Melbourne’s laneways are the soul of the city. Learn your way around these hidden pathways and you will discover that Melbourne, not Sydney, is the center of art, fashion and café life in Australia. (And for those who don’t know the term, a laneway is a collective term for narrow streets and alleyways that weave around Melbourne’s central business district.)
“The laneways are our bloodlines. They are where our heritage blends with younger entrepreneurs making their mark in the city,” says Fiona Sweetman, director of Melbourne’s Hidden Secrets Tours.
Melbourne’s character was forged after the 1850s gold rush when for a short time it became the wealthiest city on the planet. Large ornate public buildings were built on the bullock-dray-wide avenues whilst in the narrow streets behind, small workshops, stables and factories serviced the burgeoning city. Flinders Lane, for instance, became the focus of the garment industry, fueled largely by Jewish immigrants from Central Europe. Twenty years ago, nobody wanted these work spaces so artists snapped up the cheap rents.
In the early 1990s there must have been ten buildings with more than 2000 artists living in them on Flinders Lane alone. Artists started the first cafes, bars and funky shops in the laneways, often building the fit-outs themselves. In the process they set in motion the gentrification process that shot up rents and forced them out. Still their spirit lives on because what people most enjoy about the laneways was created by artists when no one really was interested in the city.
The bluestone-cobbled Hosier Lane is the epicenter of Melbourne’s throbbing street art scene with stencils, sticker art and graffiti on every surface imaginable, including the garbage bins. Thousands of tourists flock here, some trying in vain to find one of the stenciled rats of celebrated British street artist Banksy, which was accidentally removed by the Melbourne City Council.
The best way to find some of the hidden treasures tucked into Melbourne’s laneways is to start walking. Start with exploring the entire length of Flinders Lane and go up every side alley. You will have some amazing chance encounters. And this is just one of dozens of laneways in the city.
Here are some tips to get you started.
A great place to begin is Frank Camorra’s semi-submerged Spanish-tapas temple, Movida and its off-shoot Movida Next Door that sit comfortably in the urban grunge of Hosier Lane.
Just around the corner on Flinders Lane is e.g. et al, which showcases the work of contemporary Australian and New Zealand jewelers. “I often look up from my studio on Fridays and Saturdays and see brides and bridesmaids in their cones of white and pastel being photographed in front of the cool street art in Hosier Lane,” laughs owner Emma Goodsir. “Laneways are more conducive to expression and experiment because of their intimacy. People seem to take more risks here.”
“I don’t think anywhere else in the world has a laneway culture as strong as Melbourne’s,” says Emma. “And the street art adds vibrancy to the whole scene. I love that it is always changing and creates a youth culture in the city. The shops, too, are smaller and many of them don’t even have names on their doors, which gives people a sense of discovery when they find them.”
Case in point, at 181 Flinders Lane open a large red door and go down a few steps into the glamorous world of Christine, a boudoir-like temple to accessories and intimate apparel from London, Paris, Milan and local artisans. “I love the sense of occasion shopping here. It is sort of a high altar to women’s folly,” says former model, Janni Lawford.
Nearby, the minimalist design icon Adelphi Hotel offers Moderne rooms, a rooftop pool cantilevered over the street, and great Australian/Asian fusion food in Ezard’s sleek basement space.
Off the lobby of the Nicholson Building with its beautiful stained glass Art Deco ceiling (on the corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street), Alice Euphemia offers an eclectic, eccentric collection of independent Aussie designers. You might find geometric cut-outs on cotton jackets, psychotropic carryall bags, Lonely Heart lingerie and edgy gear from labels such as Romance was Born.
Alice Euphemia was hugely influential in the early days. So many designers lived in nearby studios so the shop started as an outlet for all their creative energy.
Nearby, Dukes Coffee Roasters is perfect for an excellent Melbourne coffee fix.
Around the corner in Degraves Street, you’ll need a local’s tip off to find Campbell Arcade in the Art Deco Degraves Street Subway station where Sticky Zines sells handcrafted artists magazines from all over the world and Platform Space, the longest running artists-run public art project in the CBD, offers quirky exhibitions in 12 former advertising windows along the pedestrian underpass to Flinders Street Station.
Not far away, the blue and gold Art Deco terracotta Majorca building overlooks the dark and perennially crowded Centre Way where the retro skirts and wacky shoes of Kinki Gerlinki jostle check by jowl with busy cafes.
Flinders Lane’s other underground hangouts traverse the world’s cuisines with confidence and authenticity. The perennially busy Thai-fusion Chin Chin restaurant is worth the wait while the sexy Coda specializes in Thai/French cuisine…think spring rolls with bone marrow, ginger and shiitake and duck liver parfait with Madeira jelly. Across Oliver Lane and down a few stairs is the unnamed oh-so-subtle Yu-u restaurant whose pared-down ambiance matches its exquisite modern Japanese fare. Up nearby George’s Parade is Il Solito Posto, a narrow bar and café that is the perfect spot for house-made gnocchi and a glass of Barolo.
If all this is sounding too bourgeois, the ever popular Cherry Bar rocks the block on nearby ACDC Lane, named after the Aussie rock band. Go on Thursday nights for vintage soul music on vinyl.
Near the top of Flinders Lane, Cumulus is an airy, all day café/bar whose shoe mould wall art hints at its shoe factory roots. Start with an organic breakfast as sun streams through the windows, follow up with lattes and divine lemon-curd madeleines and cruise through the evening with sharing platters washed down with a boutique beer or two. And to feed your artistic soul, Forty-five Downstairs, in the same building, dishes up shows that range from Gorky to burlesque in its edgy gallery and performance space.
And where Flinders Lane meets Spring Street, check out the uber cool Hihou Japanese bar. See my blog post on Melbourne’s coolest bars for more.
Melbourne’s laneways are indeed a great metaphor for the city itself. Sure it may not have Sydney’s showy harbor and oceanfront beaches but Melbourne’s hidden latticework of art, café culture, fashion and fabulous food richly reward the curious who scratch below the surface.
For more insights into Melbourne’s indie culture, check out www.threethousand.com.au
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