The Melbourne CBD, or Central Business District, is the city center of Melbourne – the ‘downtown’ area as some would say. It’s where the busy businesspeople scurry between morning meetings, tourists and locals alike peruse laneway coffee shops, bars hide away beneath streets and on rooftops, and historical sites are most highly concentrated.
I was lucky enough to work for a while as a tour guide in the Melbourne CBD, leading historical walking tours and also hidden bar tours of the area. As it was literally my job to know the ins and outs of the Melbourne CBD, I can confidently share its best bits with you now!
I have organized this guide to the things to do in Melbourne CBD into categories – museums, historical sites, laneways, best hotels, restaurants, coffee, and breakfast – and added it all into the map below.
As I have spent a LOT of time exploring the CBD (and spending basically all my money on coffee and food, as any true Melburnian should), I have tried all these places myself and recommend them from personal experience.
Before you start, pin this guide to the things to do in Melbourne CBD your Pinterest Boards
But before we begin, there are some things you should know about the Melbourne CBD and its layout:
Bit of Melbourne CBD History
Why the Grid?
When you look at a map of Melbourne, you’ll notice that the CBD is organized into a perfect grid – known as the Hoddle Grid (named after the surveyor who planned it). You’ll notice that this grid has some very WIDE streets, with lots of tiny little single-laned LANEWAYS in between.
Why the Laneways?
These laneways were originally intended to be the dumping grounds of the city. However, slowly ‘Melburnians’ were forced to make use of these laneways because the entire city was designed without any parks! Why would Hoddle do that?! As a rich, UK parliament official, his theory was that ‘parks are where people go to protest…’ so he designed the whole city without any!
Slowly over the years, people began to make use of these lanways, and today they are what many would call the most authentic part of Melbourne – the most important part to explore!
I always say, Melbourne is the only city I would say you SHOULD wander down a dark alleyway… you never know what you’ll find!
Rise of the Laneways
Melbourne’s CBD is arguably the busiest part of the city. However, it wasn’t always this way…
The Melbourne CBD used to be a place solely for business, but when workers finished their day, they’d simply go home. There wasn’t much going on … until small bar licensing laws changed in 1993 (making it possible to order a drink without a meal). This change in laws allowed for smaller venues to open up throughout the city when they could not before.
This was the beginning of the laneway revolution and the renaissance of the Melbourne CBD. Today, you could explore and get lost finding passageways, shopping, arcades, hidden restaurants, and bars for days!
View of the Hotel Windsor from the Parliament House
Getting Around the Melbourne CBD
To travel between all of these awesome things to do in the Melbourne CBD, you’ll mostly want to go by tram or on foot.
The CBD is about 6 square kilometers, and as you’ll see in the map below, things are all quite close to each other. So first of all I recommend trying to walk as much s you can – you see more that way anyway!
When your feet are tired or when you’re saving your energy, the entirety of the Melbourne CBD is a free tram zone – so yes, all trams are free! This is one of the coolest things about Melbourne and something you’ll definitely want to make use of. You must use a Myki Card (Melbourne’s public transport card) when you exit the CBD, but within you you can hop on a tram fo free!
I have organized the below into a color-coded map of Melbourne CBD, because I love you. You’re welcome.
Attractions + Historical Sites in the Melbourne CBD
The Melbourne Parliament building stands sentinel over the CBD’s eastern edge, up on a massive platform sporting beautiful Victorian architecture and massive columns. It has free tours of the inside at multiple times during the day.
Across from the Parliament building, the famous Hotel Windsor was built in 1883 and is still famously one of Melbourne’s top hotels. It too has beautiful Gold Rush-era Victorian architecture and a high-brow high tea.
Old Treasury Building + Museum
Near the Parliament Building, the Old Treasury Building was used during the gold rush to store and class gold. Nowadays, it’s a beautiful Victorian building that houses a museum all about Melbourne’s foundations (learn more about the Victorian Gold Rush here!)
The Town Hall stands central in the Melbourne CBD, on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets. Also build in a Victorian style, it holds many events and is often the hub for city-wide festivals and art shows.
