You don’t need to be a big spender to get the best out of Melbourne. From the National Gallery of Victoria to street art in the laneways, you can get a true taste of the second-biggest city in Australia without shelling out – just follow our Culture Trip guide.
National Gallery of Victoria
As you head up St Kilda Road, you will come across a monumental 1960s bluestone building on your left – NGV International, designed by Sir Roy Grounds.
This and its other building, Ian Potter Centre: NGV International, make up the National Gallery of Victoria, with its collection of more than 73,000 works of art.
Make your way through the arched entrance, behind the wall of water and towards the Great Hall to see the world’s largest stained-glass ceiling, which casts a kaleidoscope of colours on to the gallery floor.
Aside from its permanent collection, NGV also holds exhibitions and special events such as the annual Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, and the Triennial, which features contemporary work from across the world.
State Library of Victoria
La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria | © Igor Prahin / Alamy Stock Photo
The State Library of Victoria is unmistakable. From the moment you first set eyes on it, you cannot deny its beauty; yet the outside can’t compare to its interior.
The domed La Trobe Reading Room is exquisite, with natural light pouring in through the curved skylights. It does not disappoint in the evening, either, as the soft light provided by artificial means draws you in.
There really is no better place to read your favourite book. And you should have no trouble finding it with more than two million books contained within the library’s collection.
If that does not sate your appetite, then indulge in some of the thousands of newspapers, manuscripts, audio, video and digital material on hand that spans a century of Victoria’s culture and history.
The State Library is also home to fabulous artworks and exhibitions with free guided tours available. Regular talks on topics from fashion to philosophy are also available, often with free or name-your-price ticketing.
Meander through the Queen Victoria Market
© DGLimages / Shutterstock
Mosey through the historic sheds of the Queen Victoria Market and discover fresh produce, hot doughnuts, souvenirs, homewares and much more scattered throughout the market’s many, diverse precincts.
There’s also an after-hours market every Wednesday night, which usually runs between November and April. After nightfall, the marketplace comes alive with live music, delicious food stalls, cocktails and late-night shopping.
By day, look out for the art trails, as well as thought-provoking exhibitions and the Mini Market series, which focuses on a particular group of stallholders, such as those selling garden and outdoor goods or toys and kids’ clothes.
Explore ACMI’s Screen Worlds
Located inside ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Federation Square, Screen Worlds is a free permanent exhibition that tells visitors the ever-evolving story of the moving image.
The interactive exhibition features objects, props and memorabilia. Displays explore the origins of cinema and where it’s headed, Australian culture and, more widely, how people are influenced by all things screen-related, from smartphones to video games.
Props on show include the original clock from the children’s TV show Play School (1966-present), Cate Blanchett’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Aviator (2004), and costumes worn by Australian stars Kylie Minogue, Dame Edna Everage and Heath Ledger.
Listen to Live Music
Melbourne locals love listening to live music. Fortunately, this also ranks among the best free things to do in Melbourne (aside from the cost of a beer).
Cherry Bar, in the city’s ACDC Lane, calls itself “pretty much the best rock ’n’ roll bar in the world”. It offers free admission for many of its gigs, and often hosts big-name after-parties and rock stars.
Another option is The Esplanade in St Kilda, which has free entry to its Basement bar most nights and is a great place to catch emerging rock acts. Other venues to check out include the beer garden at The Brunswick Green on Sydney Road.
Go on a hunt for public sculptures
See Deborah Halpern’s ‘Ophelia’ on the Southbank Promenade | © Paul Brown / Alamy Stock Photo
Deborah Halpern, who studied in Melbourne and has strong links with the city, is one of Australia’s most celebrated sculptors. Three of her colourful mosaics are on display in the city – Angel (1987)at Birrarung Marr, Ophelia (1992)at Southgate, and Portal to Another Time and Place (2005)at Werribee Mansion.
Other public sculptures to fit into your Melbourne sculpture trail include Bruce Armstrong’s Eagle (2002)and John Kelly’s Cow up a Tree (1999)in Docklands, Simon Perry’s The Public Purse (1994) outside the GPO building, and Petrus Spronk’s sinking building known as Architectural Fragment (1992) outside the State Library of Victoria.
