Many of Melbourne’s attractions for kids are free, making a trip to this world-class city incredibly affordable.
Australia’s not just about the Outback or that famous opera house. If you’re looking to sample modern Australia, make sure to put Melbourne on your itinerary. It’s a large city yet easy to navigate with most of its family-friendly attractions conveniently located in the CBD (Central Business District). It has an artsy vibe; you’ll find graffiti-covered alleys in between towering skyscrapers. The food scene includes high-end eats as well as affordable street fare. And the beach is easily within reach, too.
Ready for the best part? Many of Melbourne’s attractions are free, making a trip to this world-class city incredibly affordable.
KidTripster Tip: We visited Melbourne during Australia’s winter. In mid-June, we experienced low temperatures in the upper 30s and highs in the upper 50s with a mix of drizzle and some downpours. I recommend traveling with a water repellent or waterproof rain jacket. You also should pack a lightweight stocking cap and gloves.
Between Russell & Swanston Streets along Yarra River
Many Melbourne museums are free like the National Gallery Victoria International and The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Victoria. But if an art museum seems too stuffy for your kids, how about one that focuses on tech? Check out ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). This free museum chronicles the evolution of television, film, and even video games. It has numerous interactive exhibits that will appeal to all ages. You can spend a little bit of time or a lot of time here, depending on your schedule. My family and I visited several times, often just to let the kids play while my husband and I hopped on the free WiFi to catch up on emails.
If the kids need get some energy out, look for the large children’s playground here. It’s part of ArtPlay, an art space dedicated to kids. ArtPlay also offers classes - either for free or a nominal fee.
Finally, don’t miss the Federation Bells in Federation Square. The installation of 39 upturned bells rings out three times a day at 8 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 5 p.m. We didn’t need a map to find the bells as we could hear them ringing loud and clear; just follow the music. More than 100 different compositions play during the week.
Elliott Ave., Parkville
When you think of Australia, do you think of koalas and kangaroos? You won’t find them roaming the city streets, but you can see them at the Melbourne Zoo. The zoo has a nice exhibit on the Australian bush that showcases these unique local animals. My kids were so excited to see kangaroos, but unfortunately, they were sleeping at the time of our visit. At this zoo, you’re not just looking at animals in cages. You actually can get quite close to some creatures like the ring-tailed lemurs. The lemurs roam around with visitors, allowing you to get some up-close-and-personal photos. However, don’t touch or feed the lemurs, as it’s not allowed. We actually saw people trying to do both; the zoo keepers will scold you.
Conservation messages are prominent throughout the zoo. For instance, the Australian bush area focuses on the problem created by toilet paper. The “Wipe for Wildlife” campaign encourages using toilet paper made from recycled materials. The exhibit includes a slide that makes the sound of a flushing toilet. It was a big hit with my kids who “flushed” each other down the slide several times. Other themes included the dangers posed to seabirds from outdoor balloons and the connection between cell phones and the erosion of gorilla habitat.
The Melbourne Zoo is well laid-out and easy to navigate, even with a stroller. There are several food options and a play area. Getting to the zoo by train is easy from the CBD. Just hop off at the Royal Park Station. The Rail Gate entrance is just a short walk.
KidTripster Tip: Visit on a weekend. It may be a little busier, but kids get in free on weekends and during Victoria school holidays. Weekday cost: Youth (under 4) Free; Youth (4-15) about $14; Adult about $27, depending on exchange rate. You can pay extra for some close-up encounters with kangaroos, giraffes, and meerkats; advance reservations are strongly suggested.
Photo courtesy: Melbourne Zoo
3/Melbourne Star Observation Wheel
101 Waterfront Way, Docklands
If you want to see the full scope of Melbourne, there’s just one way to do it: board the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel for 360-degree, panoramic views. The height of the wheel is approximately 400 feet (or the equivalent of a 40-story building). The Star travels slowly and gently, taking about 30 minutes to complete a full rotation. Inside each cabin, you’ll find floor-to-ceiling windows providing great views. From time to time, you’ll hear audio commentary on the speaker inside the cabin, instructing you to look a certain direction and the providing historical context about the city. If standing near the windows frightens you, there’s a bench in the middle of the cabin where you can sit. The Star is located in a touristy area in the Docklands, where you’ll find several restaurants and shops. Cost: about $47 for a family of four; price varies based on the size of your group and exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: Melbourne is a foodie city. But if you’re short on time or cash, here’s a cheap tip: grab a hot dog at Costco! There’s a large Costco located immediately across the street from the Star and all the expensive tourist restaurants. We’d been eating out for several days and didn’t want to spend a fortune on dinner. As crazy as it sounds, we opted for Costco pizza and hot dogs plus an Australian meat pie (ok, and a churro). Our dinner cost less than $15. We sat by a window as night fell and watched the Star light up the night sky. I’ve never been to a Costco with a view!
Click here to take a ride with our KidTripster cub reporters.
4/Melbourne Gaol (yep, that's how it's spelled!)
