Let’s Go Exploring! Melbourne, Australia: Coffee and Sporting Capital of the World

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My first thought going from the airport to our HomeExchange in Melbourne, was “are we in Toronto?!” My second thought was “did we just fly 22 hours only to end up back in Canada?”

Approaching downtown gave me an odd sense of déjà vu, even though we were clearly on the opposite side of the road and as geographically far away from North America as humanly possible. Something about the road signs and the concrete jungle in the distance felt oddly familiar.

That feeling, however, disappeared as soon as we were inside the city centre. Unlike the North American car-obsessed cities I’d grown accustomed to, Melbourne was heavily pro-transit. So much so, that if you tried to drive downtown, you’d have to make something called a “hook turn”, a white knuckle, anxiety-inducing nightmare of a driving maneuver, which involves counter-intuitively making a right turn by going into the left lane.

Like this, but with more screaming. Image by Alexis Jazz @ Wikipedia

Why do they do this? Because the city gives priority to trams, which are completely free in the downtown “free tram zone” and run up and down the centre of the lane, cars have to do this maneuver to avoid hitting them. I’m already a pretty nervous driver, so being forced to drive on the left side of the road, plus needing to deal with this crazy crap, plus having free public transportation in the downtown central business district, or CBD, meant that we didn’t bother driving at all.

Best decision I ever made.

Australia was starting to feel very European, but once I started talking to our Home Exchange host, I found out that Australia is a mix between Europe and America. They prioritize public transit over cars in cities, as I just mentioned. They also have extremely generous vacation policies, the most famous being the Long Service Leave, or LSL, which gives employees the option to take thirteen weeks off to travel after you’ve been with a company for 10 years. They also have a hybrid public-private health-care system that embraces privatized healthcare, but uses public funds to subsidize it. Australians, I was told, believe everybody should be able to get affordable care. At the same time, they believe that people who can pay more should be able to get more.

Melbourne, however, seemed to be the most European of the Australian cities, and they’re very proud of their “8 Hour Movement” statue which showcases their work life balance mentality, which they refer to as “888.” It means that you should have 8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, and 8 hours of play in a day. This social movement was initiated in 1854 when citizens protested to against a proposal to make every work 14 hour days. Compare and contrast that to the Chinese belief of “996”, meaning working from 9 AM to 9 PM, 6 days a week. Put it all together and you can see why Melbournians are so relaxed. So relaxed and polite that they apologize frequently enough to put Canadians to shame!

Entertainment

Melbourne, as it turns out, is also the sporting capital of the world. After staying in downtown, we moved to another HomeExchange in the St. Kilda area. Our first clue of this city’s sportiness was the overflowing bars and restaurants filled with Formula 1 race car fans, as the Australian Grand Prix was happening.

But being the mathletes that we are, we didn’t end up doing anything sporty during our time there. Instead, we nerded it up by playing a series of outdoor escape room games from Questo to explore downtown. If you’re dorky like us and want a fun interactive way to get to know the city and its history, just download it once on one person’s phone to play as a group or family for 2-3 hours of fun. Try the “Ghosts of Melbourne: Vampire Search” game. That was my favourite. “Street Art of Melbourne” was a runner up.

The Melbourne Princess Theatre, one of the stops for the Ghosts of Melbourne outdoor escape room
Gorgeous street art on the sidewall of a cafe
More fun street art!

And at the Old Melbourne Gaol, we visited their historical jail which has horrifying stories like this one:

Colin Ross, was a man convicted of rape based on the flimsy evidence that hairs of the female victim was found in this bed. But 90 years later, they were able to clear the man using modern DNA testing and posthumously cleared him of the crime. I’m sure his ghost is super not bitter about that.

Incidentally, despite Australia’s well-known history of being a British penal colony, please refrain from making jokes about Australians all being criminals. One of my friends stupidly did this at a bar, got punched by a drunk local, and by all accounts he totally deserved it. The fact that he was British likely didn’t help. So don’t do it.