Federation square was built in the early 00’s to be the town square that Melbourne never had (there are no parks in the Melbourne CBD as I said above). ‘Fed Square’ is now home to a massive gathering space, huge televisions that project sporting games and films, many restaurants and bars, and three free museums which I have listed below in the museums section.
Having fun with motion blur at Flinders St Station
Flinders Street Train Station
Flinders Street Train station may be one of the most defining buildings of Melbourne. All trains coming in and out of the city pass through this massive station, defined by its unique and colorful art nouveau architectural style.
Be sure to snag a photo of the clocks along its front entrance – which used to have to be changed hundreds of times in a day to keep up with the fast pace of the train times.
State Library of Victoria
The State Library is another must-see in Melbourne, not only for its glorious reading room but for some fascinating free museum exhibits, too.
The La Trobe reading room has floors of bookshelves under a huge windowed dome. Museum exhibits throughout the building detail comprehensive happenings through Melbourne’s interesting history.
Old Melbourne Gaol
The Old Melbourne Gaol is located at the northern end of the Melbourne CBD, within the RMIT university campus. Since it was built in 1845, it housed some of Melbourne’s most infamous criminals – such as Ned Kelly himself.
It’s now an amazingly eerie museum, which is one of the most fascinating things to do in Melbourne CBD. You can book discounted Old Melbourne Gaol tickets in advance too!
Federation “Fed” Square with ACMI on the left, Ian Potter Centre inside, and Koorie Heritage Centre on the right.
Best Museums + Exhibits in Melbourne CBD
Koorie Heritage Trust Cultural Centre – Fed Square
It’s very important to learn about Aboriginal culture + history when visiting Melbourne, and this is the best museum in the Melbourne CBD to do so. It’s also free! Combine it with a visit to the two museums below for a morning in Federation Square.
ACMI (Australian Center for the Moving Image) – Fed Square
The ACMI includes everything that has anything to do with moving images. Expect free exhibits on video games, video, cinematography, and more through the ages, and fun interactive exhibits too.
Ian Potter Center – Fed Square
This museum exhibits all kinds of art made by Australian artists. It’s the national art museums showcasing Aussie art, and also had a whole aboriginal art section too (also free).
NGV (National Gallery Victoria) – Southbank
The National Gallery of Victoria, better known as the NGV, is actually located in Southbank. But as it’s just a few minutes’ walk from Federation Square, I had to include it in the best things to do in Melbourne CBD because it’s the most prominent art gallery in the state!
It has interactive and varied exhibits coming in all the time from world renowned artists, and is a must-see in Melbourne. Most exhibits are free.
The immigration museum is down the western the of the Melbourne CBD, near Southern Cross train station which you may arrive into from the airport.
This museum speaks all about the waves of immigration into Melbourne, why people came, and where they came from. It’s a fascinating place to visit as Melbourne really is a city completely founded on immigration during the Gold Rush, making it the very multicultural city it is today.
SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium
The Melbourne Aquarium is right along the river, and is a very highly rated attraction especially for families. Inside you can see dozens of varieties of sea life, learn about them from licensed marine biologists, and even book special experienced like diving with sarks and getting up close to penguins. Get discounted tickets online in advance!
Located in Chinatown, the Chinese Museum has all kinds of fascinating artifacts from what has always been one of the most prominent cultural subsections in Melbourne – Chinese!
The Block Arcade
Part of the Bourke St Mall. 6 floors. Don’t get lost!
Shopping in the Melbourne CBD
Royal + Block Arcades
The Block and Royal arcades are historic shopping arcades built during the Gold Rush so Melbourne could showcase its great wealth. Come to these arcades to visit more unique and quirky shops, or to marvel at the beautiful European architecture and mosaics.
Melbourne Emporium – Bourke Street Mall
The Melbourne Emporium, better known as the Bourke Street Mall, is overwhelmingly MASSIVE. It begins on Bourke Street, but doesn’t officially end for FOUR BLOCKS amid the Melbourne CBD.