377 Russell St.
Wanna spend your vacation in jail? Head to the historic Old Melbourne Gaol. Built in the mid-1800s, it housed some of Australia’s most infamous criminals. Walk the cell block and learn about the history of the building and its prisoners. Between 1842 and its closure in 1924, the gaol was the scene of 133 hangings. Next door at the City Watch House, your family can participate in a 40-minute, interactive experience that involves getting arrested and being locked up by a charge sergeant. At first, it sounded silly, but it actually was really informative. The watch house closed in 1994, and it’s now a historic site. Even the graffiti on the walls is historic and protected. Be warned that some of the experience may be too mature for younger kids. Cost: Youth about $11; Adult about $20, depending on exchange rate; discounts available for families and younger children.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re traveling with tweens or teens, you may want to opt for the evening ghost tours.
KidTripster Tip: The Old Melbourne Gaol is accessible from the free City Circle Tram. The tram runs within the CBD, traveling in a circle and passing major tourist attractions. Other public transportation is inexpensive and easy to navigate. Outside of the free city circle, you’ll need something called a myki card for mass transit. You can buy it at train stations or shops like 7-Eleven. Just add money to the card as you travel. If you need to get somewhere by car, grab a taxi or Uber. If you want to get outside of the city limits for sightseeing but don’t have a car, you can book a bus tour at Federation Square. Just stop at the Visitor Centre for help.
Photo courtesy: Old Melbourne Gaol
5/Queen Victoria Market
Queen & Victoria Streets
The Queen Victoria Market is the place to eat and shop in Melbourne - popular with both residents and tourists. This massive historic market has been operating for 140 years. You’ll find all kinds of food vendors, fresh produce, original art, and souvenirs. It’s open during the day, but closed on Mondays and Wednesdays.
During the winter months, the Night Market is open on Wednesday nights. Expect big crowds and long lines. You’ll find just about any type of food or dessert that you desire. On a chilly night, grab a seat near one of the large fires to warm up. There’s no cost to enter the market, and it’s located within Melbourne’s free tram zone.
KidTripster Tip: Join the silent disco party at the Night Market. For just a few bucks, you get a pair of glowing headphones. Those wearing the headphones can hear music and secret dance instructions, while everyone else just sees a bunch of people dancing around, occasionally shouting in unison. The dance session lasts about 20 minutes and winds through the market. It’s fun for all ages, whether you’re dancing or not.
6/Royal Botanic Gardens
Birdwood Ave., South Yarra
The Royal Botanic Gardens are expansive - with beautiful flowers, plants, trees, and ferns - yet easy to walk and explore. Make sure to check out the children’s garden. Kids can follow dirt paths, climb up to treehouses, and enjoy a bit of nature right in the city. Bring along a picnic lunch or stop in for a snack at one of the cafes. Like most things in Melbourne, admission here is free!
KidTripster Tip: While visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens, cross the street to see the Shrine of Remembrance. It’s an iconic landmark in Melbourne, honoring the wartime sacrifices of Australian men and women. You also can go to the top of the shrine for a nice view of the city.
Photo courtesy: Royal Botanic Garden
7/Melbourne River Cruises
To get a different perspective on the city, board a river cruise along the Yarra River. Melbourne River Cruises offers several sightseeing options. You can buy a ticket and hop aboard at Federation Square. You’ll get a little history, a cup of hot coffee, and a nice view from the water.
KidTripster Tip: We boarded the City to Williamstown cruise. It launches from the CBD and travels down the shipping channels past the Docklands to Williamstown. The boat ride is an hour each way. Williamstown is a historic seaside town, but unfortunately during our visit, many of the shops and restaurants were closed. The trip was a little too long for my kids. I’d recommend sticking to the 1-hour cruises around the city.
Photo courtesy: Melbourne River Cruises
8/Alleys & Arcades
While I typically wouldn’t advise walking down dark alleys in most cities, Melbourne is an exception. The city has several famous alleys brightly painted with street art. You’ll easily stumble across them as you explore on foot, and it’s often worth a quick detour to snag some cool selfies.
Be sure to check out the many arcades, as well. These beautiful, arched, covered passageways can be found all over the city. I recommend exploring the Block Arcade, Cathedral Arcade, and Royal Arcade.
9/State Library Victoria
328 Swanston St.
Located in the CBD, the State Library Victoria is Australia’s oldest public library. The dome is gorgeous. The library offers several free tours. There’s a children’s section that serves as a nice refuge after a busy day of sightseeing. We plopped onto some beanbags and spent an hour resting our feet, reading some books, and using the free WiFi.
10/Old Treasury Building
20 Spring St.
Near the Parliament House, the Old Treasury Building Museum is a grand, 19th century structure. It originally was used to store gold during the Australian gold rush. Today, you can tour the original vaults and learn about how gold transformed Melbourne. And you guessed it - it’s free!
KyAnn Lewis is a Portland, Oregon-based journalist, mom, and travel junkie. She’s the CVO (Chief Vacation Officer) for her family, always on the lookout for a good deal and a new destination to explore. She believes one of the most important things that you can give your kid is a passport.
This writer received some complimentary admissions for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.