Back in St.Kilda, we tried to go bother some penguins by the pier, as there’s a colony of penguins that you can go see, but sadly had no luck because the observation deck was blocked off for renovation.

Oh well. As the locals love to say, no worries. St. Kilda had other attractions like this creepy old amusement park called “Luna Park,” which is…just as good?

If you’re nostalgic for old timey rollercoasters and rides, this is a great place to take the whole family. Also if you’re scared of clowns, this is also a great place for some exposure therapy. You’ll either be totally cured, or have a nervous breakdown.

Food

Ah, Acland street. Famous for its homemade cakes and one of the most famous cafes of Melbourne, the Monarch. There, we decided to eat our body weight worth of Kooglhoupes, an addictive marble cake made of soft melted dark chocolate swirled through yeasty pastry. Yum!

And of course, since we’re also in the coffee capital of the world, we had to enjoy a latte on the side.

I gotta say, I don’t normally drink coffee (I’m more of a bubble tea kind of girl), but Australia, hands down, served the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. It was so good, it ruined all other coffee for me. Now when someone suggests we go to Starbucks, my standard reply is “Well, why don’t I just piss into my own mouth?” That’s Melbourne coffee for you. So good, it makes Starbucks taste like piss. And that’s why I don’t work in marketing.

After eating dessert, we were invited by two readers to dinner. There, we ended up eating something quintessentially Australian: kangaroo. Kangaroo has a reputation for being very tough, but somehow this one tasted like beef, but way more tender. Like melt in your mouth tender. I’m not sure if it’s the great choice of restaurant (shout out to the Napier Hotel) but having heard mixed reviews from other Australians about this delicacy, I had pretty low expectations. So I’m happy to be pleasantly surprised.

Weirdly enough, I was told repeatedly by Australians not to feel bad about eating their hoppy, boxing glove-wielding mascot. Apparently, these things are such pests and overwhelming other species that ecologists say that we’re doing them a favour by eating them.

Me “helping”.

After dinner, we decided to go to a comedy show at the Fringe festival, which is another thing that Melbournians are proud of—their wide variety of cultural events. They like to say “Sydney has nature, but we have more art and culture”. Again, this gave me déjà vu and made of think of the rivalry between Toronto and Vancouver. I kind of felt like Melbourne had a bit of an inferiority complex because tourists were always saying how Sydney is prettier, has nicer nature and better weather. To compensate, Melbourne constantly brags about how much more artsy and cultured they are compared to Sydney. Melbournians, I feel like you would get along swimmingly with Torontonians.

Nature

Getting out to nature takes around 2.5 hours from Melbourne. Because of my aversion to driving (see: hook-turns), we booked a bus tour to go see the Great Ocean Road and a famous formation of limestone pillars jutting out of the ocean known as the 12 Apostles.

The funny thing is, there aren’t actually 12 of these things. There are only 8, and one of them is being eroded into the ocean. So why is it called the 12 Apostles? Because the 8 Apostles sounds stupid, that’s why. That being said, Melbournians loudly and constantly reminded me that the 12 Apostles is considered one of the Wonders of the World, so definitely go see it if you’re there.

While I enjoyed the scenery, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to the limestone cliffs in Portugal’s Lagos. They look almost identical. Or maybe I’m just a travel snob and everything reminds me of some other part of the world now. I dunno. You be the judge:

Great Ocean Road, Melbourne:

Lagos, Portugal:

Despite the fact that the Great Ocean Road was a bit underwhelming for me, I still enjoyed my tour with Autopiatours to get out of the city. Here’s a promo code to get $20 off as part of their “Friends with Benefits” discount (heh heh): FWB20OFF.

For us, Melbourne was definitely more about big city attractions like the culture, history, museums, and food. Unfortunately, with the exception of the outdoor Queen Victoria market, food was atrociously expensive. Every meal was over $30 per dish even for bar food! Even in Chinatown, a simple bowl of Pho was $19 and people were lining up around the block. On the plus side, the Australian minimum wage is $22/hour, so there’s no need for tipping since staff get paid a living wage (another aspect that reminded me of Europe). So in that sense, if you consider that sales tax and tip is already included in the price, it’s not that different from North American prices.

