Consistently rated among the "world's most livable cities" in quality-of-life surveys, Melbourne is built on a coastal plain at the top of the giant horseshoe of Port Phillip Bay. The city center is an orderly grid of streets where the state parliament, banks, multinational corporations, and splendid Victorian buildings that sprang up in the wake of the gold rush still stand. This is Melbourne's heart, which you can explore at a leisurely pace in a couple of days.
In Southbank, one of the newer precincts south of the city center, the sprawling Crown Melbourne entertainment complex and the Southgate Centre's bars, restaurants, and shops have refocused Melbourne's vision on the Yarra River. Once a blighted stretch of factories and run-down warehouses, the southern bank of the river is now a vibrant, exciting part of the city, and the river itself is finally taking its rightful place in Melbourne's psyche.
Just a hop away, Federation Square—with its host of restaurants, galleries, and museums—has become a civic hub for both Melburnians and visitors. A subtler city icon, its "laneways" thread the city center between major streets and are home to fascinating bars, cafés, shops, and art galleries.
Melbourne's inner suburbs have a character all their own. Stroll along the Esplanade in St. Kilda, amble past the elegant houses of East Melbourne, enjoy the shops and cafés of Fitzroy or Carlton, rub shoulders with locals at the Queen Victoria Market, nip into the Windsor for afternoon tea, or rent a canoe at Studley Park to paddle along one of the prettiest stretches of the Yarra—and you may discover Melbourne's soul as well as its heart.