Greg Fleming takes a caffeine-fuelled trip to Australia's cultural capital

It had been 12 years since I'd visited one of my favourite cities, and the rapid rate of change was evident from our taxi as we drove in from Tullamarine airport. A swathe of new buildings and cranes littered the skyline (there's a three-year wait to hire them apparently, such is the demand).

The Eureka Tower, one of the tallest residential buildings in the world at 91 floors, towered above them all — the winter sun glinting off the top 10 storeys' gold-plated windows; a visual representation of the city's new found confidence and a tip to its goldrush beginnings.

Sydney might be bigger — and it has that harbour — but Melbourne is its younger, smarter, bookish sister, and she's growing up fast.

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By 2030 it's predicted Melbourne will overtake Sydney population-wise.

Its mix of colonial history, immigrant verve and up-to-the-minute fashion, food and art give it an air of adventure and daring, and mean it's a great place to visit all year round.

The Yarra River. Photo / Supplied
The Yarra River. Photo / Supplied

DAY 1

Perfect Pasta

First thing on the agenda was food.

I wanted to check out the much-lauded Attica, featuring Kiwi superstar chef Ben Shewry, and considered one of the best restaurants in the world — but you need to book six months in advance.

Of course, there are many more affordable and accessible options. Melbourne's a great city for food.

Tipo 00's reputation for serving great pasta had us strolling across Princes bridge, stopping for the obligatory photo against the Melbourne skyline, and up to busy Little Bourke St.

Rabbit and Oregano tagliatelle at Tipo 00. Photo / Supplied
Rabbit and Oregano tagliatelle at Tipo 00. Photo / Supplied

We lucked out and managed to secure seats at the bar after a brief wait. It's a great spot to watch the action unfold on the large plating table; chefs garnishing plates, meat being sliced.

The house-made warm focaccia, served with a generous dollop of fresh ricotta, got things off to a great start.

Sydney might be bigger - and it has that harbour - but Melbourne is its younger, smarter, bookish sister, and she's growing up fast

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But we realised why this small, 40-seat pasta bar was heaving with diners at 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, when our mains arrived.

Pasta is so simple we often take it for granted.

Tipo 00 does not, but they don't fuss with it either.

Named after the flour with which pasta is made, Tipo specialises in rustic Italian cuisine with a modern twist and was voted the 7th-best restaurant in Australia at the Australian Financial Review 2017 awards.

Their most popular dish is Gnocchi di patate ($28), braised duck, porcini mushroom and pecorino, but I couldn't go past the classic tagliatelle with Gippsland rabbit, olives and oregano ($29).

It was so good I went back a couple of days later for more.

DAY 2

The Great Ocean Road

Early the next morning, we boarded an AAT Kings coach and set off for The Great Ocean Rd.

This 12-hour round-trip tour takes sightseers out through the Westgate Freeway and on to the magnificent coastal road, with stops at Apollo Bay, Anglesea (a popular holiday town in summer — the equivalent of our Whangamata) and Port Campbell.

Our guide Mark kept up an engaging commentary much of the way, pointing out places of significance, and gave us some info on the history of the road, which opened in 1932. The coastline is beautiful but treacherous, and he also covered some of the famous shipwrecks the coast has claimed, as well as some of the surfspots; Keanu Reeves' Point Break was filmed at one of these beaches.

The sightseeing highpoint is The Twelve Apostles, limestone stacks that rise dramatically from the Southern Ocean. There aren't 12 any longer — thanks to the sea's erosive power — but it's an impressive sight nevertheless.

The tour then continues inland through rainforests and farmland back to Melbourne, where we were dropped back at our hotel in time for a late dinner.

It was a great day out of the city, the coaches are clean and modern, and expect that Instagram-friendly coastline to claim many megabytes on your phone. Melbourne city offers so much it's easy to forget the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape. For our next trip we've pencilled in another AAT Kings tour to trendy Mornington Peninsula to the south-east.

Beauty of a different sort greeted us back at The Langham when we pulled back the curtains of our 17th-floor room to the dazzling spectacle of Melbourne's city lights.

DAY 3

Hidden Secrets and The Cup of Truth

First we had a quick coffee at The Cup of Truth — located underground at Flinders Station, another great no-bells-and-whistles coffee spot — where you simply throw your coins in a giant tea cup (no Eftpos available) and pick out your correct change. Then after a quick breakfast of Gozleme ($10) (spinach and feta in Turkish flatbread) from a food truck in Federation Square, we joined the Hidden Secrets Tour.

