Our last stop in Australia took us to the southern state of Victoria and its capital city of Melbourne. Pronounced locally more like "Mel-BIN" than "Mel-BORN", Melbourne is the country's second largest city with a total metro area population of approximately 5 million people. Melbourne and Sydney have been engaged in a rivalry with one another for almost two centuries, with Melbourne holding the preeminent place in Australia throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, only to be eclipsed by Sydney in the closing decades of the 1900s. Interestingly, Melbourne's population is growing faster than Sydney's and the Victorian capital is projected to surpass it once again in size sometime around 2050. Melbourne is known for being the home to Australia's financial and telecommunications industries, with most of the national television and radio broadcasts originating here. The city is also famously known for being a sporting hub, with Melbourne hosting the Australian Open each year as well as serving as the epicenter for Australian Football, the country's most popular sport. We had four days to spend touring in and around Melbourne, starting with two days in the city center followed by two days exploring the wider attractions in southern Victoria.
We were reaching Melbourne by car, making the long drive from Canberra via the M31 highway. This was the longest drive of our trip and we had planned to allow roughly 7 hours to make the 670 kilometer / 415 mile journey from Australia's national capital. This was a Sunday morning and we didn't expect to run into much traffic along the way, although we did need to watch the clock because we had tickets to an Aussie football game later that afternoon at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. We left Canberra at about 6:00 AM in an early morning light rain. We had been hoping that the rainy weather we'd been experiencing in Canberra would have blown itself out by now, but nope, the forecast continued to suggest cloudy skies and intermittent rain in the days ahead.
We made a stop about an hour's drive outside of Canberra at the small town of Yass. Liz wanted to stop here because the name of the town apparently corresponds to the use of the word "yaass" which has become a meme in recent years. Know Your Meme defines "yaass" as an excited affirmative statement or word of encouragement used in favor of someone's style or appearance, and explains that the phrase is often associated with use by gay men. Apparently the show Queer Eye filmed an episode in this town specifically because of the coincidental association with the town's name. There was very little taking place in Yass at 7:00 AM on a rainy Sunday morning as we drove through the historic downtown, which had more of a Wild West feel than anything else. I wasn't terribly interested in this stop and we only stayed for a few minutes before continuing onwards.
The remainder of the drive was largely uninteresting. I mentioned in a previous page about how empty the Australian landscape was once we left the major cities behind, and that proved to be the case on this drive as well. Outside of a handful of small towns along the highway, there was virtually nothing to see for hours and hours of driving, a mixture of forests and open grasslands that often didn't even seem to have farms growing anything. The vast majority of Australia's interior is completely empty of people, and although it might be one thing to read that as a statistic, it's another to drive for hours while seeing almost nothing outside. The weather continued to be unable to make up its mind throughough this drive, switching from rain to sunshine and back again in endless cycles. We finally made it to Melbourne in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel in the downtown, then walked to our main attraction for the day.
We had booked tickets well in advance to see an Aussie football match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Australia's most famous sporting arena. The MCG has existed in some form since the 1850s (albeit with many renovations over the decades), and this stadium served as the primary venue for the 1956 Olympics when they were hosted in Melbourne. The MCG is the largest stadium in the Southern Hemisphere and can hold a capacity crowd of just over 100,000 people for its biggest events. It is most famously known for hosting test match cricket, which continues to be held here on an annual basis, and Aussie football matches like the one that we were about to witness. Melbourne was the birthplace of Aussie football and almost half of the teams in the current AFL are based in Melbourne or its suburbs. This was the Australian equivalent of going to watch a game at Wrigley Field or Madison Square Garden, and it was an experience that I'd been anticipating for some time.
This particular game was being played between Richmond and Carlton, two clubs located in different neighborhoods of Melbourne. I mentioned that 9 of the 18 current AFL teams are located in Melbourne, which reflects the fact that the sport originated in Victoria and only spread to the rest of Australia in recent decades. We had noted that rugby was the most popular local sport up in Queensland, for example, and it's only been in the last few decades that Aussie football has been truly nationalized and professionalized, largely due to the influence of cable television. Richmond and Carlton both date their origins back to the 19th century and have long, storied histories of success: Richmond has won 12 titles while Carlton has won 16. It's a little bit weird to have a sport where so many of the teams are located in the same place geographically, but that's a reflection of the history of how the sport developed over time. As an intercity rivalry between two historic clubs, we figured that this would be a fantastic match to attend with a loud and energetic crowd cheering them on.
