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20 free things to do in Melbourne

Melbourne is consistently voted the world’s most liveable city and Melburnians are quick to tell visitors what makes this city such a great place to live from their favourite restaurants (‘400 Gradi makes the world’s best margherita pizza, you know!’) to the laneway bars and cafes (‘better than Sydney’). But what makes a city really liveable is the stuff you can enjoy without opening your wallet.

Here is our guide to the best free stuff to do in the world’s most liveable city.

The National Gallery of Victoria boasts an impressive collection with big names like Drysdale, Rodin and Constable among the many permanent works that can be seen for free in its international collections. Its premier gallery on St Kilda Road is itself a work of art, worth a tour in its own right, with a lofty stained-glass atrium that could make art aficionados skip with joy. At the Ian Potter Centre, just up the road in Federation Square, is the Australian collection which includes a stunning ground floor gallery of Aboriginal works.
While you’re at Federation Square, pop into the city’s celebrated ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) for an interactive history of film and TV, including a good old dose of Neighbours nostalgia (Melbourne is the home of Neighbours, after all). Next up is the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art on Southbank – another architectural gem with a revolving exhibition calendar. Still not sated? There are a number of private galleries in the Flinders Lane precinct with smaller exhibitions of local and international artists.

Get high with rooftop views

You’re not going to be popular with the publicans of these bars and pubs if you don’t bust out a note and buy a drink, but technically you can get a lot of great views of Melbourne without forking out on the Sky Deck at the Eureka Tower. Roof tops bars dot the city from Swanston Street’s Rooftop Bar & Cinema (rooftopcinema.com.au) to Madame Brussels (madamebrussels.com) at the other end of Bourke Street. You can pretty much bar crawl your way around the CBD, soaking up Melbourne’s skyline as you go.

Tour arty alleyways

Over the past decade Melbourne’s laneways have gone from shortcut passages in the main city grid to proud canvasses for some of the world’s best street art. You probably won’t find Banksy’s work here (these have reportedly been painted over or destroyed, though at least one is said to remain), but what you will find is a dizzying mash-up of colourful murals by well-known local artists (names you will become more familiar with such as Be Free and Ha-Ha) as well as contributions from visiting artists. Start at Hosier Lane (opposite Federation Square) and follow the maze of laneways heading north from there. Part of the laneways experience is getting lost, but our street art walking tour map in the guide will help make sure you don’t miss any of the best bits.

Cycle the city back streets

Melbourne City government launched its public bicycle scheme (melbournebikeshare.com.au) in 2010 (you’ll see the blue bike kiosks dotted around the city) which makes exploring this cycle-friendly city even easier for visitors. OK, so there’s a holding deposit to get your mitts on one of these bikes, but the first 30 minutes’ hire is free. That’s just enough time to cycle from one end of the CBD to the other. Or break your day into a series of short hops, picking up and dropping off bikes at different kiosks all over town. For the prettiest Yarra River views, start your day at Freshwater Place on Southbank and whizz over Sandridge Bridge, checking out the Traveller installations en route to iconic Flinders Street Station on the fringe of the CBD.

Meander Melbourne’s many markets

Melburnians love a good market, and the city is stuffed to the gills with them. In almost any neighbourhood you can find markets selling fresh local produce, handmade crafts, secondhand treasures or gourmet hawker dishes at some point in the week. Browsing is free of course, and there are usually plenty of food samples to taste if you’re tempted. Besides the obvious big hitter, Queen Victoria Market in the city, there are plenty of less touristy markets to check out across town depending on where you’re staying. Try Camberwell Market (sundaymarket.com.au) for a Parisienne flea market vibe; the Rose Street Artists Market (rosestmarket.com.au) in Fitzroy to soak up some Melbourne creativity; the summer-time-only Night Market at Victoria Market (qvm.com.au/night-market) for hawker-style food and live music; and the Farmers Market at Abbotsford Convent or the Collingwood Children’s Farm (slowfoodmelbourne.com.au) for a bit of rural idyll in the city.

Soak up the bayside life at St Kilda foreshore

When the city scene gets too much, head down to breezy St Kilda beach to witness a different kind of buzz. Wander along the sea front promenade and down St Kilda pier to take in the views, watch the fishermen or gawp at the gutsy kite-surfers catching some waves. Acland Street is prime people-watching territory with pavement cafes galore; locals and tourists alike come here to window-shop and drool over the street’s old-school European cake shops. Snap the obligatory photo in front of Luna Park’s iconic grin before heading inside to check out its creaky amusement rides of yesteryear such as the carousel and scenic railway rollercoaster. Play the spectator because the rides will cost you. On Sundays a craft market sets up along the Esplanade. The back streets of St Kilda and neighbouring Elwood also deliver plenty for the architecture buff with some Victorian mansions, Edwardian houses, art-deco apartments and modernist units from the 1950s and 60s. Families should seek out the St Kilda Adventure Playground – a real treat for older kids.

Appreciate Aboriginal history at the Koorie Heritage Trust Cultural Centre

You may be wandering around Melbourne wondering what the place looked like before it was colonised by the British two centuries ago. For an introduction to the region from the traditional custodians, the Wurundjeri people, and to learn a few things about contemporary Koorie history and culture, head to the Koorie Heritage Trust’s Cultural Centre in Federation Square. A permanent social history exhibition is complemented by changing exhibitions by new and established Aboriginal artists. The Melbourne Museum also has excellent information on indigenous social and culture heritage but is only free for students and members.

Lap the centre in the City Circle Tram

This is your short-cut to seeing Melbourne city centre without breaking a sweat (although your ear drums may not thank you – the commentary is informative enough, but a little too loud for all but for the hard of hearing). The City Circle Tram trundles along a loop around the city and down to the waterfront precinct of Docklands. Heritage ‘W class’ trams run the circuit with wooden chairs, brass and leather hand straps like the originals from 1923.

