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Second to None

In the midst of an exciting evolution, Melbourne steps out of Sydney’s shadow with its own take on the good life Down Under.

Federation Square in the Central Business District of north Melbourne is a hub of culture and activity for locals and visitors alike.

Colorful artwork sets a gallery tone in the hotel’s lobby.

The glass-enclosed, 27th-floor pool deck offers stunning vistas of the city.

A suite at the Crown Metropol Melbourne in the Southbank area of town

The Jazz Age vibe at The Everleigh in the Fitzroy neighborhood is impossible to miss.

Scallops with endives from Cutler & Co.

The lunch crowd at Golden Fields

The TarraWarra Estate winery in Yarra Valley, about an hour away from the city

The stylish offerings at the Marais boutique in north Melbourne

The airline’s first-class lounge at Melbourne Airport

First-class accommodations aboard a Qantas A380

Intrigued by Australia ever since childhood, when I first discovered that the Southern Hemisphere landmass was both a country and a continent, I felt well-versed enough in Down Under lore before embarking on a recent trip to Melbourne. I am, after all, familiar with the nation’s contributions to Hollywood pop culture, can recite any number of Aussie colloquialisms at the drop of a hat thanks to my penchant for foreign TV, and have a profound, admittedly embarrassing, fondness for koalas and kangaroos. I even know about Matthew Flinders and the exploits of outlaw Ned Kelly. And yet, somehow, Australia’s most infamous rivalry—Melbourne versus Sydney—had managed to elude me.

“I don’t know if anyone outside of Australia cares about the whole thing, really,” says my host and tour guide Margaret Ryding of Tourism Victoria (tourismvictoria.com), just hours after I land in the city. “The way I see it, Melbourne is the type of place where people will come to your [aid] if you happen to fall down on the street; whereas, in Sydney, they just might walk by you. I’ll take Melbourne any day.”

Ryding continues to make her case for geographic supremacy over a lunch of roasted barramundi fish with black cabbage, lemon and dill, one of the many specialties at The Grill at Grossi Florentino (grossiflorentino.com), one of the city’s oldest and most pedigreed restaurants. After 20-plus hours of flying, her persuasive cadence, coupled with my first Melburnian meal, have sold me on the many merits of the capital of Victoria, a state on Australia’s southeastern coast. I later learn that the eatery’s namesake, Guy Grossi, is one of the country’s foremost chefs and that this particular venue is but one of many prime dining establishments in the city, which, according to Ryding, is in the full throes of a “foodie revolution.”

This revolution extends far beyond Melbourne’s kitchens, however. Divided by the murky brown waters of the Yarra River, the city is clearly in the midst of a moment, the signs of which are impossible to miss. Take Federation Square (fedsquare.com). Since its founding 11 years earlier, the mixed-use development, located in the tourist-heavy Central Business District, is a nonstop hub for new projects and businesses (hence the loud metal thumps of construction ringing day and night). Further proof can be found nearby at the National Gallery of Victoria (ngv.vic.gov.au), which last autumn hosted Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, a years-in-the-making exhibition of masterworks, and in the many galleries and cafes that seem to pop up regularly in the edgier neighborhoods north of the river.

To the south, growth is more suburban, but no less impressive. My hotel, the Crown Metropol Melbourne (crownhotels.com.au), is a prime example. Five months into its third birthday, the 658-room property—one part of a vast complex under the Crown umbrella that also includes two additional hotels, an underground mall and a promenade in an area of the city known as the Southbank—still shines like new. About a 20-minute walk from Federation Square, the CMM’s grand-hotel feel makes it a popular destination with business travelers, but its multitude of good-life extras also attracts visitors with nothing but leisure on their agendas. Jet-lagged souls can seek solace at the on-site Isika day spa (one of the city’s best) or reinvigorate with a dip in the 27th-floor pool, which majestically overlooks the city from a glass-enclosed terrace. The creature comforts continue at Mr. Hive Kitchen & Bar, a restaurant headed up by Executive Chef John Lawson, whose approach to French cuisine with Australian ingredients have won him a slew of national accolades. (An additional 39 eateries in the Crown complex cover the rest of the culinary spectrum, from casual lunch to night-on-the-town special). The accommodations at the Crown Metropol (with rates from $233 to $2,337 per night) range from a luxe king room to The Apartment (a sprawling, 2,045-square-foot penthouse on the 25th floor) and boast an endless checklist of modern trappings—Wi-Fi, high-definition TVs, marble-clad bathrooms and designer toiletries among them—as well as sprawling vistas of the city.

