I first visited Melbourne in 2010, to dance The Nutcracker, and I fell hard for the place. When I returned in 2015, to work with The Australian Ballet artistic health team, that initial infatuation developed into love. Last year, I packed up my life in New York and moved to Melbourne permanently to lead The Australian Ballet. Happily, I’ve discovered that the unique energy I felt on those early trips is still very much alive. The latest lockdown was a logistical challenge, but my company – and Melburnians in general – seemed to take it in their stride. It also gave me a chance to walk and explore.

What sets Melbourne apart is its authenticity. New York has authenticity, but it’s overlaid with power and wealth. Melbourne’s charms feel purer and more subtle. There are hardly any Starbucks stores here. You find your local everything: your local pub, your local newsstand, your local restaurant. The neighbourhoods are very distinctive, and you really settle into the enclave you live in.

St Ali, a South Melbourne institution
St Ali, a South Melbourne institution

When I arrived, the Ballet set me up in South Melbourne, one of the oldest parts of the city. Aside from its grand Victorian residences and wide, tree-lined streets, it’s best known for the vibrant South Melbourne Market, which has been operating since 1867 and sells superlative produce, meats and cheeses. I visit every weekend and head straight for Woodfrog Bakery, which does a fabulous honey oat loaf.

“Great vibe, great coffee and great people-watching”: St Ali
“Great vibe, great coffee and great people-watching”: St Ali © Ying Ang
Leonard’s House of Love in South Yarra
Leonard’s House of Love in South Yarra

Melbourne’s reputation for fantastic espresso is well deserved. The city is dotted with buzzy cafés that draw big crowds, but I prefer the low-key atmosphere at Wynyard, a laneway haunt in South Melbourne. On a Sunday morning, my friends and I will grab stools up the back and order long blacks and avocado toast. Another South Melbourne institution is St Ali, which achieves a neat trifecta: great vibe, great coffee and great people-watching.

Most pubs in Melbourne are fairly civilised, but if I want to let off steam, I’ll visit Leonard’s House of Love, an under-the-radar place in South Yarra where they play extremely loud heavy-metal music. The beer is good, and they serve some of the best unhealthy bar food I’ve tried. I was first taken here by friends from the Ballet, and we had a night of it, dancing until 2am. It’s the sort of place where you lose track of time and never feel rushed out.

The single-screen Astor Theatre
The single-screen Astor Theatre © Alamy

From Leonard’s, it’s a 20-minute stroll down Chapel Street to The Astor Theatre, an old-fashioned single-screen cinema with a wonderfully ornate interior. The programming is inspired: it’s mostly cult classics, from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Akira to John Hughes double features and seasonal specials such as The Exorcist on Halloween. Visiting The Astor is a combination of nostalgia and escapism for me. Because I’m so busy in my new role, I cherish the occasional two-hour window when I’m obliged to switch off my phone.

The beachside neighbourhood of St Kilda
The beachside neighbourhood of St Kilda © Alamy
Duck served at Cumulus Inc
Duck served at Cumulus Inc © Jojo McGann

The Astor is located in St Kilda, a diverse beachside neighbourhood that’s full of restaurants and nightlife options. For a sit-down dinner, I’ll book a table at Donovans, which is a real locals’ venue: almost everyone there seems to know the owners. They serve unfussy bistro fare, like seafood linguine and short ribs, on white tablecloths and with a killer wine list.

I’m also a fan of dinner at Cumulus Inc in the CBD [Central Business District]. It’s been a mainstay venue for many years, and restaurateur Andrew McConnell has become an elder statesman of the local food scene. The atmosphere is sophisticated yet approachable – very Melbourne – and so is McConnell’s food. It’s hard to go past the slow-roasted lamb shoulder.

“Full of surprises” – the Royal Botanical Gardens Victoria
“Full of surprises” – the Royal Botanical Gardens Victoria © Alamy

When friends visit Melbourne, I steer them towards United Places, a superb little hotel that opened in 2018 in South Yarra. The rooms are gorgeous but the USP is the hotel’s location, on the edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. The gardens are splendid and full of surprises. There’s a particular spot where, towards sunset, hundreds of native bellbirds congregate and sing to each other: ding ding, just like bells. It’s so meditative and beautiful. The exact location is a secret, so you’ll need to ask a resident when you arrive.

I’ll also take visiting friends on a mini-tour of Melbourne’s independent retail scene. In Collingwood, there’s a Japanese café/shop called CIBI with Japan-made homewares, clothing and gifts. Nearby, in Fitzroy, the ceramics company Mud Australia has a sizeable store. Each piece of porcelain is handmade, with a minimal but colourful aesthetic. Mud has outposts in London and New York, too, but the stock is more varied in Australia.

CIBI sells Japan-made homewares, clothing and gifts
CIBI sells Japan-made homewares, clothing and gifts © Mark Roper
“Second to none”: Trend Optic shop
“Second to none”: Trend Optic shop

In the CBD, there’s a brilliant glasses store called Trend Optic where I just purchased a handsome pair of Ahlem frames. Before I moved to Melbourne, I’d been searching for glasses for a long time. I looked all over New York, but nothing was quite right. Within minutes of walking in here, I’d found my pair. The curation is second to none.

David Hallberg outside St Ali
David Hallberg outside St Ali © Ying Ang

The CBD’s defining feature is its network of laneways. They run parallel to all the major streets and are dotted with independent shops and hidden nightspots. When I first came to Melbourne, I walked those laneways constantly. I still love café-hopping there on a Sunday afternoon, one great cup of coffee after another, in lively venues such as Dukes Coffee Roasters.

The quality of Melbourne’s cultural institutions was a big draw when I was thinking about moving here. The National Gallery of Victoria, in particular, is a powerhouse. It’s made visual art very accessible. And it embraces variety. I saw a wonderful David Hockney exhibition there years ago, and the permanent collection includes works by Warhol and Rothko, but historic European art features prominently, too.

The National Gallery of Victoria
The National Gallery of Victoria © Alamy
Dance company Lucy Guerin Inc is based in the city
Dance company Lucy Guerin Inc is based in the city © Gregory Lorenzutti

And of course Melbourne is a well-established centre for dance – the fact that The Australian Ballet is headquartered here, rather than Sydney, speaks to the quality of the scene. There is so much talent – not just classical dancers, but modern dancers of an international calibre, too. I like to attend performances by some of the smaller companies, including Phillip Adams BalletLab, Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin Inc and Stephanie Lake Company.

Since I arrived in 2020, I’ve been very focused on work. I’ve loved getting to know the dancers and shaping a new vision for The Australian Ballet that’s grounded in invigorating repertoire. It hasn’t left me with much free time – yet I already feel completely settled here, and comfortable. I find Melburnians to be open to life, to experiences and to newcomers. There’s no air of exclusivity. I think that’s also true of Australia in general.

Get alerts on Travel when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section