Melbourne is famous for its intimate lanes and arcades criss-crossing the city’s commercial heart, although their existence is more an accident of flagrant subdivision than by any grand design. Their history is palpable: impenetrable bluestone, cast iron, marble, mosaic tiles, weather-worn timber, polychromatic bricks, polite signage, peeling and faded paint, the smell of coffee and sometimes garbage too – the same as it has been since the town’s earliest days.
In 1856 there were 80 named lanes in the CBD (and many more not named); by 1895 there were 156 named lanes; by 1935 there were 235 lanes recorded. Since then some have been lost to major developments but others have been added, so lanes continue to flourish across the grid – the busiest are in the blocks between Russell and Queen streets, from Flinders Street through to La Trobe Street – and there’s always something new to discover.
1. Degraves Street
Degraves Street is one of the city’s busiest lanes running between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane, just minutes from Federation Square. It’s full of cafés and boutique businesses such as an Australian branch of Italian stationery and bespoke accessories store Il Papiro, beautiful jewellery at Sine Qua Non and Victorian fine food specialties and gifts at Clementine’s.
2. Flinders Lane
Once the epicentre of the city’s rag trade, Flinders Lane is today a foodie and gallery hotspot. At the lane’s top end are two of acclaimed local chef Andrew McConnell’s restaurants — the classic Cumulus and the cutting-edge Supernormal. Craft Victoria’s exhibition space (in Watson Place) showcases the work of the state’s leading makers and fortyfivedownstairs is a hub for alternative theatre and art.
The queue that forms day and night outside the hip pan-Asian diner Chin Chin means there’s something good happening inside, but don’t stand in line when you can leave your number at the door and head downstairs to GoGo Bar for cocktails and canapés while you wait.
Around at another hip pan-Asian, Lucy Liu (23 Oliver Lane) – the menu regularly changes keeping people coming back for more. Inside the luxe Adelphi Hotel is Om Nom Kitchen which is open for lunch and dinner but its decadent desserts, including a degustation selection, are stand-out.
One of the best views in Melbourne is from the window benches at Journal Canteen (253 Flinders Lane) opposite the lane’s entrance – particularly at lunchtime when you can sup on home-style Italian food like Nonna used to make and watch a ray of sunlight briefly light up the bustling lane.
3. Centre Place
Tiny Centre Place is Melbourne’s most popular laneway with cafés crowded cheek by jowl with designer boutiques. Stop at Jungle Juice for an international coffee, dumplings at ShanDong MaMa Mini and browse fashion and accessories at independent Melbourne design house Kinki Gerlinki, then clamber up the narrow stairs to Hell's Kitchen and survey the scene below over a cold beer.
4. Block Arcade
Cross Collins Street to the magnificent Block Arcade which was built at the very height of Melbourne’s 19th century land boom. Take a stroll along the arcade’s opulent mosaic-tiled floor (or take a guided tour to hear the history), indulge yourself at heritage chocolatier Haighs or take tea at the Hopetoun Tearooms, which has been in the arcade since it opened in 1892.
5. Royal Arcade
The Royal is the oldest arcade in Australia. When it opened in 1870 it included a Turkish bath and an eclectic collection of retailers including the Old Curiosity Shop itself selling opossum rugs, furs and native curiosities as well as clock-maker and jeweller Thomas Gaunt & Co. One of their clocks still chimes every hour at the southern end of the arcade, guarded by the mythical giants Gog and Magog. Current tenants are equally as eclectic, from Canturi’s glamorous jewels to psychic readings and all the tools for contemporary witchcraft at Spellbox.
Exit Royal Arcade on Bourke Street Mall and head right to do a circuit back to Little Collins Street through the natural street art gallery that is Union Lane.
6. Howey Place
The glass roof of Howey Place is all that remains of Cole’s Book Arcade, which once stretched from Bourke Street all the way to Collins Street. Amble down here to find more arcades to explore, including Presgrave Place which retains an old-school laneway vibe with kitschy, framed artworks lining the brick walls and look up to see the Banksy-inspired rat sculptures hanging above. But don’t be deceived by the grimy exterior – 30ml coffee serves up a world class brew and Bar Americano (20 Presgrave Place) – open early for coffee and late for cocktails – is standing room only and oh, so worth it.
Walk on to the Manchester Unity Building (220 Collins Street) and ask about tours of the historic building and the arcade it inhabits while enjoying lunch at 1932 café They offer meal and tour packages once a month on a Sunday that include breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea.
7. Crossley Street
At the top end of Bourke Street, Crossley Street is my favourite laneway. Iconic Italian Pellegrini’s is here (stop for home-style lasagna, watermelon granita and a happy snap in front of their cursive neon sign) or go upscale at Becco or Gingerboy. The Paperback Bookshop is another popular haunt that’s been around since the 1960s, open until late (10-11.30pm except Sunday) – as well as the gorgeous hole-in-the-wall café Traveller by Seven Seeds.
For the fashionistas, Lucy Folk and Gallery Funaki specialise in contemporary Australian jewellery, Madame Virtue and Blonde Venus in designer womenswear. Worn out? Intimate bar Romeo Lane opens at 5pm most days (3pm Friday and Saturday) serving top shelf liquor from one of the oldest buildings in town.
8. AC/DC Lane
In more recent times there has been a spate of naming and renaming the city’s laneways after its famous residents. Dame Edna got one off Little Collins Street, Divinyls’ Chrissy Amphlett got one off Little Bourke Street, but Australian rock band AC/DC was the first to score one in 2004 in honour of their years spent in Melbourne in the 1970s and their worldwide rise to fame. The lane – off Flinders Lane between Exhibition and Russell Streets – once was home to the raucous Cherry Bar rocking out the alley with live music but now the centre of attention is Pastuso and its Peruvian vibe in street food and cocktails.
The lane meanders around to Duckboard Place, where hipster eateries Tonka (modern Indian) and Lee Ho Fook (which chef Victor Liong calls “cheeky” Chinese) hold court.
9. Russell Place
This tiny lane is full of Melbourne heroes such as legendary diner Sarti, Melbourne bar king Vernon Chalker’s Gin Palace and Bar Ampere, and Con Christopoulos’s Neapoli – all open well into the night. By day, get your retail fix at contemporary Australian jeweller Pieces of Eight, men’s fashion at I Love Ugly, and shoes at 124.
10. Hosier Lane
Instagram heaven and known the world-over for the street art that covers the entire lane, Hosier is also home to stalwart bar Misty and Frank Camorra’s Spanish tapas bar MoVida and Bar Tini, popular spots for refreshments before a live gig at the Forum Theatre.