Wander through the Royal Botanic Gardens
© Raymond Warren / Alamy Stock Photo
Escape the buzz of Melbourne’s city streets in the tranquil sanctuary that is the Royal Botanic Gardens. Spread across 94 acres (38ha), the sprawling gardens contain a collection of 10,000 plants – both native and exotic.
With 11 lawns, there’s ample space to relax, unwind and decide what to do in Melbourne next. There’s also a 3.8km (2.4m) walking and jogging track known as The Tan that circles the garden, which runs past the gardens’ main entrance and the Shrine of Remembrance war memorial. Reward yourself for completing the loop with a coffee from one of the cafes on Domain Road.
Get inspired at The Wheeler Centre
The Wheeler Centre on Little Lonsdale Street, founded in 2008, is focused on celebrating and exploring Australia’s literary scene. Visitors can engage in programmes and listen to guest speakers.
Every Thursday at lunchtime, you can catch the free Lunchbox/Soapbox series, which provides a platform for curious minds to share stories and ideas – previous speakers have addressed diverse topics ranging from offshore detention to the environment, promiscuity and the viola.
Explore Melbourne’s Southbank
Stretching alongside the Yarra River from Princes Bridge to the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, the Southbank entertainment precinct includes some of Melbourne’s top restaurants, high-end retailers and the Crown Casino.
Stroll down the promenade, where you can listen to buskers and gaze up at Melbourne’s skyline, or watch river cruise boats leaving. At night, you can marvel at Crown Casino’s Gas Brigades, which send fireballs high into the sky every hour. Beyond the modern office and apartment blocks, there are also some historic buildings, including the 19th-century Victoria Barracks and the former Castlemaine Brewery on Queensbridge Street.
Take a ride on the City Circle Tram
© Picture Partners / Alamy Stock Photo
Many of the free activities in Melbourne involve walking, but you can also rest your legs by hopping on a tram – an integral part of the cityscape.
The free City Circle Tram allows tourists and Melburnians alike to travel across the city, hopping on and off as they wish. The fleet of historical W-class trams, first introduced to the city in 1923, travels through La Trobe, Flinders, Spring, Nicholson and Victoria Streets, covering Melbourne’s central business district. There’s audio commentary on board as well, revealing the attractions at each stop, as well as interesting facts along the way.
Find refuge in one of the city’s churches
© Picture Partners / Alamy Stock Photo
Whether you’re searching for a peaceful refuge or seeking to admire their architectural feats, the churches and cathedrals are one of the more tranquil things to see in Melbourne.
St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in the 1890s, is in the heart of Melbourne’s central business district. Designed by English architect William Butterfield, the cathedral is an example of neo-gothic transitional style.
Nearby is the medieval-looking St Patrick’s Cathedral, which was actually built from 1858 to 1939. You’ll also find St Mary Star of the Sea Church and St Michael’s Uniting Church. These holy houses are impressive to look at and inspiring to visit.
Learn more about Indigenous culture at the Koorie Heritage Trust
The Koorie Heritage Trust is an authentic and immersive Aboriginal centre housed in the Yarra Building at Federation Square, near Flinders Street Station.
It was established in 1985 when activists sued the University of Melbourne and the Museum of Victoria for the return of their Indigenous artefacts. The centre seeks to educate visitors on Indigenous art, with the aim of putting Aboriginal culture and history at the centre of life in Victoria, as well as preserving its history.
Showcasing the work of contemporary Indigenous artists using a range of media, the Koorie Heritage Trust is free to visit and is open seven days a week, except for national and Victorian public holidays.
Head to St Kilda
© Rob Arnold / Alamy Stock Photo
Located 6km (3.7mi) southeast of Melbourne, the suburb of St Kilda is an idyllic seaside escape from the city. Stroll down the shoreline to St Kilda Pier to spot members of the little penguin colony that calls this place home, and admire the skyline views.
The bustling Acland Street nearby is a great place to grab a bite, and on Sundays there’s a beachfront market too – or you can relax beside the avenue of palm trees in Catani Gardens. You can also walk around Luna Park for free but, of course, the activities cost extra.