Lotus root prices that are even more terrifying than the old jail

So, did Melbourne cost an arm and a leg?

Here’s how much we spent:

CategoryCost in USD/couple per dayCost in CAD/couple per dayNotes
Accomodations00Since we stayed in 2 Home Exchanges we ended up spending nothing on accommodations, except for the rent back home ($51/day for two people).
Food$33.97$46.20 (19.64 eating out, 26.56 groceries)We mostly cooked and didn’t eat out much in Melbourne except the odd meal here and there. I didn’t feel that eating out in Melbourne was worth it. We also saved a ton on groceries by shopping at the Victoria outdoor farmer’s market.
Transportation$16.60$22.57The flight from Hanoi to Melbourne was paid with by points so we just had to pay the $145 USD in taxes. Other than that, trams in the downtown zone were free in Melbourne and we took a few buses here and there from St. Kilda to downtown which costs around $3.38 USD per person each way. Averaged over 16 days, we ended up paying around $16.60 USD/couple per day.
Entertainment$16.91$23The Great Ocean Road tour cost $66.24 USD per person and the ticket for the comedy show cost $22 USD/person. Other than that the 2 outdoor escape rooms were only $9 USD each. We also did a free walking tour which cost $7 USD/person in tips and the Old Melbourne jail entrance tickets cost $22 USD each. So all in all, over 16 days, it average out to be $16.91 USD/day
Total$67.48$91.77Normally Melbourne would be way more expensive if we didn’t use Home Exchange, didn’t fly there with points, ate out like people do on vacation, and went on a lot more expensive excursions. But since we lived like locals and enjoyed a lot of free or cheap attractions and cooked a ton, it was very doable.

Our 2 bed 2 bath Home Exchange in Melbourne:

What do you think? Have you been to Melbourne? Would you go?


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33 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Melbourne, Australia: Coffee and Sporting Capital of the World”

  1. I live in Melbourne. It definitely has gotten more expensive to eat out these days. That $19 pho you had would have been about $13-$15 last year but a lot of eateries are struggling because of the price increases and these days there’s not as many people in the city as before because of the work-from-home policies adopted by a lot of companies these days.

    Next time you’re in Melbourne, take a trip to Springvale which is a Vietnamese community for cheaper but still delicious food. Or to Doncaster for some yummy Malaysian or Hong Kong style cafes.

    Mornington Peninsula or Phillip Island should be next on your list as well.

    1. Good tip on Springvale and Doncaster! Will add that to my list for next time.

      Phillip Island was definitely on our list. Weather wasn’t great while we were there so we skipped that one but will do it to see the penguins next time.

  2. its amazing that you can do exchanges with a rental place ..

    you rent in Toronto right ?

    do you tell the landlords ?

    sounds so exciting

    1. Yes. You can do home exchange with rentals. It depends on the rental laws in your area. In Ontario, you’re entitled to have as many guests as you like for as long as you like, so long as it doesn’t cause damage or disturbance to your neighbours. It’s considered harassment if your landlord tries to restrict your guest privileges. And since no money is exchanged for HE, they are considered guests, not subleters or tenants.

      I’m not obligated to tell my landlord about guests but I do so out of courtesy.

  3. Oh I wish I’d known you were going as I would have recommended one of my son’s restaurants — Mesa Verde. It’s amazing Oaxacan-inspired good (he trained in Oaxaca for two years).
    House swapping is the way to go. We had two last Christmas time so were able to spend 6 weeks in Melbourne. Food though is painfully expensive even cooking at home.
    The work life balance even extends to chefs which is pretty much non existent elsewhere and means I can’t complain how far away my “baby” is!

    https://www.mesaverde.net.au/eat

  4. Hi. Glad you liked Melbourne!
    Its definitely become a lot more expensive, like everywhere, in the last year, but I’m surprised you found it more than say the U.S, my friends just got back from an extended trip there and said everything cost double what they pay in Melbourne. I eat out a lot and can only remember paying over 30 for a meal once in the last 6 months That said, I rarely go to the CBD to eat. And I’m vegetarian. So your mileage may vary.

