By Tupur Chakrabarty
Whoever invented the Free Walking Tour is a genius!
Spend 2-3 hours of your first day in a new city walking around with a knowledgeable guide, exploring key sights and landmarks, hearing stories and connecting with other tourists, and you know you’re off to a good start. It’s called a ‘free’ tour because there’s no fixed price and it’s entirely tip-based. At the end of the tour, you decide how much it was worth and tip accordingly. A ballpark amount in Australia would probably be $15-$20 per head; in Europe, the average would be €10. And if you feel it was worth nothing, you can just walk away without tipping a single cent. Few travellers do that though!
We’d walked in Tallinn, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Rotterdam with Free Walking Tour groups, but never in Melbourne! This had been niggling us for some time, so over the Easter break in 2023, a week before we officially launched our blog, we finally went on an I’m Free Walking Tour of Melbourne Sights!
We met outside State Library Victoria for a 10:30 start. Even though entering the library is not part of the walking tour, do come back here for a free, one-hour History of the Library Tour, which takes place once a day. The time varies daily, so check beforehand and book. The State Library is also home to the armour of Ned Kelly, the Australian bushranger who was a criminal to some and a heroic underdog to others. Built in ‘the marvellous Melbourne era’ – as our lovely guide Sam called the period of Gold Rush, when the city experienced massive economic growth – the State Library was opened in 1856. On the left of the building is a statue of Joan of Arc, and on the right is Saint George slaying the dragon; but the most relevant statue is the one right in front of the building – the statue of Sir Redmond Barry, an academic and the first Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, who not only commissioned the State Library to be built, but also donated his entire private collection of books for the cause. Despite that, most Melburnians remember him as the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death.
From the State Library, we headed to the Old Melbourne Gaol, a long bluestone building erected in the 1840s and in operation until 1929. Ned Kelly was brought here to be put on trial. However, when 70,000 Victorians signed a petition for his release, Judge Redmond Barry had no other option but to sentence him to death. Kelly was hung by the neck on 11 November 1880. An equally, if not more, interesting prisoner here was Michael Crimmins, a three-year-old orphan who was sentenced to six months in prison in 1856 for ‘being idle and disorderly’!
From the Old Melbourne Gaol, we continued on Russel Street to the crossing of Victoria Street, to see the Eight Hour Day Monument. Unveiled in 1903, this monument commemorates the fact that Melbourne was the first city to grant its working citizens the right to an eight-hour working day. Some of our fellow-walkers’ jaws dropped as Sam listed some of the benefits of working in Melbourne – overtime pay, public holidays, high minimum wages and long service leave!
Our walk continued along Victoria Street and then Drummond Street, past the best specimens of Victorian houses anywhere in the world! That’s because, unlike the UK, Melbourne residents weren’t asked to pull apart their metal fences and railings during the Second World War and donate them to be turned into arms and ammunition. Each of these houses costs well over a million!
Next stop: Carlton Gardens and the Royal Exhibition Building. We noticed a number of trees in the garden with metal bands wrapped around their trunks. Sam explained that the metal was there to protect non-native trees from possums so they couldn’t climb these trees and scratch off or eat the new growth. The traditional custodians of the land, the Kulin Nation people, still hold ceremonies in the Carlton Gardens and are still apparently involved in the approval or disapproval of any development project in Melbourne. If you ever visit Melbourne, do go on an Aboriginal Walking Tour to learn about the world’s oldest living culture.
The Royal Exhibition Building was built in 1879 and opened the following year for the Melbourne International Exhibition. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention site says the building was part of the international exhibition movement, which took place between 1851 and 1915 in major cities like Paris, New York, Vienna, Kolkata, Kingston and Santiago. A guided tour of the Royal Exhibition Building would be well worth it.
Standing in front of the building, Sam told us a funny story. Even though the land around Victoria was believed to be very similar to regions where gold had been found, no gold was found in Victoria until the Port Philip District separated from New South Wales, in 1851, and the colony of Victoria was formed. Then suddenly there was gold all over Victoria! More than 20 million ounces of it! Today that gold would be worth $35 billion.
