This is part of a series of posts about my trip to Australia from December 18, 2015 – January 23, 2016.
It was fascinating to read Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country while travelling across Australia, though I must admit, I only managed to get a few chapters in during the trip. I finished most of the book upon my return home, desperate to “keep the feeling alive” in the midst of my post-vacation depression.
I’m actually glad I didn’t read too much during the trip, because I think Mr. Bryson’s commentary may have shaped or shifted my perceptions of certain places and I like that I experienced them “fresh” instead.
When conducting my research before travelling, I got the sense that there was something of a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two largest and most well-known cities. This was confirmed in Bryson’s book, and it was certainly interesting to read about the historical origins of this rivalry as Australia became a nation. I understand a little something about city rivalries given that I’m from Toronto and every other major Canadian city hates us (all Canadians just know this…it’s almost part of being Canadian); I feel for Sydney-siders and Melbournians alike.
While some travel forums I looked at advised that Melbourne could be skipped, my friends all said that Melbs was where the fun was at and that I would enjoy the great food and nightlife scene. I had no intention of skipping Melbourne in any case, as I was looking forward to a reunion with some old friends and I wanted to travel along the famed Great Ocean Road. I must say, I’m definitely glad I went to Melbourne – it was the perfect first stop on my trip and I wish I had a little more time to explore the city…though I’m not sure my liver could have taken it! Don’t skip Melbourne folks! Maybe go easy on the bar hopping though. By the same token, wrapping up my Australian trip with Sydney’s iconic views was absolute perfection. I think I planned a pretty good itinerary! *patting myself on the back*
I have great memories in both Melbourne (old friends) and Sydney (new friends). Yes, Sydney packed an incredible visual punch, but Melbourne gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling, as if I’d grown up there and was returning after a long time away. It was strange, and I can’t say I’ve experienced this before, but I landed in Melbourne and immediately felt at home and at ease exploring the city; I’d go back in a heartbeat. Melbourne is my favourite of the two cities – but only by a hair!
As a single, female traveller and a visible minority, I felt incredibly safe in both Sydney and Melbourne (throughout Australia in general). The locals were incredibly friendly and helpful, sometimes amazingly so (e.g. a pair of friends inviting me to join them for lunch as I sat alone at a cafe, strangers complimenting my glasses, a couple of free drinks when out on the town); people lived up to the Aussie reputation of being rather chipper and good-natured. And from a budget traveller’s perspective, I appreciated that both cities have easy-to-navigate transit systems, they’re clean with thoughtful public spaces and they have FREE AND EASILY ACCESSIBLE PUBLIC TOILETS. Actually the availability of free public toilets all over Australia BLEW MY MIND. If you’ve travelled ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD you know what a challenge it can be to find a toilet; you might wander for ages searching for a public toilet in Europe, only to find that it’s closed; at home in North America you hope you can sneak into a Tim Hortons or McDonald’s washroom; and Asia, Africa and South America are all just a crapshoot (ha ha) — you can’t be sure what you’ll encounter, toilet-wise.
Another great feature of both cities: gelato is plentiful. This is worth noting given how hot Australian summers can be.
MY MELBOURNE MUST-DOs
- This pub crawl was created my friend Yazmin:
She named it “The 12 Pubs of Christmas” because we were heading into the holidays (I travelled to Oz in mid-December, Australian summer) and we paraded through town wearing reindeer antlers and becoming increasingly more ‘festive’ with every location visited. Full disclosure: I left before the final stop, because I am a responsible adult and it was past my bedtime. BUT I still made it to 12 pubs because we added a bonus pub along the way that’s not on the map: Pawn & Co., a fun spot with a secret entrance (see photo of us pushing the fake wall open to reveal the bar behind). Good memories here. I’d also recommend Naked for Satan – which not only has a fantastic name, it has an equally fantastic view (this was our “hair of the dog” pub the next day).
- Eat some seafood!
You could probably do this in Sydney or anywhere near or along the coast, but if you’re a seafood lover and especially an oyster lover, go to a good spot and get shucked up! (See what I did there? I’m so clever.) Tasmanian oysters are the best oysters I’ve ever had –- I don’t recall the name of what I tried, but they were creamy and smooth with a mild salty flavour –- they’re one of the reasons I really, really want to visit Tassie! My friends treated me to this lunch, and may I just say, I love them forever.