As it turned out, that wasn't entirely what we ended up seeing. For starters, the weather for this match was somewhere between bad and atrocious, frequently pouring down rain and then stopping for a short period of time, only for the rain to come out in force once again. We'd paid a little bit extra to get some of the best seats for the match, down close to the pitch where we'd have a great view of the action... only to find that these were some of the few uncovered seats in the stadium, and the cheap seats were actually the ones that managed to stay dry from the weather. That was truly unfortunate and this experience would have been enormously more fun if it hadn't been cold and raining outside.
Then as far as the competitive nature of the match went, it also proved to be a letdown. We looked up the standings before the match and found that the Richmond Tigers were near the top of the table, coming into the day in fourth place. Meanwhile, although the Carlton Blues were an ancient and historic team, this was not one of their better seasons as they languished in 16th place. It was a mismatch on paper and proved to be a mismatch out on the pitch as well. Richmond scored early and often, amassing 6 goals in the first quarter and jumping out to a lead of 39-4. Even without knowing very much about Aussie football it was obvious that Richmond was the far superior side between these two opponents. We turned out to be seated in the Richmond fan section, and every time that the Tigers scored the people around us would break out into wild cheering and waving of huge flags. I suspect that the atmosphere would have been even better if so many fans hadn't stayed home due to the weather.
Liz took some excellent pictures of the players while the match was taking place, and these are some of the highlights that she managed to capture. I'll do my best here to explain the basics of Aussie football for readers, although be warned that this is based on watching a single match live and reading some of the Wikipedia page for the sport. Aussie football is played on an oval-shaped cricket ground with 18 players on the pitch at a time for each team. It's basically the state of Victoria's local version of rugby, developed in a uniquely Australian direction just as the American variant of rugby turned into American football. Players can advance the ball by kicking it or handballing it (essentially punching it with a closed fist) but never by throwing the ball. Players can also run with the ball but have to dribble it off the ground every few steps, which looks kind of like playing basketball outside on grass. Scoring comes from advancing the ball through the goalposts at either end of the pitch; getting the ball between the two center goalposts is called a goal and is worth 6 points, which getting the ball through the outer pair of goalposts is called a behind and is only worth 1 point. Obviously scoring goals is far more valuable than behinds, and this forms the centerpiece of strategy for Aussie football.
In practice, scoring in Aussie football tends to be dominated by free kicks. If a player managed to catch a ball that's been kicked more than 15 meters downfield, they are awarded a free kick from that spot, i.e. the chance to kick the ball without anyone from the other team having a chance to interfere. (There are also other ways to be awarded a free kick but this is the most common method.) The professional players have gotten very, very good at making goals off of free kicks from long distances away, and therefore the most common strategy involves kicking the ball downfield and having a really tall player jump up and make a contested catch in traffic near the other team's goal, then turn the subsequent free kick into a goal. Aussie football therefore makes for a fantastic spectator sport, combining the fast pace of action of a sport like soccer or rugby with the dramatic set piece suspense of a slower paced game like baseball. The tension in the air when someone needs to make a pressure free kick is just fantastic. My favorite goals in this match weren't from the free kicks, however, but the rarer ones scored in the run of play. There was one point in time where a Carlton player turned the ball over on their own side of the field, and the Richmond player who picked it up managed to kick the ball through the goalposts on the fly from about 30 meters away. Awesome, exciting stuff. If this game were ever to be televised in the United States I would definitely watch it.
Here's the rain-soaked pair of us during the second half. Many thanks to Liz for picking up our rain ponchos to help keep off at least some of the water, along with a Carlton scarf for me to take home as a souvenir. We had decided before the game that I would root for Carlton due to their blue colors and Liz would root for Richmond due to their yellow colors, as befitting our respective Hogwarts houses (Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff). Liz had the last laugh here as Richmond won easily 73 (11.7) to 45 (6.9) in a match that wasn't as close as that score might suggest. This turned out to be a fantastic year for Richmond as they would win the 2019 AFL Grand Final six weeks later on the same pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, destroying Greater Western Sydney by a score of 114 to 25 (17.12 to 3.7). Therefore we ended up getting to see the 2019 champion in the one and only Aussie football match that we went to see - not bad!
