If you had told me that I was going to visit every single Eastern Australian Coast Capital in 2022, I would have told you to sod off because I don’t have time for such nonsense.
Yet that is precisely what I did.
It has been quite the experience to rate, compare and rank each Australian capital to each other.
Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney.
I visited them all and if you think that is the rank from best to worst, then you are absolutely correct, with a small caveat … Sydney is far, far, far worse than Hobart than what that tiny list suggests.
I would like to start this whole blog with a tiny writing exercise, in which I will attempt to capture the essence of each city in under 25 words or less.
Melbourne – The gilded metropolis, with an emphasis on contemporary aesthetics, whilst subtly weaving history and privilege into every aspect of urban planning. Attractive and convenient.
Brisbane – The River and Sun city. Picturesque, a little bit unassuming, but delightfully warm and relaxed. Far more urban, than one would expect from Queensland.
Hobart – Australian Gothic. A small city ruled by water, mountain, and fog. Scenic in the extreme, it has a dark side that creeps in via roadkill.
Sydney – The Janus town. Ugly and pretty, developed yet unkempt. Famous yet derided by all. A poorly designed mess that truly does not represent Australia well.
Melbourne – The Perfect City Design.
Obviously being born and raised in Melbourne, I have an overwhelming affection for my home town (to the point I actually visualise her as a woman, like the comic character The Spirit) but I also like to think objectively that it is undeniably true that Melbourne reigns supreme over all other capitals in Australia, purely because of its brilliant urban design and planning.
It is a city that has too much money to spend on itself, and so engages in self-care constantly as well opening its doors to the world, in a way that is thought provoking. Unlike other cities in Australia, Melbourne is obnoxiously snobbish, daring every tourist and traveller to truly explore her depths whilst sneering at those who just go to the boring tourist traps.
Amusingly, even Melbourne’s tourist traps are actually well designed to ensnare people further into exploring what they have to offer. Federation Square is a good example of this philosophy … it’s not just a horrible contemporary eye-sore, it’s also host to a cinema, a gallery and several excellent restaurants and is the most popular meeting spot before an adventure into the CBD.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Melbourne though are her outer suburbs like Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond and St Kilda. Each of these unique environments boast restaurants that rival anything in the city, in fact, quite a few of them surpasses the high standards of the CBD. To have such developed and sophisticated outer suburbs is almost uniquely Melburnian, which I believe is only made possible by her extensive tram network, which allows incredible access to Victoria as a whole.
Imagine a foreign Formula 1 fan coming to Victoria, to watch the Albert Park Grand Prix. With just one tram, they can get access to the famous St. Kilda Beaches, the South Melbourne Market, Melbourne Museum and Crown Casino and if they are going from Albert Park, all they have to do is wait 10 minutes to enter the CBD itself.
If, for some reason, they continue on that 96 tram, they can go all the way to Brunswick, a hip suburb with incredible Middle Eastern food.
Melbourne’s thriving diversity, interconnectivity and sheer abundance is all due to the cleverness of her urban design. Everything is future-proofed, to ensure maximum comfort for all who live in her borders. Even the overall architecture of Melbourne is a stunning cityscape of modern and historical, with real care and respect given to the bigger picture of what Melbourne should look like and does look like.
So if Melbourne is a sweeping, expensive and carefully curated town, what does that mean for my second favourite city, Brisbane?
Brisbane – Relax by the River and Sun.
If I have one slight complaint with Melbourne, it is almost too convenient. Everything is laid out in a grid, the most sensible urban planning decision on the Eastern Coast. You don’t quite get that sense of awe for the waterway as you do in other cities because the CBD is so tucked away and neatly organised.
Brisbane though, owns her waterway like no other city. The Brisbane river is a stunning feature that perks up the cityscape the moment you cross Brisbane’s multiple bridges. Just like Melbourne, the Arts centre/entertainment complex is on the “Southbank” however it is a lot more like an attractive, expensive island, compared to Melbourne’s version.
Brisbane’s urban design is a lot like the sunny disposition the entire state of Queensland is known for; sprawling, a little bit lazy and infinitely open. The streets really allow for the sun to shine down, and the capital’s slightly hilly nature really helps you capture the sense of how big, yet approachable the city is to walk. There are a lot more open spaces in Brisbane, such as the Brisbane City Hall or the Queen Street Mall.
These design choices, really accentuate the fact that Brisbane moves as a different pace to Melbourne. There isn’t a strong sense of urgency, nor does the city have that focus on corporate culture that is so iconic to Melbourne. The buildings don’t try to scrape the sky, there are more fun and homely pop ups like a trash/treasure bargain market in front of the library and in a lot of ways, the streets encourage you to slow down, because they stretch longer without interruptions.
However, Brisbane’s buildings are also a lot older. They have this worn feeling to them, that they have existed for many years, clinging onto an older, more quaint Australia. Their arcades and strips are older, less well maintained and are actually in use more than the ones in Melbourne, who in contrast, emphasizes the gimmicky nature of them, with more niche stores like divination shops or bric-a-bracs.
