Australia's green and cosmopolitan bayside city is in bloom with open-air cinemas, al fresco cafés and cycle trails that lead to seaside suburbs
This creative bayside city comes alive in December, at the start of the long summer. Melbourne Now, an ambitious arts festival, is currently under way (until 26 March, 2014) at the National Gallery of Victoria.
The biggest exhibition in the venue's history, it provides an excellent overview of the cultural scene.
Get your bearings
The grid-iron Central Business District (CBD) is at the heart of the city, on the Yarra river's north bank.
The tourist office is here, on the corner of Federation Square (visitvictoria.com; 9am-6pm daily). The gentrified eastern suburbs of Fitzroy, Richmond and South Yarra offer a plethora of shops, restaurants and cafés. Melbourne is often called Australia's "Garden City" thanks to its extensive parks, which run either side of St Kilda Road across the river to the south. Trendy St Kilda itself is located along the golden beach that lines Port Phillip Bay. Trundling around the CBD on the City Circle tram is free, but for further afield, a Myki travelcard with one day's travel on it costs A$14 (£8) at rail stations or major bus or tram interchanges. The bike-share scheme has 50 stations and costs A$2.80 (£1.60) a day to join – helmets compulsory.
Take a view
The Eureka Skydeck at 7 Riverside Quay (eurekaskydeck.com.au), has a 360-degree observation deck on the 88th floor and an incredible view to the Dandenong Mountains to the east. Those with steady nerves can step on "The Edge", a glass-floored viewing platform, to look at the street 300m below. The admission is A$18.50 (£10.60), but keep the ticket and return later in the day to see the stars in the night sky for only A$3.50 (£2) extra.
Get into the maze of lanes and arcades between Collins and Lonsdale streets. Madam Virtue & Co at 5 Crossley Street (madamvirtue.com.au) offers one-off designer garments and haute couture. Closed Sunday. Upstairs at 2 Somerset Place, Captains of Industry (captainsofindustry.com.au) offers bespoke menswear and handmade shoes.
Take a hike
Admire the street art on Union Lane before heading north on to Bourke Street to check out the animated Christmas window displays at Myer department store, which have become a Melbourne institution. Follow Swanston Street north to the City Baths, then take a right along Victoria Street past Old Melbourne Gaol, an imposing bluestone building where bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged in 1880.
Wander the length of Carlton Gardens past Melbourne Museum then follow Moor Street to the foot of Fitzroy's thriving Brunswick Street, known for its live-music venues and vintage fashion stores. Take a left, then left again after six blocks to find Rose Street Artists' Market at 60 Rose Street (rosestmarket.com.au; weekends, 11am-5pm) where emerging artists and designers sell their wares.
Dining with the locals
A few doors down, Naked in the Sky at 285 Brunswick Street (nakedforsatan.com.au) serves peasant-style Basque food with spectacular views over the city from its rooftop restaurant. The grilled octopus with potato purée costs A$26 (£15). Open late, no reservations. Alternatively, head back into town to Cumulus Inc at 45 Flinders Lane (cumulusinc.com.au) for drinks and unpretentious food in this airy, minimal eatery. Try to get a seat at the marble bar overlooking the kitchen. Open daily until 11pm.
Go to church
The neo-Gothic St Paul's Cathedral is on Flinders Street opposite Federation Square (www.stpaulscathedral.org.au). Highlights include the intricate tiled floors and distinctive banded stonework. Choral Eucharist starts 10.30am on Sundays.
Out to brunch
Melburnians take brunch very seriously. Every restaurant worth its salt will open early at the weekend with an offering at least as creative and exciting as its night-time menu. Linger over baked eggs with sausage (A$18.50/£10.60) or rice pudding and rhubarb (A$10.50/£6) while sitting in the sunshine outside The European at 161 Spring Street (theeuropean.com.au).
Walk in the park
From Spring Street, follow Treasury Lane past the government buildings to find lush Fitzroy Gardens (free entry). The fuchsia display in the Conservatory is at its peak at this time of year. Cook's Cottage near Wellington Parade (www.cookscottage.com.au; 9am-5pm; A$3.50/£1.80) was the childhood home of explorer James Cook, built in Yorkshire then reconstructed brick by brick here in the 1930s.
Take a ride
Cycle along the shores of Port Phillip Bay on the Bayside Trail from Cheetham Wetlands in the west to Curram to the south-east. Join the track at Station Pier in Port Melbourne and follow it down the beach for 5.5km to St Kilda, then break for a dip in the Sea Baths on the foreshore (stkildaseabaths.com.au). Tram 16 will drop you back in town at Flinders Street station.
The Ian Potter Centre on Federation Square (ngv.vic.gov.au; 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; free) is the National Gallery of Victoria's second site. It's devoted to Australian art, from the colonial period to the present day, and includes work both from indigenous and non-indigenous artists.
Icing on the cake
Open-air cinemas are all the rage. The Moonlight Cinema at the Royal Botanic Gardens in South Yarra, has been running the longest. Gates open at 7pm, screening starts at sundown – until 30 March (moonlight.com.au). Or try the Shadow Electric in the beautiful grounds of Abbotsford Convent on St Heliers Street, for highbrow fare until 24 January (shadowelectric.com.au).