The more I travel the more I realise that countries have two types of “capitals”. There are the capital cities in the traditional sense of the word; the political heart and business centre of a country. And then there are the capitals of cool. The cities which stand out because they have the wow factor when it comes to being treacherously trendy, fearlessly funky and hair-raisingly hipster.
In Australia, Melbourne is the capital of cool. At least, this was what I’d been told and it didn’t take long for me to agree. A short wander down the streets of St Kilda, Carlton or even the CBD and it becomes clear that the cool crew have arrived. What I wanted to know, therefore, is why?
A History of Cool
First off, it’s important to know that a lot of the things that make Melbourne cool – modern art, popular culture and the coffee scene – are not “new” things. Possibly without realising it, Melbourne has worked hard for decades on these and more attractive qualities to reach the dizzy heights of being Australia’s capital of cool and it’s only now just reaping the rewards, like being listed as the world’s most liveable city in 2012.
Cool Travel Tip: An alternative history of one of Melbourne’s darker sides can be found watching the Underbelly TV series set in the city which documents some of the city’s infamous underworld criminals in the 1990s.
The Ugly Underdog?
When visiting Melbourne it doesn’t take long for comparisons to be made with Sydney. Comments like “But it’s not as beautiful as Sydney,” are too often heard with plenty of references made to Sydney’s Harbour and beaches trumping Melbourne’s scattered skyline. It’s true that Sydney has some special city scenery and it’s certainly a bigger city than Melbourne (though this wasn’t always the case – in the early 1900s Melbourne was considerably bigger), but when it comes to keeping it cool, it follows that the Underdog attracts a certain type of people in their thousands – the bohemian, the artistic and the trendsetters – all looking to make something special, something new and something cool out of what is overlooked by the mainstream. That and cheaper rent prices.
Cool Travel Tip: And as for Melbourne’s beauty? Before you pass judgment I strongly recommend you take a stroll along Brighton Beach, get lost in the Royal Botanic Gardens and visit Royal Exhibition Building, often considered Australia’s most beautiful building. And don’t forget how Melbourne is the beginning of the Great Ocean Road, one of the world’s most spectacular coastal roads.
Australia’s Arty Heart
Of course, cool is inextricably linked to culture and arts. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Melbourne is the centre of Australia’s contemporary art scene and has been for nearly a full century. Melbourne is home to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the Heide Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Victoria, which is Australia’s oldest art gallery. These days the artistic “cool” of Melbourne is much more visible in its city wide street art scene. Just as the city embraced once controversial contemporary art movements nearly 100 years ago, the last few decades has seen local government embrace legal street art (and perhaps turn a blind eye to illegal graffiti) and the result is Melbourne is a strong contender as the Southern Hemisphere’s street art capital.
Cool Travel Tip: To overdose on street art in Melbourne, start with Hosier Lane and seek out the alleyways of the CBD. You won’t be disappointed.
Nothing has kept hold of its cool factor as much as coffee, and the recent coffee shop culture most of us enjoy is nothing new, particularly in Melbourne. What began as an imported cultural tradition that arrived in Melbourne with the vast numbers of Greek and Italian emigrants after the Second World War, has grown and grown to be another treasured art in Melbourne. With coffee shops now becoming concept stores, combining bike shops, barber shops and clothes stalls with caffeine, the coffee culture in Melbourne is egging itself on to keep getting better and cooler.
Cool Travel Tip: Take a train to Balaclava or St Kilda to see some examples of “coffee holes” where coffee is served through holes in walls on some of the city’s coolest street corners. Alternatively, if you want to stay central and you’re a seasoned coffee pro then check out this walking tour of Melbourne’s cafe culture.
The Cool Crew
Where cool people go, more cool people follow. It follows that Melbourne must have produced some of the coolest Australians, right? A quick scratch of my head had me coming up with Kylie Minogue, Dame Edna and ACDC… Hmm. Thankfully extra research added Eric Bana, Guy Pearce and Nick Cave to this list. And cool is restored.
Cool Travel Tip: Find ACDC Lane and Dame Edna Place in the CBD! I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they name a road after Kylie Minogue, though of course Melbourne is home to one of her fictional previous addresses, Ramsay Street.
Frankie is a Londoner turned wanderer who has been travelling since October 2011 with her Australian boyfriend and too many vintage dresses. Frankie’s blog As the Bird flies…documents her travels and her love affairs with cycling cities, flea markets and stylish travel. Frankie is a freelance writer and the author of fiction inspired by travel.