The trees also overhang the street more, casting a darker shade over the streets, to offer solace from the sun. Perhaps the most telling feature of all the cities I’ve visited, is that Brisbane doesn’t seem willing to give up her old, ill maintained shop fronts, a stark contrast to Melbourne, where the city always encourages a rapid turnover in order to keep up appearances.
By far my favourite feature of Brisbane though is the Streets Beach, which is an absolutely stunning idyllic Australian summer urban beach landscape. An actual urban beach, Street Beach overlooks the Brisbane River and the CBD, and is perfectly designed with a small tropical garden nearby, plenty of shop fronts and restaurants and more importantly, it is the perfect location for an event, large or small.
When I walked the area of Streets Beach, I was blown away by the intuitive design and genuinely wished I could host a festival of some sort in the space.
It also made me insanely jealous that Melbourne hadn’t thought of this feature yet.
To sum up, Brisbane is the perfect getaway city. Urban enough to make you feel the city vibes, but slow enough to differentiate it from your home town.
Hobart – The dark harbour town.
Hobart is easily the smallest city out of the four. But like a small dog, it barks very loudly. It makes up for its’ size with its sheer audacity. I’ve never been to a city where there is a theme to everything. Much like her Nordic counterparts, Hobart is dictated to and by the water. To experience’s Hobart magnificence is to literally see a city appear out of the fog, nestled along hills and facing the open ocean.
Driving around Hobart is a pleasure, with plenty of eye-catching moments of nature doing her best to awe you with her beauty. The snow-capped mountains are always a delight to see above the the city, clouds so close, that you can almost fool yourself into thinking you can touch them.
Back to the idea of a themed city, Hobart’s biggest focus is on the nautical. There is a Museum dedicated to all things maritime, restaurants really lean into the marine themes with riggings, pirate ships and other paraphernalia scattered everywhere as decoration and the actual heart of the city is actually based right on the waterfront.
By all appearances, entering Hobart is a lot like venturing ashore for the first time after a long voyage at sea. It is Australia’s Harbour town, small and welcoming to tourists but because of Tasmania’s isolated nature and harsher conditions, there is a chill to the friendliness.
Throughout the trip, I observed a slight arrogance amongst those who have lived there their whole lives, knowing that they’ve managed to carve a piece of paradise for themselves. I can sense that they are a little bit unhappy to share it, despite knowing tourists like myself sustain them.
It doesn’t take long to cover the entirety of the island of Tasmania, just a three hour drive from Devonport to Hobart, but everywhere you go, you can sense the almost Nordic loneliness that permeates the island, despite its’ beauty.
And on brand with her more famous cooler Northern European counterparts, Hobart’s food is excellent, no doubt spoilt by the freshness of all her ingredients. To add further comparison, many of the residents are dressed practically with typical winter colours of dark orange, greens and similar earth tones, and there are hundreds of houses that stretch up mountains with a strong communal sense about the city.
Everyone seemed to know each other and thus I definitely could sense how my, more fashionable choices in clothes, such as a long coat or a military outer jacket stood out from the more common down jackets and vests.
Architecture wise, Hobart captures the feeling of an older Australia, a snapshot into the past with her diverse styles all colliding together, that barely feature any modern aesthetics, a far cry from Melbourne’s ultra contemporary choices. This is a town proud of herself and her heritage, pushing back against change and desperately clinging onto fonder memories.
I mean, there isn’t a single 7-Eleven in Tasmania, as far as I could tell.
That itself is evidence that Tasmania, is proud to Tasmanian. It will resist globalism as much as it can, proud of its home grown nature and bounty.
Yet for all her beauty, this is the capital with the most roadkill in the nation, and houses the most singularly repellent Museum I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is actually the perfect summary of Hobart’s strangeness. Compelling in a dark sinister way, you are drawn like a moth to her weird seductive ways.
It leaves you feeling hollow, like something sucked something vital out of your soul. Museums are an important indicator of the town’s taste and values. Hobart, for all her external appeal, is far too edgy, nihilistic and repellent for me to be attracted to her any more than a surface level.
Whilst I could see myself living in Brisbane, I can only ever visit Hobart. As for Sydney … I’d do neither.
Sydney – The random rival.
Sydney disgusts me to the core. This isn’t even an objective outlook to the town, I’m just far too Melburnian to acknowledge anything good to come out of that town.
The rivalry between these two sisters east coast capital is so fierce that the government decided to compromise and create Canberra to mollify both of them.
But there is no arguing that the late development and the Gold Rush blessed Melbourne for decades to come. Sydney may be the older city, but it’s urban planning left a lot to be desired.
Arguably the most distinctive element of Sydney is just how many juxtapositions it is characterised by.
It has some of the most attractive buildings on the East Coast, yet also simultaneously the ugliest. The best example I can give of this, is the Downing Centre Local & District Court building, which has gorgeous gold accents on its classical style and is immediately eye-catching.
And the reason why it is so arresting because every single building around it, looks plain in comparison and does not complement the Downing Centre at all.
