Know Before You Go: Top Ten Insider Tips for Melbourne, Australia

By: Christie Wilkin

Know Before You Go:  Top Ten Insider Tips for Melbourne, Australia

Three years of passionate exploration have convinced my family that Melbourne is indeed one of the great cities of the world.   In addition to the expected world-class shopping malls, department stores and historic landmarks, Melbourne boasts a series of unique laneways and arcades that are filled with al fresco eateries, cafés, street art, galleries and hidden boutiques. Numerous green spaces add to the beauty of the city. 

If sports are your passion, Melbourne hosts an astonishing number of major sporting events throughout the calendar year.   This truly vibrant city also makes an excellent base for exploring nearby treasures such as the Yarra Valley wineries, the stunningly beautiful Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island, the Mornington Peninsula and the Dandenong Ranges

Compiling a list of must see places in and around Melbourne can be done easily with the help of guidebooks and online resources (Try this excellent list from onlyMelbourne). What is more difficult is figuring out ahead of time the inside information that will help make your visit or your move to Melbourne a success.  Before you book your plane ticket, here are ten things you should know.

1.  Jacket On, Jacket Off.  Melburnians love to say that their city can experience four seasons in a day.  If this is an exaggeration, it is a slight one indeed. The weather can alternate between sunshine and rain twenty or more times per day.   A quick change in the direction of the wind can lead to a massive drop in temperature known as a "cool change." It’s best to never leave your accommodation without sunglasses, an umbrella, and an extra layer or two.  It may be sunny and 40 degrees Celsius in the morning, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be 18 degrees by afternoon.  The opposite can also happen.

Bonus Weather Tip: We thought initially that winter would be a non-event in Melbourne.  How cold can it really get in a city whose temperature never dips below the freezing point?  Very, very cold is the answer.  The icy wind off Port Phillip Bay can be punishing in the winter, and chilling in summer. Be sure to bring warm clothing whatever season you visit.

2.  Make the Most of the Coffee Culture.  There is nothing I love more about Melbourne than the availability of excellent coffee throughout every part of the city.  First time visitors to Australia may be overwhelmed by the choices, however.  I wanted to cry the first time I was presented with the bewildering list of options, after my jet-lagged body had endured a four-hour dinner with strangers during our first full day in the city.  Here is a brief explanation:

In addition to the standard latte and cappuccino, you can opt for the popular flat white, a combination of espresso and steamed milk sans the froth; a long black, a double shot of espresso added to hot water (the long black is the closest thing to standard American coffee); a short black, a standard espresso; or a macchiato, espresso with a dash of frothy milk.  If the weather is warm, consider indulging in a decadent iced coffee, typically served with ice cream and whipped cream over espresso on ice.  You can walk off the calories later.

3.  Wear Black to Blend In.  Melbourne considers itself the fashion capital of Australia.  If your preference is to fit in with local fashion trends, be sure to include black clothing in your suitcase.  This is the advice that was given to me by my sometimes fashion consultant/hip friend from my local fitness group: 

"Wear black.  Visiting an art gallery?  Wear black. Going to a party?  Wear black.  Casual barbecue?  Wear black.  Dinner at a restaurant?  Wear black.  Going to the Melbourne Cup? Wear black."

4.  Footy Fever.  Cricket may be the national sport of Australia, but in Melbourne it’s all about the footy.  Ten of the eighteen teams that make up the Australian Football League are based in Melbourne.  If your goal is to sound knowledgeable about local sports life, do some research before you arrive.  A Kiwi friend of mine suggests learning a few throwaway phrases from current football news to use whenever you have to make small talk about footy---and that will be just about everywhere you go during the autumn and winter months.

At the very least, consider choosing a team to support, or ‘barrack for’ (Don’t use the phrase ‘root for a team’).  Collingwood is the team most likely to elicit an intense response, whether for or against.  The two oldest teams, St Kilda and Melbourne Football Club are slightly safer choices.

