I realize that throwing my two cents into the oft-heated and never-settled Sydney vs Melbourne debate is probably a fool’s errand, but what the hell – I’m doing it.
I’ve lived in both cities and thoroughly enjoyed my time in each of them. That’s why my final verdict is: neither city is better than the other.
That said, I do believe that one city may be better suited than the other for a lot of people (for example, me: I love Melbourne, but I know I’m a Sydney girl at heart).
If you’ve never been to either Australian city but are contemplating a trip, gap year, semester abroad, or working holiday Down Under, here’s what you need to know about the differences between Sydney and Melbourne when deciding which city to visit or live in.
Autumn in Sydney = beach weather.
Sydney has better weather
Thankfully Sydney has some stellar weather that makes it possible to enjoy its 100+ beaches nearly year-round. Summers are hot and a bit humid (85-90F/28-30C), spring and autumn are pleasant and still pretty warm, and winters are cool and mild (55-60F/12-15C). In short: Sydney’s weather is moderate, consistent, and comfortable.
Melbourne’s weather, however, is a complete grab bag. People always refer to its notorious “4 seasons in 1 day”, which is absolutely a reality in this city (mostly in spring and autumn). But even more frustrating is how the weather isn’t even consistent throughout one season: for example, in the summer it could be 110F (44C) one day, then 60F (15C) the next (no exaggeration, this actually happened more than once this past summer in Melbs). Melbourne never really settles into a season, it seems. And Melbourne winters are pretty heinous: think gray skies, frequent rain, and cold (40-50F/5-10C).
Melbourne is better for cycling
Sydney is a city dominated by its harbour: the harbour came first, and the city was formed around it. As a result, Sydney streets do not follow a grid structure, and they tend to be quite hilly and ill-fit for casual cycling. There are plenty of people who still cycle in Sydney and make use of the new bike paths that have sprung up around the city, but in general it’s not really something that’s widely done.
Melbourne, by contrast, is totally a cycling city. The city is man-made, with streets that tend to run along a grid and more often than not are lined with bike lanes. There are free perma-bike pumps and ample bike parking set up outside most train stations to accommodate the daily commuters. A few of the major roads leading into the city have separate bike paths that run straight down the middle of them, completely separate from vehicular traffic. And best of all: the deliciously scenic bike trails that hit you with a healthy dose of nature when you want a little escape from the city. The trails that run along the Yarra River, Maribyrnong River, and the coastline are particularly excellent.
Beach in Sydney Harbour.
Sydney is all about beach culture
When you’re continually blessed with sunshine and more beautiful beaches than you know what to do with, it’s really not too surprising to see a culture develop around these things. On any given sunny weekend day you’ll see Sydneysiders flock to the coast or the harbour to relax on a beach, enjoy some frosty beverages, and maybe even have a BBQ (a healthy proportion of Sydney’s parks and beaches are equipped with free-to-use BBQs, no charcoal needed!). More than anything, Sydney feels laidback, breezy, and downright pleasant to exist in, and I attribute that directly to its beach culture.
By contrast, Melbourne’s not at all about the beach. There are a handful of beaches that exist near the city, but quite frankly they’re a joke compared to what the rest of Australia has to offer. I still don’t understand the hype that surrounds St. Kilda (it’s ugly, and swarming with backpackers), but a lot of people seem to like it, so… there’s that. Thankfully there are some seriously stunning beaches elsewhere in Victoria that make for an ideal excursion from Melbourne, so if you’re a beach bum stuck in Melbs you won’t have to worry about missing your sand and surf.
White Night Melbourne.
Melbourne is all about culture in general
What Melbourne lacks in beaches it more than makes up for in cultural goodness. I’ve never met a city with so many festivals and special events on tap: from international sporting games to comedy and music festivals to smaller celebrations put on by seemingly every minority group in town, it’s no exaggeration that there is always something on in Melbourne.
