I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Australia is daaaaaaayum expensive. Melbourne, unfortunately, is no exception. Particularly if you’re just travelling – or rather, you’re not earning money while you’re here. (If you get a job, the sky-high prices of everything suddenly become more reasonable – $23 an hour wages are the norm here).
I thought I’d put together a handy money-saving guide for Melbourne, to help you stretch those dollars that bit further. Whether you’re here long-term or just passing through, this purse-friendly guide will help you out. From free activities, to cheap food and drink – I’ve got you covered!
Check Out the Free Stuff
Though Melbourne is an expensive city, in fairness this is balanced by a whole lot of fun, free things to do.
#1 Culture vultures
If you’re a fun of culture, there’s plenty of free galleries and museums to check out. The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) is located on St Kilda road, and has a vast collection of art from around the world. You can easily while away several hours of your time here. In nearby Federation Square lives the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), an awesome interactive centre for film, TV and video games (Mario Kart, anyone?). Next door is the Ian Potter centre, the Australia-specific branch of the NGV. And if that’s not enough, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is down on Southbank. All of these are within five minutes of each other, in and around Federation Square.
#2 Explore the city
If, like me, you’re a fan of just wandering around, (getting lost), and soaking up the scene, Melbourne is a great place to do just that. Not only is it full of parks and green spaces, but the centre itself is full of hidden laneways to explore. Check out the famous Hosier Lane for its ever-changing graffiti, and pay a visit to the awesome op-shop halfway down. Or, stroll up Degraves Street and Centre Place for a European cafe vibe. There are so many hidden streets, each with its own character and story, waiting to be found – it’ll take you half a day to tour them all!
After you’re tired of wandering aimlessly, why not pack a picnic from Woolies and go collapse in one of the city’s many parks? The Botanical Garden is the largest and most impressive, but stroll for long enough in any direction and you’ll certainly stumble across a well-kept patch of greenery. If you’re stuck for ideas, check out Fitzroy gardens, Treasury gardens, or just head to the river and find a shady spot to watch the rowers.
And if you get tired of walking from place to place, you can always hop on a tram – they’re free in the centre zone! If you fancy a guided tour, you can also take the city circle tram, which has commentary included.
#3 Beaches are free…
Bored of the city after a few days of strolling round? Head to the beach for a cheap day out! St Kilda beach is where a lot of backpackers hang out, but Brighton beach is a bit nicer and just as easy to get to, on a train from Flinders Street. If you’re at St Kilda beach, try to spot the incongruous penguins waddling round.
#4 Catch a free performance
Melbourne is full of artists. From musicians to magicians, buskers to break-dancers, chances are you’ll stumble across something fun just by being in the right place at the right time. Popular locations for street performances include Bourke Street, near the mall, Southbank, and Federation Square. Only last week we caught an insane solo show at the Queen Victoria Market from Darth Vader playing the bass.
If you’re stuck for something to do of an evening, one of your best bets is to head down to Federation Square, where there’ll often be an event or celebration in. In the last month there’s been big-screen showings of the tennis, Chinese New Year performances (everything from traditional dance and opera to heavy metal bands), and a Thai cultural festival. Check out their website to keep up to date with what’s going on.
Shop Smart and Save
Despite all the free entertainment that goes on in Melbourne, you’ve gotta spend some money. But there’s no sense in wasting it! Savvy shopping can get you a surprisingly long way.
#5 Head to the markets
I’m just repeating what I’ve said in my post about budget backpacking in Australia here, but markets are really a great way to save. It might be a bit of a hassle, but timing your shops to coincide with market days can make a genuine difference. Queen Victoria market on a Sunday afternoon may be the most stressful place on earth, but you can get some seriously cheap fruit and veg to make it all worth it. Check out the market opening times on their website, and try to time your shop to coincide with the end of trade – that’s when the best bargains will be found. South Melbourne market also has some great stuff.
But it doesn’t just stop at groceries. Melbourne is full of all kinds of pop-up markets and stalls, from crafts to clothes, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for the less frequent events. For example, Fitzroy primary school plays host to a great car boot-style market on the third Saturday of each month. You can easily nab a pair of second-hand jeans for a tenner. Why pay full price at Cotton On?!
