Melbourne Do’s and Don’ts: 10 Unwritten Rules That Every Melburnian Knows
Part of the joy of traveling to a new city is experiencing all of the little quirks and peculiarities that give the city character. Melbourne, Australia's second city and the state capital of Victoria, has more than its fair share of these eccentricities that shape everyday life for locals—whether they’re aware of them or not. Navigating Melbourne’s idiosyncrasies and passions can be challenging for new arrivals, so follow these local tips to soften your first experience of Melbourne.
Do explore the suburbs
The only way to see what makes Melbourne special.
A good rule of thumb for visiting a travel destination is to focus on the city center, as that’s so often where most of the city’s main attractions are. City centers in Australia are known as Central Business Districts (CBDs), and Melbourne’s CBD does in fact boast many city highlights. However, it’s in the inner suburbs radiating out from the CBD that you’ll find so much of Melbourne’s personality and character.
Locals each have their favorite inner suburbs they frequent, usually depending on what they’re after. Carlton, Fitzory, and North Melbourne are perennial favorites for café culture, while South Melbourne and South Yarra excel at boutique shopping and diverse nightlife. Then there are Richmond and Collingwood, which have become the hubs for Melbourne’s craft breweries.
Don’t expect flashy attractions
You won’t find a Harbour Bridge or iconic Opera House here.
Ask a local their recommendations for top Melbourne tourist attractions and you’d be surprised how often they struggle for a clear answer. Now, the problem isn’t that there’s nothing to do in Melbourne, it’s just that the most famous “Melbourne attractions,” such as the Great Ocean Road and Healesville Sanctuary, aren’t actually in the city.
In Melbourne, visitors quickly learn that it’s less about what there is to see in the city and more about the different experiences the city has to offer. Wander Melbourne’s laneways in search of cafés, visit its arts and cultural centers, and explore the parks and gardens.
Do use public transport
It’s the way to get around Melbourne.
Melburnians will quickly complain about the city’s public transport when the train is late, but generally it’s regarded as incredibly useful and reliable.
Melbourne’s far-reaching network of trains and trams makes it easy to travel through the city center and inner suburbs, while buses fill gaps like getting to and from Melbourne Airport. Paying for travel is done through the Myki card, Melbourne’s equivalent to London’s Oyster card—just remember to tap on and off. (However, some train lines reverse their direction around the CBD loop at the start of the afternoon, and locals often forget which lines this rule applies to.)
Insider tip: There’s free travel on trams within the CBD, just pay attention to where the free zone ends.
Don’t try to predict the weather
Prepare for any and all weather.
You might think that Australia’s weather is endless sunshine and blue skies; while that’s true enough in some parts of the country, Melbourne is not one of them. “Four seasons in a day” is the official slogan of Melbourne weather, at least among Melburnians. The temperate climate of the city is wildly changeable, meaning brief downpours, hail, thunderstorms, and sudden temperature drops can happen seemingly on a whim.
So, wear layers and always carry both sunglasses and an umbrella, no matter how convinced you are that you won’t need them.
Do learn what a hook turn is
Unless you enjoy mid-intersection panic.
Driving in the Melbourne CBD can be a challenge even without rush hour traffic, and there is one quirk you need to be aware of—the confounded hook turn, a practice that baffles beginner drivers and out-of-towners alike.
Designed to prevent cars from blocking tram lines when turning right across traffic, hook turns make drivers use the outermost left lane to wait before turning safely. This driving maneuver is only found in Australia at some intersections in Melbourne’s CBD, but hook turns are used in other countries such as Canada, the UK, and Denmark, too.
Don’t just go to Starbucks
Sample Melbourne’s proud coffee culture.
Melbourne has a bit of a reputation among Australians for being pretentious, and while that’s not always the case, it’s undeniably true when it comes to coffee. Coffee’s stranglehold over Melburnians’ daily routine comes from the influence of the city’s Italian and Greek migrant communities in the 50s. And while coffee chains like Starbucks do exist here, they’re more of a novelty, as independent cafés and coffee shops reign supreme.
When ordering, know that Australia has its own names for some drinks. A “long black” is the local name for an Americano, while a flat white is a famed Australian favorite.
Do catch a game
Sport is a big deal in Melbourne.
Sure, sport is a large, unifying element of Australian culture, but in Melbourne it’s practically a religion. There are certainly some sports that Melburnians prize over others, but at the end of the day, any sport will do.
The AFL, or Australian Football League—which began in Melbourne—is an obvious place to begin, but you can also catch the Australian Open, Formula 1 Grand Prix, cricket test matches, and more.
Don’t bring up Sydney
Avoid this long-standing rivalry.
As the two largest cities in Australia—whose vying for the honor of national capital historically led to the compromise creation of Canberra—the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne is understandable.
Only thing is, it’s extremely one-sided. Melburnians love to argue their city’s superiority, whether it’s for coffee, sport, or culture, but in reality Sydneysiders rarely give the comparison much thought. In fact, people from Sydney will often compliment Melbourne moments before a Melburnian ramps up for a debate.
Do go to the cashier to pay (sometimes)
The approach to table service here is inconsistent.
Australia has made a name for itself as a relaxed, laidback kind of place. This informality extends to many parts of life, dining in particular. Perhaps the most noticeable for international visitors is what the rules are for paying for meals and drinks. Generally, in Melbourne, the nicer the establishment, the more likely your check (or bill, in Australia) will be brought to the table upon request.
However, at more casual eateries and cafés, you’re expected to pay at the register when you’re done. The process is all flipped on its head at pubs though, where you’ll need to pay when ordering at the bar. When in doubt, ask.
Insider tip: Tipping is entirely voluntary, and mostly done when a large group paying in cash is having trouble working out how to split the change.
Don’t underestimate Melbourne’s beaches
Pleasant beachfront is closer than you think.
Australia sets some very high standards for beaches; Bondi Beach in Sydney or Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays. The beaches around the bay in Melbourne may not quite measure up to that lofty level, but city locals still flock to them whenever they can.
What makes Melbourne’s beaches so beloved is that they’re incredibly easy to reach. Rather than having to travel all the way out to the beaches on the Great Ocean Road and the Mornington Peninsula, locals can quickly visit the ones at St Kilda and Port Melbourne right from the city center. And don’t skip the colorful Brighton Beach Bathing Boxes, either.