A Tale of Three Cities: Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide

We were fortunate enough to visit several of Australia’s great cities in our six weeks in the country, including Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Sydney is the most famous of the three, with its iconic opera house and bay bridge, Melbourne is known for a great coffee culture and its livability, being ranked as the world’s most livable city for six consecutive years. Adelaide is known for its nearby wine country, live music, and festivals throughout the year. We learned early on that Sydney and Melbourne have been rivals in many different categories for years, but they both have in common that Adelaide is the butt of their jokes.


The Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world – its architecture and setting, right on Sydney’s beautiful harbor make it a symbol of the city. We took an opera house tour and were also lucky enough to get great tickets to see LaBoheme in the Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre. It was sung by an exciting, young, mostly Asian cast. In one of the smaller theaters, we saw Songs for Nobodies, a one-woman show played by Australian, Bernadette Robinson, in which she played five consecutive “nobodies,” or characters in imagined encounters with famous singers including Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas. And, yes, each of the famous singers sang, or rather, Bernadette Robinson sang in each singer’s style. It was a lot of fun and the performance was so impressive, in terms of the performer’s range and stamina.

The beautiful and iconic Sydney Opera House

In our time in Sydney, we took the train up for a day trip to the Blue Mountains, had a drink at The Wild Rover, one of Sydney’s ‘secret bars’ where we were, by far, the oldest people there. We visited the Royal Botanical Garden several times, haunted the trendy Surry Hills neighborhood, stayed in a house in the historic section called ‘The Rocks,’ went to Darling Harbor to see the aquarium and fish market, took the ferry to Manly Beach one day and to the Taronga Zoo on another day, with its fascinating collection of animals and panoramic view across the water of the Sydney skyline. We visited the New South Wales Gallery and enjoyed their collection of Aboriginal cultural art and artifacts. For part of the time, we were joined by my sister, Mary Helen, and her travel pal, Connie, and we also serendipitously caught up with Kim and Scott, friends we made a couple of years ago on a five-day bike ride in Wisconsin’s Door County. They, in turn, introduced us to their friends, Matt and Kirin. In short, we had a wonderful time and did so many things in Sydney.

Mary Helen, Connie, and me at Sydney Harbor
Left to right, me, John, Scott, Kim, Matt, and Kirin
Beautiful coastline seen from our walk around Sydney Harbour National Park
In the Blue Mountains, just outside of Sydney
A larger-than-lifesize stainless steel sculpture of Captain Cook at the New South Wales Gallery


Unlike Sydney, Melbourne did not begin life as a city with literal boatloads of prisoners sent from England, rather, it was founded by a group of Tasmanian businessmen. Acting on their behalf, one John Batman (and it is pronounced like the Batman in the mask and cape) bought land from the local Dutigalla clan of indigenous people which, as it turns out, he had no authority to buy since the land belonged to the Commonwealth of England. Nevertheless, the city was called Batmania for a while in his honor. Melbourne’s fortunes changed with a gold rush in the 1850s and enjoyed prosperity until the inevitable bust took place in the 1890s.

The Australian Coat of Arms at the Melbourne Museum – the kangaroo and emu were chosen because neither has the ability to walk backwards
At St. Kilda Beach in Melbourne
Melbourne has a beautiful botanical garden

Melbourne of today is a lovely city with a thriving Australian football culture, healthy bar and restaurant scene, good museums, St. Kilda beach, which is known for its daily arrival of the tiny Fairy penguins, and a wonderful botanical garden. Melbourne has, in our opinion, a slightly more relaxed feel than Sydney and a charisma about it that’s a little hard to pin down. We didn’t do as many things there as we did in Sydney, but did enjoy ourselves in this beautiful city.


We arrived in Adelaide after our journey across the Great Ocean Road. We kept our rental car for a day to venture out into Adelaide’s countryside, where Adelaide Hills and wineries are found on one side, and beautiful beaches on the other. The recent bush fires notwithstanding, which did affect Adelaide Hills, we made our way to McLaren Valley and the d’Arenburg winery, housed in a building that was described to us as looking like an undone Rubik’s Cube. The entire place was infused with touches of modern art and it happened, at the time we visited, to be hosting a Salvador Dali exhibit of paintings and sculptures. The winery also offered a tasting of their excellent wines, of which we were invited to taste as many as we wanted for our $25 AUD ($16.50 USD) admission price. We moved on from the winery to the small, historic German settlement of Hahndorf. Today’s Hahndorf caters to tourists but was a nice spot to walk around and have a little lunch.

The d’Arenburg winery building – it would have been a fascinating place even without wine
A Dali sculpture outside of the d’Arenburg winery

With the rental car returned, we focused on the city of Adelaide. Adelaide was designed in the 19th century as a city in a grid, surrounded by green spaces. The green spaces are still intact and include gardens, playgrounds, sports fields, and other public areas. The city’s inner grid still has many of the frontier-style heritage houses in the neighborhoods, some are still homes, while others house small businesses. There is a lovely walking mall with a funky sculpture of two metallic balls stacked one on the other called “Mall’s Balls.” There is a haunted Victorian-era mall, and a popular sculpture of brass pigs. Adelaide was abuzz with energy the week we were there, as they were hosting the bicycle race Tour Down Under and cyclists were everywhere. Adelaide doesn’t seem to compete for the limelight as much as its larger cousins, Sydney and Melbourne, in fact, one gets the idea that Adelaide is happy to be less touristy than other Australian cities. All the same, the city is home to a seemingly endless stream of festivals, so the guest cyclists in town didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Lorikeets spotted at the Adelaide Botanical Garden – they are a parrot that is native to Australia
The Mall’s Balls sculpture is well known in Adelaide and is a popular meeting spot
The adorable pig statues are also cherished landmarks in Adelaide

All three of these cities are wonderful and have so much to offer, however, there was something so down to earth and charming about Adelaide – it may be our favorite of the three.

Near the end of our time in Adelaide, we visited their beautiful botanical garden, which boasts one of the only surviving botanic museums in the world. Recently restored to its late 19th century glory, it is a fascinating place. Did you know, for example, that cinnamon, bay leaves, and avocado all come out of the Laurel, or Lauraceae family? That is but one of the many interesting plant life facts we learned. After enjoying our botanical garden tour, we lingered for a few moments with the tour guide to ask a few additional questions. As we parted ways, we told her how much we had enjoyed our time in Adelaide. She paused and a small smile came to her lips. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said.

Lovely Veale Gardens are part of the green space that surrounds Adelaide’s Central Business District – this was a short walk from our apartment

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