Whether it’s buzzing culture or fine hospitality, few residents are better acquainted with Melbourne’s exciting growth than Fiona Sweetman, founder of Hidden Secrets Tours (hiddensecretstours.com), an outfitter that, despite its unfortunate touristy appellation, proffers a true insider’s glimpse at the city. While Sweetman’s outing acknowledges Melbourne’s storied past, it is mostly geared toward non-guidebook travelers. Hopping on and off San Francisco-style trams in the north side of the city, we set off to check out the establishments currently defining Melbourne’s independent commercial spirit. At Christine (christineaccessories.com), the store’s namesake blushes demurely when Sweetman points out she was the first to bring brands like Fendi and Sonia Rykiel to the city. Marais (marais.com.au), meanwhile, offers a bewitching trove of one-off accessories from Alexander Wang, Lanvin and Balenciaga. Later, up a croaky set of stairs, we encounter Captains of Industry (captainsofindustry.com.au), a men’s barbershop/shoemaker/tailor (and bistro, to boot) that epitomizes hipster innovation. After many such visits, we find ourselves on Collins Street (what Sweetman describes as “the Paris end of town”) where storefronts from Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and other familiar labels show off their goods from behind pristine glass. Suddenly, Sweetman’s native pride rears its defiant head: “Tell me there’s something in Sydney that you can’t find here,” she says with a smirk. But before I can answer, she adds, “Let’s get you some coffee.” Ah, yes, coffee. Melbourne takes its caffeine as serious as Rome and Seattle, so temples to the bean abound.

Equally varied is Melbourne’s independent art scene. The take-it-or-leave-it spirit of the galleries along Bourke Street and Flinders Lane is the antithesis of the splashy-classic splendor of the collections at the NGV and more traditional museums. Few maneuver the intricacies of this world better than Jane O’Neill, founder of Art Aficionado Tours (artaficionadotours.com). At Funaki (galleryfunaki.com.au), we peruse boundary-pushing jewelry with craftsmanship that, depending on one’s sensibilities, delights, amuses or offends, while at Sarah Scout (sarahscoutpresents.com), ideas are more cerebral (and perplexing) in scope. There really isn’t a need to visit dedicated art spaces, however. Much like Wynwood in Miami, many neighborhoods in north Melbourne teem with public art, and eye-catching, large-scale murals are visible in alleys all over the city.

These cheeky lanes are also the chosen settings for locals-filled bars and restaurants. When I ask a longtime resident why so many of the must-visits on my agenda are located in dark, lonely streets out of a slasher movie, he simply replies, “We have a sense of humor about those things.” I encounter said humor firsthand on a rainy night when a companion and I set off to visit the nearly impossible to find boîte The Everleigh (theeverleigh.com), an intimate speakeasy in Fitzroy that takes its Jazz Age approach (and mixology) very seriously. Once settled in, we’re in on the joke: Venues of this sort want to be off the grid, even if everyone already knows about them. And, after our cocktails are presented, the earlier navigational frustrations of the evening are soon forgotten.

Dining excursions go much smoother. At Golden Fields (goldenfields.com.au), also in Fitzroy, modernist decor offers an ideal backdrop for chef Andrew McConnell’s small-plates approach, which takes its cues from Shanghai and Hong Kong cuisines with dishes like pork belly with kimchee and braised eggplant with rice noodles. By contrast, McConnell’s Cutler & Co. (cutlerandco.com.au), located in the same neighborhood, is a testament to culinary excess. Our degustation menu is a farm-to-table tour of baked carrots with goat’s curd, roasted pigeon, marron and wood-grilled beef ribs, before an apple and sorrel sorbet with fennel meringue preps the palate for Earl Grey ice cream, chocolate, prunes and honey, all accompanied by Victoria region wine from amuse-bouche to dessert, per the insistence of Ryding. “You didn’t come this far to drink California chardonnay, did you?” she asks.

Indeed not, and on my third day in Melbourne, I flee the city proper with Simon Greenland of Melbourne Private Tours (melbprivatetours.com.au) for Yarra Valley. Just 50 minutes away, this landscape of rolling hills and diverse soil produces some of the best pinot noir in the country. Our first stop is Domaine Chandon (chandon.com.au), the Australia outpost of the French Champagne giant Moët & Chandon, with roots dating back to the mid-1980s and a picturesque perch overlooking endless rows of verdant vines (sometimes a kangaroo at dusk). From there we drive to the TarraWarra Estate (tarrawarra.com.au), a winery known as much for its varietals as its adjoining art museum, the site for the much-lauded Archibald Prize Exhibition, a once-a-year showcase made up entirely of works by Australian artists. After lunch at the winery’s restaurant (fragrant lamb confit so rich it practically demands a post-meal nap), we call it a day.

Back in Melbourne, I ask to be dropped off at Federation Square to walk off some of the calories of the day. Though it’s a rather cold night, the energy on the crowded streets is intoxicating, with music of all genres spilling out from bars and restaurants along the Yarra. As I walk and take in the scene, I think of Melbourne, and no other place in the world.

Getting There

These days, the first-class experience at Qantas (qantas.com.au) begins long before passengers set foot in the cabin. Introduced in July, the air carrier’s Chauffeur Drive service collects customers in a luxury vehicle and delivers them to the airport at their city of origin (a courtesy also extended at their final destination). First-class service from Los Angeles to Melbourne aboard A380 flights includes a personal suite, an eight-course degustation menu by chef Neil Perry, a lie-flat bed with turndown service, and a 17-inch screen TV with hundreds of options for movies, TV shows, music and games.