Feet first: Melbourne’s walking tours

Travelling Well | Words: Kendall Hill | Photos: Christine Ansorge | Posted on 06 February 2017

Lace up the walking shoes to see the best of Melbourne's hidden attractions.

You can live in a city all your life and never know it properly. To do so you would need to be constantly seeking out the stories, individuals and unique places that define its character. Or, better still, hire someone whose business it is to do just that.

Someone like Daniel Platt, founder of Localing Tours, whose days are spent discovering what and who makes Melbourne special.

“I love doing this sort of stuff, telling the city’s stories every day. This is my community,” Daniel says as we set off into the city labyrinth.

people walking and looking at graffiti thorugh hosier lane melbourne

Hosier Lane, Melbourne.

people looking at an outdoor gallery in pregrave place

Discover an outdoor gallery in Presgrave Place.

We start in the lobby of the neo-Gothic Manchester Unity building, Melbourne’s first skyscraper. Everyone knows it, I’ve long admired it, but I never knew it was modelled on the Chicago Tribune Building. Or that it was Melbourne’s tallest building for a quarter of a century. Or that it boasted the capital’s first elevator.

Seen through Daniel’s eyes, there are novelties and superlatives all over the city. In the Manchester Unity building is the CBD’s second-smallest cafe, tiny Switchboard; the smallest is Local Birds, nearby in The Causeway, all of three square metres.

In between the two is Bar Americano, the city’s tiniest bar. Licensed for just 10 patrons – standing room only – it’s styled after post-Prohibition, US-style bars in Europe. Think Harry’s Bar in Venice but minus the star-power.

I’ve never been in before today but owner Sebastian Costello welcomes me like a regular.

In the Royal Arcade (another famous landmark I thought I knew well), Daniel leads me upstairs into a space that was previously home to a Turkish bathhouse. Today the tenants of this ‘vertical laneway’ are designer stores including Somedays selling cool, Swedish-accented clothing.

A few blocks away we drop into Lord Coconut, which owner Mark Boldiston claims as the only men’s jewellery store in town. He showcases around 40 Australian designers in his eclectic boutique, and stylish men come here for wedding rings, cufflinks, tie bars and trinkets such as Justin Snow’s intriguing insects fashioned from silver and titanium.

Each Localing tour is different, tailored to guests’ interests, but Daniel often starts in the city then fans out to Fitzroy and Collingwood, St Kilda or Richmond in search of the fascinating. The focus is on small owner-operated businesses – “uniquely Melbourne experiences”, he promises.

three spoons with different colours of spices and salts on each one

Gewurzhaus in Toorak's Hawksburn Village.

elaborate yellow wallwith two brown leather chairs on each side and an art deco cut out featuring a statue of a man spearing a panther

Manchester Unity Building.

The tour ends with a tasting of five local gins at Bad Frankie. This quirky bar is in a Fitzroy side street that I pass at least weekly. I’ve never been in before today but owner Sebastian Costello welcomes me like a regular.

Sebastian sells only Australian spirits – about 150 – and jaffles. He has seven shelves stacked with homegrown hooch and can rattle off the backstories attached to each.

“I want to sell something authentic,” he explains. “We love these Australian spirits and we want people to drink them, but our first and foremost goal is to be a good local bar.”

Each time I tour Melbourne with a savvy local, I realise natives like me tend to take their home town for granted. It’s not until you see it through the eyes of a professional insider that you discover the stories that make your city come alive.

Here are some other such tours.

Walk to art

Bernadette Alibrando is a curator and artist mentor who knows Melbourne’s artistic leanings inside out. Her tours begin with a convivial coffee before moving on to some of the more progressive gallery spaces in the city – often not-for-profits and artist-run initiatives, many of which you would never find on your own. Tours change frequently and there’s a twilight option where you’re taken to quirky openings. To finish, there’s always wine and nibbles.

Hidden secrets

The name of Fiona Sweetman’s business was a no-brainer when she started 12 years ago. She and her posse of urban investigators offer everything from laneway and arcade outings to foodie tours, cafe culture and a progressive high tea. There’s even a tour for French speakers.

Street art

Who better to decipher the colourful works on Melbourne’s walls than the artists themselves? Melbourne Street Art Tours founder Adrian Doyle is a Masters of Fine Art graduate who has put together a team of street artists who are well versed in the city’s exterior decoration.

Melbourne sights

For those visitors who prefer to try before they buy, these tours are offered twice daily and at no cost. All you need to do is turn up at the Sir Redmond Barry statue outside the State Library, at either 10.30am or 2.30pm, and an enthusiastic guide will show you around the city sights. A typical itinerary will take in laneways, street art, Federation Square, the Yarra, Eureka Tower, Chinatown and a hidden bar or two. While the tours are ostensibly free, the guides are paid in tips so if you do have a good time, give generously.

Other tours

Melbourne Town Hall welcomes curious visitors every weekday except Tuesday for tours (at 11am and 1pm). The hour-long free tour usually takes in the council chamber, the portico where The Beatles once made Swanston Street swoon (townhalltour@melbourne.vic.gov.au). Free guided tours also explore the architectural and engineering highlights of Federation Square. They depart at 11am daily except Sunday from outside the Melbourne Visitor Centre.

The photographs accompanying this article were taken by Christine Ansorge, a former student at the Photography Studies College. RoyalAuto is working with the college to help students hone their skills. Christine says: “Shooting for RA allowed me to develop industry experience that I need to further my career. I was given feedback which helped me to refine my images.”