Despite its reputation as a pricy place to live, Australia’s cities do ‘free’ pretty well; the only place I’ve found so far that beats them is Kuala Lumpur. There’s no way around the hefty price tag that comes with city centre accommodation (Discovery Melbourne boasts the cheapest long term rates and that’s still $175 a week) but on the brighter side there’s a lot of exploring to be done on the cheap, particularly if you have a student card!
Just like Perth, Melbourne has free inner city transport (trams instead of buses). The free tram zone encompasses most of the CBD and a free ‘historic’ tram car loops the outer edge with, according to the Lonely Planet, a commentary on the sights you will pass. I squeezed into a packed carriage around midday, probably the worst time, and couldn’t see much out of the windows for the mass of bodies. My chosen carriage was also bereft of any commentary, so all in all not the most thrilling experience. The trams do though give you a lot of freedom around the city, and (although I don’t condone this) free tram hopping is easy outside the free zones so long as you keep an eye out for ticket officers who can hand out hefty fines.
I prefer the leg stretching, ‘I’m free’ walking tours over the cramped, hard seated carriages; look for green t-shirted youths outside the State Library at 10.30am and 2.30pm each day – they will be your guide for the following 3 hours. The tour snakes around the East of the city, taking you out to the grand Exhibition Building, through some lush parks ripe for return picnic trips and around sights such as the 8 Hour Day Monument and Melbourne Jail where you will hear the infamous history of Ned Kelly; a suit of armour wearing bushranger (an idiot by most people’s standards but worshipped by the Aussies). The tour is technically free but the guides, quite rightly, ask for a donation at the end if you can afford it – they have spent the best part of 3 hours imparting a vast knowledge of Melbourne’s history to you. I left a $5 offering.
For an arty day out there are two NGV’s to choose from (the larger in the arts precinct just over the Yarra River and the smaller in Federation Square) packed with modern art, photography, aboriginal art and other installations all for free, along side visiting exhibitions such as the current Van Gogh Seasons exhibit which cost to enter. I’ve had an art education spoilt by trips to the galleries in London and the meager offerings here of internationally renowned artists such as Rothko and Monet really didn’t impress me much, however there were some stunning exhibits by Australian artists which took me totally by surprise. A blackened room, filled with larger than life, raw, accusing portraits of naked youths and disturbingly blurred ocean scenes by Bill Henson left a deep impression.
Walk out of the smaller NGV and you won’t be far from Hosier Lane. Stroll down this laneway to continue the free arts tour of Melbourne with some home-grown street art. Spray paint coats the brick walls, spilling onto window panes and the cobbled ground of the street with a crowd of tags, stickers and genuinely beautiful images. The congested canvas continuously morphs and will reveal different treasures from month to month as older art works are covered by newer ones and they begin to be eroded by tags. A general rule of ‘don’t cover what you can’t better’ will defend the best pieces from the onslaught of people who just want to leave their mark, at least for a while.
Buried in the labyrinthine streets of suburban Fitzroy are entire building sides claimed by a single artist in huge murals. These are my favourite places to roam for clandestine street art works. Where Johnston Street crosses Brunswick Road is a good place to begin, keeping away from the main roads and amongst the urban homes, walk back towards the CBD for a myriad of different styles and depictions.
Finally, RMIT has a building a block to the left of the State Library where you can find ever changing free installations and galleries exhibiting works by guest artists and students from the university. The most recent exhibit I saw there was ‘Ocean Imageries’ which included haunting, blown up underwater photography, clever videography of an icebreaker in a frozen landscape and an immersive piece centred on the life of luminescent corals.
If art is not your cup of tea, look no further than the State Library of Victoria. They have permanent exhibitions on the history of Victoria, with some rather tenuously linked displays which just add an edge of humour for those visiting the country that likes to claim its achievements as the greatest in the Southern Hemisphere. You can listen to various Ned Kelly inspired sound tracks, whilst admiring the bullet holes in the crude suit of armour worn by the man himself when he was shot and captured; all the while surrounded by walls brimming with the printed word. On the second floor you can exercise your brain with a game of chess; there are always people there brushing up on tactics in the abundant chess books, just waiting for a new opponent to tackle so don’t worry if you don’t have anyone to partner up with. Several times I’ve watched a child of around 7 take on all comers and thus far he has beaten everyone to challenge him! On your way up to this floor keep an eye out for a magnificent oil painting depicting the desperately confused flight of humans and animals alike from the devastating Black Thursday bush fire.
When I first arrived in Melbourne the weather was beautiful, ripe for sunbathing and perfect for picnicking. I would risk frostbite if I ventured out in a bikini right now and would struggle to open a sandwich bag with raw, pink fingers, so picnics are off the agenda. However, if you’re visiting in warmer months Aldi is located conveniently in central CBD to grab some snacks and head over to Flagstaff gardens where you have a view down to the Docklands Harbour from atop the highest grassy hummock. Surrounded by high rise hotels and offices, it’s a fresh, vibrant break in the towering urban surroundings and the metallic building tops make an interesting contrast poking over the leafy canopy of the trees dotting the park.
Monday night is free comedy night at Spleen Bar on Bourke Street where it intersects Spring Street. 10 stand up comedians woven together by a hilarious MC will entertain you for a couple of hours whilst you sip on $9 pints from their very grungy bar. The comedians change each week, but the venue has a certain punky prestige which attracts people who had popular slots at the comedy festival and have made tv appearances, so aching ribs can be guaranteed by the time you walk out past a bucket, shaken in your direction for some gold coin donations.
With a student card there is even more that can be done for free, or at least at a discounted rate (Melbourne Museum, The Immigration Museum, AFL matches), but at the end of the day Melbourne is a thriving city, catering for people looking for a city break with dollars burning holes in their pockets. It can definitely be enjoyed on a budget, but for me its real appeal lies in its food (the breakfast capital) and drink, neither of which can be easily hacked for the traveler lifestyle. This is where most of my meagre wage goes, and I’ll be divulging some of my favourite, pay pack haemorrhaging spots in a future post, so stay tuned!