Photograph by Christian Heeb, Redux
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A couple enjoys a view of downtown Melbourne as they cross the Yarra River.
Photograph by Christian Heeb, Redux

A Perfect Day in Downtown Melbourne

As a first-time visitor to Melbourne, I wanted to explore as many neighborhoods as possible. I wandered Gertrude, Smith, and Brunswick streets in Fitzroy, indulged in Italian pastries on Lygon Street in Carlton, and basked in the beachy-chic vibe of St. Kilda.

But when it comes to getting around the sprawling metropolis (in terms of square mileage, Melbourne is one of the largest cities in the world), you have to right-size your ambitious plans.

So for this perfect-day itinerary, I homed in on the city’s Central Business District (CBD), which, thanks to an excellent (and free) tram system, is eminently explorable.

What’s more, unlike many downtown areas that empty out when the work whistle blows, Melbourne’s core city center is blessed with a steady crop of new rooftop bars and restaurants.

There are a million ways to have a perfect day in Melbourne. Here’s one recipe for success:

> Morning:

If you’re looking for a leisurely breakfast scene, you won’t find it at the tiny Patricia coffeehouse. But if you’d rather get a quick caffeine fix in the form of an exquisite brew, head to this local favorite.

Take yours to go and join up with a 10 o’clock “Lanes and Arcades” walking tour with local outfitter Hidden Secrets to delve into the city center’s famously enchanting back alleys and side streets.

Fiona Sweetman designed wedding dresses before trying her hand at the tourism business. Now she presides over a crew of guides who dish out the best local intel in the city.

“In 1982, there were 6,000 people living in the CBD. Today, there are 190,000 people living here,” she tells our group as we stroll Melbourne’s busy streets.

Fiona deftly weaves tales of Melbourne’s history with the sights we see. The elegance of the architecture is surprising, as is the number of outdoor tables packed onto the slim sidewalks.

Melbourne’s coffee culture may get all the press, but Fiona talks about the city’s tea traditions and shows us the oldest tea room in the city, 19th-century Hopetoun, in the Block Arcade.

After the tour, head to The Hill of Content bookstore. When Fiona mentioned its name, I immediately wondered if the word content was a reference to how creative works are so ubiquitously described these days, or if it alluded to living a satisfied life.

Either way, the name is absolutely perfect. And if you’re happy browsing books for hours, you’ll love the intimate space with a great selection of titles by local authors.

> Afternoon:

Take the tram and break for a plate of steak frites and other French fare at stylish Entrecôte. Located in a beautiful home on the edge of the South Yarra neighborhood, the restaurant has balcony and garden seating.

Tip: Look for the take-out window hawking coffee and quick snacks, a favorite stop for locals in the morning.

Just opposite Entrecôte is one of the entrances to the Royal Botanic Gardens. Sited on the banks of the Yarra River, this charming green space offers a peaceful respite from the urban rush. I loved exploring its tiny lakes and islands, as well as its specialty gardens, ranging from camellias and roses to ferns and oak trees.

After getting a healthy dose of nature, devote a couple of hours to soaking up culture in one of Melbourne’s impressive museums. The National Gallery Victoria is closest to Entrecôte and offers free general admission for its permanent collections.

Another great option in the CBD is the lesser known Immigration Museum, famous for a huge model ship in the Journeys Gallery, which can be found in the Old Customs House.

> Evening:

Return to the CBD at happy hour for a cocktail at Belleville Bar on Globes Alley, where rotisserie chicken is the draw and the drinks menu gives recommendations tailored to different social situations.

For instance, say you’re with family on a mid-week evening. Try a gimlet. On a romantic date during cocktail hour? You’ll want to go with Charlie’s Chocolate Martini. No matter what you order, this place is just straight-up fun.

Continue on to dinner at Emilia on Gills Alley, a tiny dead-end lane off of Little Collins Street. During the day, the white-tiled space serves coffee and lighter meals and feels as if it could be an artist’s studio.

Come evening, Emilia transforms into a lively Italian trattoria. I loved it because it’s a true neighborhood place.

> Late Night:

If you’re in the mood for live music, the Northcote Social Club offers up a relaxed vibe and tasty bar snacks in addition to its tempting line-up. Plus, it’s in a cool neighborhood north of Fitzroy, Carlton, and Collingwood.

> Overnight:

Rest up in the welcoming Hotel Lindrum, a boutique property housed in a former printing house and billiards hall that’s named for longtime pool champion Wally Lindrum.

Today, guests can hone their skills in the lobby’s cozy billiards room over a nightcap or two.

Tipple a few too many? When you wake up, you’ll want to go with the avocado and feta smash—served on local sourdough toast with a poached egg on top—for a deliciously healthy breakfast to start another perfect day in Melbourne.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures in Victoria, Australia, on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.