You’ve arrived in the sporting and cultural capital of Australia and you’re ready to explore. Melbourne is a city that is far from obvious, and it’s always great to get some tips from a local so you ensure you don’t miss a thing.
When you want to get out of the city centre, hire a rental car and head off to discover some other beautiful areas and interesting attractions. Here are a few spots to consider, whether you’re in Melbourne for a few days or longer.
If you’ve got the kids with you or are interested in wildlife, there are a couple of excellent destinations with an easy drive of the city. Healesville Sanctuary is in the Yarra Valley, just 75 minutes’ drive from Melbourne in your rental car. This park has many free-roaming kangaroos and other Australian native animals in natural enclosures. Here’s where you can see Tasmanian devils, koalas, emus and lots of other critters that range from cute to scary. There are keeper talks throughout the day if you want to learn more or you can book an animal encounter where you’ll meet the keeper and get up-close access.
In almost the opposite direction, 40 minutes from Melbourne, is the other option: Werribee Open Range Zoo. There’s a section of Australian animals here, where you can see wallabies, kangaroos, emus and koalas, but there are also creatures, including lions and gorillas, from other parts of the world as well. The big attraction are the tours here, where guests ride in an open-sided safari vehicle across the ‘savannah’ grasslands, where giraffes, rhinos, zebras, ostriches and other animals roam free.
Life’s a Beach
If you’ve only got a few hours to spare, point the rental car in the direction of Black Rock. It’s only 18km southeast of the city, but there’s a popular beach where kids splash during summer. Follow the Bay Trail around to Half Moon Bay, where you can walk to the end of the pier and see the wreck of the warship HMVS Cerberus.
Got some more time on your hands? Mornington Peninsula is an hour’s drive from Melbourne and offers surf and bay beaches, rolling vineyards and lush farmland. Get a spectacular view from Arthurs Seat Eagle, where you’ll travel by gondola to the highest point of the peninsula. If you’ve assigned a designated driver, you could visit some of the many cellar doors around Red Hill. If you’re after lunch too, the menu of share plates changes seasonally at Foxeys Hangout.
Perhaps Sorrento is more your scene. This is where well-heeled Melburnians spend their weekends, so you’ll find excellent cafes and boutiques in the historical buildings along the main street. There’s a beach on either side of the village. The bay beach is calm and great for kids or having a go at sea kayaking. The rocky back beach is a surfer’s delight. If you don’t want to take on the waves, there are lots of rock pools to explore at low tide.
About 12km north of the city is Coburg, where one of Melbourne’s most notorious jails has undergone a transformation. Now on the grounds of the former HM Prison Pentridge you’ll now find a luxury hotel, pub, cinemas, shops, cafes and restaurants. While it’s interesting to see how heritage buildings can be transformed, the most fascinating aspect of this old lock-up are the Pentridge Prison Tours that take you into the cells. Using interviews from former guards and prisoners, as well as imagery and artefacts, the creators of the tours take guests back through 150 years of notorious history.
On the Ranges
Almost directly east of the city, you’ll gradually leave the suburbs and soon be heading up into the Dandenong Ranges. Most people know it as the home of Puffing Billy, a heritage steam train that chuffs its way through the rainforest and over trestle bridges just as it did in the early 1900s.
Once you’re back at the station, decide where to go next. If you’re feeling fit, the 1000 Steps Walk is part of the Kokoda Track Memorial Walk. It’s one of the most popular bush walks near Melbourne, so it pays to avoid weekends, so you can appreciate the tranquil atmosphere of the lush forest around you. Eventually, you’ll reach the top and enter a clearing where you can look back towards Melbourne.
The pretty village of Olinda was once the home of Australian painter Arthur Streeton, who was inspired by the beauty of the area. See it for yourself in one of the many gardens here. Cloudehill Gardens has 25 different groupings that represent different styles of garden, while Pirianda Gardens features a terraced woodland featuring many different types of exotic and native trees, which create a festival of colour in autumn. In early spring, the main attraction at the National Rhododendron Gardens is in full bloom.
Many restaurants in the ranges offer a high tea, but if you want a simpler, less expensive version of one, visit Ranges Cafe & Bar at Olinda, where the all-day menu includes fresh scones with local jam and cream.
When you’re ready to go further in Melbourne, hire a rental car to take you there.