We walked back to our hotel through the continuing rain and grabbed dinner afterwards. We were staying right across the street from the Parliament House of Victoria, and Melbourne's Chinatown district with its distinctive arch was located only a few blocks away. On this particular night we ended up getting pizza at a place called SPQR Pizzeria, which didn't end up having any Roman connections beyond the name. That was slightly disappointing but the food itself was delicious and highly appreciated after a wet and cold afternoon at the AFL match.
We were staying at the Hotel Windsor, one of the oldest and most prestigious hotels in the city. This is not the kind of place that we typically frequent while traveling, but Liz had found some kind of deal where we were able to find a room for just over $100 per night. Maybe it helped that this was the offseason for tourism or maybe she's just really good at finding hotel deals. The Hotel Windsor was the kind of place where it was assumed that guests would want to take advantage of valet parking, and we had a lot of trouble finding a place to leave our car that didn't have an absurd parking rate. (In the end it turned out that the valet parking was the cheapest option available, although the cost was still a lot more than we would have preferred.) The Windsor was clearly a historic building where many distinguished guests had stayed over the years, with one sign near the elevator listing everyone from Harry Houdini to Katharine Hepburn to Muhammad Ali to Daniel Radcliff, along with a whole bunch of different members of the British royal family. I honestly preferred the modern stylings of the hotel where we'd stayed in Canberra to this decor, but the Hotel Windsor was nonetheless a unique and classy destination that made for a memorable place to stay in the city.
The following Monday was our main day to explore downtown Melbourne, and we started out by walking across the street to the Parliament House, seat of the parliament for the state of Victoria. Construction started on Parliament House in 1855 and has infamously never been completed; the original plans called for a dome that still had not been added at the time of our visit in 2019. (Sure enough, when we visited the building there was a construction project taking place on one of the wings.) Unlike the other parliament buildings that we'd been visiting in Australia, this Parliament House was built in a Neoclassical design that incorporated dozens of Greek columns. That design aesthetic tends to be more common for American legislative buildings than ones in the British tradition. Inside the building, we spent about 10 minutes in the vestibule with its enormous tiled floor, waiting for the next tour group to begin. Once it did take place, our group was ushered into this ornate hall located in the center of the structure. Known as the Queen's Hall, this room featured a statue of Queen Victoria and dates to 1879. It contains a series of paintings of past Premiers of Victoria, the state's equivalent of a prime minister chosen by the governing party. This room is used for various state functions, often as a place for conversation and mingling when the Parliament House is hosting various important dignitaries.
Our tour guide took us next to the Legislative Assembly chamber, the home to the lower house of Victoria's parliament. As we'd seen in other stops throughout Australia, the Legislative Assembly was the more important of the two houses of parliament, the place where nearly all legislation originates and the only body with the ability to raise taxes and spend from the public treasury. This was Victoria's local version of the British House of Commons, right down to the continued use of green for a color scheme (a pattern that apparently every parliament in Australia follows). Unlike some of our previous tours on this trip, the Legislative Assembly in Victoria had much more of a laid back feel to its tour, with our guide letting us sit right in the middle of the place and take the seats used by MPs. This was another place where the Neoclassical architecture of the building was evident, with more Greek columns holding up the ceiling around the edges of the room.
The obvious next stop on the tour was the upper house of the parliament, the Legislative Council. There were only 40 seats in the Legislative Council as opposed to 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and this body was most similar to the Australian Senate at the national parliament in Canberra that we had seen earlier, right down to the continued use of the red color scheme. Bills must pass both houses of the parliament to become law, and although legislation almost never starts in the upper house, it's not uncommon for amendments to be added in the Legislative Council as it acts as a review body. The voting system for the Legislative Council returns five members apiece for each of eight regions, and this unusual voting system results in various different minority parties gaining representation. At the time of this writing, the Victoria Legislative Council had a single sitting member from the Animal Justice party, the Reason party, the Transport Matters party, and something called the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers party. I bet they have some interesting discussions when they get together to mark up a bill.
