Choosing a bar tour of Melbourne took some research. Some dates didn’t work. One tour looked like too much of a party tour for my liking. Another boasted that they visited up to sixteen bars. How could that be? In the end I booked with Show me Melbourne. They take guests to three “hidden” bars and include a snack and cocktail along the way.
Our Guide owns a Few Bars
There are three of us on this evening’s tour. Me and a couple from interstate celebrating a birthday with a weekend away. Our guide, Josh, owns (or part owns) a couple of Melbourne bars and does this tour for a friend as a side hustle. After leaving us he’ll work in one of his bars ‘til the early hours of tomorrow morning.
Who knew that a bar tour would begin with a story about prostitution. We’re in the heart of an area of Melbourne where from the 1860s to the 1890s there were numerous brothels, many of which were owned by Madame Brussels.
Parliamentarians, lawyers and prominent businessmen visited her establishments in and around “Little Lon”, an area bounded by Spring, Little Lonsdale, Exhibition and Little Bourke streets. The first bar we come across is Little Lon, known for its gin distillery. A small gin and cocktail bar it’s overflowing with people having after work Friday night drinks.
Archaeology and Architecture
We walk through Madame Brussels Lane and past an archaeological site. According to an information sign, “this part of Melbourne was one of the roughest and toughest parts of the city.”
The nearby tall telephone exchange building reflects what happened in Melbourne post war. High rise buildings replaced the low-rise colonial buildings. This was seen as a way to move away from Melbourne’s gold rush and manufacturing roots to a banking and commercial focus.
Through the window of Coopers Inn, an internal neon sign advertises Little Lon Gin. Josh jokes that someone from Little Lon is dating a person at Coopers.
Crossing the road Josh points out a restaurant on the corner. The building, with its distinctive arches, was once a Jewish Synagogue. Further along is a building where in the 1920s, Squizzy Taylor and other “gangsters learned their trade.” Bars cover the windows. Faded yellow paint peels off the square building.
Wesley Place and Treasury
Turning into Wesley Place, signs of ‘renewal’ are everywhere. Tall modern buildings tower over the church and church buildings which were built with bluestone from Footscray in the late 1850s. Patrons spill onto the paved area outside the Caretakers Cottage, now a cocktail bar.
We learn about the sandstone Treasury Building and the tunnel system built under Melbourne during the gold rush. They were used to move gold in a more secure way are now closed. He describes, a storage facility in the Treasury Building which purportedly had 1m thick bluestone walls. The gold rush ended and instead of storing gold it houses government documents.
After the gold rush, textile manufacturing took over. We walk through Melbourne’s “narrowest lane,” where Josh points to pulleys on the outside walls of warehouses. They were used to raise and lower bales of fabric to and from storage. The appropriately named Seamstress Bar is nearby. I plan to go there tomorrow night.
Despite appearance, I’m not a big drinker. The reason I visit small bars is to experience their varied and carefully designed décor and warm atmosphere. Berlin Bar is a bar with an interesting concept.
At the top of the dimly lit steps Josh presses the doorbell. We step into a different world. The décor emulates a bar in ‘capitalist’ West Berlin. Dimly lit with glass lamps, crystal glasses rest on small polished wooden tables. Plush white studded leather look couches provide comfortable seating.
Never having been to East Berlin, I poke my head into the second room where the atmosphere is more austere. Benches provide seating at stark bare wooden tables. A painting of Lenin pointing to the future hangs on a dark wall with other communist style posters. The group decides to sit in East Berlin. Taking our order, the waiter’s pen runs out and he goes “to the capitalist side” for a replacement.
I drink my cocktail slowly. It’s strong and a dep blue in colour with a frothy egg white topping and dried rose petals as a garnish. I can’t for the life of me recall the name. As we leave, Josh points to a large painting on the wall in the West Berlin side. It hides a ‘whisky’ stash where regular patrons store their bottles of whisky.
A Bit of Shakespeare
Nearby Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown outside of China in the southern hemisphere. Josh points out a niche bar – The Pearl Diver Oyster Bar. I’ll keep that in mind for another time. Walking down Crossley Street, I learn a fun fact about Liverpool and Crossley Streets. Parallel to each other, they used to be called Juliet’s Terrace and Romeo Lane respectively, and were known haunts of male and female prostitutes.
It’s time for a snack. Pizza Pizza Pizza offers both pizzas from the street front pizzeria and cocktails in the bar at the back. We order a large half and half with one half mushroom and truffle oil and the other BBQ chicken with a hint of chili. It’s more than enough between the four of us.
We eat our slices of pizza “American style.” Folding the outside edges together “to keep the oil from dripping down your arm,” says Josh. I settle for a Negroni. It has a big chunk of ice with a twist of orange peel.
Next door is Lily Blacks, another of Josh’s bars. We peek inside to look at the Parisian theme.
As we walk on, Josh tells us that each tree in Melbourne has an email address. By clicking on a tree on the Urban Forest Visual webpage, you can email the council at this address to advise if the tree is damaged or there is graffiti needing removal.
On one of his tours for a hen’s night, the prospective bride sent an email for fun. The reply was something to the tune of “I hope your marriage lasts as long as I have.”
Thai in a Car Park
There’s a surprisingly long queue outside the “best Thai” in Melbourne. The location is equally surprising. Soi 38 is in the middle of a car park, with a wine kiosk opposite. Josh suggests going at 2pm if you want to avoid the queue.
Josh points out his rooftop bar, Madame Brussels . He says it has views to the spires of The Windsor Hotel. Our last bar is New Gold Mountain, another of Josh’s. It’s next door to Double Happiness, yet another of his. Despite Melbourne boasting many ‘Hidden Bars’, Josh has a sandwich bar outside New Golden Mountain. He says hidden bars are great, but people can’t find them.
New Golden Mountain
Black painted wooden stairs lead us into the small, intimate space of New Gold Mountain. It’s still relatively early in the evening and we’re the only ones here. My drink, The Kew, is disappointing. With little flavour, it’s like a weak cordial.
I have cocktail envy. One in our group orders a “yvaN eht nioJ.” There’s theatre and fire involved in the preparation. Josh obliges. That’s what happens when your tour guide is you bartender.
Why do a Bar Tour of Melbourne?
Melbourne leads the way in small bars. There are so many and they’re often hidden bars which can make exploring Melbourne’s Bar Scene confusing. A Bar tour of Melbourne makes it easy. While you may only stop at three bars, you’ll discover a whole lot more.
Bar hopping on a Friday night in Melbourne is a fun way to get to know a different part of the city.
NOTE I joined the Show me Melbourne Hidden Bar Tour at my own expense.
- Find out more about the Show me Melbourne Small Bar tour here
- Each tour is different with bars chosen according to guest numbers and preferences