This bizarre aesthetic and design choice, is prevalent everywhere throughout the whole town. Traffic is genuinely awful because of its many one-way streets and the fact that Sydney is bisected down the middle by the Darling Harbour, thus making the layout of the city even more confusing to tourists.
To travel from one side of the CBD to the other, involves a long trip down and then up and the tram system is incredibly poorly designed, with multiple lines that rarely connect with one another.
It isn’t really the fault of the town herself, but the sheer inefficiency of getting around, and essentially forcing people to take public transport to get from one end to the other, means that you don’t really get a good sense of the city and her flow.
There is a genuine arterial flow to Brisbane, Hobart and Melbourne. All of their major stations and traffic can be sensed whilst on foot.
Sydney lacks that flow, because it is simultaneously too damn big and yet curiously too small. This is a town that doesn’t know what it is. Is it beautiful or ugly? Big or small? Rich or poor?
Unlike Melbourne, where you can sense the wealth with the breadth of the street and her high level of maintenance, Sydney doesn’t possess such evidence. Too many buildings are under construction, grass growing along the road is unkempt and wild, and the trains could be a lot cleaner.
There isn’t that sense of differentiation when you get closer to the city, as you see with Brisbane, Hobart or Melbourne. Instead the same sense of inefficiency and mess still resides in the city’s centre and all you’ve really done is swap a poor neighbourhood for a poor city.
Throw in lockdown laws and a town where rent is enough to cripple you financially forever, and you got a town that you couldn’t pay me to live in, let alone stay for a night.
There aren’t really enough words to describe why I despise Sydney, but you know it is bad, when I question the aesthetic and design of some of their traffic lights.
Overall …. Melbourne is still the Queen of the East Coast.
The best overall food, bars, entertainment and culture still belongs to Melbourne. There is no city quite like her in Australia. The sheer efficiency and design behind her streets are a huge part of what makes her attractive. Melbourne is sensible, simple and deceptively smart in how she allows her visitors to explore her secrets and attractions.
She is a truly modern city, with an emphasis on elevating the CBD to a higher standard to the rest of the suburbs. To enter the city of Melbourne itself to put aside the charming bohemian atmosphere of Fitzroy or Collingwood and truly engage in business, pleasure and arts to a higher degree.
Convenience is everywhere, from free trams to catch, to hidden cafes and alleyways, everywhere you go in Melbourne, it’s easy to get lost and find your way again.
This sense of curiosity is only further bolstered by the fact that Melbourne is ever changing with the times. She will always be at the forefront of what is trending and even set the trend, because she can afford to do so.
That is why she remains the fashion capital. That is why she is the sporting capital. That is why she keeps winning the most liveable city in the world. Melbourne encapsulates the best modern Australia has to offer to the world.
That said, I enjoyed my visits to Brisbane and Hobart. Brisbane is the perfect getaway town. It is uniquely attractive because of its’ slower pace and focus on really showcasing what Queensland is all about … chill beach vibes and a less pretentious attitude. There is less snobbery in Brisbane than there are in the rest of the cities.
Brisbane doesn’t have to boast about how cool it is, the people who live there already know. They chose Brisbane as their home, because they didn’t want the hectic lifestyle of a Melburnian or a Sydney-sider, but they didn’t want to be as weird as a Hobartian.
Brisbane is the idyllic Australia. The one that is promised by all of our tourism ads. Go to Brisbane if you really want to believe in our beach advertisements.
Hobart is the forgotten small town, and it’s happy to be erased from memory. But because it’s been neglected, it has gotten a little strange in its isolation. It’s dabbling in the occult, the bizarre and the downright depraved. It’s why a festival like Dark Mofo can exist. The art depicted in Dark Mofo is definitely the worst form of creativity humanity has to offer.
Disgusting sex machines with angel wings, nihilistic pseudo art pieces, ovaries being sold as NFTs … it’s all been approved by Hobartians, as an acceptable form of expression. The constant sight of death from roadkill is getting to them. They’re getting stranger and stranger, more detached from the mainland and they’re seemingly proud of it.
Hobart is Australia’s gothic centre. It’s freezing, dark and a little disturbing.Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) fits perfectly within the atmosphere of Hobart.
To walk the streets of Hobart is to stroll the streets of one of the most attractive cities in Australia, but for some odd reason, you keep wanting to check your back, because when night falls, it gives you an eerie feeling on the back of your neck.
The less said about Sydney’s sins, the better. It will defeat Melbourne, because at its core, it’s a little bit rotten from all the lies it’s told the world.
The Opera House and the Bridge? Overrated attractions.
A city that needs to be locked down after a certain hour, cannot be her true self. She’s forever trapped in a cage. Even tiny Hobart gets to express how weird it is after dark. Sydney will never get that opportunity to be herself, until they remove those laws.
So this was my big analysis on all the major capitals of Australia’s East Coast.
I’ve chosen to ignore Canberra, because it doesn’t really count as a tourist attraction on any level, with its snake-pit of civil/public servants and politicians.
And if you haven’t guessed it yet, Melbourne is the best girl.
Always will be.