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We all know that Australia has to be one of the most expensive places to backpack around – accommodation is expensive, as are the tours and food and drink. However, Melbourne can be surprisingly cheap – for instance, where else in the world is public transport around the CBD free? After several trips to the city (plus a brief stint living and working there), here is our guide to backpacking in Melbourne:
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Backpacking in Melbourne
The transport infrastructure is ‘tram-tastic’ and arguably the best in Australia. All the trams can be used for free in the downtown city core, a voiceover tells you when you are in the free zone and when you leaving it (so you will need to buy a ticket).
Another free way to see the city is to jump on the free heritage / tourist tram (number 35) which follows a circle route around the city. Running every 15 to 30 minutes and taking about 45 minutes to complete a full loop, the tram takes you past major attractions such as Parliament House, the Old Treasury Building and the Docklands area. A running commentary pointing out all the sites of interest is provided but beware, these trams can get incredibly busy, especially when locals and commuters use them during the rush hours to and from work.
Even though the CBD area and selected circle loop trams are free, we’d advise buying a Myki transport card (cost $6 AUD – non refundable) and top it up with $5 to $10 a time. We’ve had our Myki cards checked several times and the fines for not having a valid ticket aren’t ‘budget friendly’.
‘The best things in life are free’ adage may not always be true but Melbourne sure is trying! You could easily spend several days here exploring the various beautiful sites without having to spend a single cent on admission fees.
For culture vultures, one of the must visits is the National Gallery of Victoria with over 70,000 exhibits (and usually some amazing sculptures in the garden at the rear), plus temporary exhibitions (some free, some paid for).
The Melbourne State Library also has an incredible domed reading room (La Trobe) and free internet access if you complete a temporary registration card (although you can easily find free Wifi in most shopping centres these days, plus McDonalds around the city).
Another free option is the Australia Centre for the Moving Image (AMCI), which has a permanent Screen Worlds exhibition, (a celebration of Australian screen talent). On our previous visit, it had a wide variety of iconic Australian movie and TV props including Mad Max’s car (!) and Cate Blanchett’s Oscar for The Aviator (note exhibits change frequently so best to check their website for what is currently on).
There are many things to do in Melbourne but the city is famously renowned for its street art. In the CBD visit Hosier Lane, ACDC Lane, and Union Lane (although you may have to fight for space as they are becoming increasingly popular with tourists and large tour bus groups). You often also see artists at work with their spray-paints (and cherry pickers, if they are working at height). Read our Melbourne Street art blog here >
For nature lovers, the Royal Botanical Gardens is a must see, sprawling over 94 acres with 11 lawns to explore (a different lawn to have a picnic every day of the week maybe?). We also really like Fitzroy Gardens (popular with city workers enjoying their lunch). Captain Cook’s Cottage (relocated to Melbourne in 1934, having been built in Yorkshire, England in 1755) is well worth a visit (but alas not free).
Not so much an attraction, but one of my favourite simple, free pleasures in Melbourne is walking along Southbank, from the Convention Centre all the way down the river, past Crown Casino and all the bustling bars and restaurants down to the lush green parks and gardens – you’ll always see something new on this walk, plus many of Melbourne’s local characters.
Melbourne is famous for its coffee, but alas good coffee does not come cheap – expect to pay anything from $4 to $10 for a decent cup. We aren’t saying it is the best, but if you are on a tight budget and don’t want to make your own, your cheapest bet by far is the $1 (55p at time of writing) 7-Eleven coffees – yes, it may not taste as good as proper coffee shops but it is four times cheaper and also way better than the coffee of that other serial offender, McDonalds.
If you want to splurge, Degraves Street has heaps of coffee shops and is highly recommended (Hardware Lane also) plus several Melbourne CBD coffee shops offer discounts if you bring your own coffee cups including Federal Coffee Palace, the ‘Bean Good Coffee’ company (ace name!) and Duke’s Coffee Roaster.
Buying cheap food
If you are looking to buy local Melbourne food and cut price fruit and veg, your best bet is to go to historic Queen Victoria Market (over 140 years old), to the north of the CBD (and accessible by the free CBD trams). The market is open 6 days a week (closed Mondays) and if you go near closing time (varies daily – check website for details), you can often find fruit and veg stalls selling large boxes of combined fruit (their leftovers for the day) very cheaply. This is also true of South Melbourne market (although there is generally less choice).
Whilst you are at Victoria Market picking up your cheap fruit and veg, may we also suggest a wallet friendly trip to the Borek stall there, situated in the main market – around $4 for a massive borek (very filling), this is easily my favourite market food in Melbourne (particularly their spinach and cheese one) and something I often dream about back in the UK (so sad!).
In terms of supermarkets, 7-Eleven often do weekly $1 or $2 deals (e.g buy a certain drink and a chocolate bar together for $2) plus all the big supermarkets (Coles / Woolworths) have a reduced section on the chiller section. The Reject Shop (on Bourke Street) also is the cheapest place we found for dry goods / groceries (cheap toiletries too).
Restaurants and eating out when backpacking in Melbourne
The Melbourne food scene is one of the best in the world. If you are looking to eat out, you’ll notice that most pubs have nightly deals that rotate depending on the day of the week e.g. $10 steak or fish & chips – our tip would be to check out the bars and pubs in the local area you are staying in as these are generally cheaper places to eat out than in the city.
Our favourite Aussie meal (ever!) to eat out in Melbourne is the legendary chicken parmigiana (breaded chicken breast covered with tomato sauce – not ketchup! – cheese and ham or bacon – delicious). We were tipped off by a local chef we met in a jacuzzi (not as seedy as it sounds!) about the award winning Birmingham Hotel (Fitzroy) chicken parmigiana which they offer for just $13 two nights a week (usually $25). The portion size was huge – possibly the most filling meal we had in Melbourne and pretty damn delicious.
