Roll up ladies and gents, roll up to Melbourne and enjoy the show. Even for a place that prides itself on its arts, culture and general razzle-dazzle, the city is outdoing itself this winter. There are three blockbuster international exhibitions in town, showcasing everything from priceless art to human tragedy, and the crowds are thronging to see them.
The Australian Centre for the Moving Image attracted more than 100,000 visitors in the first month of its Tim Burton exhibition, and that's hardly surprising, because this quirky show appeals on several levels. Movie fans will love the memorabilia from the director's hit films, including the costume Johnny Depp wore in Edward Scissorhands (who knew he was so tiny?), three of Batman's masks, severed heads from Mars Attacks and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman suit.
But the collection also takes us deep inside the mind of one of Hollywood's most offbeat talents, showing how his fascination with pop culture helped him survive a misfit childhood in Burbank, California. His early drawings and creative projects are among the 700 different items on display in this, the largest temporary show to be staged at the ACMI.
There's an opportunity to examine how Burton's eccentric outpourings are translated to the big screen and there are some rare treasures, including his 1983 TV version of Hansel and Gretel, long thought to be lost, and the original puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas, now so fragile they're kept in a refrigerated case.
Originally staged at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Burton has collaborated to create several exhibits especially for this display, like the large-scale models of his distinctive long-legged, top-heavy characters.
But perhaps the most fascinating pieces of ephemera are the bits and pieces uncovered in his personal archive - verses, quick sketches - a treasure trove Burton has stored away over the decades, much of it forgotten until the curators came along.
Art of a more conventional kind is on show down the road at the National Gallery of Victoria. Paintings by the big names of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Degas, Cezanne, Munch, Picasso and Monet, grace the walls. The works' usual lodgings at Germany's Stadel Museum are undergoing renovations, so for the first (and probably last) time, they have been allowed to leave Frankfurt en masse.
European Masters shows not just how art was transformed over the period, but also highlights the impact of two world wars on the artists themselves, particularly the German painter Max Beckmann.
There are works here that will be instantly familiar, like Degas' Orchestra Musicians and Monet's The Luncheon, and other lesser-known pieces by artists who went on to do great things.
If giving these masterpieces the attention they deserve saps the energy, head upstairs afterwards to the Tea Room for a restorative cuppa and a couple of French macaroons (I recommend the coconut one, but vodka and lime is good too).
Once properly restored, tackle the final exhibition on Melbourne's winter calendar. Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition traces the story of the ill-fated ship, from its creation to its sinking, and the subsequent salvage of objects from the wreck site.
There's a host of personal objects, such as toothpaste jars, buttons and jewellery, as well a two-ton section of the ship's hull on display, but this exhibition isn't just about looking at things in glass cases. As you enter, you're handed a "boarding pass" that assigns you the name and potted history of one of the passengers.
Once you've walked past the recreations of the cabins, stood on the grand staircase, heard the engine noise and listened to the orchestra, read the menus and even touched an iceberg, you can check whether you were one of the 705 saved or among the 1523 lost to the icy waters.
My passenger, Marie Marthe Thuillard, ended up on the Titanic only because the ship she was booked to sail on originally went in for repairs and she got jittery and switched her ticket. Just 23, travelling second class and alone, it was a relief to discover she'd survived.
While the footage of the wreck and the painstaking efforts to retrieve and preserve artefacts are fascinating, it's this human element - and the stories of bravery and sacrifice - that make the exhibition so compelling. The only false note is struck when you leave the final and most poignant chamber and are pitched into the gift shop selling newly minted souvenirs of the tragedy. I was especially baffled by the Titanic pillowcases.
But arguably the most spectacular spectacle on offer in Victoria right now isn't an exhibition, it's a musical. A lavish new production of children's favourite Mary Poppins is onstage at Her Majesty's Theatre. Based on the books by P.L. Travers and the classic 1964 Disney film, it features tap-dancing on the ceiling and the super-nanny herself flying out over the audience.
It was a challenge to find an actress to fill the role of Mary Poppins and more than 1000 performers were auditioned in New Zealand and Australia before Verity Hunt-Ballard was cast. Legendary producer Cameron Macintosh reckons she's "one of the greatest Marys of all time", but in fact everything about this production is outstanding - from the highwire flying, to the sets, the singing and the dancing. It's almost impossible not to hum "chim chim cheroo" as you leave the theatre and start wending your way through the lanes in search of a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
IF YOU GO
* Tim Burton: The exhibition runs until Sunday, October 10 at the ACMI. See www.acmi.net.au
* The European Masters exhibition continues until Sunday, October 10 at the National Gallery of Victoria - www.ngv.vic.gov.au
* Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition is on at the Melbourne Museum until October 17. Details at www.titanicmelbourne.com
* Mary Poppins - www.marypoppinsthemusical.com.au
WHERE TO EAT
This is a city that loves art and culture. It also loves to eat and drink. My hot picks right now are:
* St Ali, for modern South-East Asian food (18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne - (03) 9686 2990). By day, this hidden gem is a cafe but at night, from Wednesday to Saturday, it's about spice. Try the twice-cooked duck and the red tempeh curry.
* For tapas, head to Movida (1 Hosier Lane - (03) 9663 3038). This cosy bar serves Spanish delights - anchovies with smoked tomato sorbet, prawn and chorizo empanadillos and classic churros and chocolate for dessert.
* For risotto, try Tutto Bene (mid-level Southgate - (03) 9696 3334). Look for the one with artichokes and walnut pesto.By Nicky Pellegrino