Before I came to Australia I wasn’t really aware of the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry; although I had noticed that people I spoke to who had visited or lived in Australia had a clear preference for one or the other, I didn’t realise that this would extend as far and wide as it does.
In a nutshell, as far as I have gathered, Melbournians think Sydney is overrated and that its people are unfriendly and arrogant. Beyond the famous sights, I was told, there isn’t much to the city, and a weekend there is all you need, whereas Melbourne has more depth. On the other hand, Sydneysiders don’t think Melbourne has much to offer, either to resident or tourist. It was a little like asking a Londoner to compare London and Birmingham; a slightly confused, ‘isn’t it obvious?’ reaction, as if they were being asked whether they’d rather a bunch of flowers or a kick in the crotch, but a vague explanation like ‘there’s just more going on here’ or ‘because it’s Sydney‘, with a wistful afterthought that Melbourne property prices are lower.
What makes this rivalry so interesting to me is that the cities are actually pretty equal and have experienced a real back and forth of superiority over the years. Sydney is the older of the two, its beginnings more firmly rooted in the founding rhetoric of modern Australia – the national holiday of Australia Day is on 26 January, after the day in 1788 that settlers arrived in Sydney Harbour – but Melbourne was the first to produce real wealth and development, thanks to the gold rush in the mid 19th Century. Melbourne was the newly independent federation’s first capital city in 1901, but Sydney is now the country’s centre of big business. Their populations are very close, around the 4 million mark, and they have both hosted the Olympics. In short, there’s not really much between them on paper, so I was interested to see Australia’s most famous city from the ground.
One of the best things about sleeper trains is that you often arrive in the middle of a city bright and early in the morning, and you can get going straight away without waiting around for baggage or long taxi rides. I arrived at Sydney Central Station at 7:00am after an adequate but not entirely comfortable night in the cheap seats, dropped my bag at my hostel, and by 8:00am I was standing at Circular Quay looking at the Harbour Bridge. As everyone that has ever encountered me knows before 10am knows, I am not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something wonderful about walking through a city on a quiet Saturday morning, watching market stalls being set up and joggers on the quayside. I walked up through The Rocks, the oldest part of the city built on a steep gradient looking over the harbour, and up to the bridge which I walked across and back again, enjoying the view.
Returning to The Rocks, I wandered around the cobbled streets noticing the old warehouses and factories with tall chimneys now transformed into cafes, museums and gift shops, down to the quayside. Walking around a new city I often find myself comparing it to places I’ve been before, and I was quite surprised to find that this part of Sydney reminded me of the Birmingham canals; the water, the clear industrial heritage re-purposed and transformed into trendy shops and restaurants.
Unlike in Birmingham, however, the view is framed by the iconic view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, as well as the ‘Voyager of the Seas’, the 300m long, 15 deck monster cruise ship docked next to Circular Quay for the day, hulking ridiculously over the little boats and ferries in the harbour.
After stopping for brunch I visited the Rocks Discovery Centre, a small but informative museum about the history of the area in a building that was at various times a tailor’s shop and a sheep dip factory. By the time I left it had become much busier on the streets and as I walked past Circular Quay there were crowds of people queuing for the public ferries, around the headland, across the harbour to the zoo, or out to the beach at Manly.
From there I walked to the Opera House, buying my ticket for the concert that evening, and then away from the water through the huge and lovely Botanical Gardens. There I paid a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and tried and largely failed to understand some modern art on display there as part of this year’s ‘Biennale of Sydney’, Australia’s largest contemporary arts festival, before heading back to the hostel through the city’s shopping area and Chinatown back to relax before my evening out.