From here we walked to the Parliament Gardens. The first thing you notice in this small garden right next to the Parliament Building is the ‘C’-shaped water feature called Coles Fountain. Made with recycled shopping trolleys, the fountain was a donation from the supermarket chain Coles in 1981. Behind the fountain, you see the tall palm trees and the spires of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is absolutely majestic and certainly worth a visit. Do read up on the features of the Cathedral before you go for a fun ‘I spy’ game! The Cathedral wasn’t part of the walking tour, so we had a little wander in the Parliament Garden and took photos of the statue of Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls, two Aboriginal community leaders who were strong advocates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Sir Douglas was the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted. From the garden, we headed out to the Parliament House. Public tours of the Parliament Building run several times a day on weekdays, but it’s best to check the website before visiting. The building, to quote Sam, looks like a ‘layer cake’, thanks to the bluestone bottom half and sandstone top half!
From there we walked to Crossley Street, went past Pellegrini’s, where Australia’s first espresso machine was installed, then through Chinatown and past the Chinese Museum to QV shopping centre, which was where…
…the first part of our walk ended.
The second part was shorter, with fewer stories, but just as enjoyable. The main purpose of this part of the tour was to inspire visitors to explore the route later in their own time and at their own pace.
We walked via Tattersalls Lane, stopping briefly to look at the lady of the lane (- not sure if that is her name!), a mural created perhaps in 2012, and then took Little Bourke Street and Bourke Street to come to the front of Bourke Street Mall (you can’t miss the Myer and David Jones shopfronts!) The footpath in front of Bourke Street Mall is a popular place for street performers or buskers. We didn’t know that the buskers had to audition in front of the Melbourne City Council and get a permit before performing, so the standard is quite high. The mall building was built in the 1880s, during the marvellous Melbourne era.
Next on the tour were two of Melbourne’s most iconic shopping centres: the Royal Arcade and the Block Arcade. As you walk the corridor of the Royal Arcade, look up to admire the glass and wrought iron canopy, and the 7-feet giant duo Gog and Magog above the southern entrance, ringing the clock on the hour, The Block Arcade was inspired by an arcade in Milan and used the same colours and style. Apparently, Italian tilers sailed to Melbourne with the tiles to lay the mosaic floor, and the Block still has a supply of all the colours except the deep chocolate!
Then we walked to Degraves Street via Centre Place, threading our way through the crowd that had gathered there for lunch. There is little point in trying to describe these two lanes – they have to be experienced first-hand.
We were only 15-20 minutes from the end of our tour. We walked past Flinders Street Station with its iconic analog clocks. If a local says ‘meet at the clocks’, they mean here! Sam said the clocks were replaced with a digital version in 1980, but the public outcry saw the analog clocks reinstalled within a day!
We didn’t stop at Federation Square, although you could and check out the Ian Potter Centre of the NGV Australia, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the Koori Heritage Trust. We crossed the Princes Bridge instead and headed to the arts precinct: the Arts Centre. The spire of the Arts Centre is apparently unfinished! It was meant to be covered with copper along with the wavy metal structure skirting it so it would look like the tutu of a spinning ballerina, but they ran out of copper! It reminded me of the Blue Hall in Stockholm City Hall, which isn’t blue at all because when the architect saw the exposed red brick walls, he loved them so much that the plan to paint them blue was discarded!
Our final stop was Hamer Hall, the outside of it, of course. From the inside, the concert hall apparently feels like it has been excavated deep into the ground. We finished the tour on the terrace of Hamer Hall, with a magnificent skyline view of Melbourne.
Compressing a two-and-a-half-hour walk into a 7-minute read is impossible! I know that! But I hope this post inspires you to wander around our beautiful city. And for the numerous stories that I could not possibly fit into this post, book an I’m Free Walking Tour.
This article was first published in the blog Travels That Make Us and has been republished here with the kind permission of the author.
Contributing Author: Tupur Chakrabarty is an education manager. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and daughter and dreams of endless travels in wondrous lands.
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