Since I started the post series on Australia in this blog eight months ago, some of you have been wondering which city I like better: Sydney or Melbourne. For those who are puzzled about why one should even bother to pick a side, all I can tell you is that the rivalry between the two is real. It is so palpable that I was reminded of this amusing competition not only during my trip to both cities back in October 2017, but also after I watched the New Year’s celebration broadcast on YouTube live from both Sydney Harbour and Melbourne’s Yarra River involving minutes-long pyrotechnic shows.
“So, is it Sydney, or is it Melbourne?” the inquisitive Australian anchor at her studio in the country’s biggest city asked a reporter in the Victorian capital about which city put up a more impressive show that night.
This competition between the two is hardly new as it goes back to the time when the Federation of Australia was established in the early 20th century. Melbourne, the heart of the Australian federalist movement as well as the host of the inauguration of the country’s parliament, was naturally chosen as the capital of the new federation. However, economically powerful Sydney (capital of the state of New South Wales) demanded a new capital for the nation to be founded somewhere between the two. Canberra was eventually chosen, although its location is hardly right at the midway point as it is geographically closer to Sydney. Many decades later, Sydneysiders and Melburnians are happy to keep this bemusing rivalry alive.
Back to the question of which city I prefer. But first, let me remind you of some of the things I loved from both cities which I have mentioned in my previous posts, the very reasons why Sydney and Melbourne are constantly ranked high on any indexes measuring the livability of cities worldwide. However, no city is perfect, therefore I will also include a few things I enjoyed less during this trip.
This city of five million undoubtedly boasts one of the most impressive skylines I’ve ever seen, not only because of the skyscrapers themselves, but also the scenic setting upon which they were built. Dividing the city in two, the natural inlet of Port Jackson was a major reason for the construction of the Harbour Bridge and subsequently the iconic Opera House several decades later. Had Sydney been located inland, there would probably have been little incentive for the state government to spend a great sum of money to construct the two impressive monuments that have now become among the most recognizable landmarks in the world.
Then the weather. It was mostly sunny with pleasant temperatures during my visit, helping me stay upbeat despite all those long walks. There were days which began with clouds obscuring the blue sky. But as the day progressed, and the wind blew, the dreary-looking buildings in the city center came to life again as the sun bathed them in a soft orange hue. Of course that is most likely not the case in wintertime, and Sydneysiders probably find the sun too strong in the summer. But people say first impressions last, and I was lucky to have mostly nice weather during my stay in the city last spring.
Multiculturalism is what Australia is often associated with today, thanks to the influx of immigrants coming from Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and beyond over generations. Nowhere was my experience witnessing multicultural Australia more vivid than at a peninsula on the northeastern corner of the Royal Botanic Gardens. A fashionable headscarf-donning Muslim woman was proposed to by her boyfriend, with their white Australian friends in their company, and the music of Clean Bandit’s Symphony playing in the background. After all the negative news we had been reading about interracial and interfaith relations the world over, it was truly a moving moment to watch.
So was there anything I didn’t like about Sydney?
Actually there were quite a few downsides. A guy shouting from a car at some people who were walking in front of us on the Harbour Bridge was a shocking thing to watch. Then another guy on a boat flaunting his bare chest and dancing seductively to a family with kids who were waiting for their boat to arrive at Darling Harbour came across as being a little disrespectful. But they seemed rather the exception than the norm for the rest of the Sydneysiders I met were overwhelmingly nice and friendly. As for the food, we ended up spending more money in Sydney than we did in Melbourne, although we only have ourselves to blame for we decided to dine at expensive restaurants. However, we never tasted anything that we didn’t like in the city, from the humble meat pie to braised wallaby tail and fancy kingfish sashimi.
I’ve written about my first impressions of Melbourne in an earlier post, a bewildering experience caused by the sensory overload I felt during my first few hours in the city. With a stubbornly overcast sky and colder temperatures, the weather in the Victorian capital was noticeably less favorable than in Sydney. Fortunately it didn’t dampen my spirit to explore some of the city’s best cultural and culinary offerings, exactly what Melbourne is known for.
First let’s talk about the museums, particularly the Melbourne Museum and the Immigration Museum. I found both more impressive and engaging than those in Sydney, although for sure Hyde Park Barracks Museum and the Museum of Sydney were very eye-opening in their own right. I had explained about how the Bunjilaka section of the Melbourne Museum had left a deep impression on me and made me question a lot of things about the issues regarding relations between indigenous Papuans and the Indonesian government. The Immigration Museum, on the other hand, was a great source of information on how immigration has shaped Australia for generations and what the nation did wrong in dealing with those who fled from persecution and economic hardship at home. One thing I commend from the way Australians see the past is that they’re not afraid or ashamed to admit that there were things which shouldn’t have happened, so therefore they provide today’s generation with invaluable lessons on how to make Australia a better, more inclusive country in the future.
When it comes to food, my experience proves that Melbourne generally has better, more diverse and somewhat cheaper offerings compared to Sydney, although this is of course highly subjective. I was impressed by how succulent the fried calamari at Greek restaurant Tsindos was, even beating my mom’s, and the Ethiopian lunch I had at Saba’s is still among the most memorable meals I have ever had.
But when it comes to weather, Sydney was a lot more pleasant to explore as the breeze was fresh but not cold, and the sun was more generous with its light. Obviously Melbourne has sunny days too, and Sydney’s sky is not always clear and bright. But with the latter providing better connectivity between the city center and the international airport – double-decker trains ply the route regularly – getting into the heart of Sydney is easy regardless of the weather outside. Melbourne, on the other hand, is still dependent on buses to transport people to and from its main international gateway.
So, which city do I like better? As you can see, both Sydney and Melbourne are very nice cities to live in for the reasons I have mentioned above, as well as others I have yet to figure out. However, if I really had to choose, it would have to be Sydney by a narrow margin. Yes, Melbourne is known for its cultural scene, which I find more intriguing to explore, and Sydney can feel a little bit more brash. But it’s Sydney’s scenic harbor that really stole my heart. I can imagine spending long hours, even the whole day, just sitting at that promontory overlooking the city’s CBD, the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the northern part of the city, and every boat that sails into the inlet. It’s probably the fact that from this place I can observe the busyness before my eyes without having to be dragged into the hustle and bustle itself that is so alluring to me. Sydneysiders, I’m with you, at least for now.