Historic buildings to explore

Melbourne’s a modern city, but pockets of its past are everywhere, waiting to be explored and admired. Here are some of our favourite grand Victorian buildings and Art Deco delights.

Manchester Unity Building

One of Melbourne’s most striking structures, the Manchester Unity Building is a wonder of streamlined Art Deco Gothic design. The tallest building in town when it was completed in 1932, it also boasted Melbourne’s first escalator. Don’t just admire it from the street! Manchester Unity Building Tours get you inside, including the beautiful wood-panelled boardroom, and up to the rooftop. Tours begin with treats at 1932 Cafe & Restaurant in the marble arcade.

A tower of an old art deco building

Manchester Unity Building

ANZ Gothic Bank

Built in the 1880s, when Melbourne was booming, this structure is a feast of High Victorian opulence. Now known as the ANZ ‘Gothic Bank’, it was originally two buildings: the former stock exchange and the ES&A Bank. Both are in the Gothic Revival style, but the stock exchange went OTT with vaulted ceilings, stained glass, gilding and gargoyles. Offering one of Collins Street’s most impressive facades, this building’s interior is even more amazing, so be sure to step inside. Apart from beautifully preserved heritage design, you’ll also find the ANZ Banking Museum.

Royal Arcade

Opened in 1870, this was Melbourne’s first shopping arcade, and is the oldest still standing in Australia. It was designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style by Charles Webb, whose other Melbourne buildings include the Hotel Windsor. Royal Arcade’s most famous feature, Gaunt’s Clock, was actually added in 1892. Flanking the clock, the statues of mythological figures Gog and Magog each strike a bell on the hour.

People walking along rows of shops in an old arcade

Royal Arcade

The Block Arcade

Inspired by Milan’s grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, The Block Arcade was built in the 1890s with no expense spared. From lavish mosaic floors to glass skylights, this is 19th century French Renaissance Revival with bells on. Today, the resident boutiques and cafes – including original tenant the Hopetoun Tea Rooms – carefully maintain the elegant heritage look. Take a guided tour, or see where the shopping and dining spirits lead you.

Cathedral Arcade

If you know Melbourne, you know the 1926 Nicholas Building, home to a warren of creative small businesses and studios. But did you know that this Greek Revival Palazzo-style building’s lovely arcade has a name? Or that it featured in Courtney Barnett’s 2015 Elevator Operator video? Get better acquainted with Cathedral Arcade, an Art Deco treasure of white tiles, arched glass ceilings and vintage brass details.

An old arcade with a stained glass ceiling

Cathedral Arcade

Parliament House

One of Melbourne’s most magnificent 19th century public buildings, Parliament House is where the state of Victoria is governed from. Visit on weekdays for tours when Parliament isn’t sitting, and lunch and afternoon tea in the wood-panelled Strangers Corridor dining room. Wonder at the building’s abundance of Gold Rush-era marble, chandeliers, gilding and polished wood. See inside the two parliamentary chambers: the green Legislative Assembly and red Legislative Council. Say hello to the statue of Queen Victoria and portraits of every Victorian premier.

Royal Exhibition Building

Melbourne’s only UNESCO Heritage-listed site, the Royal Exhibition Building was built for the 1880 International Exhibition (and hosted it again in 1888). It was the biggest building in Australia at the time, and went on to host the first Australian federal Parliament in 1901. Drawing on several historic Italian architectural styles, its main inspiration is the mighty domed cathedral in Florence. It’s still used for trade shows, fairs and cultural events, and guided tours are available.

An old historic building surrounded by a manicured garden

Royal Exhibition Building

Shrine of Remembrance

This memorial to Victorians who served in World War I – many of whom were buried far away – opened in 1934. Since then it has become a place to honour all who have served in war and peacekeeping, and a major Melbourne landmark. Inspired by classical architecture, including the Parthenon in Athens, the Shrine of Remembrance preserves important stories from the past. It’s free to wander, or take a guided tour, available twice-daily.

An aerial image of a historic building surrounded by gardens

The Shrine of Remembrance

Old Treasury Building

There was so much gold pouring into Melbourne in the 1850s that a purpose-built structure was soon needed to store it. Designed by 19-year-old architect JJ Clark, what’s now known as the Old Treasury Building was completed in 1862. Its grand Renaissance Revival style reflected the city’s wealth, which was secured in underground vaults. They are now open to the public as part of the building’s current use as a free museum of Victoria’s history. One vault has a pile of faux gold bullion that looks amazingly real!

A tunnel in an old building with doors along each side

The gold vaults of the Old Treasury Building

Melbourne Town Hall

Completed in 1870, the Melbourne Town Hall was designed in the majestic Second Empire style to reflect the city’s Gold Rush riches. Free guided tours are offered twice-daily on weekdays except Tuesdays. Admire the wood-panelled council chambers, wave at strangers from the portico balcony, and see the piano once played by Paul McCartney.

The University of Melbourne

Founded in 1853 as Gold Rush riches started pouring in, The University of Melbourne boasts numerous noble Victorian buildings. The central Old Quad buildings, and the original colleges on the campus’ northern edge, are reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. There’s history underfoot, too. The carpark hidden beneath South Lawn was built in the early 1970s, and became a location for the original Mad Max movie. An amazing architectural feat, its network of pillars is like an orderly forest of giant concrete mushrooms. There’s more to discover in our post about Melbourne Uni’s treasures.

A green lawn surrounded by an old building

The Old Quad at Melbourne University

Old Melbourne Gaol

Old Melbourne Gaol is famous for being the place where many of Australia’s infamous characters, including bushranger Ned Kelly and gangster Squizzy Taylor, spent time. Explore the halls at night with the hangman or if you’re feeling especially brave, take an evening ghost tour. Upcoming night tours run on various nights during the week.

The corridor of an old prison

Old Melbourne Gaol Photo: Jess Hood