The last place that we visited on the tour was the library portion of Parliament House. This was the first part of the building to be completed in 1860, and it was old enough that the tour guide pointed to various small vents in the floor where fires were burned for warmth during the cold months of the year. (Fires in a library - maybe not the best idea.) The historic library was intended to hold all of the papers associated with government business for Victoria, although of course it has become far too small for that role over the years and most of the records are now stored in offsite locations. This was a beautiful little reference library, however, and we appreciated the chance to see more of the Neoclassical architecture on display. This was one of the domes that actually was completed instead of being stuck in endless construction limbo.
We left the Parliament House and walked a few blocks to our next attraction for the day, the Old Melbourne Gaol. This historic building was first constructed in 1839 and served as the primary prison for the city of Melbourne for the next 90 years. The gaol held a number of famous prisoners over the years, most notably outlaw Ned Kelley, and staged more than 100 executions during the time that it was in use. Today the Old Melbourne Gaol has been converted into a museum and the place has become one of the most popular tourist draws in the city. We had been hoping to attend one of the evening ghost tours held at the gaol but couldn't manage to find an open time slot here in the winter season when they didn't run as many tours. The place was more or less exactly what one would expect to see at an old prison, with tiny solitary confinement cells on the bottom floor which would have been awful places to be locked up.
The cells on the upper floors were a bit more spacious, and a tour guide explained that the less dangerous inmates were held on the upper floors during the period when they were getting ready to be released to the public. There were also a surprising number of orphaned children held at the gaol, as it sometimes served as a place of last resort for the city's most vulnerable populations. In more macabre terms, the Old Melbourne Gaol also displayed the triangular frame where inmates were tied to the side posts and then whipped as a form of corporal punishment, as well as the gallows where those convicted of the most heinous crimes were executed. Was it really in good taste to have a rope with a noose dangling from the exact spot where 135 people were hanged? The gaol similarly had a weird amount of admiration for notorious criminal Ned Kelley, everything from displaying his death mask in a prominent case to inviting kids to "dress up in Ned's armour" to selling tons of Ned Kelley merchandise in the gift store. I mean, sure, there's a certain romanticism to the Robin Hood outlaw antics of Ned Kelley and his gang, but they also killed a bunch of police officers, repeatedly stole money, and refused to follow the law. I'm not sure that this is the kind of person I'd be hawking memorabilia about in the gift store. It was a little bit weird for this non-Australian to understand why Ned Kelley has become such a popular figure well over a century after his execution.
In addition to the historic 19th century portion of the gaol, tourists to this attraction also had the opportunity to take part in something called the Watch House Experience. This was a form of interactive performance, in which an actor dressed up as a policeman pretended to throw everyone in our tour group into prison, walking us through the steps that inmates would have experienced behind bars. The building used for the Watch House tour was a more modern building dating from the 1950s and used up through the end of the 1980s, and it was not a true prison but instead a holding cell where those who had been arrested would stay for a night or two before being tranferred elsewhere on a more permanent basis. The dozen or so individual cells were suitably dingy and rundown, and included one cell with drains in the middle (for the drunks who would be leaving a mess behind) and another padded cell for mentally unstable individuals. The actor who led our tour group was fantastic, barking and shouting at the individuals on the tour in the way that I imagine the actual police would have done. This was highly entertaining and we'd definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Old Melbourne Gaol.
Only a block away from the gaol along Russell Street was the State Library of Victoria. We'd passed the library while walking up to the gaol a little bit earlier, and decided to stop inside on a whim to take a look at its collections. This proved to be an excellent decision, as the library was a beautiful building that dated back to the 1850s and boasted more than 2 million books held in its collections. (We entered the library from what is effectively the back side and therefore missed out on its impressive main facade.) Most of these pictures depict the Redmond Barry Reading Room on the eastern side of the library, with its two tiers of floors full of book shelving and individual reading desks. This room was packed with individuals hard at work and I couldn't spot a single empty desk going unoccupied.