You can enter through David Jones or Myer on Bourke Street, or through the Melbourne Central Train station, and not leave the building the entire time. Expect everything from cheap sale clothing to high-end designers, electronics to beauty supplies, and everything in between.
Spencer Outlet Centre
This is an outlet centre above Southern Cross Train Station (where you may arrive into from the airport). This is the place to find popular stores at rock bottom prices.
Queen Victoria Market
This is the place to go if you want to shop for some Australian souvenirs, or cheap produce. It’s actually the largest open-air market in the soutern hemisphere, so there’s no limit to what you can find here! I guarantee you’ll be leaving with some interesting trinkets.
Laneways in Melbourne CBD
As I mentioned above, Melbourne’s laneways are the most unique and cultural part of the city. Laneways are famous for two things: street art, and also fabulous eateries. I have separated them into these two categories below:
Street Art Laneways
Hosier Lane is perhaps the most famous laneway and a must of the things to do in the Melbourne CBD. Because of its fame, it’s often very crowded, but you will oftentimes see street artists doing a new mural right in front of your eyes.
Once you have your photo of Hosier Lane, make your way to my personal favorite laneway – AC/DC Lane. This one if lesser known and way less crowded, and has tons of rock-related murals alluding to album covers and logos of famous bands.ALL the Things to do in Melbourne CBD - from the best coffee, bars, restaurants, and breakfast to laneways, street art, historic sites, and museums. Click To Tweet
This one is hard to find – it’s a laneway, branching off a laneway, branching off another laneway. It’s my other favorite (ha sorry couldn’t choose) because it’s quite fascinating. See, they say sometime in ’07 a bunch of photo frames showed up on the wall, and people have been adding to it ever since.
I like it because it’s an example of a more crowd-sourced kind of street art. Any random passerby could have stuck something on the wall to contribute to its awesomeness.
This one doesn’t usually have the highest quality of art and sometimes doesn’t smell the best (I warned you), but it’s also worth a mention. It’s a great photo op because there are no other businesses in the entire laneway, making it a long colorful sight to behold.
Street Art Tour
Is street art your forté? Then you might appreciate this awesome tour:
Degraves is right across from Flinders St train station, and a Melbourne CBD laneway staple. This one has everything from gelato + donuts to sit-down coffee and brunch spots to a bit of shopping, and is worth at least a photo due to its picturesque ovular signs throughout.
Directly across from Degraves St you’ll find Centre Place, a bit darker and grungier yet delightfully quirky laneways full of more food. There are lofs of takeaway baguette/quiche/sandwich type shops, and many hole-in-the-wall restaurants whre you can cram into a tiny table and taste delicious food. It’s not Melbourne if you don’t!
Directly connecting to the Block Arcade, you have Block Place – a tiny little laneway that is lined with 4-5 fantastic breakfast/lunch spots. I know because I have been to them all! Kaikey’s Lane is my fave – best french toast EVER.
While Degraves St and Centre Pl are more morning/brunch time laneways, Hardware Lane is a dinner laneway.
Hardware is the only place in Melbourne where waiters will beckon you into their establishments just like they would in Italy, and you’ll find bustling restaurants seated out onto their patios on this colorful brick-laid street.
The Yarra River separates the Melbourne CBD (right) from Southbank (left). What a sunset!
Other Things to Do in Melbourne CBD
Before I move on to food, drink, and accommodation in the Melbourne CBD, I will list a few other activities that don’t quite fit into a category.
Chinatown in Melbourne is absolutely worth a visit. Peruse through Chinese shops, explore hidden laneways, and visit the Chinese museum… but most importantly, EAT!
Chinatown has dozens of little dumpling houses that are BYOB, tiny, affordable, and authentic. You can’t go wrong!
Take a Yarra River Cruise
One of the best ways to see the Melbourne CBD from a bit of a different perspective is to take a river cruise. You can see the skyline from the Yarra river, explore the green areas of South Yarra, and also the industrial areas of Docklands.
Cruises leave from berth 4 & 5 on the Yarra river beneath Federation Square, so it’s a perfect activity to mix in with visits to Fed Square museums.
Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour
If you are over walking around, you can see the Melbourne CBD and much more from a Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour. I’ll be honest- the ratings aren’t great – but its a great thing to do if you don’t want to walk (aka want to sit in a seat and see everything without moving).
Melbourne Chocolate Walking Tour
If bars, coffee, food, breakfast, and culture aren’t enough… Melbourne is also known for CHOCOLATE! There are chocolate-themed walking tours for you.
Melbourne Ghost Tour
Beginning in the CBD, the ghost tour below takes you on a journey through historic haunted sites where you’ll learn ghost stories and possible experience it yourself!
Melbourne Magic Show
Located right in the central business district, a magic show is a great way to spend an evening!
Best Coffee Shops in Melbourne CBD
Because most coffee shops also serve breakfast, I have listed here the best takeaway coffee shops when you just need a quick pick-me-up, and the best sit-down cafes that have great coffee and breakfast are in the next section.
Patricia Coffee Brewers
Patricia is a Melbourne classic, known for producing the absolute perfect cup of joe (maybe the best in the city – some say in the country!) – all day every day. Melburnians know their coffee well, and Melburnians all come here. It is standing room only, however – and expect a line out the door!
Duke’s Coffee Roasters
Duke’s is another tiny little spot on Flinders Ln that you would miss if you weren’t looking. They also know their way around a cup of coffee.
Little Rogue is just that – very little, and also seemingly gone rogue down a tiny dumpster laneway with nothing else around. When you find it, however, you will be rewarded… with amazing coffee.
White Mojo Cafe
Kinfolk Cafe (and ‘boilermaker!’)
Best Breakfast in Melbourne CBD
As I mentioned above, these best breakfast in Melbourne CBD restaurants also have fabulous coffee! You will be impressed by the food too though, trust me. It was SO HARD for me to narrow this down, but if you want more breakfast/brunch recommendations just ask me! I have probably been to 30+… I have a problem.
Higher Ground is basically the pinnacle of Melbourne. It’s an obscenely trendy brunch spot located in a high-ceilinged and light old warehouse. It has multiple levels, each of which are adorned with the latest trend in greenery.
If you arrive in peak hours (breakfast time and lunch time) it might be hard to get a table. They also have some of the richest ricotta pancakes I’ve ever had!
Hash Specialty Coffee
Back in the center of the city we have another of the best breakfasts in Melbourne CBD – Hash Specialty Coffee. As its name suggests, the coffee is fantastic – but they made my shortlist because of the delicious food options they have also!
Hash is located on Hardware Lane, and is also next to another of my favorite spots, White Mojo.
You would seriously never find Krimper if you were just wandering the streets, which is one of many reasons it’s awesome. It’s in a little brick laneway lined with plants, which is branching off a few other laneways – completely in the thick of the city.
It’s another old warehouse where you might think you’re wandering into someone’s parking garage. But, once you open the door, you’ll be greeted with a modern and trendy coffee house with delicious plates all day.
Kinfolk is actually not far from Higher Ground, and is a much more quaint little coffee shop. MY favorite thing about it is their ‘Melbourne boilermaker,’ which is when you taste two different roasts of coffee, one as an espresso and one as a flat white (a boilermaker is traditionally a beer with a shot of whiskey). How much more Melbourne can you get?!
Kinfolk also donates to quite a few great causes, so you can be sure part of the cost of your brekkie will be doing good.
VERY happy girl finally making it to Chin Chin.
Best Restaurants in Melbourne CBD
If there’s one thing Melbourne does well, it’s FOOD. When you move along from the breakfast time of day into dinner time, a whole new array of Melbourne CBD restaurants become available.
There are dozens of extremely high quality restaurants, and I mean DOZENS, but I think ANY Melburnian would agree that these three right here are up there among the best.
Chin Chin might have taken the cake for the best rated restaurant in all of Melbourne. It can best be described as a southeast Asian fusion. The best way to do Chin Chin is to select their “Feed Me” option – either regular or chef’s special – and then they will bring you multiple digits of delicious courses at the chef’s discretion. It’s magical.
