Melbourne is the unchallenged style, cultural and sporting capital of Australia. While other places may strain for attention, Melbourne merely shrugs and orders another espresso in one of its myriad effortlessly-hip lounges. With an internationally renowned fashion and design scene and a reputation for being friendly and laid-back, the city is assured and cosmopolitan, inhabited by a polyglot population of more than 140 nationalities. The imported influences of all the copious components of the city’s multicultural mix are served with South Eastern Australia's fine wines and produce.

Drinking isn‘t carried out at the same frantic pace as elsewhere, bars are unconcernedly cool, sophisticatedly integrated. This is not a city where socialites split off to their isolated respective niche hangouts- bars are mixed straight/gay - and, a la Barcelona, bar-hopping from one distinctive den to another is the pattern of the night.

Melburnians also love watching sport, as the many venues around town will attest. In winter, on the weekends, thousands clad in team colours worship not at church but at the various Australian Rules Football Stadiums. The Melbourne Cricket ground (MCG) can host up to 100,000 at one gathering. Then as the weather warms up, you'll find them dressed in their finery, sipping sparkling wine at the Spring (horse) Racing Carnival. Also enjoyed are basketball, soccer, rugby,  tennis - especially at the Australian Open - and cricket, a preoccupation passed down from the colonial era. A newer preoccupation of the sporting kind, is the controversial  Formula One Grand Prix, which races around Albert Park Lake, and includes other classes of motor racing in the lead up to the championship race.

Many Melburnians also feast on the visual, performing and culinary arts. The Melbourne Festival and its accompanying Fringe Festival, draw crowds as do the Melbourne international Comedy Festival, the Design Festival, the Food and Wine Festival, the Slow Food Festival, the Moomba Waterfest Cultural Festival, and the Gay and Lesbian community's Midsumma Festival. There are many other gatherings, including specific ethnic celebrations, vintage car rallies, Rock, Jazz and Blues Festivals, The Harvest Picnic, Opera at the Queen Victoria Market, garden shows and Fashion week. For dates of some of the events in Melbourne visit the City Council's website.

An initiative developed by the Arts Industry Council, heavily discounted last minute tickets can be purchased on the day of many shows and events at 'HalfTix' in Bourke Street Mall. You need to go in person to purchase tickets, and all transactions are in cash only (You may need to highlight the text in order to read their website).

For lovers of the visual arts, Melbourne has many free galleries tucked away in the inner city. With all manner of art on display, one can spend hours filling the senses. There are a concentration of galleries in Fitzroy and Richmond, areas where many artists also have their studios, and a walking tour of galleries can easily fill a day for the voracious art lover. For current exhibition listings, go to ART ALMANAC.

Don't miss the National Gallery of Victoria in St.Kilda Rd, just south of the CBD for heritage art and blockbuster exhibitions( closed Tuesdays) and its sister, NGV's Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square( closed Mondays) for Indigenous art and contemporary art/design. Across on the other side of the square is the National Design Centre and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image - ACMI. Outside of the city, two former artist colonies provide unique semi-rural public art spaces - if you have time, be sure to visit Heide & Monsalvat for another perspective on the local arts scene.

Crouched just next door to the National Gallery, on the banks of the Yarra, is the Arts Centre. With a spire that evokes a contemporary, New-World Eiffel Tower, it hosts a number of Melbourne's performing arts companies, their museum and features exhibitions such as a retrospective of Melbourne icon Dame Edna Everage and touring national exhibitions, such as the Archibald Portrait Prize.

For theatre goers the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) has drawn subscribers for years with excellent performances, and the newer Malthouse ( around the corner from the Art's centre in Sturt Street) adds another dimension. Also based at the Arts Centre are the Melbourne Sympony Orchestra, and the Australian Ballet  - whose studios you can tour in addition to seeing world class ballet. In Carlton, La Mama Theatre has offered interesting and eclectic new drama for 40 years.

Opera buffs can visit the Victorian Opera Company and Opera Australia there too in season. If you prefer mainstream musicals, go to the elegant Her Majesty's Theatre, Princess Theatre and Regent Theatre.

Museum lovers will enjoy the juxtaposition between the radical architectural style of the new Melbourne Museum and the Italianate Royal Exhibition Buildings. Nearby is also the IMAX theatre. Worth visiting on this theme are the magnificently domed State Library of Victoria and for children's interactive learning, Scienceworks Museum and planetarium, built in an old pumping station is a must.

Melbourne will certainly keep you entertained, stimulated and absorbed, with people watching and things to do and see every moment of the day.

Art & Culture - Info & Links

_