The true highlight of the State Library of Victoria was located in the center of the building, however. The landmark Domed Reading Room (recently renamed the LaTrobe Reading Room) was built in 1913 with a unique octogonal design. This reading room has the very unusual dimensions of being 35 meters wide and 35 meters tall (about 110 feet in both directions). It was originally designed to house as many as a million books but much of that space has been converted into museum exhibits; there was a history of early printing on display when we visited featuring a bunch of rare books. There were fewer people working in this reading room, perhaps because more tourists were popping in to take pictures, and the overall setup reminded me of the main reading room at the Library of Congress. There were stairs leading up to the top floor of the dome where I could get a better view and I headed off in that direction next.
The old method of reaching the top floor of the dome looked to have been a series of narrow spiraling staircases made out of iron. Those would have been awesome to climb, but no, they were closed off and a modern wide staircase of considerably less impressive design took visitors up to the top. The view looking down was equally impressive though, making the octogonal shape with its eight spokes projecting out from the center more apparent than ever. We could have stayed here at the State Library of Victoria longer to try and see some more of the exhibits (for example, Ned Kelley's original suit of armor is on display here) but ended up moving onwards to continue sightseeing. We did pick up a few books in the bookstore though, intended as gifts for some of our younger family members.
From the State Library of Victoria, we continued walking a few more blocks down Russell Street until reaching the collection of attractions in the heart of the downtown at Federation Square. The first location of interest that we stopped to see here was Saint Paul's Cathedral, an Anglican church that was constructed during the 1880s. Saint Paul's was home to the archbishop of Victoria, i.e. the highest-ranking Anglican individual in the state, and at the time of writing this was also the seat of the Primate of Australia, the top Anglican bishop in the whole country. In other words, this was a fairly important church that we were visiting. Saint Paul's was built in the very common Gothic Revival style of architecture, and although the form was pretty standard between its dual rows of stone pillars, arched ceiling, and stained glass windows on the exterior walls, Saint Paul's stood out from many other cathedrals due to its coloring. Saint Paul's was built using a mixture of sandstone and Victorian bluestone, with the two of them alternating in striped patterns that gave the church a very distinctive look. It was somewhat reminiscent of some Byzantine cathedral designs that I can recall seeing. We didn't stay here for very long and I appreciate Liz indulging my interest in religious architecture without too much eye-rolling.
Saint Paul's was located in the heart of the city of Melbourne, across the street from Federation Square and Flinders Street Station. The latter building is the railroad station at the center of Melbourne's transit system, and the iconic green dome of Flinders Street Station has served as the default symbol of Melbourne for decades. The main station was built in 1909 in an Art Nouveau style that made it instantly recognizable to visitors and city residents alike. I didn't know a whole lot about Melbourne before this trip and even I had seen pictures of Flinders Street Station a bunch of times in various random places. The old school charm of the historic railroad station provided a fitting contrast to the recently constructed Federation Square on the other side of the street.
These are some images of the aforementioned Federation Square. Built in 2001 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Australia's federal union, Federation Square is an outdoor venue for arts, cultural, and public events given choice real estate in the center of the downtown. In addition to serving as a public gathering space for the people of Melbourne, Federation Square also holds a series of restaurants and outdoor cafes along with the redesigned museum space for the National Gallery of Victoria. The architecture of Federation Square was based around the use of different "shards" that looked somewhat like cracked rocks mixed in with futuristic glass panels. I'm not entirely on board with this aesthetic but at least it does have a distinctive visual look. Our visit to Federation Square was marred somewhat by the weather, which chose this point in time to start raining once again, resulting in a square that was mostly empty of other people. We dodged the rain by stopping to eat lunch at one of the restaurants here, enjoying some hot pasta from a casual Italian spot.
Here are some quick pictures that we took after stopping for lunch. The first is a view of the skyscrapers running along the south bank of the Yarra River, at a moment when the sun had decided to peek back out from behind the clouds. We looked into taking a tour boat along the Yarra for this evening but ultimately didn't have the spare time to make it happen. The other picture captures the historic Town Hall building in Melbourne with its distinctive clock tower. Dating back to 1867, this stately building continues to hold the civic government for the city and also hosts concerts and theatrical productions. I saw some of the pictures of this building from a hundred years earlier while putting together this report, and the town hall looks almost exactly the same now as it did then.
