First-time visitors to Australia are often posed with a big question: Sydney or Melbourne? If you have to choose, which of the country’s big cities should you prioritise seeing? Even though they’re both Aussie icons, Sydney and Melbourne couldn’t be more different in looks, vibe and energy – and they each cater to a different kind of traveller. The Sydney vs Melbourne showdown has been raging for a long time, but which one is right for you? This depends largely on your own preferences: do you travel to see a city’s sights or experience its culture? Do you long to immerse yourself in nature or is a city break more your scene? Are you here to Instagram all the famous landmarks or is Australia’s history more interesting to you?
Luckily for you, I’ve broken down the best (and the worst) of both cities so you can weigh up the Sydney vs Melbourne debate in order to help you make your decision. Read on to find out which Australian city is a better fit for your personality.
Things To Do
Taronga Park Zoo. 📷: @anasrostone
What makes Sydney truly unique is the diversity of what it has on offer for tourists. The city has its fair share of museums and art galleries, but it’s brilliant weather and geographical location open up possibilities that just aren’t available in Melbourne. Sights like the Sydney Aquarium, Taronga Zoo and Madame Tussauds are all easily accessible from the CBD (the ferry trip you need to take out to visit the zoo only adds to the fun) and you can take in views of the city from the top of Sydney Tower or climb your way up to the top of Harbour Bridge. When it gets to the point where you just can’t tourist anymore, you can hop on a bus or ferry to spend the day at any of the city’s beaches.
Summer slip-n-slide in Federation Square. 📷: @superamateur101
Melbourne, on the other hand, caters for a different type of holiday. People generally travel to the city for three reasons: to eat, to shop, or for a specific event like a musical, sports game or art show. Melbourne has a Zoo and Aquarium, but they’re a lot smaller than Sydney’s. Eureka Tower offers a 360-degree view of a skyline but you’ll see that it lacks Sydney’s icons. The Botanical Gardens are lovely to explore, but they don’t look out over a Harbour. The wares on offer are certainly good, but in terms of outdoor fun, Sydney has Melbourne beat.
Winner: It depends largely on your own priorities, but Sydney really is miles ahead of Melbourne in terms of things to see and do.
Sweet treats from Black Star Pastry. 📷: @zaynebkasbati
Australians are snobby when it comes to their food scene and when it comes to Sydney vs Melbourne, it’s a constant competition to see which one boasts the best grub. Despite its sights and glamour, Sydney can be described as a “city for the locals”. Middle-tiered restaurants (those that boast affordable and tasty food) can seem hard to come by. They exist, but are difficult to locate without insider help or knowledge. So, for someone poking around the city itself, looking for a decent place to grab a quick lunch or dinner, the offerings can seem poor. The CBD is the place to be for cheap, Asian cuisine, but you’d have to hop on a train to the Inner West for more diverse offerings. One of the best times to be in Sydney is in early October. Not only is the weather delightful, but it’s when the International Food Festival kicks off, with an abundance of offerings available in the city’s Hyde Park.
Brunch at Mixed Business Cafe. 📷: @MinkaGuides
Unlike Sydney, it’s not hard to find a cheap and decent meal in Melbourne’s CBD. The city is full of twisting laneways featuring hole-in-the-wall style coffee shops and cheap restaurants that you can quickly duck into for some energy providing sustenance. The city’s Chinatown runs circles around Sydney’s, being bigger and packed with quality restaurants and bars. If you’re after a cheap meal in an outdoor setting, Queen Victoria Market in the north of the city holds annual summer and winter markets. Here you can grab a burger or a dozen oysters to have with a cold beer in the fading summer sun, or warm yourself against the cold with pizza coupled with a hot cider or mulled wine during the winter months. One thing both cities do well is brunch (which is pretty much an Australian institution). Melbournians even go so far as claiming to have the best coffee in the world – try it and weigh in on the debate!
Winner: While both cities have an enviable food scene, Melbourne inches out ahead in terms of accessibility for visitors.
Archibald Prize exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. 📷: @janaliamkina
Culturally, Sydney is far from lacking. It’s got all that you would expect of a city of its size and stature: art galleries, museums and theatres (not to mention a rather famous Opera House, which plays hosts to a range of different events throughout each year). However, the city has generally played second fiddle to Melbourne in terms of culture. If there’s a new play, show or musical coming to Australia, it will most probably have a run in Melbourne before Sydney (if it makes it there at all). While art, fashion and music figure prominently in the day-to-day lifestyle of Melbournians, priorities for Sydneysiders tend to lie elsewhere (like exercising, a must in a city where you have to be beach body ready at all times of the year).