Quiet reading at the State Library

The State Library of Victoria isn’t as stuffy as the name may suggest. This heritage building was established in 1854 and today, the collection numbers more than two million books. But you’re really here for the building. Its epicentre, the octagonal La Trobe Reading Room, was completed in 1913 when its dome was the largest of its kind in the world. Natural light illuminates the ornate plasterwork and the studious Melburnians who come here to pen their essays. Grab a map at the front desk and go for a self-guided tour of the Reading Room and the exhibition galleries. The library also plays host to a revolving door of exhibitions from literary to the fine arts, as well as free classes, workshops, talks and kids activities. Check out the events calendar on its website.

Pack a picnic in the Royal Botanic Gardens

Close to the hearts of all those who call Melbourne home the Royal Botanic Gardens is a top place to engage with local life. Dating from 1857, this 38-hectare swathe of hilly green space at the edge of the CBD is divided up into different themes with a lake at its centre. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a long afternoon picnicking and then stroll the myriad paths within the park. There is also a purpose-built Children’s Garden for families with a water fountain and man-made creek to splash in come summer. Night and day, but particularly early in the mornings, you’ll be sharing the perimeter with fitness fanatics running the 3.84km circuit of the garden known locally at 'The Tan'. Keen botanists should check the website for free guided tours.

Get reverential in Melbourne’s churches

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the construction of some of Melbourne’s grand churches. The gothic St Paul’s Cathedral (opposite Federation Square) is built on the same site where the first Christian service in Victoria was held in 1835. A few minutes away are the St Michael’s Uniting Church and the Scots Church: both also architecturally impressive and quiet oases in the city.

Speaking of architecture, Melbourne city centre is rife with heritage-protected buildings of various eras and styles. Get ready to fill your camera data card quickly as you wander the streets spotting the famous or quirky city buildings, old advertising paintings and far-out futuristic structures. Standouts include the Flinders Street Railway Station, Federation Square, Block Arcade, the Nicholas Building and ANZ’s gothic headquarters. And if you love to share there’s Instagtam as well as open Flickr groups to upload your best compositions. Every July, you can go one step further and get a free peep inside many of Melbourne’s off-limits architectural highlights at the city’s annual Open House event.

Pay your respect at the Shrine of Remembrance

The statuesque Shrine of Remembrance, off St Kilda Rd, was completed in 1934 as a dedication to the men and women who lost their lives in WWI. Historical exhibitions shed light on the sacrifices made and it’s the site of some of Melbourne’s most important military and remembrance ceremonies such as ANZAC day. Visible from the other end of town, planning regulations continue to restrict any building that would obstruct the view of the shrine from Swanston St as far back as Lonsdale St. A climb to the steps of the shrine will be rewarded with fine views across the city.

Gigs, gigs, free gigs

After coffee, street art and footy (Australian Rules football, that is) Melburnians love their live music. There is a host of free gigs on all over the city pretty much any day of the week. In the city Cherry Bar is infamous as a rock venue (appropriately on AC/DC Lane) and has a mix of free as well as paid-entry gigs. Also in town is Ding Dong, Toff in Town and the John Curtain Bandroom. If you prefer folk, blues, jazz, pop, or even Australian hip-hop (yep there is such a thing) check listings in the local street press like Beat, which you can pick up at bars, pubs and cafes, or the indy radio-station RRR’s online gig guide (rrr.org.au). Beyond the CBD, suburbs such as Northcote (Northcote Social Club), Brunswick (The Retreat) and St Kilda (The Esplanade Hotel) all have plenty of live-music venues.

Become a literature buff at the Wheeler Centre

The founders of Lonely Planet funded the Wheeler Centre in 2010, the same year Melbourne was listed as a UNESCO City of Literature. Occupying a portion of the State Library Building, the Centre is a space for ‘Books, Writing and Ideas’. Regular events, including workshops and talks from artists, writers, architects and publishers are usually free to attend. Bookings can be made via the website.

Wave to the masses from Melbourne’s Town Hall

History and architecture aficionados will enjoy touring the Melbourne Town Hall. The building is made from a mix of bluestone and Tasmanian freestone and stands authoritatively on the main city thoroughfare of Swanston Street. It is still a well-used venue with concerts, comedy and public talks held in the main auditorium as well as the smaller chambers year round. Another big draw is the Grand Organ dating from 1929. To go behind the scenes and stand on the portico where The Beatles and Abba once waved to their adoring fans you can book a free Town Hall tour (weekdays only) by calling 03 9658 9658.

Play board games at the pub

Fancy sharing a pint with some Aussies at a local pub… while pouring over a nostalgia-inducing board game or getting stuck into a giant jenga competition? Get your geek on and make a beeline for the Royal Standard Hotel every second Wednesday at 6pm. There are other gaming groups that meet in different parts of the city. Check out a calendar of events on Meetup.

Delve into Melbourne’s early urban history

To really get under Melbourne’s skin, ditch the CBD and explore some of the city’s urban history in the increasingly gentrified neighbourhoods of the inner north. Online walking tours of Collingwood, Abbotsford and Clifton Hill are available from the local council’s website and take you past industrial icons like the Skipping Girl Vinegar sign (best seen at dusk) as well as Abbotsford Convent and Dights Falls.

Point at the pollies in parliament

No, you can’t take popcorn with you for a session of Victorian parliament but watching Australian politicians debating the latest in government policy can be entertaining. Check the government’s Parliament website to find out when you can spectate on the Legislative of Assembly for free. If watching politicians trying to score cheap political points in the luxe leather-and-wood environment of this stately house isn’t your thing, you may get more out of the free public tour instead.