Thursday, February 03, 2011

Sydney vs. Melbourne

Sydney and Melbourne: it’s hard to imagine how two cities in the same country, located reasonably close together and in similar geographic settings, can be so different.  But alas, how different they are!  The causes are numerous, and include history and politics.  Yet these are well documented and a little dull, so rather than analyze the why, what follows are my observations as to how.

If Sydney was a high school kid, she’d be the good looking one who excels at everything, from scholastic pursuits to varsity sports. She’s brash, confident and bound to succeed.  As if in direct response to Sydney’s clean-cut image, Melbourne has decided to be one of the cool kids hanging out by the smoking doors.  With her edgy personality and self-assured funkiness she turns out just fine too, thank you very much.

Opera House

Sydney has the harbour, and oh what a harbour it is!  As the saying goes it’s all about location, location, location.  Sydney has more waterfront than I’ve ever seen.  A tour guide alleged that there’s 56 km of it within the city.  Whether true or not (this particular operator regaled us with Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, and Billy Ocean as we toured the harbour, which to me discredits anything they had to say),  there’s enough to provide ample opportunity for stunning vistas and seaside activities.  And as if the harbour isn’t enough on its own, Sydney has thrown in The Bridge and The Opera House just so there’s absolutely no debate as to who is the fairest of them all.

Melbourne Skyline over the Yarra River

Melbourne has waterfront, too, with much of it quite beautiful.  But the city isn’t centered on the ocean; rather the CBD (central business district) has built up around the winding Yarra River.  The Eureka Tower is the obvious landmark.  Standing 297 m above the banks of the Yarra, it is visible from many miles away and is easily the tallest "inhabitable" building in the southern hemisphere?  (A tower in Queensland is taller by means of a radio antenna on the roof.  Hardly comparable.)  It is the centerpiece of a very pleasant, modern central core where skyscrapers meet bike paths and café culture.  Still, no matter what Melbourne’s best efforts could be, as far as location and natural beauty are concerned, Sydney gets the nod.

Central Quay is the hub of Sydney harbour, teaming with charming yellow and green ferries connecting many of the outlying neighbourhoods to Sydney’s CBD.  The harbour is a constant coming and going of ferries of all sizes, with the odd cruise ship added to the mix for good measure.  The quay is alive every day of the week, with tourists and business types alike, creating the perfect location for street performers and mini-marts that charge exorbitant amounts of money for a 0.5 l bottle of water.
Harbour Bridge from Central Quay

Melbourne’s alternative to the ferries is trams.  The entire city is connected by a network of trams that run on tracks down the center of most major roads in Melbourne.  Some of the trams are modern, while others date back to the days of wooden slat seats.  It’s a comprehensive, if not painfully slow, means of getting about town.  The trams have a certain aesthetic appeal, yet my vote would likely be for the ferries - save for one peculiarity resulting from the trams that is completely unique to Melbourne:  Hook Turns.

Now remember that Australians drive on the left side of the road, so a right hand turn crosses the path of oncoming traffic.  Anywhere else in the world, a right hand turn would be done by pulling into the right lane, or right turn lane, and yielding until it’s safe to turn.  But in Melbourne the trams take up the middle of the main roads and they have the right of way.  Thus on these roads (and to complicate matters, only on these roads) an alternative had to be devised. 

Enter the Hook Turn.  Instead of occupying the right lane when they want to turn right, Melbourne drivers pull over to the curb lane and wait until the light turns yellow.  At this point, once they determine it’s safe to do so, they crank the wheel to the right and dart through the intersection across all the lanes of traffic.  I don’t think I’ve got the nerve to do this as it seems to me there would never be a safe time to dart across 4 to 6 lanes of traffic, not to mention two tram lines, in the middle of an intersection.  I would probably either keep driving straight and go somewhere else, or opt for the “three lefts make a right” strategy. 

Regardless, because of the funky Melbourne Hook Turn, I call ferries vs. trams a tie.

Eating and drinking in Sydney is done on a large scale.  Restaurants tend to be of a very expansive open area style.  They’re modern, busy, loud and expensive.  It’s that brash confidence coming out.  Drinking establishments tend to be the same way.  Everything’s a big beer garden.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because when it’s on, it’s on!

Melbourne is all about cool.  Restaurants trend towards small bistros, as opposed to Sydney’s sprawling brasseries.  Likewise, the pubs and bars in Melbourne are just that, pubs and bars.  Large beer gardens are present, but not the norm.  Thus, Melbourne’s numerous eating and drinking establishments are generally small and free to try whatever they please.  In fact, they need to be unique and creative to attract patrons.  This breeds creativity and style, something those kids at the smoking doors seemed to possess in abundance.  The result is something that, in my opinion, Sydney lacks; variety.  And after all, variety is the spice of dining and boozing.  Melbourne is my choice for a meal or libation.

So far we’ve established that both Sydney and Melbourne have their own distinct personalities and inclinations.   So who wins, and why? 

For me, the winner needs to possess something completely unique that sets them apart, from not only the competitor in this little tilt, but other cities around the world.  And for me that thing is Melbourne’s laneways.  I don’t know what substance they were smoking at the smoking doors, but it inspired Melbourne to reclaim most of its CBD alleyways and convert them into a maze of pedestrian walkways, lined with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.  Some are posh, others are covered in graffiti, but it all seems to work in a way that brings vitality and energy to the city’s core.
Laneway Art

I’m not saying that Sydney doesn’t have an energy and vitality of its own.  It possesses ample individuality amongst its myriad neighbourhoods.  Still, so do many other great cities.  What none of them have is the laneways.  Sydney vs. Melbourne?  I say Melbourne. 

(Oh, and I almost forgot.  Another area that sets Melbourne apart is the live music scene.  It’s no secret that I love live music, and Melbourne is full of live music venues.  It’s got heaps of small clubs and bigger venues.  What do you think the kids at the smoking doors were doing while the other kids played sports?  They were in a dark basement somewhere learning how to play guitar.  So it only makes sense that Melbourne would have dingy places down grimy alleyways for the bands to play.  Melbourne has had a vibrant music scene for years, something that has been strangely absent from Sydney.  Nick Cave over the Opera House?  In my books, absolutely!)

Full disclosure: Before you think this was a completely unbiased comparison, I must admit to having a number of good friends who live in Melbourne (with whom I’ve stayed with on more than one occasion) while I don’t know a soul in Sydney.  If I had chosen Sydney, I’d have never heard the end of it, and would probably have been banned from ever setting foot in Melbourne again!  My hands are tied…