5.  Play by the Rules, Especially When Driving. Australians have been called the ‘Swiss of the Pacific’[1] when it comes to enforcing regulations.  They prefer to follow the rules, and want others to do the same.  This is perhaps why they have allowed their government to install thousands of traffic cameras throughout the country.  Melbourne has five different types of cameras designed to catch out drivers who break the rules, including the devious point-to-point cameras that average out your speed over a long distance. Our car was recently photographed driving 65km in a 60k zone.  The fine, which arrived in the post three weeks later, was $180.

Traffic cameras are not the only hazard on Melbourne’s roads.  We assumed that we would have little trouble driving a car since we had plenty of experience driving on the left side of the road.  Melbourne, however, has the added obstacles of trams, cyclists, thousands of parked cars, and worst of all, hook turns.   A hook turn involves moving to the far left lane, in order to make a right turn across traffic, after the light has turned red.  I prefer to keep driving straight indefinitely rather than attempt them, and I know many long-term residents who avoid them at all costs.

As for the other hazards, if you are stuck behind a tram, your safest bet is to stay behind it.  Trams may be passed with caution on the left if they are not stopped at a tram stop.  Slow down and take great care with cyclists and parked cars.

6.  Trams are Wonderful.  If point number five has you nervous about hiring a car, the good news is that Melbourne maintains a wonderful tram network.  You must purchase a myki card, available at newsagents and train stations, and ‘touch on’ with it every time you board a tram or other form of public transportation.  If you take a train, be sure to ‘touch off’ as well.  Tram operators are usually friendly, and will alert you as to which stop you need, so long as you don’t speak to them while they are operating the tram.  For that matter, most locals are happy to help you with directions and public transportation details.

Bonus Tram Tip:  It’s not necessary to go all the way to Phillip Island to see the penguins.  In fact many Melbourne residents don’t know about the colony of 1000 penguins that lives at St Kilda. For free penguin viewing, you need only to board the number 16 tram in the evening and go as far as the St Kilda Pier.  As the sun sets, the Little Penguins will emerge from the water. Bring a torch covered with red cellophane, and do not take flash photographs

7.  Inside the Tram Tracks is the Best Place to Be.  Newcomers to Australia quickly learn that there exists an intense rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney.  Don’t be surprised if you detect disdain toward Sydney when you are in Melbourne.  This contempt can be extended toward Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, New Zealand, or anywhere outside the tram tracks for that matter.  Most Melburnians are fiercely proud of their city, and believe there is no better place on earth.

Bonus Relocation Tip: Families moving to Melbourne should know that choosing schools is often given a higher priority than choosing housing. Names are put down for desired schools immediately upon birth.  When I was touring the school that our girls attend, a pregnant mum inquired about putting her future daughter's name on the waiting list.  She waved a sonogram photo as proof that her baby was a girl, but was told she would have to wait until after birth for the name to go on the list.

8.  Embrace Egalitarianism: Beware of Being a Tall Poppy.  Australians have traditionally taken great pains to avoid class-consciousness and snobbery.  The ideal is for everyone to be given a fair chance regardless of education and background.  On a practical level for the tourist or new resident, this means that you should avoid asking new acquaintances about their professions, be careful to not discuss your own education or accomplishments, and if taking a taxi, climb into the front seat with the driver. 

As for tall poppies, the phrase refers to those who stand out head and shoulders above their peers.  The Australian impulse is to knock them down to size.  Practice the art of self-deprecation before you come to Melbourne, and be careful not to brag or to draw unnecessary attention to yourself.

9.  Cultivate an Interest in Fresh, Natural Mediterranean and Pacific Rim Fusion Food.  Melburnians love good food, and are prepared to debate endlessly about which restaurants are best.  Asian fusion food is the current trend.  A fusion restaurant recently opened near our house that advertises ‘Tawainese tapas and bubble tea.’ 

Bonus Restaurant Tip: My two favorite restaurants happen to be Italian (La Luna in Carlton) and Spanish (La Movida in the CBD), but no matter which restaurant you choose, be sure to make a reservation well in advance.  In spite of a general laid-back attitude toward most areas of life, Melburnians plan important matters such as restaurant bookings well ahead of time.

10.  You May Never Want to Leave.  My final point about Melbourne is that it is a city that gets under your skin.  Melbourne has a way a weaving its tentacles throughout your heartstrings and not letting go. We have stretched our original two-year stint into nearly four, and as our final departure date approaches, our dismay over having to say good-bye is mounting.  We don’t regret a moment of those four years, however, in spite of the painful upcoming separation. I am confident that you will feel the same should you make the choice to come to Melbourne.


