Melbourne as a Backpacker

This post is supposed to be about doing Melbourne, Australia (my home town) as a backpacker. I wanted to write something on how those of us with itchy feet who want to be travelling but can’t (work commitments, saving money etc) can still do the little things to get that ‘on the road’ feeling back, by seeing our cities through new eyes. I wanted to do all the things I would do as a backpacker, but never do as a resident. So I did the research, got the maps, charged the camera and was ready to hit the town when I realised that Melbourne, while a spectacular city to live in, just isn’t that great as a backpacker.

Melbourne has really funky bars, good museums and due to our large multicultural population there is a diverse rang of authentic cheap eats, everything from Ethiopian to Nepalese. Melbourne also has the highest amount of Italian’s per capita living outside of Italy, so you’d be hard pressed to walk  2 blocks without finding a good Italian place.  All great things to do when living here (and having a disposable income to spend on booze and food), but finding stuff to do as a backpacker was proving difficult. Still, I thought I’d give it a go.

The first thing to do was find a place to stay. The cheapest dorm bed I could find last minute was 35 dollars. I had the intention of doing the entire weekend as a backpacker – bed bugs and all – but when I was quoted this price at check in , I quickly changed my mind. For a grand total of 0 dollars I could sleep in my own apartment in the city. Sans bed bugs and dubious looking stains on the sheets. So that idea was scratched.

I realised though that if I were to do any of this properly, I’d need to hang out with other backpackers that were in town. So I hit the bars and common areas of a few backpackers hostels in Melbourne, to get an idea on what there was to do.

First thing on the agenda for most British Backpackers was to pick up. The second thing was a trip to the Neighbours TV Set. (American readers probably don’t know what I’m on about, so in brief – Neighbours is an Australian Teen soapie that is arguably much bigger in the UK than Australia and unarguably makes for very awful TV). After that the next most common thing to do was head to St Kilda. Now that’s something I could do.

St Kilda is only 7 kilometres from the city but it’s world apart. Palm trees line the esplanade, beautiful people swim at the beach, and there are plenty of cafes to sit at and read the paper. So I hopped on the 96 tram and headed down there.  Thing is St Kilda is a great place to live, and a great place to be on holiday if you’re from out of town, but as a backpacker it gets a bit boring once you’ve done the beach thing.

Melbournians, like many backpackers, are sports-mad. You can’t walk down the street on the weekend without having to push and shove your way through oncoming masses en route to an AFL (Australian Football League) game or the tennis. Problem is, for me the only thing worse than watching sports is having to participate in sports (I still have nightmares of the mandatory yearly athletics carnival at school) so when I’m travelling I tend to bypass all the sporting events (except Lucha Libre… we all have our vices)

I decided to take a somewhat more cultured approach to my weekend as a backpacker. I headed to the National Gallery of Victoria to see an exhibition of the work of an Australian who lived in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, as well as another exhibition called ‘Love, Loss and Intimacy’ which was good too. Both were free which is exactly the sort of exhibitions I’d be looking for as a backpacker. I congratulated myself on a job well done by heading into the labyrinth that is Melbourne City’s laneway’s where most of the eclectic and funky shops can be found.

While I found plenty of things that I wanted to get, none of which fell into my backpacker budget, a somewhat reoccurring theme this weekend. I did a spot of people watching and had some gelati before heading back to the backpacker bars for a drink.

On Sunday I spoke to a few people who had recently arrived in Melbourne on the massive Greyhound trip from northern Queensland. Some had come from Fraser Island (the worlds largest sand island, about 2000km’s north) others had come from the Whitsundays – a week of diving at the Great Barrier Reef (2,500km’s away) while some had just arrived from a week in Sydney (900km’s north) Everyone had agreed that Melbourne doesn’t really have many ‘must see’ destinations but was a great place to while away a few days eating out and seeing some live bands (Melbourne, unlike Sydney has a thriving live music scene). A Scottish guy referred to it as the Glasgow of the southern hemisphere.  Someone else said it was like just like Seattle. Having never been to Glasgow or Seattle I’m not sure how to take that.

