AUSTRALIA — By any urban measure, they are the wonders Down Under.

With apologies to the folks in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and elsewhere, the decision of where to go in Australia usually boils down to Sydney vs. Melbourne. It need not be so, but it is.

In this, the most thinly populated of nations, a concentration of citizens dwells along the southeast or “Boomerang” coast. The entire country has an estimated 25 million people. By contrast, the city of Tokyo has 36 million. Sydney (4.6 million), an unplanned metropolis, and Melbourne (4.4 million), very much a planned one, are easily Australia's largest. Though styled as rivals, the rivalry is amiable.

It is hard to believe that as late as the 1950s, Sydney and Melbourne were, to put it politely, minor cities, far off the beaten track, and far from the tourist destinations they would become. That all began to change when Melbourne was awarded the 1956 Summer Olympics and a major building boom began.

Sydney and Melbourne have similar but contrasting personalities.

The immediate impression of Sydney, apart from its extraordinary harbor, is the breezy, outgoing friendliness of the people — a reflection of the country as a whole. Sydney sparkles. Capital city of New South Wales, it is clean, cosmopolitan, easily navigated (just don't drive a car), and a foodie mecca second only to Melbourne. It has fine theaters, museums and art galleries (the Art Museum of New South Wales is a particular standout), lots of green space and a laid-back mood.

Visually, the city is breathtaking. There are 152-miles of harbor shoreline, counting all the coves and bays, and the view of the harbor from Circular Quay, with its touchstones of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge, may be unequaled anywhere on the planet. 

Sydney's historic district is punctuated by The Rocks, a warren of narrow streets originally built by convict labor and today a tree-shrouded enclave of cafes and art galleries hard by the Harbor Bridge.

From the stately old neighborhoods of Kirribilli on the north shore to the restaurants of Darling Harbor to the lively clubbing and music scenes of Bohemian Sydney (Darlinghurst, Newtown, et. al.) to broad, beautiful Bondi Beach, Sydneysiders and their many visitors have much from which to choose.

Cultural Capital

Melbourne (pronounced MEL-bun), capital of the state of Victoria, may not possess Sydney's “big ticket” items like the Opera House, but it is generally regarded as the cultural and culinary capital of Australia, a city with a European flavor and an old aristocracy proud that it was not settled by “convicts.”

Though its cityscape is dominated by skyscrapers, diverse architectural styles can be found at the areas surrounding Federation Square and Flinders Street Station.

It is the diversity that is most striking — in people, art, food and entertainment. Street art is all around, especially in a restored sector of narrow alleys called Laneways. So are live performances, delightful rooftop bars, old-style pubs and an incredible array of restaurants — from celestially pricey to disarmingly modest.

Chief among the city’s excellent art museums is the National Gallery of Victoria with two imposing locations along the St. Kilda Road. The Victorian Arts Centre’s large live performance venue is sandwiched in between.

Melbourne's nightlife has an edge over Sydney's, not least in the 'burbs of Fitzroy and St. Kilda, but since the 1990s the new downtown nexus is along the southside of the Yarra River in Southgate, once an industrial wasteland but now owning an abundance of expensive hotels, sidewalk cafes, shops and a gorgeous view of the Melbourne skyline at night. The Yarra may be a glorified canal, but it winds along appealing urban areas such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, with its chattering population of wild cockatoos.

Should we add that Australia is among the world's top wine-growing regions, and that the majority of the most notable vineyards are in the states of New South Wales and Victoria?

Mild spring weather lasts from September to November, with summer running December through February. Autumn is March through May, with the cooler winter period running June to August.

For some, distance equals charm; not everyone has been there. For others, it's a deterrent. To them one might say that while Australia is far away, getting there costs dramatically less than it did in the 1950s, when a plane ticket might cost as much as a small house. And if you had been traveling there by ship from, say, Europe, it would seem an eternity.

But Australia is impressive on so many levels — geographical, cultural, political, biologic — how could you not want to go?

Bill Thompson is former editor and reporter at The Post and Courier and currently works as a freelance writer based in Charleston.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.