    1. It depends on what you eat and where you eat. We were definitely in the CBD area a lot. The cost of eating out in the US does increase a lot due to taxes and tip whereas in Melbourne there were both included, which helps.

  5. Melbourne is great, though I winced when you described going to Acland Street – so many better, and cheaper, places to eat. I agree with the other commentor, I’m surprised by the comment about meals being so expensive, but I expect that’s partially because you are a lot within the CBD. Melbourne’s multicultural vibrancy really shows in its suburbs, check out the Vietnamese in Richmond, the Italian up north, or the Afghan food out near Dandenong. Yum. I hope the rest of your Australian travels check out more outside of our cities.

    1. Lol. It’s a touristy thing to do to go to Acland–also it was close to the home exchange were we were staying. You locals probably have way better places in mind.

      We mostly stayed in the CBD (I’m not really a subburbs kind of person) but you’re right that there are probably a lot more cheaper places away from the center.

  6. Is it me or
    Firecracker is hot???? Wanderer please don’t get jealous, sure you pull some levers too lol

  7. Do you have a home base now? If not, how are you managing to do home exchange without a place for others to stay? I’m a fellow home exchanger. Just curious.

    1. Yes. We had to get a home base due to the pandemic and to help out with family emergencies. So we swapped places on HE when we travel.

  8. July is probably a great time to visit Melbourne. I was planning to go in March 2020, but, well, didn’t. Maybe one of these days. Have been in Brisbane a bit but not Melbourne.

    The food does feel expensive in Australia and New Zealand but I don’t really think it is, especially in New Zealand, because of the currency conversion, tax, and tip. It’s like half what it looks like on the menu.

    1. It’s possible that I also had sticker shock coming from Vietnam 🙂 Everything seems way more expensive when you’re paying $2 per bowl of pho 😛

  9. LOL. $46 on food for a vacation in Melbourne? What’d you do? Stay for 2 days and see the tourist spots? Why eat pho that you can get back home ? You missed out on Australian food and seafood. Lamb, meat pies, fish chips , fruits, desserts and custards to mention. After all if you visit Australia then explore all the Australian cuisine.
    We were in NSW for 2 weeks and must have spent at least $1500 on food and groceries for 5 people. Enjoyed all the the unique things

    1. Yeah, I can’t eat lamb and that’s one of the specialties that people mentioned to me so I’m limited in my choices. Not a huge fan of meat pies or fish chips either. Not sure that’s considered “unique” though. I did enjoy kangaroo and chicken parm though, so there’s that.

  10. I love reading your travel blogs. It gives me a more realistic picture of how things are right now through your eyes. Much appreciated and so much fun.

    I don’t know whether I will get to all the places you have visited. However I do have your blogs I cherish and look forward to travelling more soon.

  11. I’m from Toronto and I had lived in Melbourne for 4 years (2012-end of 2015). Many aspects were like Toronto, and many aspects weren’t like Toronto.

    Even though Melbourne is diverse, I’ve had several encounters that reminded that I did not belong. For that reason alone, Toronto will always be home.

    1. Ahh sorry that you had those negative encounters. We never felt that but we also weren’t there that long. Glad you enjoy being in Toronto.

  12. Oh I hadn’t heard of the 888?

    Melbourne ha sbeen on my bucket list for awhile (looking forward to decent Greek/Vietnamese food), accelerated by my brother moving over there this year)

  13. love this article. it brought back nostalgic memories of my time living in oz with a work/holiday visa in 2015/16. keep living the dream guys!

  14. I don’t think too many Melbourians love by the 8 hour work week anymore. With house prices in Melbourne pretty close to Sydney! They have to work long hours and have double incomes to afford the Australian Dream.

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