A love letter from our Marketing Manager to his home away from home.
By Carl Hiehn
I lived in Melbourne in 2015/16 on a Working Holiday Visa. I was 29, recently single and looking to escape The Great White North. I wanted to move somewhere beachy (Check!), urban (Check!), and gay (As I said: single. Check!). I fell head over Australian work boots for the city. In fact, if it weren’t for my visa’s pesky expiry date, I’d still be ordering flat whites in Melbourne’s infinite cafes today.
Anyhoo, here’s my personal gay guide to Melbourne. I’ve included the city’s basic layout, some good-to-know Aussie slang, and all the hidden gems you can handle from a city known for its hidden gems.
A brief introduction to the city’s layout
From ritzy Prahran to beachy St. Kilda and even too-cool-for-school Brunswick, Melbourne is a city of neighbourhoods. While most visitors base themselves in the Central Business District (or CBD for short), the soul of this quirky capital is in her bountiful burbs.
Regarding layout, the CBD is at the centre of everything. It hugs the snaking Yara River about 20 minutes inland via streetcar (locally known as a ‘tram’) from Port Phillip Bay. Directly north of the CBD are Carlton (Little Italy), Fitzroy & Collingwood (two gay-ish areas—lots more on these shortly) and the aforementioned uber-hip Brunswick.
South of the CBD are Port Melbourne & Southbank (known for their restaurants, glitz and casino), Prahran (shoppers take note), St. Kilda (a secondary gay-ish area and a popular beach spot,) and upscale Brighton.
To the east are a number of posh districts, such as Richmond and Hawthorn. And to the west are lovely suburban strips that, while beautiful, are probably not worth visiting if you only have a few days.
Where To Stay
Melbourne’s gay-welcoming hotels, hostels and B&Bs
Zagame’s House is my top recommendation in Melbourne. Located a short strut from both the CBD and queer-Collingwood, this boutique hotel celebrates “the unique, the creative, and the sublimely delicious.” I won’t spend too much time discussing this trendy option as we did a deep dive in our Stays That Slay: Australia. This is also where we’ll be slumbering on our all-gay Australia: Summer Down Under tour.
Not far from Zagma’s are the Tyrian Serviced Apartments in Fitzroy. This perfectly located accomodation is somewhere between a hotel and an AirBNB, offering the best of both worlds. I highly recommend this option if you’re looking for a long-term stay.
For an affordable hotel with five-star service, reserve a room at Treasury on Collins. I guarantee you’ll fall in love with the hotel’s reimagined neoclassical building that was once the Bank of Australasia. Highlight: every room enjoys free Netflix if you need to binge Australian classics like Bondi Rescue and Neighbours.
For those looking to really splurge, slumbering in Adelphi Hotel on Flinders Lane (easily the coolest alley in the CBD) will not disappoint. Highlights include the rooftop pool and acclaimed in-house restaurant Om Nom.
Finally, for my fellow budget buddies, Nunnery Hostel is friendly, fun and leagues better than the city’s run-of-the-mill youth hostels. The accommodation is located in a converted convent across from Carlton Gardens.
Where To Eat
Melbourne’s gay-welcoming or gay-owned restaurants and bars
Please note the following recommendations barely even scrape the surface of Melbourne’s sumptuous scene. Not to mention new and noteworthy restaurants have undoubtedly popped up all over the city since I jetted off five years ago.
Australians love coffee. And nowhere is that more pronounced than in Melbourne. The city has an estimated 2000+ independent cafes each serving world-class pour-over, siphon and cold-drip. To avoid opening Pandora’s Box I won’t offer specific cafe recommendations. But to not mention cafes at all would be, well, unspeakable.
Brunch in Melbourne is practically a contact sport.
For breakfast on the go, swing by beloved Lune Croissanterie. Founder Kate Reid (an ex-Formula 1 Aerodynamicist) is one of the city’s culinary queens and has been enjoying around-the-block lineups for her sweet and savoury pastries since 2012.
For more robust breakfasts, I still daydream about Neighbours’ inspired avo smash with quinoa tabbouleh and dukka, as well as Clubhouse’s black forest panna cotta. In Fitzroy, Industry Bean is a mainstay. Their classic dishes are almost as beautiful as the dining room itself. Finally, just before I left the country, I had an incredible brunch at vegetarian-focused Monk Bodhi Dharma.