If you come here, come early (they don’t take reservations and there will be a line by 5:30 on the weekend) and prepare for the experience being stuck into a cramped table next to a hundred or so other asian food fiends.
Tipo 00 is generally known to be some of Melbourne’s best Italian food – located in the Melbourne CBD. Similarly to any good restaurant in Melbourne, reservations are required unless you get there VERY early!
Hakata Gensuke Ramen
Back on the asian side of the spectrum, we have Hakata Gensuke Ramen. If you’re a ramen fiend, you’ll DEFINITELY want to find your way to this amazing restaurant in Melbourne CBD while you’re here. Trust me on this.
Melbourne is a cocktail lover’s paradise!
Best Bars in Melbourne CBD
It’s actually impossible to choose the best bars in Melbourne CBD… there are dozens. I used to lead hidden bar tours around Melbourne, which I highly recommend as an awesome way to explore Melbourne’s thriving bar scene.
Below I have included four of my favorites solely because they all represent different types of bars Melbourne does really well. I’ll have a post out soon about more of my favorites 😉
Eau de Vie
Eau de Vie wins most amazing cocktails in Melbourne in my book. Not only are the cocktails unbelievable (with a massive variety), but they are all presented in unique and creative ways, too.
In true Melbourne fashion, it’s also a but of an adventure to locate. There’s no signage and it’s down a dark laneway (called Malthouse Ln), but once you find the big dark wood door down the bottom, be sure to open it!
This is surely not the most creatively named bar in the city (it’s a rooftop bar called… Rooftop Bar. Wow), but it makes up with it with an awesome view. Jump in an elevator near Chinatown on Swanston Street, and head up to the top (7 people max allowed in the elevator at a time).
You’ll find one of the largest bars in the city center, with sweeping views, cold drinks, and even a rooftop cinema in the winter.
Whitehart is, in my opinion, Melbourne’s coolest shipping container bar. It’s a multi-level bar made of shipping containers, adorned with murals and tons of greenery, and has a space for food trucks in the weekends. They have great craft beer and resident djs spinning nightly.
Fall from Grace
You can’t go to Melbourne without discovering at least one hidden bar, and this one takes the cake. Go to the bar “State of Grace,” look in the bookshelves, find the book called “Fall from Grace,” and pull it. You’ll be whisked away inthe the secret bar behind the bookshelf. You’re welcome.
Trams making their way through the Melbourne CBD
Best Hotels in Melbourne CBD
Everyone has different hotel standards, of course, so I’m going to list the best Melbourne CBD hotel for each type of ‘taste’ below.
Contemporary, Central, High-Rise – Sofitel on Collins
You can’t get much better than the Sofitel on Collins – especially for the price! This 5-star hotel is completely decked out and has many luxurious amenities. Many rooms have amazing views, too.
If You Really Want to Go All-Out – QT Melbourne
QT Melbourne is the place to book if you want to go all out for your comfort, luxury, and amenities – think, white robe with a bottle of wine status. Located in the heart of the city with a great restaurant/breakfast and sweet terrace bar, you can’t go wrong. Also 5-star.
Central, Budget, Still Awesome – The Victoria Hotel
You simply wouldn’t believe the price of the rooms at this 3.5 star boutique hotel right in the heart of the city. Seriously, you can walk/take the free tram everywhere and will have all the comforts you need at an amazing price!
Apartment-Style, Modern, Spacious – City Tempo Queen St
If you’re more of an apartment-style person, City Tempo Queen St has spacious rooms with their own kitchenette, just steps away from the Queen Victoria Market. It’s a 4-star accommodation and is also extremely affordable.
Unique, Trendy, Hidden – NOTEL Melbourne
Want to stay in a 5-star kitted-out airstream on a rooftop right in the middle of the CBD? How about with a private hot tub? If you want to spend a bit to stay somewhere fascinating, NOTEL Melbourne is the place to go. Book early though – they’re in high demand!
Well, I think that’s it for things to do in Melbourne CBD – for now! Let me know if I missed anything and don’t forget to pin me!