This guided tour explores Melbourne's laneways and historic arcades in groups of no more than eight — there's plenty of gossip, historical intrigue and culture. And no, these aren't games arcades but beautiful retail arcades built in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Our guide Amy was a passionate local and the three-hour tour took in food, culture, street-life and architecture and fun facts, such as how the large windows from one historic arcade were shipped from England covered in molasses to keep them from breaking. Once the cargo arrived safely, the lucky horses were tasked with licking off the molasses.

Our sweet treat mid-way through the tour was artisan chocolates and coffee from a local chocolate shop.

You also see some of the vibrant street art in Degraves and Union St and Hosier Lane, the artwork, which is ever-changing, and keep an eye out for masked artists with spray cans crafting their temporary creations.

A street artist at work in Hosier Lane. Photo / Greg Fleming
A street artist at work in Hosier Lane. Photo / Greg Fleming

I always enjoy tours like this as they reveal another layer to a city — there's not a whole lot of walking involved and there's also a coffee and chocolate stop.

Amy's commentary deftly brought to life a city with a rich, colourful history and complicated past.

The Melbourne Observation Wheel. Photo / Greg Fleming
The Melbourne Observation Wheel. Photo / Greg Fleming

ALTITUDE

Also new since our last visit was the Melbourne Observation wheel.

It's in the new Docklands waterfront area — shops, restaurants, cafes — get there on the free City Circle tram.

Altitude's a great way for newcomers to get their bearings on this expansive city and in hindsight, we should've done this on arrival.

You travel as high as a 40-storey building and get incredible views that extend from the city and surrounds, right out to Mount Macedon and the Dandenong Ranges.

Although it looks like a ferris wheel, the cabins are fully enclosed, and an audio commentary points out sites of significance as your cabin slowly ascends. A full rotation takes about 30 minutes.

The rest of the afternoon was spent shopping (for them) and eating (for me).

We tried Chin Chin in Flinders Lane for lunch, often described as Melbourne's busiest restaurant. It was, but we got a table after a short wait and my egg noodle with pork mince was excellent. The Asian theme even extends to the bathrooms, which play continuous taped Thai language lessons.

Fun fact — each week, the kitchen staff hand-pick around 7000 bunches of coriander, Thai basil and Vietnamese mint.

Why? To avoid the bruising, imperfect work of a machine.

More Asian cuisine was to come when we hit the new-to-Melbourne Din Tai Fung Taiwanese dumpling franchise in the Emporium shopping centre for dinner.

This is high-tech fast food that doesn't forget the flavour, even Parts Unknown's Anthony Bourdain is a fan; he reckons the soup dumpling is the one dish he would travel halfway around the world for.

It's all done with scientific precision and the servers who bring the dishes from the glassed-in kitchen wear facemasks.

Their kung pao chicken is excellent I hope they bring a branch to Auckland.

All this food was interspersed with frequent visits to Dukes for coffee — which meant I was up looking at those city lights from the 17th floor till the early hours.

Plenty of time to sleep on the plane.

THE ITINERARY

FOOD

So many great places in Melbourne but try these affordable, family friendly spots

Tipo 00 — Rightly celebrated Italian pasta bar. Little Bourke Street CBD

Chin Chin — Asian, try the egg noodles. Flinders Lane CBD.

Din Tai Fung — Dumplings, noodles — fun and delicious. Emporium shopping centre top floor, CBD

COFFEE

Melbourne's coffee culture is second-to-none; so when locals recommended Dukes in Flinders Lane I listened. Good choice — great coffee, though you will have to queue.

Also expect to wait at Brother Baba Budan in Little Bourke Street — and like Duke's it's all about coffee — yes, they sell a few cakes and pastries but their stock-in-trade is great takeaway coffee. But to be honest it's pretty hard to get a bad coffee anywhere here — the standards are so high anyone serving sub-par jafa wouldn't last long.

The grungy Cup of Truth in Flinder's Station is good too.
Yes you'll find the odd Starbucks, but very few; the sheer quantity of great coffee spots means there's simply no market for the rapacious global chain.

NICK CAVE'S NOTEBOOKS

Check out the Melbourne Arts Centre, while looking for a restroom we stumbled on a display of Nick Cave's songwriting notebooks — it turns out Cave donated a large collection of these to the Centre in 2007 and the display is semi-permanent.

GETTING AROUND

Melbourne's grid layout makes it easy city to navigate. There's a free tram that runs every 10 minutes in the CBD and Docklands circling the inner-city.

WHERE TO STAY

The Langham, a 5 star hotel right in the centre of things on Southbank. The views out across the Yarra River to the city are spectacular.