David Whitley looks with older eyes at Melbourne’s city centre – and finds that it has rediscovered its soul


My hazy recollections of Melbourne’s city centre are not all that favourable. Back in 2002, I trawled the rigid grid delivering magazines every week, and found it all a little dispiriting. There were a few decent pubs and Chinatown was mildly diverting but central Melbourne always struck me as having a dull functionality and little heart.


Melbourne, after all, was all about the scene in the various suburbs – St Kilda, Fitzroy and Carlton were the places to be, while a long list of other suburbs each had their own scene. It was a city that rewarded those who gave it time and explored at a relaxed pace – and many coming through from Sydney would turn their nose up after a couple of days in the wrong places before moving on.


Eight years later, and Melbourne’s city centre seems remarkably different. This may be a case of looking through different eyes – I want a little more than just the cheapest beer prices these days – but a big change has clearly taken place. I think the tourist board would like us to believe that Melbourne has always been a hive of laneways packed with cool independent shops, fascinating bars and restaurants plying cuisine from all over the world. To a certain extent, this is probably the case, but it’s undeniable that this scene has undergone a massive expansion in the last decade.


It has been a case of noticing that the whole character-packed laneways thing is popular and running with it. The cramped little back streets between the vast thoroughfares on the main grid are now promoted heavily, and are clearly thriving.


They’re fascinating to poke around, too. They’re anything but identikit. Some bars are too cool by half (and have prices to match), others are laid-back, cosy and a little grungy. Some of the more unpromising alleys will have a sweet, family-run coffee shop at the end, while on others you’ll run a gauntlet of touts between restaurant terraces. Each is keen to entice you into theirs with the best deal or most expensive free drink. 


On my first afternoon this time round, I had time to kill before meeting my fiancée at the airport. I got in touch with another writer who I’ve only previously known electronically, and we ended up at a bizarre place that seemed to have a million floors, each with a bar or a theatre on it. It felt typical of the new Melbourne – the top floor was a fairly rough and ready rooftop bar selling burgers and pies from a small shack. On the first floor, it was boutique beers, upmarket platters and serving staff with Shoreditch hair.


The next day, we explored properly, and I kept coming across things I hadn’t seen before. And not just in terms of bars and coffee shops – the stream of odd public artworks around the Docklands and South Bank, the shiny new towers and the weird little stores struck me as new additions. As I say, I may have been blind to it before, but Melbourne’s city centre has undergone a remarkable transformation. It’s now a genuinely cool place to be – and possesses a life and character that would be the envy of any city in the world. 


Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at


More photos here