It’s also worth mentioning that in the summer months, both Queen Vic and South Melbourne markets put on a weekly night market, with live music and more food stalls than any one person can handle. It can be a cheap and cheerful night out – but be warned that the food is both pricey and very tempting, so eat before you go if you’re on a tight budget!
#6 Don’t pay full price for clothes!
If you can’t wait for Fitzroy market, there are other ways to stretch your budget further when it comes to clothes. Head down to DFO in South Wharf for cut-price bargains and outlet stores galore! It’s dead easy to get there: just hop on a free tram along Flinders Street towards Southern Cross station and it’s only a five minute walk from there.
Beyond factory outlets, there are also a few charity shops (op-shops) scattered around the city, and these are worth checking out. Most notable (aka my favourite) is the aforementioned one on Hosier Lane. But there are many – and this website helpfully gives you the full list (3000 is the postcode for the CBD).
#7 Borrow, don’t buy
I’m always ALWAYS tempted to buy books when I’m wandering round a new city. Not least because book shops are like, my favourite places. But don’t be drawn in! Books in Australia are sooooo expensive; especially brand new ones. But the great thing about Melbourne is that you can get books to read for free! One option is to join Melbourne Library Service – for free! – and get a short term membership. This expires after three months and doesn’t require proof of address, just ID. But perhaps the better option is to pop along to the Little Library in Melbourne Central shopping centre. The Little Library is an awesome community space, where you can book swap to your heart’s content! And if you don’t have a book to trade, don’t worry – just borrow one and make sure you bring it back!
#8 Eat & drink for cheaper
It goes without saying that the price you pay to eat and drink in central areas is going to be pretty steep. In Melbourne, this means anywhere in and around Fed Square and Flinders Street – Southbank definitely comes into this too. So if you’re trying to scrimp, steer clear of that riverside view, and wander further into the city. Standard price for a coffee in the popular areas can be around $5 – but if you head further in, you’ll pay a more reasonable $3.50.
(If you’re feeling really cheap, just buy a $1 coffee or $2 iced coffee from seven-11 and find a nice bench to sit and watch the world go by).
Eating-wise, the same rules apply. Head out of the main streets and find yourself a hidden-away eatery. But you’re still likely to pay a fair bit for eating out – even though I have a (pretty well-paid) job, I still keep meals out to a minimum. One good tip is to go to fresh food places later in the afternoon or evening, and grab a reduced-price deal. Woolworths reduce their single-item baked goods to half price in the evening, and a lot of sushi places do the same towards the end of their trading hours. You can get a huge box of sushi for just $7 from Hokuto Japanese Cafe on Swanston street, for example!
#9 Happy hours are your friend
If it’s drinks you’re after, take advantage of happy hours! This is a piece of advice I only recently took myself, and now I feel really stupid for ever paying full price. Almost every venue will have a happy hour menu (except on public holidays, sometimes). It’s worth keeping an eye out for deals when you’re wandering round the city, because it will be worth your while by the time evening comes! Check out The Happiest Hour for a super-easy way to find whatever cheap drinks you want in your area.
#10 Hostels aren’t always the cheapest
Melbourne is fantastic in that it plays hosts to loads of big events: sports tournaments, music festivals, and more. Unfortunately, this also means that accommodation options can often get booked up quickly during big events, and prices can skyrocket. During the Australian Open, for example, hostel rooms spiked to around $40 a night – and that wasn’t even the most expensive. With this in mind, and especially if you plan to stay a while, it can be worth looking into a flat share, even for a week or so. That way, you are paying a flat rate even during busy times.
The Melbourne Backpacker Facebook group can be a good way to find temporary lets, as well as sites like Flatmate.com. It’s worth the effort for the money you save – though a lot of places on official sites will be looking for tenants for a month or longer.
Hopefully you can see that by following these tips you stand to save a bundle. But then, remember that Melbourne is the kind of place where spontaneity reaps its rewards. It’s not worth resisting temptation all the time, because part of the fun of being in Melbourne is going to funky bars and edgy cafes – that’s its whole appeal. And if there’s going to be a pop-up dumpling stall to celebrate Chinese New Year, then who am I to resist?
For more tips on travelling Australia on the cheap, check out my Ultimate Guide to Your Australian Working Holiday, or head over to my most popular post yet, 50 Budget Tips for Backpacking Australia. And if you’re just looking for inspiration on what to do while you’re here, check out the latest posts from my Australia Travel Diary!