coffee culture, nestled away in an underpass.
There’s also a wide range of international cuisine to sink your teeth into, even just a little at a time if you don’t want to over-commit. We were lucky enough to visit whilst the Birrarung Marr Night Noodle Market was taking place. A free to enter food festival, it featured trucks from notable restaurants all over town offering a sample of their full menu at a fraction of the price. Steamed Buns, Dim Sum and refreshing Gelato were just some of our choices. Elsewhere in town, Victoria Market runs year-round and as well as the fresh food has a great little food court featuring Paella, Fish and Chips, Turkish Pide, Gozleme and much more besides. There is also a bustling Chinatown, where we headed to a locals favourite – Shanghai Village – for a nibble and a couple of BYO bottles with our unofficial guides Brent & Kristina!
Ultimately, food is very personal, so your tastes and preferences will dictate whether or not you agree with our outcome here. What is more clear-cut though is the basic availability of varied, interesting options, tasty or otherwise. We found Melbourne to be far the superior on this front, with heaps of pocket-friendly, quirky and diverse places to choose from.
Ok, I’ll grant you, on the face of it this isn’t the most exciting category, but it really is a very important factor in your visit. Even more so when you’re on a tight budget and want to see as much as you can.
Globally a number of cities are slowly (we’re looking at you, Edinburgh) reviving their tramways having bulldozed them decades back, and the same can be said in Australia. Or at least, most of it. Melbourne is the shining exception, where the trams have been running continuously since 1884, with it now being the largest network in the world. Complimented by mainline rail, they make getting around the city a breeze. Not only that, but there is also a heritage route that encircles the CBD, with travel on it, and any lines within its bounds completely free!
The tram thing is clearly a bit of a sore spot for Sydney, as they’re currently busy digging up some of the main city thoroughfares to uncover the tracks long hidden beneath the roadway. As it stands, team New South Wales do have a reasonable Metro for longer journeys, which does connect directly to the airport which is a big plus over their rivals’ pricey SkyBus. Better get them walking boots on for shorter trips though.
Ultimately, this one has to go to Melbourne. Despite the airport hassle, you just can’t put a price on the ability to hop on and off transport around the city with such ease. And I didn’t even get to mentioning the free public WiFi everywhere!
There’s scope for argument in this one. Being of a naturally pasty white complexion, Mel tends to give preference to any weather in the grey spectrum. Meanwhile, as a man of the outdoors and now sporting what I believe to be a passable level of bronzing, I’d lean towards something a little sunnier.
Luckily, and completely unbeknownst to us before our arrival, Australia caters to all tastes. Expecting summer Down Under to be wall-to-wall blue skies and 40 degree heat, you can imagine our confusion (or Mel’s delight) when we touched down in Melbourne and thought we’d stepped onto the tarmac at Heathrow. Who ordered the clouds? Who bricked up the fireplace? Shivering around in shorts and t-shirts, most of our visit to Melbourne was of this ilk, save for the last day when the skies cleared and the city really shone.
On the other hand, fly a couple of hours North and the story couldn’t be more different. Maybe it was the barely-opening window in our dorm, but Sydney was sizzling! Perfect weather for a city renowned for its beach life and water sports. It did take some adjusting too, but to steal an adage that you’ve probably heard your parents use, it was a ‘dry’ heat and not too humid for the most part. Even Mel started to come around.
Last, but by no means least, the inhabitants of these fair and plentiful lands. The people you meet can have a huge impact on both your experience of a place and the lasting impression it leaves. Even the smallest of kind gestures at the right time can help form a glowing perception, whilst a negative experience leaves you ruing the day you arrived.
In Melbourne, we were lucky enough to catch up with Brent and Kristina, who you may remember from back in Thailand, who kindly rustled us up our first proper Aussie BBQ and put us up for the night. While there was the occasional colourful character the likes of which we met across Oz (notable mention to the fella in Collingwood who chucked an entire Chinese takeaway over his missus… from the inside of his car), we found that the majority of Melburnians were of a much more welcoming breed.
Conversely in Sydney, save for our walking tour guide who was lovely, we struggled to find many Sydneysiders at all during our considerably longer stay! Perhaps it was the time of year, or perhaps it was our location, but we were surrounded by Europeans and predominantly met individuals from other countries while we were out and about.
So, there you have it, with four wins to Sydney’s three, the victor in Australia’s oldest rivalry (from our Pommie Perspective, at least) is Melbourne! It’s an incredibly close-run thing, and as we’ve hopefully shown both have their merits. But ultimately when it comes to the crunch Melbs won through for amazing food, the ease of getting around, endless free cultural exploits and friendly citizens to boot. Whether we’re right or not, we’ll let you be the judge…