Our other ‘cheap as chips’ recommendations when backpacking in Melbourne would be Shanghai Dumpling House (quantity more than quality but you can’t argue with 20 dumplings for less than $8) plus the numerous veggie Hare Krishna buffets on Swanston Street which all offer either a menu of the day, or a hot main and salads for around $10.
An honourable mention goes to the vegetarian Lentil As Anything chain as well, which has sites dotted around the city including the branch we visited at St Kilda plus Abbotsford Convent and has a community ethos. You pay for what you think the meal is worth (recommended at least $10) plus you can also donate / pay for meals for those who are less fortunate. This is the one ‘cheap as’ place we didn’t quite agree on although it may have been the meals we respectively chose – I loved it, Caroline less so.
Malls and shopping
If you want to visit one, we’d definitely recommend DFO South Wharf as it has a wider selection of stores and has lots of brands you’d recognise like Levis, Converse and Skechers – Spencer Street Outlet is a lot smaller and seems to have more homewares (although the Cotton On retail outlet there is massive).
The other option is the Brand Smart Premium Outlet centre – this is a little further out of town but it looks like their free bus shuttle which we’ve used previously has now been stopped (Boooo!) so it is best to visit DFO South Wharf unless you have a car.
Backpacking in Melbourne – accommodation
We have been backpacking in Melbourne several times before and stayed in many different hostels. Our preferred one is the YHA Melbourne Metro, there is a newer Melbourne Central YHA but is it is very expensive for your typical backpacker. YHA Melbourne Metro has larger rooms, a bigger kitchen, rooftop views of the city and most importantly, is a lot cheaper.
Other recommended hostels include:
Located a short walk from Queen Victoria Market, this hostel has an onsite gym, mini-cinema, rooftop terrace and hot tub, self-service laundry facilities, huge kitchen and both dorms/private rooms.
The Mansion Melbourne
Rated the most popular hostel in Melbourne at the 2011 Hoscars (lol), this is a bit of a party hostel with bar & café, co-working spaces and a courtyard with picnic tables/sun loungers/ping-pong table/dart board etc.
Another option if you are planning to stay longer term is to seek out accommodation via Gumtree. On a longer term visit a few years ago, I managed to get a spare room in North Melbourne near the Royal Melbourne Hospital for about £100 a week, inclusive of all bills. We haven’t tried Air BNB in Melbourne (yet) but we have heard good things!
Beers / happy hours in Melbourne
Melbourne (and Australia in general) has some really good happy hours, normally weekday early evenings. As a rough guide, many bars offer house wine and beer schooners (285 ml) for around $5 during Happy Hour. There are some great bars in Fitzroy and one of the best deals we saw was at the Birmingham Hotel whereby it was $5 for wine / schooners 3-7pm on weekdays plus a beer of the month (pint) for $8. We have also read of $4 pots on some listings websites but didn’t see many of these ourselves in the CBD.
We noticed that prices seem to change all the time and most happy hours mentioned on the likes of say Time Out Melbourne’s website are generally out of date by the time we visited. To avoid risking your wrath of publishing lots of out of date beer offers and happy hours, a good resource for checking up-to-date drink deals and prices is the specialist / free website The Hoppiest Hour.
Generally, beer prices in Australia are more than the equivalent in the UK, but (good) wine is much cheaper. As ever, drink responsibly (or so we are told)
Do your own Neighbours tour for free
Neighbours is an Australian TV soap opera which has been broadcasting all over the world since 1985 and is extremely popular in the UK. The programme is filmed in Melbourne and set in ‘Ramsey Street’ in a fictional town called ‘Erinsborough’.
There are two ways you can visit the real Ramsey Street if you are backpacking in Melbourne – the first is the official Neighbour’s tour where you also get to visit the studio sets and possibly meet one of the stars (more likely if you do the weekday tour). However, it is priced at $95 for adults and $85 for children and is quite expensive for what it is.
The second and more budget conscious version is to get a tram / train out to ‘Ramsey Street’ (real name – Pin Oak Court) by yourself which should cost less than $5. Bear in mind though this is purely just for seeing the famous street (no studio sets) and to remember this is a real residential area so to be respectful of the people who live there.
Music to your ears – you can see live bands for free at the legendary Esplanade Hotel (referred to affectionately by the locals as the Espy – also famous for their ‘Sunday sessions’) plus Cherry Bar in ACDC Lane. A lot of the hostels also have live bands for free (Dr Karl from Neighbours / Alan Fletcher) has been known to sing in hostel bars on St Patrick’s Day – you have been warned.
Most of Melbourne’s cinemas offer a special discounted night every week. The best deals include $7 tickets before 4pm on Mondays at Cinema Nova (Carlton), and $9.50 tickets all day Monday at Kino Cinemas (Melbourne Central). Tickets are also always $11 at Reading Cinemas but these are all out of the CBD.
Cheap As Tuesdays
Keep an eye out for ‘Cheap As Tuesday’ signs dotted about the city. An Aussie institution, many places do special deals on Tuesday nights such as budget bowling, 2 for 1 meals or reduced price plates ($1 tacos seem to to be very popular).
Free TV recordings
Finally, If you are staying in Melbourne longer term on a working holiday visa, one free way to pass the time is to go to a TV studio recording. Lots of Australia’s biggest shows are recorded in Melbourne – once, I went to a recording of Millionaire Hot Seat (the Aussie speed version of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ – much better than the original!), and the audience were provided with a free snack and soft drink during recording (although this may not be the case anymore).
Did we miss anything in our Backpacking in Melbourne blog post? Let us know!
Words by Neil Hassall. Photography by Neil Hassall and Caroline Keyzor.
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