We spent a little while in the downtown area near Melbourne Town Hall exploring some of the shopping on display. This is the best part of the city to look for shopping, especially high end retailers, with many of them setting up for business in historic arcades that date back to the early 20th century. These places had names like "St. Collins Lane" and "The Walk Arcade" and "The Royal Arcade", indicating that they viewed themselves as a cut above your typical retail area. We enjoyed seeing the lavish food display set up at Hopetoun Tea Rooms, the delicacies sitting in the window at Haigh's Chocolates, and the offbeat store selling nothing but Dr. Seuss themed merchantise. One notably strange feature of one of these arcades was a pair of two statues named Gog and Magog, figures from Greek mythology that rang a series of bells each hour. We were passing through right at 4:00 PM and stopped to listen, then were severely underwhelmed at the rather pitiful sound that the statues made. They looked like they could have used a modern tune-up job. This was a pretty cool area to explore as far as shopping goes, lots of historic settings hosting modern sellers.
The daylight was starting to run out at this point so we headed off to our last major attraction for the day. We rode Melbourne's light rail system (for free since it was within the center of the city - have I mentioned that Melbourne's transportation system is awesome?) over to the Docklands area on the western side of the downtown. This was a former industrial area that's currently in the process of being redeveloped into a commercial district, with new stores and restaurants still in the process of construction when we visited. We could tell that "The District" shopping area that we were passing through had only been open for a short time, and many of the planned storefronts were still looking for retailers to fill them. Liz had brought us here for a final surprise event: taking the Champagne Tour on the Melbourne Star Ferris Wheel. This was a fantastic way to see the city from above, and we were able to skip the (very short) line for the wheel and board immediately. The staff handed each of us a glass of champagne and we were off on our rotating tour of Melbourne.
The Melbourne Star stands 120 meters / 400 feet tall and was the tallest Ferris Wheel in the Southern Hemisphere at the time we visited in 2019. It was supposed to open in 2006 but was plagued with severe construction delays, which ultimately necessitated disassembling the entire wheel and rebuilding it from scratch out of safety concerns. It did not open for the public on a permanent basis until 2013, and the Melbourne Star was still new enough that many of our travel guidebooks didn't discuss it. The views from outside of our glass pod differed sharply depending on which direction we looked, with the south and west holding mostly industrial cranes and shipping containers. Melbourne is a major port city and this was where goods were loaded and unloaded - that "Docklands" name wasn't just for show. The better views came from looking to the east, in the direction of Melbourne's city center where we had spent the rest of the day up to that point. With each minute that passed, the wheel continued to rotate and place us higher and higher above the ground, offering up better views looking off into the distance.
We were treated to wonderful views of Melbourne from the top of the wheel, the perfect time to drink a toast and enjoy our glasses of champagne. Melbourne's skyline was easily visible a couple of miles off to the east, with more new buildings under construction with their accompanying cranes. Off to the south, we were able to look far out into Port Phillip Bay, if not quite far enough to see where it narrowed to a point before opening up into the waters of the Bass Straight. In the opposite direction, we could look to the north far enough to see the "cheese stick", the yellow steel beam known as an iconic local landmark that we'd passed on the road into the city the day before. Even if the setting sun was somewhat obscured by clouds, this was a perfect way to close out our day of sightseeing, and a great choice for our final surprise activity.
As nice as the glass of champagne had been, we decided to up the ante by getting dinner this night at a restaurant known as the Boilermaker House. Liz had seen this place mentioned in an Instagram post before we took our trip, and we'd circled it as a place to eat dinner when we visited Melbourne. There are lots of places that brew their own beer and offer a flight of four or five different options to taste; Boilermaker House did essentially the same thing, only they did it with whiskey instead of beer. I've certainly never seen as many different types of hard liquor as they had for sale here, with an absurdly well-stocked bar area that had five different levels of shelving. We enjoyed a charcuterie board along with some very good spirits, and while Boilermaker House wasn't a cheap option, it was an excellent choice.
These two days of sightseeing brought our time spent in the downtown portion of Melbourne to a close. We would be spending the next two days exploring some of the attractions in the surrounding countryside, visiting the natural scenery and wildlife on Phillip Island followed by the wine country of the Yarra Valley. If you've ever wanted to see penguins on parade in the wild, or kangaroos hopping through the vineyards, this was the place to visit.