For an authentic Aussie lunch on the go (‘take away’), order two or three fresh handrolls from the wide selection of sushi shops lining the CBD’s laneways.
Another great option in the CBD is Soi 38 located on the third floor of a car park (yes, really!). This tiny hidden gem ladle out the city’s most acclaimed Thai soups. Just keep in mind this is not a sit-down restaurant. More like a soup stall with a couple of fold up tables and plastic chairs.
First and foremost, I have to give a shout-out to my former employer, Milk the Cow. Marketing itself as a ‘Licenced Fromaggerie,’ this upscale dine-in space specializes in cheese and wine. My recommendation? Order a small cheese flight with your choice of wine, beer, cider or whisky, as well as one of their signature cheese-garnished cocktails—my favourite was the espresso martini with a cube of BellaVitano Espresso.
Another upscale offering I loved was Kirk’s Wine Bar. This quaint joint is tucked away along a small laneway in the CBD and has an incredible wine list and hearty but stylish dishes (see gallery above). Meanwhile, Attica is perhaps the city’s most esteemed restaurant and is run by celebrity locavore Ben Shewry (notably Kiwi-born).
Dessert & Digestifs
To wrap up this otherwise over-stuffed food section, be sure to grab gelato in Carlton’s famous Pidapipó Gelateria. Three words: hot Nutella fountain.
If you’re looking for a digestif, Madame Brussels is the gayest-non-gay cocktail bar in town. Meanwhile, Fall from Grace is a hidden speakeasy in the CBD—head to the bookshelf in the back of State of Grace, pull the secret book and a staircase into the much livelier bar reveals itself.
Finally, Black Pearl’s cocktail menu is brimming with exceptional beverages to either end or start the night.
What To Do
Sites, activities and events worth checking out in Melbourne
When I landed in Melbourne, one of the very first touristy things I did was visit the Melbourne Museum. It was an excellent introduction not just to the city but to the entire country.
The National Gallery of Victoria is also exquisite and worth at least a half-day visit. I took one of the free 50-minute highlight tours and definitely recommend others do the same.
Across the street from the National Gallery is the sprawling Royal Botanical Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance. ATTN fellow runners: The international LGBT running group Frontrunners uses the Shrine as a starting point for many of their meetups. Visitors are warmly welcomed.
Of course, a right of passage is wandering Central Melbourne’s endless laneways and alleys. The most famous of which is Hozier Lane, where a constantly evolving kaleidoscope of graffiti makes the perfect backdrop for your Instagram Story.
While I’m not personally a big sports fan, the more athletically-inclined homosexual will appreciate the city’s numerous events. The most notable include the Melbourne Cup (horse racing), the Melbourne Open (tennis grand-slam), Australian Grand Prix (formula one racing), and smaller events for AFL Football (‘footie’), cricket and more.
Midsomma Festival is better known as Melbourne Pride. It’s not as loud as Mardi Gras, but it has a distinctly grassroots essence that I appreciate.
If I were to recommend one other activity in Melbourne proper, it would be the numerous architecture and neighbourhood tours available. Personally, I took the free St Kilda architecture tour led by a local activist and historian and can’t say enough good things about the experience.
Where to enjoy the sun and sea
Melbourne’s best beaches
Melbourne’s beaches aren’t nearly as famous as Sydney’s, Perth’s and Brisbane’s. However, for an urban dwelling Canuck such as myself, I was overjoyed by the sandy strips all around the city. It’s also worth remembering Melbourne dips its toes in Port Phillips Bay, not the ocean. So all those scary sharks you hear about aren’t an issue here.
St. Kilda Beach
An extremely popular beach is full of sunbathers, skateboarders and SUPers. This is arguably Melbourne’s gayest beach, but it’s probably more notable for iconic Luna Park (pictured in the header photo). The other draw to this beach would be the healthy population of little penguins that nest in the rocks on St Kilda Pier. Again to my running buds, there’s a gorgeous boardwalk that begins on St. Kilda Beach and follows the waterfront for miles.
If you happen to find yourself in the west end, Williamstown Beach is stunning and offers the best view of Melbourne’s cityscape.
