Throughout the 20th century, Melbourne was the destination of many migrants around the world, fleeing war, poverty or otherwise keen to settle in a growing part of the world. Different communities chose to settle in different parts of Melbourne, meaning that today, you can grab a Vietnamese iced coffee in the morning, and after a short train ride, find yourself at an Italian bakery. When moving to a strange new land, different groups tended to flock together in one part of town, leading to Melbourne having many culturally distinct areas today. Keep reading for a breakdown of some of Melbourne’s culturally rich suburbs, where you will find migrant stories and traditions carrying on through the generations. Some of these suburbs have been traditional heartlands for some groups, whereas others have only recently attracted a specific group of people.
Sydney Road, Brunswick – Middle Eastern gems
Sydney Road is a stretch of road passing through the heart of Brunswick and Coburg, like a rich tapestry linking together migrants in the inner north. These suburbs saw a lot of migration from the Mediterranean throughout the early 20th century, leading to a large Lebanese population, as well as pockets of Greek and Turkish communities. While other pockets of Brunswick in particular have become heavily gentrified, much of Sydney Road still tells the story of the area’s early migrant population.
Middle Eastern fashion is dotted all along Sydney Road, particularly bridal wear and extravagant jewellery stores. Pop by Farah’s Fashion, Khaled’s, Sundus Boutique or Zozo Abaya for a mix of traditional clothing or some Western formal wear, and accessorise at Madina or Nasser’s, to name a couple.
If Melbourne is known as a city of great food, Brunswick is definitely one of the foodie hot spots, making it hard to narrow down specific places along Sydney Road. However, you can’t go wrong if you visit A1 Bakery, probably the most famous Lebanese bakery in Melbourne, Tiba’s Restaurant, or the simply named Very Good Falafel.
For something a little more spontaneous, pop by Brunswick Market, which includes Middle-Eastern vendors as well as other diverse groups. If you can, try to experience this part of town during the Sydney Road Street Festival, where everyone in the community comes out for a day. Also make sure to grab some mementos for when you go back home, such as little treasures from the Turkish Shop or Asas’s Perfumes.
After all this, you’ll probably need to sit down and take a break, and where better to do this that at an iconic hookah lounge? Take a puff and talk to the locals at a much-loved institution, like Temple of Shisha or Mazana.
While all of this only manages to pick a few of Sydney Road’s best aspects, you can definitely learn a lot about Melbourne’s Middle-Eastern immigrants by walking up and down this street, or catching a tram to take you a few stops down the road, and talking to the third and fourth-generation migrants calling Melbourne’s inner north home.
Lygon St, Carlton – A Slice of Little Italy
One of Melbourne’s most famous streets, Lygon St in Carlton is the original home of Italian migrants. Carlton used to be a working-class and industrial suburb that was a bit rough around the edges, but is now home to many international students and trendy homes. However, Lygon St still captures the suburb’s original charm, and celebrates its Italian heritage loudly. You can immediately feel Lygon St’s Italian spirit when you see the restaurant tables that are dotted all across the footpath, allowing for casual al fresco dining.
Lygon St is granted as being the reason why Melbourne has such top-notch coffee today, as the Italians brought their coffee-making skills with them when they moved into Carlton. DOC Delicatessen is just one such option, although almost anywhere on Lygon St is likely to serve pretty decent coffee.
Lygon St is an absolute treasure trove for those with a sweet tooth. The temple of desserts that you absolutely cannot afford to miss is Brunetti, founded by the Angele family from Rome. Brunetti is a huge and stunning space, and is an integral part of Lygon St where you can chat over coffee, cake and every other type of European dessert you can think of. If you’re visiting on a hot summer’s day, a scoop (or two) of gelato are definitely in order too, and for this treat, you can visit Il Dolce Freddo or Casa del Gelato.
If it’s a lovely day and you feel like eating outside, make sure to take your gelato cone down to Argyle Square, or Piazza Carlton, where you can sit on the grass and people watch the colourful characters of Lygon St.
Pasta and pizza is aplenty along Lygon St, and here you can try the world’s best pizza at 400 Gradi (it’s official!), or chow down on pasta at Tiamo or La Spaghettata. Make sure to grab a seat outdoors if it’s a nice day, where you’ll get to see elderly Italian men sitting down for a lazy late lunch with their friends, speaking their own language and punctuating their sentences with passionate gestures.
Lygon St is also full of bookstores, delis, bakeries and florists, so make sure to take your time strolling along this culturally iconic street and soaking up the history of some of Melbourne’s first migrants.
Footscray – Little Vietnam
One of Melbourne’s biggest migrant communities is the Vietnamese, who have settled mainly in the West. After the devastating Vietnam War, thousands came to nearby Australia for refuge, with many settling in Melbourne’s inner west. Although there are many Melbourne suburbs with thriving Vietnamese populations (such as Richmond, Springvale or Sunshine), this article will narrow down on Footscray, an inner city suburb that is easily accessible to tourists.