[1] All Good Things by best-selling Australian author Sarah Turnbull, p. 189

About the author

Expat Blog ListingChristie Wilkin is an American expat living in Australia. Blog description: One family's account of the daunting adventure relocating from Pittsburgh to Melbourne
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Contest Comments » There are 57 comments

Simon wrote 10 years ago:

A great read about the wonderful city that is Melbourne… very accurate and helpful tips for those thinking about visiting this wonderful city.

Sue Webster wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks Christie for your insider account of the special characteristics of Melbourne. It shows you really know what's at the heart of this place. It's my adopted city and I can understand that you and your family will leave with some sadness. Sue Webster

Deborah Patricca wrote 10 years ago:

Makes me want to come visit Melbourne! It may never happen, but I have really enjoyed reading about the many wonderful aspects of this beautiful, engaging city!

Kiley Librich wrote 10 years ago:

This is an excellent article and truly includes all you need to know before traveling to Melbourne. It was very insightful, humorous and well written!

Lara Zembekis wrote 10 years ago:

Christie you have a wonderful way of making Melbourne sound so sophisticated and interesting - and I was born here and I've lived here all my life. I never knew about the penguins in St. Kilda and I'm not even conscious of wearing black - it just makes me feel thin. Thanks for doing such a great job of not only showing us to the rest of the world, but of showing us to ourselves.

Sonia Rohan wrote 10 years ago:

It's great to hear that Christie & her family love our city so much!! Despite the weather I believe I am lucky enough to live in one if the worlds great cities

Debi Heistand wrote 10 years ago:

This is a wonderfully informative post!! It is always helpful to get an insider's peek into a new environment. It would be a pleasure to visit Melbourne some day! Well done.

Sarah Munnings wrote 10 years ago:

This is very insightful and beautifully written. I wish I had a list like this before I came out to help familiarise with this similar but different country.

Amy Smith wrote 10 years ago:

Having had the great privilege of visiting Melbourne for two weeks in 2011, I attest that you are spot-on with your recommendations. I appreciate this well-written and insightful post that brings fond memories of Melbourne to mind.

Patrick Watson wrote 10 years ago:

Loved reading this blog post. I hope that someday I can put these tips to use and visit Melbourne. The best part is that it isn't just about food or sight-seeing but about how to act and be accepted as well. Great stuff!

Jonathan Smith wrote 10 years ago:

C Wilkin, I enjoy all your stories of your great family adventures, can't wait for the next one.

Becky Giebel wrote 10 years ago:

This post makes me want to visit Melbourne! It sounds like a wonderful, exciting city and Christie's tips are very helpful!

Meri Inglis wrote 10 years ago:

Excellent and thorough instructions! I always enjoy your articles and without fail learn something new about our colourful country and city. And by the way- I will avoid those box turns as much as possible too!

Marion McLaggan wrote 10 years ago:

Excellent article about the beautiful city of Melbourne. It is indeed a great city and we had the amazing opportunity to visit and enjoy the area. It was our trip of a lifetime and we continue to enjoy our experiences through our journals and photos. Christie, you have made this city come alive for us!

Andrea Thomas wrote 10 years ago:

Well said, Christie!!!! These 10 tips would have come in handy prior to our move over. Especially the coffee and weather tips! You summed up in 10 tips what the cultural training representative wanted to take 4 days to cover. The Thomas Family agrees with you . . . . Melbourne is a great city. We feel very fortunate for our time we had over on that side of the world. We look forward to traveling back over for a visit.

Ginger Amitrano wrote 10 years ago:

Great article. Can't wait to go with my daughter one day!

Margery Zeller wrote 10 years ago:

Well-written article with practical, insightful, and useful information and resources for anyone considering a visit or a move to Melbourne.

Dave wrote 10 years ago:

Wow Christie, you've managed to nail Melbourne perfectly. Sounds like you've lived here your whole life.

Gillian Brown wrote 10 years ago:

What a cracking good read and a very accurate account of what to expect.