- Take a walking tour: I’M FREE Walking Tours
I did this walking tour in Melbourne and it was fabulous. My guide was knowledgeable and enthusiastic — he clearly had a passion for history, and I learned a lot. It was also 43 degrees this day and he was an absolute trooper keeping us going. I was disappointed with the Sydney tour, especially compared to this one — it felt bland and the guide seemed bored. Luck of the draw I guess! Oh and while the tour is advertised as “free” you should leave a tip for your guide.
- Wander around!
With only two-and-a-half days and three nights in Melbourne, I had a pretty short-but-sweet stay. One of the things I’m glad I did (and I love to do in every city) was to just walk around taking in the scenery and chatting with strangers. Flinders Street Station was my spot, and I travelled to and through this station numerous times during my brief stay, walking along the Yarra River and among the city buildings.
I stayed at my friends’ house in Richmond and I really liked this area, but I can’t offer any tips/advice by way of hostels or accommodations. Sorry!
MY SYDNEY MUST-SEES
- Circular Quay, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House
What’s a trip to Australia without seeing the Opera House or Harbour Bridge? You can get up close and personal with both beautiful landmarks for free and there are numerous vantage points from which to take in the view. While I had a bit of a tough time finding the entrance up to the bridge and it felt like I was walking in a cage when I did make it, I still suggest walking the bridge for the view of the harbour from the centrepoint. I did consider doing the “official” bridge walk, but I was at the end of my trip and just wanted to take things at my own pace, so I passed on this. Everyone I know who’s done it though, loved it!
The Opera House made my heart skip a beat when I caught my first glimpse of it. I arrived in Sydney at 8:00 a.m. and after I checked into my hostel, I joined a walking tour that was headed here because I was so excited to set my eyes upon it; the view did not disappoint. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the Opera House stood out brilliantly against the bright blue sky and water — it was perfect. You can enjoy the view at your leisure from many spots, but a nice place to relax is the Opera Bar (and you can enjoy a drink too!).
One safety warning for Circular Quay – beware of aggressive seagulls! One flew by and tried to grab an ice cream-filled doughnut right from my friend’s mouth!! Those doughnuts were amazing, and that was really frightening.
- Manly Beach
Bondi is the more famous beach, but I much preferred Manly –- I thought it was a much prettier and quainter (I was in the mood to lay on the sand, read and relax). If you’re looking to people-watch though and see some truly beautiful examples of the human species – Bondi is for you. The rips were pretty rough at both beaches, so if you’re looking for a swim, they’re not the greatest choices, but you have some options. At Manly, you can swim in a calm ocean swimming pool with a netted area (so you’ll be safe from jelly fish and other marine life; this is a short walk from the main beach. At Bondi you can take a dip at the famous Bondi Icebergs club pool or check out the rock pools along the coastal walk to Coogee Beach (which is gorgeous and should be done –- but take some water and wear a hat if the day is a hot one, because there is no real shade along the way). Full disclosure: it was either 36 or 38 degrees the second time I went back to Bondi to attempt the coastal walk, and I gave up at Bronte Beach –- the sun was brutal.
- Wander around!
Sydney has that big city feel, but it’s so easy to travel on transit and orient yourself downtown — it doesn’t feel overwhelming. You can hop on a ferry to Manly, take a bus to Bondi, catch a train to Newtown or simply walk around and enjoy the public art and soak in the city’s lively feeling. One of my favourite places to wander was through the historical Rocks area. While it’s a pricier neighbourhood in terms of food and drinks, the old architecture and alleyways offer a lovely atmosphere for a stroll and cute spots to grab a bite. I also enjoyed walking through Pyrmont, and was fortunate to have a local guide in my friend Sherry. Sherry is quite the foodie (check out her blog, The Little Apron), so it was a pleasant treat to visit one of her favourite lunch spots, and to grab some gelato at Messina with her.