Discover beautiful vistas from rooftop bars
The best views of the city are found at a height, making rooftop bars the prime spots to soak in a sunset and watch as the lights switch on across Melbourne’s cityscape.
Siglo offers views of St Patrick’s Cathedral and Parliament House, as well as a range of sophisticated drinks including champagne, cocktails and premium spirits. With other options such as Madame Brussels and Naked in the Sky, you’ll be more than happy to spend a bit of cash on a drink or two when the bar comes with a view.
Explore the laneways for colourful street art
Duckboard Place is a famous for street art | © Samantha Ohlsen / Alamy Stock Photo
One of the most interesting places to go in Melbourne, especially if you’re into people-watching, is the labyrinth of laneways that snake themselves around the city.
They have become some of the most sought-after real estate for artists looking for urban canvases. Splashed in bright colours, the magnificent murals of Duckboard Place, as well as Union and ACDC Lanes are open to artistic expression and make for Instagram-worthy backdrops. Hosier Lane, near the old Forum movie theatre, is also a mecca for tourists taking street art selfies.
Discover aviation history at the RAAF Museum
Only 25 minutes from Melbourne at Point Cook, the RAAF Museum details the story of Australian aviation and is completely free to visit. View historic planes including a GAF Pika drone, helicopters and several generations of fighters, from above in the aircraft gallery.
The interactive Flying Displays are where you can witness heritage aircraft take flight every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday – aircraft that regularly impress visitors at this display include the Tiger Moth and the Mustang.
Pay your respects at the Shrine of Remembrance
© Jui-Chi Chan / Alamy Stock Photo
Built to honour Victorians who served during World War I, the Shrine of Remembrance now stands as a memorial to all Australians who have served in all wars and peacekeeping efforts, from the 1850s to today.
Visitors are welcome to explore the memorial at their own pace or join a guided tour, which cost from $20. The memorial consists of many underground “galleries of remembrance” and exhibition spaces, which contain more than 800 objects, photos and uniforms illustrating the experiences of Australians who have served in the armed forces, as well as a Gallipoli landing boat.
Take a walk to see Melbourne’s architectural gems
Throughout Melbourne, you’ll find a juxtaposition of modern, Victorian and art deco architecture, with daring designers constantly pushing boundaries and expanding the cityscape.
Walking around the city, you’ll come across plenty of quirky buildings that resemble a sculpture trail on a monumental scale, including Eureka Tower, Federation Square, the Manchester Unity Building and the Melbourne Theatre Company. Fed Square was completed in 2002 and incorporates both a deconstructive design and a modern minimalist style.
Tour Parliament House
Parliament House is an imposing, column-fronted building, with impressive tiled floors and high, decorated ceilings. You can see Victorian decision makers at work inside the legislative centre, which is open on both sitting and non-sitting days.
The public can also view the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly from the public galleries or go along on a free public tour. These are scheduled for when parliament is not sitting.
Scout the filming locations of your favourite TV shows
Many of Australia’s most iconic television shows have been filmed in Melbourne, including the soap Neighbours (1985–present), family drama Offspring (2010–2017),and comedy Kath & Kim (2002–2007).
For Neighbours fans, all outside shots of Ramsay Street are filmed in Pin Oak Court, Vermont South. The non-free option is to do the Official Neighbours Tour, where you get to meet a Neighbours star (past or present).
Filming for Kath & Kim took place at 4 Lagoon Place, Patterson Lakes. Offspring fans should visit Brunswick Street to see Dr Noonan’s surgery exterior and Emma Street in Collingwood to see the Proudman home.
Enjoy yourself at a festival
Moomba is the largest free community festival in Australia | © agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
Melbourne’s events calendar teems with festivals throughout the year, all of which offer free entertainment in addition to ticketed events. In March, there’s Moomba, which is Australia’s largest free community festival.
There are nightly fireworks, celebrity monarchs and a parade, plus carnival rides and games galore. Other popular festivals in the city include the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Melbourne Writers Festival, Melbourne Fringe and Melbourne Festival, as well as Midsumma, the city’s LGBTQ pride festival.