Amanda G wrote 10 years ago:

Very funny and so true! As an Australian I can say that! Now I want to read a whole book on the subject:-)

David B wrote 10 years ago:

Christie - great insights - Basic black works for coffee as well as wardrobe and taking restaurant bookings very seriously inside the tram tracks is totally normal. You've nailed it. Thanks. D.

Melinda wrote 10 years ago:

Brilliant tips Christie! Wish I had these before the interstate relocation some years ago. Must investigate the St Kilda penguins!

Pollyanna wrote 10 years ago:

Very helpful tips! I think you should write a whole guide book about visiting Melbourne!

Jenn K. wrote 10 years ago:

So when I get to Melbourne, I'll put on my black jacket, pick up a flat white, take off my jacket, take in a football game, put my jacket back on and catch the tram, go visit the penguins where my jacket will be intermittently removed and put back on depending on which way the wind is blowing. I'll finish the day with some tasty Taiwanese Tapas and head back to my hotel room to begin apartment searches :) Excellent post and so much fun to read!

Kent wrote 10 years ago:

I can verify all that she has so nicely summed up as I used to live in Melbourne as an expat also. Very spot on well written information!

Bethany Sprunk wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for this well-written, informative post about Melbourne, Christie! Melbourne, Australia, here I come! (I wish.) :)

Jane Looby wrote 10 years ago:

This is a wonderfully written article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Melbourne, Australia. The writing style is very insightful and interesting!

Linda Miranda wrote 10 years ago:

Excellent article. It will come in handy if I ever make it to Australia.

Anne Jones wrote 10 years ago:

Loved this article about Melbourne! I hope to visit someday!

Greg S. wrote 10 years ago:

Lucky I'm not Australian or I would have to make something up in order to cut this brilliant article (and its author) down to size. But also unlucky that I'm not Australian because I love that they make the tall poppy story into a good thing while everyone else in the world thinks the opposite. You could almost call it antipodean.

Janet James wrote 10 years ago:

Christie- I have enjoyed reading your blog over the past few years. I will miss it when you leave there! You have an amazing way of bringing to life so many aspects of "living the Australian way" that I think I could go there and fit right in! My basic black wardrobe will be perfect! Thanks so much for sharing with all of us!

Jeannie Marie wrote 10 years ago:

Christie who has been in Melbourne for nearly 4 years has reflected far more deeply on life in Melbourne than I have in nearly 20 years. I will certainly see the city differently now. And I am going to try those resturants.

Louise King wrote 10 years ago:

Congratulations Christie on these ten helpful tips about living in Australia and in particular Melbourne. It is fascinating as an Australian to read about the way others see us and interpret some of our more unusual behaviours that we never question. I love the gentle humour in your writing. When you return to the US I'm sure you will offer equally interesting insights about American culture when you view it through fresh eyes. Louise King

Amy Flynn wrote 10 years ago:

Really enjoyed this article. It enables those who don't travel the pleasure of seeing places through a travelers eyes.

Katie wrote 10 years ago:

I'm not always so sure that trams are wonderful when I have to ride them home from school. However I am pretty sure I will miss them once we move away from Melbourne.

Ross wrote 10 years ago:

I can certainly attest to the reality of the points made in this post. Indeed the rest of our lives will be defined by our positive expat experience in Melbourne.

Tanya Assender wrote 10 years ago:

What a wonderful reminder of why I love Melbourne! Off now to plan a trip to St Kilda to see the Penguins…I'm one of the many Aussies who didn't know these gorgeous creatures were so close to home! Thank you Christie for such an accurate and funny revelation of "My Melbourne". We wish you could stay :(

Annie Hofler wrote 10 years ago:

Makes me want to book a ticket to Melbourne right now! It's easy to see that you love this city and why you will miss it when you leave. I'm glad your stay there has been so rich :-)

Kelly wrote 10 years ago:

I have enjoyed all your posts, but this wrap-up was the most informative of all. Makes me truly want to experience Melbourne and I'm hoping I can make that happen in 2014. Thanks for all your work in sharing your experiences.