One of the prettiest and most well-kept beaches thanks to the photogenic surf sheds.
Port Melbourne, South Melbourne and Middle Park Beaches
These three connected beaches are the closest to the city centre and are popular for their volleyball nets and nearby bars.
Where to have a drink and party
Melbourne’s best gay bars and clubs
Despite being a very gay-welcome city, Melbourne actually doesn’t have a gay neighbourhood per se. Instead, LGBT people and spaces are found throughout the city with three neighbourhoods hosting the majority of the bars: Collingwood, Fitzeroy and St. Kilda.
The Laird Hotel—One of Australia’s longest-running gay bars and a mainstay in Collingwood. Be sure to check out the backyard beer garden.
Poof Doof—Very popular club in South Yara on Saturday nights. Patrons skew younger.
Sircuit—Bar and club in Fitzroy with a varying audience depending on the evening’s event or theme.
The Peel Hotel—This extremely Poppin club (and a personal favourite) is where bad decisions are made (I’d rather not talk about mine, thank you very much). Note: If your group has a lady in its midst, get here early, as only 10 women are ever allowed inside at one time.
Thursgay at Yah Yah’s—This was an almost weekly affair for myself and my Aussie crew. It tended to be more relaxed with a friendlier mixed crowd.
Closet Party—This monthly LGBT dance happened throughout the city and tended to attract the hippest queer crowd.
Where To Shop
Authentically Australian shops and markets in Melbourne.
Like most major metropolises, different neighbourhoods will cater to different shopping needs. If you’re looking for mainstream international brands, you’ll find them all in the CBD. For upscale boutiques and high-end stores, head to Prahran and South Yarra. Thrift stores (‘Op Shops’—short for ‘opportunity shops’) and vintage boutiques are scattered throughout Brunswick.
With that basic outline out of the way, here are a few of the city’s more unique stores worth a look-see.
Pickings & Parry is a dazzlingly dapper shop specializing in timeless menswear. Think tweed caps, cotton button-ups, suspenders and even brass and leather stationery sets. If you’re looking for a haircut, there’s a small barber in the back.
For that laidback luxe look, head to Handsom in Fitzroy. Expect simple, clean and classic designs.
Younger men will love the curated streetwear and trainers at Incu.
In the back of South Melbourne Market is a space called SO:ME brimming with local designers selling everything from one-of-a-kind home decor to top-notch menswear (mostly by Mr. Simple).
Local artists Jos Van Hulsen and Mary Long own Post Industrial Design in West Footscray. This home decor meets home hardware store has a number of curiosities that would make excellent souvenirs.
What to do in Victoria
The most popular attractions just outside Melbourne.
While I love Melbourne proper and think you could easily fill an entire week’s visit with things to do in the city, you’d be cutting yourself short if you didn’t get into the nearby bush as well.
To the east of Melbourne lies fertile Yara Valley, one of the country’s most acclaimed wine regions. Stop in any number of the beautiful vineyards for tastings or lunch al fresco.
South of Yara Valley is the scenic Port Phillips Peninsula. It’s worth driving the entire peninsula and ending your journey in charming Sorrento.
Also to the east are two nature reserves worth mention: French Island and Phillips Island. While the former is home to the country’s densest population of koala bear, it also has a lot of snakes (I had my first encounter with a potentially lethal serpent here, so be warned). The latter is a very popular spot with tourists looking to watch the “Penguin Parade”—I didn’t personally partake in this attraction because it seems off-puttingly touristy.
On the west side of Melbourne is the famous Great Ocean Road that visits gorgeous beaches, temperate rainforests and the epic Twelve Apostles.
Finally, The Grampians is a beloved national park known for its rugged landscape and Indigenous rock art.
Want to visit Melbourne?
If you’re interested in getting a taste of one of my favourite cities on Earth, join our big gay Australia: Summer Down Under tour. It departs annually in February and aligns with Sydney Mardi Gras (probably the wildest Pride I’ve personally attended).
Credits from top down: unsplash.com x 2, Zagma’s House x 2, Lune Croissanterie, Soi 38, Kirk’s Wine Bar x 4, Pidapipó, unsplash.com x 2, Sircuit, Pickings & Parry, unsplash.com.
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