House of Dior exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. 📷: @whatvictoriadidnext
Regularly touted as being the “cultural capital” of Australia, Melbourne wears this badge with pride around its neighbourhood. The city boasts an extremely enviable art and music scene, with it often having first dibs on every new musical or art exhibition. Its art galleries/museums are top class, especially the National Gallery of Victoria which is a marvel inside and out. You can catch live music essentially any and every night of the week, from venues within the CBD and surrounding suburbs like St Kilda and Collingwood to name a couple of hot spots. The city itself is like a living, breathing piece of art. Urban art can be found everywhere – from the laneways of the Central Business District (CBD) – like the famous Hosier Lane near Flinders Street Station – to that adorning the buildings of suburbs like Brunswick and Fitzroy.
Winner: It really does depend on how you define culture, but if it comes down to the arts scene, Melbourne is the definite winner in this regard.
Cocktails with a view at the Opera Bar. 📷: @277tiger
Once upon a time, Sydney had a nightlife worth boasting about. You could have a ritzy night out and about on the harbour or hang out with the hipsters in the beer gardens of the Inner West. If your motto is “go hard or go home”, you could head to Kings Cross on a Friday night and emerge Monday, blinking in the morning light and wondering where the last few days had disappeared to. Unfortunately, the city’s nightlife has developed a rather unsavoury reputation over the last few years, due to violence in the city. Lockout laws have been put in place in the centre of the city, causing revellers to head elsewhere to get their late night kicks – which has made the Sydney vs Melbourne question a bit one-sided. That being said, nothing beats having a wine at Opera Bar on a Friday night, with the beauty of the harbour spread out in front of you.
Cocktails at the award-winning Black Pearl. 📷: @coglover
Melbourne’s nightlife on the other hand, is certainly something to write home about. You can’t throw a stone in the CBD without coming into contact with a bar worth boasting about. If you’re a fan of cocktails, this is the place to be. You don’t have to be in the city to have a good night out, as many of the surrounding suburbs (particularly Fitzroy, Brunswick and St Kilda) will guarantee you a good night out. It doesn’t matter what your preference – pubs, clubs, rooftop bars with a full view of the city – you’ll find it in Melbourne.
Winner: In times past it would have been hard to make a decision between the two, but Melbourne is the clear winner these days.
Bondi Beach. 📷: @mattav01
It’s hard to beat Sydney’s weather. The city is known for its perfect summer days, with patrons and visitors alike heading to any of its many beautiful beaches to frolic in the waves and soak up some Vitamin D’s on the sand. On the downside, rising temperatures worldwide have led to an increase in heatwaves hitting the city, making even a trip to the beach unpleasant. On top of that and contrary to popular belief, Sydney receives more rainfall annually than Melbourne. The distinct difference being that rain in Sydney settles in for the day, rather than blowing in and out as it has a tendency to do in Melbourne. Sydney is at its best during the cooler months. The winters are delightfully mild and it’s often warm enough to hit the beach right up until May and from September onwards.
Rainbow over the Melbourne skyline. 📷: @miss_kamw
When the Australian/New Zealand band Crowded House wrote their hit song “Four Seasons in One Day”, they were influenced strongly by the weather of Melbourne which is, in a word, unpredictable. It could start as a beautifully sunny day, be miserable and rainy by lunchtime, only to clear up again by early afternoon. It’s best to prepare yourself for any and all weather conditions. Even in the warmer months, bring a light jumper and pack an umbrella in your bag. That isn’t to say Melbourne doesn’t have its share of genuinely lovely days – you just can’t quite pick them. Plus, you have to watch out for the wind! Melbourne is Australia’s very own windy city and it packs a bite, particularly in the cooler months where it will chill you to the bone.
Winner: Unless you like the way that sudden swings of weather can keep you on your toes, Sydney’s weather will delight you endlessly.
Sydney trains. 📷: @jerryhuang2
When comparing the grid system of Melbourne’s CBD to Sydney’s spaghetti mess of roads, you can be forgiven for breaking down into tears of despair at the thought of navigating the city’s complicated road system. Sydney is full of one-way streets, often tiny in size, which can be stressful to navigate as a first-time driver in the city.
Meanwhile, the public transport is slowly improving: the trains have recently taken on a new and simpler ticketing system and the buses are pretty frequent and relatively easy to navigate, but can still get stuck in commuter traffic. Sydney does have one thing that Melbourne is lacking – an easy access train line from the city to the airport, which is thus impervious to traffic conditions. It gets extra points as well for being cheaper than Melbourne’s equivalent, the SkyBus.
