12 Things to do in Carlton, Melbourne

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Carlton is a suburb defined by its continued evolution.

Nothing has perhaps put Carlton on the map like Lygon Street. But Little Italy is far from all that Carlton offers to its residents and curious travellers. Still, the influence of immigrant generations cannot be understated – look no further than the food and coffee culture. International flavours are king, and single-origin coffee blends owe their popularity to the foundation laid by Italian dark roasts. 

Add Carlton’s offering of pre and post indulgence amusement, and it’s clear to see why the area continues to elevate itself within the ranks of Melbourne neighbourhoods

Passion rewarded, and popularity deserved. Here is the list of things to do in Carlton, Melbourne.

Lygon Street, or ‘Little Italy’

Lygon Street, Carlton, Melbourne
Source: Adam Calaitzis on iStock

There would be no forgiveness for putting Carlton’s Little Italy anywhere other than first. True, this is no ranked list, but Lygon Street nonetheless demands immediate attention. 

The interwar and post-war migration of Jewish and Italian populations saw Lygon Street become the epicentre of Italian culture in Melbourne. Traditional trattorias began to puncture the inner-city streets, and with them came the first espresso machines. Melbourne’s exponential relationship with caffeine is subsequent history. 

For decades, Carlton’s Little Italy has celebrated Italian cuisine and culture. It has endured through times of cliché tourist trapping and since re-emerged as a community once again founded on cultural authenticity. So, ignore any negative noise that may enter into conversations about Little Italy – its criticisms now exist as nothing less than unfounded. 

Little Italy is famed for its food, but the truth is it is more than that. The area persists as a story of immigration’s success – a place defined by the old generations of Italians and by the new ones that continue its legacy. No visit to Carlton would be complete without time spent straying down Lygon’s side streets or submitting to the scent of fresh bruschetta. 

Melbourne Museum 

Melbourne Museum
Source: crazychristina on iStock

The Melbourne Museum tells the story of Victoria, Australia – its people, its places, its past. It’s this dedication to enlightenment and education that draws such prolific attention from both locals and travellers. 

The museum, which you can find in the Carlton Gardens, boasts a significant number of both permanent and fluid exhibits. At the centre of it all is the Forest Gallery – the museum’s living heart. Forest Gallery is an immersive nature experience that takes visitors through the everchanging landscape of a Victorian forest, complete with rare plants and indigenous fauna.

Alongside its ode to nature, Melbourne Museum imparts vital cultural knowledge via the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. Here, stories of survival are told, and cultural achievements are celebrated.

Readings

Readings’ longevity exists as a testament to its appointment as a Carlton icon. It was 1969 when the shop began its life within the Australian literary scene. Now, it stands proud on Lygon Street – the flagship store to a fleet of others that feed the literary appetites of other neighbourhoods around Melbourne. 

To wish time away in Melbourne is criminal. But to while away time in Readings is understandable. The Carlton storefront boasts a truly Melbournian laidback atmosphere that invites patrons to browse the bookshelves without pressure and mingle with others of similar literary inclination. 

There’s a reason Readings has so many awards to its name. 

Carlton Gardens 

Carlton Gardens, Melbourne
Source: FiledIMAGE on iStock

A pertinent reminder for any traveller is to take the time to embrace the atmosphere of your surroundings. Adventures can move fast, and there is much to be said for slow travel. 

The Carlton Gardens is a landscaped park that exists at the very centre of Carlton’s community. People watch, picnic, walk: the gardens offer the perfect opportunity for visitors to absorb Carlton’s energetic ambience. 

Royal Exhibition Building

Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton, Melbourne
Source: Adam Calaitzis on iStock

The Melbourne Museum and the Carlton Gardens are home to Australia’s first World Heritage-listed building – the Royal Exhibition Building.

Since 1880, the building has been a reminder of the region’s wealth accumulated through the gold rush. 

Tours can be enjoyed through the Royal Exhibition Building’s fully restored interior when it is not being used for events or exhibitions. 

Steps Gallery

Maintaining the cultural momentum – Steps Gallery.

You can find this modest-sized gallery just off Lygon Street. It houses the work of local, contemporary Victorian artists. 

Steps is a beautiful space to slow down the pace of your Lygon Street experience. 

D.O.C. Pizza and Mozzarella Bar

With Carlton’s synonymity with Little Italy, it would be hard to imagine a pizza place not featuring on this list. Enter D.O.C.’s on Drummond Street – take the frequent queues as a definition of the establishment’s popularity.

D.O.C.’s on Drummond exists as part of a now citywide D.O.C. ecosystem that provides Melbourne with a proudly Italian pizza, coffee and delicatessen experience. Simply put, D.O.C.’s exists to satiate appetites, and it excels at doing so. 

Abla’s

It’s not all pizza and carbonara in Carlton, though. Abla Amadmade made sure of that. 

In the 1970s, Abla – a Lebanese immigrant – opened up a restaurant named Abla’s. The place has since become a Carlton institution, feeding residents and visitors generous portions of traditional chicken and baklava. 

Italian culture may snag the local headlines in Carlton, but Abla’s stands as a testament to the true depth of Melbourne’s cultural diversity. 

Carlton Baths

Summers in the city can be hot. Heat stubbornly clings to every stretch of pavement and every concrete wall that it can. And there can seemingly be a little respite – few places to cool off and relax. Enter, Carlton Baths. 

Carlton Baths offer access to their open-air pool throughout the most intense summer months of the year – October through April. A different toddler pool makes Carlton Baths an excellent spot for whole families to spend some downtime. 

Pidapipó 

Naturally, Little Italy has a hallmark gelato establishment – that being Pidapipó.

Again, Pidapipó’s quality is exemplified by queues of people often seen waiting outside. And if the queues alone do not convince you of the quality of Pipó’s gelato, then the owner’s gelato school certification should. 

No matter the weather, Pidapipó should be visited when travelling through Carlton. 

Seven Seeds

Seven Seeds is among exclusive company. The Berkeley Street café is one of the best coffee spots in the entire city. 

Few places in the city make such an exact cup of coffee. If there was ever a café that demanded the attention of caffeine-lovers, Seven Seeds might just be it. The ‘Golden Gate’ espresso blend is a consensus favourite.

Cinema Nova

Cinema Nova has evening entertainment covered. 

The arthouse advocate has grown to become the largest independent cinema in the southern hemisphere. Sixteen screens display a vibrant collection of films: from international hits to blockbuster productions, and most notably, arthouse creations. 

The cinema also hosts uniquely intimate events to bring film fans closer to the productions that they love.

Final Thoughts 

Carlton embodies the union of past and present. The neighbourhood rose on the back of the immigrant generations that fled war-torn Europe – Italian artisans who brought Milan’s tastes and smells with them. And it’s the new generations of these pioneers that find themselves now holding the neighbourhood’s reins. Contemporary innovators continue to keep Carlton on the Melbournian map.

Embrace the local institutions. Or let the new wave of artisans indulge you. There is no wrong choice.

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