Footscray is a humble working class suburb with a rich community fabric, and is just a 10 minute train ride from the city. Although the sense of community is strong, you’ll still feel welcomed at every store you visit. Start your morning with a punchy Vietnamese iced coffee, and fresh bread or banh mi from Nhu Lan. A steaming bowl of pho is what the neighbourhood does best, and in this regard, you’ll be absolutely spoilt for choice and will probably have a great time at whichever restaurant you stop by. Some local favourites include Pho Tam and Pho Hung Vuong Saigon.
Footscray Market is where you can get all your South-East Asian goodies, from galangal to fresh herbs. For even more Vietnamese specialty goods, make sure to visit the Little Saigon market too, where you can get fresh cane sugar juice and hear the locals haggle over prices.
Beyond food and groceries, make sure to drop by the stunning Heavenly Queen Temple, which is arguably the most gorgeous Buddhist temple in Melbourne. Visiting Footscray during the Lunar New Year is also another great way of experiencing the community, and for a broader experience, try attending some of Footscray's music and arts festivals too.
Alongside the Vietnamese community, an East African community is also rapidly forming, with many Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese migrants now calling Footscray home. Footscray has always been an accepting destination for migrants, although some recent gentrification is threatening to change that. Make sure to visit with the locals in mind, rather than the trendy new burger and brunch joints.
Box Hill – Chinatown 2.0
Chinese migrants have been coming to Melbourne ever since the gold rush in the 1800’s, with the community growing in size ever since. The heart of this development was Chinatown, in Melbourne’s CBD, but since then, Chinese migrants have settled in various parts of Melbourne, with Melbourne’s East being a one of the most popular places to settle. Today, 20% of Box Hill’s population is Chinese, making it one of the biggest Chinese community hubs in Melbourne.
Melbourne’s Chinatown is unfortunately not the most impressive out there, but thankfully, you can head to Box Hill for your dose of Chinese culture. The best part is that the Chinese community here is diverse, meaning you can indulge in everything from Shandong to Guangdong cuisine, and the food is well and truly the highlight of coming to Box Hill.
Pancake Village will be able to set you up with a traditional jianbing, a breakfast crepe that you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in Melbourne. Next, you absolutely can’t go miss dumplings when you talk about Chinese food, and this is where DC Dumpling comes in. As the name would suggest, this warm and busy restaurant specialises in dumplings, from xiao long bao to pot stickers, but also have great sizzling, noodle and rice dishes. If it’s chilly outside, warm yourself up with some hot pot at Dainty Sichuan, followed up by dessert at Grand Taipei Bakery. Even the food court at Box Hill Central is worth checking out, as each shop has made an effort to differentiate itself from the others and serve something unique.
Of course, Box Hill is also the best place in Melbourne for Chinese specialty stores. Whether you’re looking for tea (Chat Chinese Tea Shop), herbal medicine (Oriental Healthy Way) or random knick-knacks, Box Hill will have a little ma-and-pa shop for you.
Dandenong – The Afghan Village
Finally, this guide takes you to one of Melbourne’s most outer suburbs, Dandenong. Dandenong has recently undergone a lot of changes and redevelopment, making it an even more appealing place to visit. Dandenong has long been a destination for Afghan migrants, particularly Hazaras who have been persecuted extensively in Afghanistan. Afghan migrants have been present in Australia since the 1860’s, with many coming to work as cameleers in the harsh Australian outback. Today, the community has grown enormously, and have recently set up an Afghan Bazaar as an official cultural precinct in Dandenong.
The majority of Dandenong’s Afghan establishments are centred around Thomas St. Enjoy gourmet Afghan food at Afghan Rahimi Restaurant, or grab some casual grub at Sahar Takeaway. You’ll also be able to find stores specialising in dried fruit, nuts, and spices, such as at Bamyan Grocery, or intricate Afghan carpets at Ghan Rug Warehouse, or freshly baked bread at Maiwand Bakery. For a broader experience, visit the Dandenong Market, where you’ll get to sample everything the community has to offer. The nearby Indian dessert shops also include treats that are very similar to those found in Afghan cuisine, such as jalebi, so definitely visit Calcutta Sweets for your sweet fix.
You’ll also find plenty of Indian, African and Eastern European shops in Dandenong as well, making it an incredible melting pot of experiences. Dandenong celebrates its multiculturalism regularly with a bunch of different festivals, so try to visit when one of these is happening in order to see the suburb at its best.
Melbourne is a truly international city that lets you experience a bunch of different cultures across different parts of town, with this article casting a spotlight on where to find the most thriving ethnic communities in the city. Comment below if you there's any other cultural hot spots you'd like to learn about in Melbourne!