Joseph Smith wrote 10 years ago:

Christie, I love your well-written depiction of life in Melbourne, from what colors the locals wear, to what things to embrace, cultivate, enjoy (especially coffee), and the wonder of a city so connected by trams. Who would not want to explore Melbourne after reading your piece? It truly is a world-class city.

Judith Wilkin wrote 10 years ago:

We had the pleasure of having Christie as our guide on two visits to Melbourne. Her enthusiasm was very evident and we learned a great deal from her knowledge of the area and the people living there.

Zoe wrote 10 years ago:

Well done Christie! As a proud and passionate Melbournian, who often wears black and takes a jacket out (just in case), it puts a smile on my face to read your very insightful take on our wonderful city. Oh, and yes I barrack for a football team just so that I can say that I do and I absolutely can't get through the day without a 'skinny' latte!

Shanda wrote 10 years ago:

Excellent article giving insider tips on how to prepare for a visit to Melbourne. I read with fascination and now my only wish is that I could visit and put these wonderful tips into practice. Christie's blog is a "must read" for me, and this article is just one example of her fine writing style.

Cameron Wilkin wrote 10 years ago:

Its very accurate on all the points except trams. If you had to ride trams everyday to school, then I'm sure you would agree that riding them gets old. Very convenient for mom though!

Christine Brooks wrote 10 years ago:

I wish I had read this article before our move to Melbourne. Very insightful and practical help for the Melbourne newcomer.

Julian P wrote 10 years ago:

Great article by a great blogger living in Melbourne. There are a lot of things Christie has pointed out that make you appreciate this great city!

Suzanne wrote 10 years ago:

Sounds like a wonderful place and indeed it is! I am thankful we had the opportunity to visit and experience the lattes and great food while staying inside the tram tracks! So many one of a kind experiences to be had in just the city and surrounding areas. You truly have received a blessing in being able to partake of this adventure, and you share your experiences and advice with intriguing descriptions. Well done.

Crystal Keller wrote 10 years ago:

Well written Christie. Makes me want to walk the St Kilda pier w/coffee in hand one more time to watch those sweet little penguins. The wealth of info you have packed into this very brief article is golden. Would be truly helpful for anyone whether visiting or planning to relocate to Melbourne.

Linsey wrote 10 years ago:

Always a pleasure to read a witty yet informational article. Great insider views and tips. I especially enjoyed the tips about the "dress code" and coffee options. :)

Fausta wrote 10 years ago:

I love your account of Melbourne.... it gave me goose bumps... what a beautiful part of the world... I love living in Melbourne!

Sarah Moore wrote 10 years ago:

Well done Christie! I love your great account of Melbourne, it rang so true and I learnt things along the way - definitely be visiting those penguins in St Kilda! Having only lived here 5 years myself, I would agree that you have captured the heart of all that is treasured by Melbournians and I am sure your words will have everyone wanting to visit soon! I mean really, who doesn't have black in their wardrobe?

Mirka wrote 10 years ago:

Insightful and well written article full of insider tips while bringing Melbourne to life for the reader. Would love to visit!

Lynn K wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for your "passionate exploration" and fact-and-insight filled article. Laneways, tall poppy, weather changes and wearing black are all helpful and educational. I enjoyed your tour of this fascinating place.

Juliet wrote 10 years ago:

Very true, well written as well. I will be sharing your article with new arrivals. It makes life much easier when you get to know the place quickly and that's what your article is about - our life here in a nut shell. Good luck! (friend of C.Keller)

Heather Podruchny wrote 10 years ago:

Great article! My husband and I were also ex-pats in Melbourne, for two years, and we loved it and still miss it. No only have we assumed Melbourne-smugness, we still have it with us where we live now in San Francisco and it works the bomb! Christie has synthesized the truly key bits to know about fitting in, in Melbourne.

Jane Smith wrote 10 years ago:

Christie, I have enjoyed your blogs immensely! It has been hard to wait for the next one. Your stories of your experiences have been so fascinating and your pictures beautiful. I truly think you have painted Austrailia as a very interesting place to visit.

Karin S. wrote 10 years ago:

Melbourne has clearly "gotten under your skin," Christie. You sound like you have lived there far longer than four years. Your article should be required reading for anyone relocating to this world-class city. Thanks for an entertaining and informative read!

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