Whispers of secret cafés and historical hideaways float through the vibrant streets of Melbourne on an almost daily basis. For years, the secrets of Melbourne’s rich culture have captured the attention of locals and tourists alike. While many of these hidden gems have since become common knowledge, there remain a handful of secrets that require a little extra digging to uncover.
In this article, we explore six well-kept secrets of Melbourne culture that are sure to entice and enchant even the most seasoned of travellers. From the true origins of Melbourne’s name to bars hidden behind bookshelves, our city holds within its tapestry a multitude of secrets waiting to be explored.
What’s in a Name?
What if ‘Melbourne’ actually went by a different name? A little known piece of historical knowledge shines in plain sight of our beloved city: Melbourne was almost named ‘Batmania’. If you’re suddenly feeling superhero-esque vibes, you wouldn’t be the only one. But unlike the cloaked and masked figure, ‘Batmania’ had quite different connotations.
In 1835, when John Batman founded the city, he intended to name it after himself. However, the British government objected, and the name ‘Batmania’ was proposed as an alternative. This was eventually rejected, and the city was named after the then-British Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne.
You can still find vestiges of John Batman’s influence throughout the city, all of which contribute to the rich culture in Melbourne. Batman Park, located on the Yarra River’s northern bank, is a namesake of the city’s founder. Similarly, Batman Avenue stands as a reminder of the city’s founder. This iconic walkway winds along the Yarra River and passes renowned landmarks such as the Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park and the Olympic Park Oval.
The Richest City in the World
Did you know that Melbourne was once the richest city in the world? During the gold rush era of the 1850s, Victoria produced over a third of the world’s gold, and Melbourne became the financial and commercial hub of the country.
It was during this period that many of the city’s grand public buildings, such as the Royal Exhibition Building, were constructed – not to mention our own now-heritage listed Rialto building. The boom in architecture and grand, gothic-style developments reflected the ornate Victorian style that paved the way for Melbourne culture.
Originally built in 1891 as the headquarters of the Rialto Mercantile Exchange, InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto still boasts a Gothic Revival facade designed by the esteemed architect William Pitt. At the time of its inception, the building graced Collins Street as a symbol of commercial innovation. Both the Rialto and its neighbouring Winfield building offered tenants a new wave in technology, including street-level shopfronts, basement warehouse spaces and overhead offices. After undergoing an extensive refurbishment in 2005, it continues to stand proud as a testament to the city’s rich history and architectural heritage.
Home of the World’s First Feature Film
There’s a reason Melbourne is known as the cultural capital of Australia. Deeply ingrained in the city’s history are sparkling gems of world-firsts and artistic achievements, including being the location for the world’s first ever feature film to be made.
Production for ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’ graced Melbourne’s streets in 1906. The film was directed by Charles Tait and produced by the Tait brothers, and it chronicled the life and crimes of the notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. The film was approximately 60-70 minutes long, which was a significant length for a film at the time, and it was shown in theatres with a musical accompaniment.
According to the National Museum Australia, the film was cause for much contention at its opening as it painted the Ned Kelly gang sympathetically. Despite efforts by the Victorian Government to censor the film, the excitable public flocking to screenings first locally and then internationally were unstoppable.
The Largest Tram Network Outside of Europe
Another iconic Melbourne culture staple is its renowned tram network. While private transfers may be a tantalisingly luxurious option, a visit to Melbourne is incomplete without the embedded cultural experience of a tram ride through the city.
The tram network is so ingrained in Melbourne’s history and culture, and has been for so long, that it’s actually become the largest tram network in the world outside of Europe. The city’s iconic trams are not only a practical mode of transport but also a symbol of its cultural heritage. The first electric tram in Melbourne began operating in 1906, and the network has since expanded to cover over 250 kilometres of track.
While many of Melbourne’s trams have now been upgraded to sleek, modern designs, you can still find traces of the older style vehicles about town. Stroll down to the renowned Chapel Street precinct to try your luck at hopping aboard a classic version of the city’s favourite mode of transport to get a slice of vintage culture in Melbourne.
Secret Bars and Tunnels
If you’re familiar with Melbourne culture, you may have heard of (or even visited) the many hole-in-the-wall cafés and hidden bars scattered throughout the buzzing city. While many of these hideaways are now common Melbourne cultural attractions, there remain a few secrets that take a little more digging to uncover.
The Bookcase Bar
Perhaps one of our favourites is the secret bar hidden inside an old bookcase. Located a short twenty-minute stroll from our hotel, Eau de Vie is a fabulous and dimly-lit prohibition style bar and restaurant located on Malthouse Lane. Once inside, look for the lavish bookcase. Behind it you’ll find the Whiskey Room, a hidden section of the venue that boasts an impressive collection of rare and exclusive whiskies.
Though they’re largely inaccessible to the public, Melbourne has a hidden underground network of tunnels snaking all throughout the city’s depths. The tunnels were originally built to transport goods between buildings in the central business district, but they have since been closed down or repurposed.
According to Walking Tours of Melbourne, there are many secret tunnels reported to have been in use throughout Melbourne. These include the Degraves Lost Tunnel, the Collins Street Secret Tunnel, the Gold Transport Tunnel running from Spring Street to Melbourne’s major banks, and the Underground Water Canals, which ran from Lonsdale Street to the Yarra River.
Hidden Street Art
In addition to its world-class collections of gallery art, including the National Gallery of Victoria’s internationally acclaimed exhibits and pieces, Melbourne is home to the largest collection of street art in the world. These famous laneways are the bread and butter of modern Melbourne culture, and they’re always worth a visit.
Melbourne’s dozens of laneways and alleyways are filled with vibrant graffiti and street art, which has become a celebrated part of the city’s cultural landscape. The famous Hosier Lane, located opposite Federation Square, is a must-visit for its colourful murals and ever-evolving graffiti. You’ll want to snap some photos of the long cobbled lane and splashes of artwork at every turn.
AC/DC Lane comes in at a close second. A classic among Melbournal cultural attractions, this laneway was named in recognition of the rock band, who in 2004 filmed their celebrated music video for ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock and Roll’ on the parallel Swanston Street. Avid fans and newcomers alike can marvel at the rock icon-inspired art mingling with classic urban illustrations throughout the laneway.
Explore the Best of Melbourne
Visiting the city soon? Whether you’re travelling for a weekend getaway or a corporate function, our experienced Concierge staff have a plethora of fantastic tips and insights about Melbourne culture.
Stay in one of our luxury guest rooms or suites to immerse yourself in the rich culture and history of Melbourne, and visit the Concierge desk to get the inside scoop on secret bars, historical hideaways and all the hidden gems sprinkled throughout the city.