Sydney may have the sights, but when it comes to art and culture, Melbourne takes the cake. Australia’s most happening city has many things to keep the culture enthusiast occupied, from world-class museums to groovy street art to a dedicated theatre district, and most of these are located in and around the Central Business District (CBD) area. Here’s how to take it all in.
Founded in 1861, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest museum, but there’s nothing stuffy about it. When you enter the bluestone-clad rectangular building surrounded by a moat, the first thing you see is the stunning Leonard French stained glass ceiling. Inside, the gallery houses a collection of Australian, Asian, and international art, comprising 70,000 artworks that span several centuries. Apart from the permanent collection, NGV has an exciting calendar of special exhibitions, which have in the past included the likes of MC Escher, the Dutch graphic artist whose monochromatic prints and drawings were exhibited in an immersive environment designed by Japanese design studio Nendo.
The museum also runs the annual Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, which are large thematic exhibitions usually held between June and October. They include exhibits sourced from around the world and have showcased in the past the Terracotta Army from China, and masterworks from MoMA, New York. In addition, NGV hosts the annual Melbourne Design Week (typically in mid-March), which is a curation of exhibitions, tours, talks, and workshops that explore how design can shape everyday life. Designers present their ideas and solutions for tackling some of the world’s most urgent challenges, whether it’s dealing with e-waste or designing healthier cities. National Gallery of Victoria is open every day 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., general admission is free though some exhibitions are ticketed; ngv.vic.gov.au.
Nearby, under a soaring Eiffel Tower-like spire is Arts Centre Melbourne, the city’s leading venue for theatre, dance, music, and other performing arts. Apart from performances, the centre also puts up immersive exhibitions. Arts Centre Melbourne is open every day; artscentremelbourne.com.au.
Hop onto Tram 109 at Collins Street in CBD and hop off at Florence Avenue in suburban Kew, and you will find Melbourne’s best-kept secret—the Lyon Housemuseum. Designed by architect Corbett Lyon, this is a contemporary art museum, which just happens to be Lyon’s family home, which he shares with his partner Yueji and their two daughters. The Lyons have been collecting contemporary Australian art for nearly three decades and a walk through will show you paintings, sculptures, and installations seemingly casually strewn about their home. Think Patricia Piccinini’s baby-blue and pink Truck Babies in the living room, a multi-panel, technicolour painting of a cartoon home by Howard Arkley flanking the dining room, and Polly Borland’s portrait of the Queen in the music room, which also houses a giant pipe organ designed by Corbett. Visits are by appointment only on designated days of the year, and either Corbett or Yueji Lyon personally take you around.
In March 2019, the Lyons opened the Housemuseum Galleries next door, a series of huge, flexible exhibition spaces specifically designed for large-scale artworks and installations by both established and emerging Australian artists. Lyon Housemuseum is open by appointment; email firstname.lastname@example.org; AUD25/Rs1,200. Housemuseum Galleries are open Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; AUD12/Rs600; lyonhousemuseum.com.au.
Like London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, Melbourne’s East End Theatre District is the place to be, whether you’re looking to catch a blockbuster musical, a stand-up comedy gig or an experimental performance. The district is home to six historic theatres all within walking distance of each other: Princess on Spring Street, Comedy and Her Majesty’s on Exhibition Street, Athenaeum and Regent on Collins Street, and Forum on Flinders Street.
The most exciting recent opening at East End was of the award-winning production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Princess Theatre. The two-part play is a theatrical extravaganza unlike you’ve ever seen before. The Princess Theatre underwent a major refurbishment and is appropriately decked out with the Hogwarts insignia on the carpets, dragon light sconces, and other Potterverse aesthetic. The performance itself is spellbinding, complete with some jaw-dropping moments of magic that will have you asking, “How did they do that?” The two parts are meant to be watched in order either on the same day (matinee and evening) or on two consecutive evenings. Tickets get sold out fairly quickly, so book in advance (yonhousemuseum.com.au). Make a night out of it with pre-theatre drinks or dinner at the retro-chic Federici Bistro located in the theatre building.
Take a wander down CBD’s laneways—tiny alleys choc-a-bloc with boutiques, cafés, restaurants, and bars—and it’s impossible to miss the abundance of street art. From giant murals and spray-painted graffiti to stencil art and paste-ups, the streets are a vibrant urban art gallery. Street art is legal in Melbourne provided the artist has the necessary permissions. The city also hosts street art festivals, so like in any self-respecting art gallery, there’s always something new. The cobblestoned Hosier Lane is where the street art movement exploded, so it’s naturally overrun with people looking for the perfect Instagram shot. Head to AC/DC Lane where artists pay tribute to musical legends or to Meyers Place with its massive urban jungle mural by Mike Makatron. The often overlooked Presgrave Place showcases quirky art including miniature dioramas, tiny sculptures, and whimsical framed photographs.
A good way to take in all the art is on a walking tour with Melbourne Street Art Tours. The tours are run by street artists so you not only discover art in hidden laneways but also get a low-down on the city’s street art culture, its evolution, and the different techniques involved. The tour ends at Blender Studios in West Melbourne, a collaborative gallery and studio space where you can meet and chat with practising street and fine artists, tour their studios, and check out experimental art. Tours run Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays 1.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.; AUD69/Rs3,300; melbournestreettours.com.
There are very few direct flights from India to Melbourne. Many airlines, including Singapore Airlines, offer good connections from several cities, with a layover in a Southeast Asian gateway city.