Culture and heritage

Journey through time: a guide to local heritage in the City of Melbourne

30 August 2023

When you think about local heritage, some will reflect on significant places and buildings, while others might linger in open spaces to close their eyes and imagine times past.

Melbourne’s heritage is a rich tapestry of Aboriginal and much later colonial and post-colonial stories.

We can look for heritage in all sorts of places, traditions and objects. Even culture itself. It speaks to buildings, landscapes, public parks and gardens, trees, infrastructure, monuments, public art, community groups and more.

Heritage places may even encompass street art, laneway cafes and the hum of numerous small businesses and artists’ enterprises, nestled away in the Nicholas Building and other favourite city buildings.

Deepen your understanding of local Aboriginal heritage

Did you know that a blue saltwater lagoon once stretched out across what would later become West Melbourne and Docklands? Or that the high ground now known as Parliament Hill has been a site of law and lore-making for millennia?

Learn about places of Aboriginal cultural significance through our Mapping Aboriginal Melbourne project. It’s a powerful truth-telling tool that reveals Aboriginal peoples’ deep connection to this country.

You can also take a self-guided walk from Fitzroy Gardens to Docklands to learn more about Aboriginal heritage and culture, including scarred trees, historical meeting places and monuments, or book a tour with an experienced guide from the Koorie Heritage Trust, located in Federation Square.

“The Birrarung goes through the middle of our city and it’s such a significant part of local Aboriginal culture and history. It was an important food source for local Aboriginal people before colonisation.

“Some natural features have been destroyed, such as the waterfall near the present-day Immigration Museum.

“As much as we can, we reference traditional names. We refer to Melbourne as Naarm, to the Yarra River as the Birrarung. By doing this we are acknowledging Country and the heritage of the people whose country we’re on.”

Tom Mosby, Director, Koorie Heritage Trust
Tom Mosby, Director the Koorie Heritage Trust
Tom Mosby, Director the Koorie Heritage Trust

Get to know the history of your neighbourhood

Reflect on the communities that shaped your local neighbourhood, from Carlton’s Italianate Royal Exhibition Building, which opened in 1880, to the maritime heritage of Docklands, and the cobblestones of Kensington’s Newmarket saleyards and the Younghusband woolstore.

At the City of Melbourne, we have completed contemporary heritage reviews for many neighbourhoods to help prevent buildings, natural spaces and streetscapes for future generations. Reading these is a great way to learn more about the history and heritage of your local area.

You can also keep an eye out for these six architectural features we love about Melbourne’s heritage buildings.

Walk your way around local heritage sites

We offer a range of curated walks and itineraries to help you get to know Melbourne’s iconic sites, cultural heritage and hidden gems. Here’s what you can choose from:

Work, dine and play in historic surrounds

Explore four floors of food, drink, music and art at a mega venue lovingly woven into the fabric of a heritage building on the corner of Lonsdale Street and Drewery Lane. HER Melbourne has breathed new life into a Federation warehouse built in the early 1900s.

Over on the corner of Queen and Collins streets, pause to gaze up at a Melbourne Award-winning feat of urban design. Drab cubicles and flickering fluoros begone – Queen and Collins is a next-gen workplace with neo-gothic flair.

Patrons at theatres including the Princess, Regent, Comedy and Her Majesty’s enjoy the splendid facades and ornate interiors alongside world-class entertainment. The Arts Centre spire became an iconic feature of the city’s skyline since its construction in 1984. Head to What’s On Melbourne to browse upcoming shows.

A grand theatre foyer
The opulent surrounds of the Regent Theatre

Wander through heritage parks and gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens were established in 1846, on a site selected by Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe. In the past 170 years, staff at the gardens have collected and planted thousands of plants from all over the world, representing 12,000 species.

Pause in the peace of the Parliament Gardens and reflect on the statues of Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls, which honours a couple who strongly advocated for Aboriginal self-determination and reconciliation.

To discover more more peaceful green spaces, visit Parks and gardens.

Statues of Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls
The statues of Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls

Spot landmark buildings from the gold rush

Victoria experienced unparalleled prosperity after the gold rush of the 1850s. Many buildings that are still standing today were built with funds that flowed from the riches of the diggings.

Notable buildings of the century include State Library of Victoria (its famous domed reading room was completed in 1913), Melbourne Town Hall – once the city’s premier concert venue, and the Gothic Revival-style ANZ bank building at the corner of Collins and Queens streets.

Discover more on the Golden Mile Heritage walk.

Marvel at post-war and edgy modern architecture

American-style skyscrapers such as Orica House emerged in Melbourne from the 1950s, and by the late 1990s, a rejuvenating central city grid transformed Melbourne into a booming series of connected residential neighbourhoods.

The shards of Federation Square’s buildings, ACCA’s sharp edges, the abstract yellow Vault artwork and a quirky office for Monaco’s consul-general in a tiny city laneway are destined to be conversation pieces among Melburnians for years to come.

Check out the Classic icons and architecture walk for a journey through the ages.

Seek out some of Melbourne’s hidden gems

Go in search of the atmospheric crypt-like car park beneath the University of Melbourne, where scenes for Mad Max were filmed. Or, next time you step off the tram, look up at number 1 Collins Street and imagine the cabinet meetings held here during the First World War.

Check out more hidden spaces on What’s On Melbourne.

An atmospheric underground car park
The car park that starred in ‘Mad Max’

Pause to reflect at poignant places

Head to Birrarung Marr, a park on the north bank of the river near Federation Square, to reflect on Aboriginal heritage. The park includes striking Aboriginal art called Birrarung Wilam, which means “river of mist camp” in the language of the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung peoples.

The river camp installation interprets stories from the Eastern Kulin Nation through large rocks incised with animal drawings, a semi-circle of metal shields and a winding, textured pathway to acknowledge the eel – a traditional food source for Aboriginal people who camped by the river.

Then walk to the Shrine of Remembrance and look back at the city for a clear view of the remarkable Barak Building. A spectral image of Wurundjeri elder William Barak emerges on the facade, another acknowledgment of a continuous living Aboriginal history.

An aerial view of the Shrine of Remembrance
An aerial view of the Shrine of Remembrance

Reflect on local history through art

Discover public art commissions, such as Tom Nicholson’s Chimney in store (Towards a Monument to Batman’s Treaty), that invite reflection on how history is told and what is memorialised or left unsaid.

This work in Batman Park reflects on the bogus ‘treaty’ Batman claimed he signed with Wurundjeri people in 1835, which has since proven invalid under both Kulin and Crown law.

You can also explore our Art and Heritage Collection, a treasure trove of local history and culture, in the streets and online. Check out 11 of the City Collection’s quirkiest items, including a model banana and a bottle of 1980s spumante.

Get a grant to restore your heritage property

To preserve the city’s unique character, we offer heritage grants to help people complete restoration projects at residential, community and commercial properties across the municipality.

We recently awarded two heritage grants to neighbours on McCracken Street in Kensington to restore historic tiles and stained glass. To find out more, read Grants help neighbours present historic streetscapes.

If you own a heritage property or want to learn more about local architecture, check out our Heritage Owner’s Guide and Heritage Design Guide.

What does heritage mean to you?

Places of cultural significance often provide a deep and inspirational sense of connection to community and landscape, to the past and lived experiences. They can also help to build our future.

Take a moment to think about which heritage places are important to you, and imagine which sites Melburnians might cherish into the future.

For more information, visit Heritage.

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