Open any guidebook on the Australian city of Melbourne and it will no doubt tell you to explore its “famous laneways.”
The Central Business District of Melbourne is a tightly-packed grid: officially named the ‘Hoddle Grid’, after its designer Robert Hoddle. He surveyed the “town” of Melbourne and drew up the plans in 1837. (Melbourne is a very young city!) Hoddle’s plans, and the subsequent expansion of the city included laneways, originally intended as service laneways for horses and carts. Many in the northern section of the CBD were associated with the slums of the Goldrush era.
Melbourne is one of the smallest Central Business Districts in the world: the Hoddle Grid is only 320 acres, which is less than half the size of Central Park (which is 840 acres). The majority of Melbourne is spread across its metropolitan area.
The grid makes the city very easy to navigate. But this doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of secrecy—this is where the “famed laneways” come in. Still retaining some of their original Victorian whimsy and charm, they offer great potential for hidden hole-in-the-wall bars, restaurants, cafés and boutiques.
More of than not, the laneways that appear relatively empty that are the ones hiding the best secrets (practice reasonable caution if following this rule!). For instance, if a guidebook recommends you eat at Hardware lane (intersecting Little Bourke street in the center of the city) one night—ignore it. While it’s bursting with restaurants and bars, they’re not the best Melbourne has to offer (with some exceptions). It’s also full of lingering wait-staff who will try to coerce you into their establishments for over-priced menu items.
Take a stroll 50 meters away down the road, and you’ll find establishments with a much more laid-back, hidden vibe. Duck into Warburton lane for drinks at the rickety speakeasy-stye bar Murmur or grab a bite to eat at Portello Rosso (directly beneath Murmur).
Spot the disco ball hanging in Rankins lane on your way to Manchester Press for some of the best latte art we’ve ever seen. Next is Somerset place, home of Captains of Industry (offering both haircuts and great coffee) and The Little Mule Company (this time a different combination: bicycles and coffee).
As Happy to Serve You writes: if there are three things Melburnians love, it’s cafés, laneways, and cafés in laneways…
There are also many shopping arcades in the Melbourne Central Business District, which date back to the early 20th century, and became very popular during the interwar years. One of our favorites is the Cathedral arcade inside the Nicholas building, which is of the darker, more mysterious variety.
It has beautiful stained glass ceilings, and today is home to some quirky fashion retailers. When it was built in 1925, it featured some of the latest technology of the time—a mail chute and manually operated lifts, which are still part of the building today.
Not too far away is the Campbell Arcade and adjoining Degreaves Subway, constructed as an underground connection to the platforms at Flinders street station. Both opened in 1955, just in time for the Melbourne Olympics the next year.
While the Degreaves Street subway isn’t the best place to be loitering late at night, take a trip downstairs during the day time for a peek at the original 1950s decor. Behind the quirky shopfronts are a barber, record store, vintage clothing boutique and Cup of Truth—favorite hidden café, with some of the friendliest baristas around.
Melbourne’s grid and laneway layout offers so much potential for secretiveness. The tricky thing is that a new place pops up every week, making it hard to stay ahead of the curb!