I spoke to a group of guys who were loading up their VW van ready for the 3,500 kilometre trek west to Perth.  They said they liked Melbourne but it was too expensive so they were leaving a week earlier than planned. By this stage I was starting to wish I were writing a post on pretty much any other city in Australia.

I gave up seeing Melbourne with fresh eyes. It’s a great city, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Australia, but it’s not all that great for backpackers. To perk myself up after this failed experiment I went to my favourite dumpling place in Chinatown for some comfort food. In the booth next to me I overhead a bunch of backpackers talking about how much they loved Melbourne. A Chinese backpacker in the group was raving about the dumplings he was eating. Someone else got to see their favourite band that was touring last night, the band apparently never tours in their home town so they were feeling pretty lucky about that. Another person in the group was from Argentina and was saying how good it was to be able to go out to Spanish bars and South American Delicatessens, right here in the city.

I started to think that maybe we don’t need every place we visit to be new and different, maybe when we’re on the road we sometimes want to go to a place that reminds us a little like home. And for that, Melbourne seemed to fit the bill.

Follow Shane on Twitter or read more on his travels here at Havepack or at

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11 Replies to “Melbourne as a Backpacker”

  1. Nice post Shane. I love melbourne and think if I had to live elsewhere it would be Perth. I have heard similar comments by people that have visited melbourne as well. Its a great place to live but not such a great place to backpack.

    Still its worth a visit just to see all the great alleyways, food and music.

    1. Agreed. It’s almost worth it just for a bit of a break from all the other backpacker-y stuff in Sydney and QLD. Do nothing but eat and drink and don’t feeling guilty about not seeing the sights (or lack thereof)

  2. I have to say, me too. Melbourne is my favorite city in Oz and I’d rather be living there than in Hobart as I am right now but I can understand why backpackers would like it but not want to hang around. A great place to live but pretty average as a travel destination unless you come for the same reasons people love living there so much.

  3. I loved this article. What a great idea to try and see your own city through a tourist’s eyes! I visited Melbourne for a few days in March this year. I can honestly say with no hesitation that it is by far and away the most eclectic, cultured, friendly and interesting city in Australia. Fair enough, it is slightly more expensive than the typical backpacker haunts, but it’s easy to do on a budget (it just means you have to miss out the fancy bars and restaurants). Cheap food is abundant though, especially in the ‘local’ chinese restaurants which are about 1/8 of the price of the fancy ones and a million times more authentic and delicious! The trams are a great way to get around too, and there are so many interesting suburbs to explore.

    I often wonder what it would be like to be a backpacker in my own city (London). Maybe I’ll give it a try one of these days….

  4. Hey, you missed one important attraction – the Viccie market?

    I personally think it’s a great place for a backpacker, but it really depends on what the individual is after! If they want nice beaches, then I guess this isn’t the place, but if they want to explore a very diverse city, there is heaps on offer here. More so than anywhere else in Australia in my opinion.

    Here’s some other ideas for you.

    Forget just travelling down to St Kilda. Take a tram (!) ride to Brunswick, Fitzroy or Richmond and wander the streets there, maybe pick up some cheap Vietnamese or Lebanese food.

    Maybe head out to one of the local farmers markets (Collingwood would be a good choice) or one of the other great markets like Prahran market or South Melbourne Market.

    Hop on a bike and cycle along the Yarra for a day. Awesome way to get some fresh air and see some sights cheaply (renting a bike shouldn’t set you back much)

    If you like galleries, there is no shortage of great ones to check out (mostly free). You already mentioned the NGV campuses, but there are any number of small ones floating around with great local art.

    And then there is so much great food and phenomenal coffee around these parts.

    Ah well, safe to say I love it :) Both as a place to live and as a place to discover new things. From the backpackers who take part on our site, I get the feeling that most of them love it as well and often rate it as their favourite place in Australia. Btw, being compared to Seattle and Glasgow is definitely a compliment ;)

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