It’s a ‘party hostel’ so maybe not the place to go if you’re in the mood for tranquil meditation. This being said – EXCELLENT facilities, fantastic service, everyone I met was a lot of fun, and the hostel offers great perks and deals for backpackers from drinks to tours to food. The place is well-run and thoughtfully designed. The location is also fantastic –- a short walk from Central Station. While Wake Up! is pricier than other hostels nearby, it’s worth it, in my opinion ($45/night when I was there).
I stayed at Maze one night and it wasn’t for me (I booked Wake Up! shortly after checking in here) –- the place earns its name with a truly confusing, maze-like layout. There are also no elevators and no air conditioning and the women’s bathroom on the second floor is rather old and shabby and lacks counter space to place your stuff. The room I was in had one window opening up into a central court, but as the kitchen windows also opened up to this space, everything smelled like hamburgers. There was one fan that one of my roommates pointed at his bed, so air circulation was minimal and it was rather warm in the room. Oh! I also had a friend who received white sheets with yellow stains for her bed. I feel like someone gave up on Maze a long time ago, and it just is what it is…a sad last resort with faded glory. But on the brighter side – it’s quite cheap (I suppose you get what you pay for). So if you’ve reached the end of your trip and are feeling poor, or are a long-term traveller and want to negotiate a pretty low rate and get a room almost to yourself on the second floor, this might be for you ($27/night).
I stayed at The Rocks my final night in Australia, treating myself to a room with a view at the Intercontinental Sydney to commemorate the end of my first solo trip. #TREATYOSELF
The start of my experience was a bit rocky (pardon the pun!) when I had a ‘Pretty Woman’ experience at check-in. An older couple was in front of me checking in, and I saw the front desk clerk’s smile waver and then reconfigure as she watched me walk up to the counter. I had my big backpack on, and gave my reservation information (I had already paid in full, and booked the room on Booking.com). Unfortunately the room wasn’t yet ready, as early check-in couldn’t be guaranteed for bookings on Booking.com. I was disappointed, but understood. I gave my mobile number so that I could be called should the room be ready earlier, which was the one good element of service I received. The young woman then stared at me as if I was an idiot, and asked if there was anything else I needed, in a tone suggesting she really hoped there wasn’t. I asked if I could stow my luggage somewhere – I thought this would be quite obvious, given that I had a hulking backpack with me which she could not have missed. For an expensive hotel (and considering the room I booked was one of their pricier offerings), I expected the service to be a little more thoughtful. Quite frankly, I’ve had better service checking into a $2/night Cambodian hostel, than I had checking into the Intercontinental Sydney. I’ve worked in customer service, so I can get pretty judgmental about it, and this definitely did not cut it for me. The weather also looked ominous and while the young man at the check-in desk offered an umbrella to a couple, my person made no such offer. Perhaps she was just bad at her job. Or perhaps she thought I was a poor/cheap backpacker who wasn’t worth her effort. I don’t know, but this definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. To be fair –- all of the other staff I encountered were lovely, so I think this one was just a bad apple, or someone having a bad day. The room was pristine (it smelled amazing), the view – SPECTACULAR, and the breakfast buffet (which was included with the cost of my room – as it damn well should have been given the small fortune I spent) was quite delightful (~$400).
A few thank yous:
Special thanks to my friends Yazmin and Carmen for hosting me in Melbourne, treating me to delicious seafood and planning an EPIC pub crawl. On top of being incredibly kind and generous friends, these ladies are world travellers who have done long-term solo trips around the globe – and they’re also brilliant business women. They inspire me and I stalk them on Instagram as a result.
Also thank you to former friend-of-a-friend but now just friend Heemesh for a great first night in Melbourne and for being my personal photographer as I posed for shots in graffiti-covered alleyways and along the banks of the Yarra like a total tourist.
Thank you to my third grade teacher Miss Macleod who first inspired my dream to travel to Australia, and who drove three hours from Albury-Wondonga to see me in Melbourne and take me out for brunch with her family. This was truly special.
A great big thank you to all of the many friends and characters who explored Sydney with me, and to the many strangers who were so kind and inclusive of me when I was on my own.
And last but not least, a final massive thank you to my Aussie ‘mate’ Owen who actually developed the first rough draft of my itinerary and gave me a starting point to work with. I am very grateful for his helpful advice, Aussie insights, loaning me some friends, and especially for allowing me to tease him and call him a bogan (with love).