With a daughter now studying here, Anne has every excuse to visit and discover Melbourne's secrets.
Travel is much like building a house; no matter how well you budget, there are always unexpected costs. Melbourne is no exception, but it is not a city to be missed when visiting Australia. So I’ve compiled a list of four of my favourite free things to do when visiting the city.
1. Visit the Penguins of St Kilda
St Kilda is an intriguing area of Melbourne, and also home to quite a few free things to do. High on my list is seeing the fairy penguins return at dusk.
On a balmy summer evening, as dusk falls, the walk along the beach to St Kilda Pier is beautiful enough in itself to warrant the visit. People are promenading, some brave souls splash in the waves, kids play on the sand, while tourists and locals alike sit in the various bars and restaurants and watch it all unfold. The delicious smell of fish and chips wafts through the air.
At the far end of the pier, hidden amongst the rocks of the breakwater, a colony of fairy penguins make their home. Each day before dawn they head out to sea; at night they come home for shelter. There is a special viewing platform for watching them, and guides (with special infra-reds lights so as not to disturb the penguins) point out the gentle creatures as they settle down for the night. Some sneak home, barely noticeable, while others put on a display, proudly waddling along the steps and platforms as if they thoroughly enjoy the attention.
Afterward, it is but a ten-minute stroll to choose one of the many restaurants along Auckland Street.
2. Take Your Pick of Gardens
In the centre of Melbourne lies the Royal Botanical Gardens, a green oasis offering a well-deserved break from sight-seeing and shopping. As well as guided tours, there are often free concerts and performances, and the foot-weary can take The Garden Explorer: a hop-on, hop-off vehicle traversing the 38 hectares, a cross between a Jeep and a trolley which would be quite at home exploring the savannas of Africa.
A smaller version can be found in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. They are a perfect place to sit and be after running the gauntlet of shopping and eating on Acland Street Village and surrounds. The gardens are more likely to be filled with locals having their lunch or taking their kids for a stroll then with tourists.
At the other end of St Kilda is the Veg Out Communal Garden, where locals get covered in dirt as they work one of the over 140 plots. Visitors are free to wander around, if you can follow the paths as they meander through flowers and undefined vegetable beds. It is well worth a visit just for the artwork on display, as well as the colour and imagination of many of the scarecrows and garden ornaments.
3. Visit Free Art Galleries
Although the temporary exhibitions often have an entry fee, entry to Melbourne's art galleries is free. The National Gallery of Victoria (or NGV) is one of my favourite galleries, so much so I'm a member although I live in another state. As I write this, there is an exhibition featuring the works of Escher. The medieval section is a delight; small enough to wander through without being overwhelmed, yet with enough treasures to satisfy both mind and soul.
An extension of the NGV is the Ian Potter Centre, in Federation Square. This gallery specializes in Australian art from colonization to the present day, as well as housing an extensive collection of Indigenous art.
Just up from the Ian Potter Centre is the State Library of Victoria, a much-overlooked gallery (despite the name). Built in 1865, it boasts a six-story reading room and has a few galleries filled with works of Australian art. (Also worth knowing is the library offers free WiFi.)
There are numerous smaller galleries and art-shops throughout the city, featuring local artists. Details of which ones might whet your interest can found at any Visitor Information centre, or at the official visitor website.
4. Simply Wander
The heart of Melbourne is best explored on foot. Wander the lane-ways to discover great graffiti and street art; I once came across a Banksy. Maps are available from any of the Visitor Centres, whether it be a guide to the lane-ways, a foodie tour, a literary tour or simply the best streets for window shopping.
The Arcades are gorgeous—The Block Arcade, Cathedral Arcade, The Royal Arcade, Manchester Lane to name a few. Take your time to peruse the windows, whether it be a local designer, a jewellery shop or one of the many cafes. Each shop, lane-way and arcade is different from the one before it. Last of all, may I suggest planning your walk to end up in Hardware Lane, home to some of the best coffee in Melbourne (I know, it's a big call).
To make it all easier, trams in the centre of the city are free; simply hop on and off as you need. This is especially useful towards the end of the day, when the slopes of the streets become ever more apparent.
Melbourne is one of those cities with offerings to entice all who visit. These are but a few suggestions of what the city has to offer.
© 2019 Anne Harrison