Melbourne trams. 📷: @136brs
Melbourne is regularly touted as having the “best public transport in Australia” and maybe it does… by Australian standards. The trams are a relatively easy way to navigate around the city and are free to catch in the CBD. Once you start to get into the outer suburbs, things get a little more complicated. Buses are infrequent and the trains are disastrous: they’re often late and the “City Loop” route switches in the middle of the day, which can cause confusion for first time users. Although the city is easier to navigate by car than Sydney, Melbourne drivers are more aggressive somehow, perhaps as they often find themselves constantly at the mercy of the trams.
Winner: Although both cities could be doing a lot better on the transport front, Melbourne’s trams project it just out in front of Sydney’s mess of a system.
Slacklining in Centenial Park. 📷: @pcyphotos
One of Sydney’s biggest drawcards is the abundance of nature that you can find in the city, which gives it an edge in the Sydney vs Melbourne competition. Unlike New York and London, Sydney feels less concrete nightmare and more urban jungle. Being built on one of the loveliest natural harbours in the world goes a long way in helping this feeling. The city is full of green spaces (Hyde Park and the Royal Botanical Gardens in the CBD are lovely and you could spend hours navigating Centennial Park in the city’s east) and the city’s coastline is littered with beaches and pathways you can navigate between them.
Royal Botanic Gardens. 📷: @michelle.rann
It’s not that Melbourne is an ugly city, but it lacks the “wow” factor that comes from Sydney’s natural beauty. On a sunny day, Melbourne is gorgeous. There are plenty of green spots to be found around the city (being part of Australia’s ‘Garden State’ after all) and the city looks lovely against a backdrop of blue sky. However, on a rainy day, Melbourne seems like a completely different place. The Yarra River, resplendent in the sunlight, turns back into a dirty brown river and St Kilda Beach seems like an unfunny joke when compared with even the worst beaches in Sydney.
Winner: Melbourne is nice to look at but just doesn’t quite hold a candle to its cousin when it comes to natural beauty.
NYE fireworks on Sydney Harbour Bridge. 📷: @toxumuharu
Say what you want about Sydney, but it has the sights: the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney Tower, Luna Park… the list goes on. When travellers to the country are asked about what landmarks they are most excited about seeing, Sydney’s are usually those that top the list.
Street art on Hosier Lane. 📷: @traipsetowards
There are certainly sights worth seeing in Melbourne, particularly for tourists. Flinders Street Station is a gorgeous piece of historical architecture and the Yarra River is lovely to stroll beside on a sunny day. As the sporting capital of the country, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is open to tour for visitors and residents alike. A visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens is a must-do and the nearby Shrine of Remembrance offers an insight into Australian history, as well as a decent view of the city.
Winner: All that being said, you’d be hard-pressed to hear anyone say “I want to go to Australia to see Federation Square in Melbourne in the flesh!” Sydney’s got the sights, end of story.
So, which city is the right choice for you? Sydney or Melbourne?
You’ll love Sydney if…
#ilovesydney. 📷: @biancaroma
You like decent weather, beautiful beaches and are desperate to see some of Australia’s renowned icons. If you genuinely get a kick out of visiting the odd tourist attraction, yet still wish to be close to nature, then Sydney is the place for you.
Hostels in Sydney| Cheap flights to Sydney
You’ll love Melbourne if…
#ilovemelbourne. 📷: @lagarde_dita
You want to experience the beating heart of Australia, by immersing yourself in its culture, art, food and nightlife. If you’re a fan of boutique shopping, colourful cocktails and consider yourself a coffee connoisseur, then Melbourne is the city for you.
🇦🇺 What do you think? Were you able to pick a side on the Sydney vs Melbourne debate? Add your voice in the comments below 👇
Still can’t decide? Check these out:
- 12 Best Beaches in Sydney That You Need to Visit
- Cheap Eats in Melbourne – Where to Find the Best Budget Restaurants
- The Best Things to Do In Sydney According To A Local
- 24 Best Places To Visit In Australia
- The 26 Best Backpacker Hostels In Australia
About The Author
LC Hunter is an ex-expat, who is currently exploring her home country of Australia. She has two ambitions in life – to travel plastic-free and to one day live on a farm in Tasmania with 11 dogs, a miniature pig and several pygmy goats. Follow her travels around Oz and attempts to embrace a greener lifestyle on her blog Birdgehls and on Facebook.