You don’t even need to attend an event to get your cultural fix, though. Every day in Melbourne can be made into a culinary, artistic, and/or musical adventure with all the museums to check out, laneways and neighborhoods to explore, street art to find, and restaurants to sample. The fact that there are SO MANY of these things that are SO GOOD is what makes Melbourne such a cultural marvel. And god, don’t even get me started on brunch. Melbourne’s cafe culture is just insane. Brunch is an actual hobby here amongst foodies – even I, a decidedly non-foodie, got into it with my perpetual search for acai bowls, pancakes, and the best flat white. It seems like a lot of these places are very aware of their aesthetic presentation and go through great means to make their space and plates very instagram-friendly.
You won’t be bored or hungry in Sydney either, but it’s just like any other city in terms of restaurants, bars, and the standard cultural offerings. In other words, you probably wouldn’t go to Sydney specifically to seek out these things like you would Melbourne.
Coffee at The Kettle Black in Melbourne.
Sydney and Melbourne have equally good coffee, but Melbourne has more of it
In my pseudo-professional coffee snob opinion, you can find equally fantastic coffee in both Sydney and Melbourne. I’ve enjoyed some of the best coffee OF MY LIFE in both cities. The difference is that in Sydney you need to know where to go to find it, whereas in Melbourne it’s basically a given that any cafe you walk into will serve coffee that will knock your socks off. Coffee is a much bigger deal in Melbourne, and cafe culture is such an integral part of this city.
Exploring Phillip Island, a couple hours south of Melbourne.
Sydney and Melbourne both have great weekend trip opportunities
If you’re the kind of person who likes to escape city life every so often, you’ll have plenty of weekend getaway options in both Sydney in Melbourne – though if I had to pick a winner here, I’d give the nod to Melbourne.
In Sydney you can taste wine in Hunter Valley, go hiking and canyoneering in the Blue Mountains, camp and hike the Royal National Park coastal track, or explore any of the nearby east coast beaches. In Melbourne, you can go wine tasting in Yarra Valley or on the Mornington Peninsula, go beach hopping in Mornington or on Phillip Island, do some overnight trekking and camping in the Grampians or Wilsons Promontory, or road trip down the Great Ocean Road.
Hanging out at a bar in one of Melbourne’s laneways.
Melbourne is more insular
My impression of Melburnians is that they fiercely love their city and their friends. Many have grown up here and remained through their adult life because, well, Melbourne is very livable (it’s constantly being dubbed one of the most livable cities in the world). So they have their family and their friends here already and, while they’re perfectly nice and friendly to others, they aren’t really looking to add to their social circles. If you do manage to make it into a Melbourne local’s inner circle, you’ll know about all the cool underground happenings going on here and you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time with them.
By contrast, Sydney is more of an international city: its population has a slightly greater proportion of expats, and it gets nearly twice as many annual overseas visitors as Melbourne. I’ve lived in Sydney twice and both times I effortlessly found myself amidst a group of expat friends – and I am not a person that tends to make friends easily.
Your mileage may vary, but based on my experience: If you want a more local experience and are willing to put in the work to make friends, Melbourne is where you should be; but if you’re happy to hang out with fellow internationals, you’ll easily be able to do that in Sydney.
Sydney is more beautiful
How can you compete with the Sydney Opera House and majestic Sydney Harbour Bridge? Throw in a devastatingly picturesque harbour and some world-class beaches and there’s just no contest. Sydney is a total stunner.
Melbourne’s not bad on the eyes either, but she’s no Sydney. I think Melbs looks particularly pretty from the Yarra, where you have all its bridges crossing the river and the skyline just behind – but it lacks any iconic structure, and the city beaches are pretty crap in comparison to Sydney’s.
Trains at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne.
Melbourne has better public transport
Both cities have recently implemented those touch on / touch off cards for public transit, which makes paying for transport a total breeze. However, Melbourne’s transit network is significantly more robust and practical than Sydney’s. Trains, trams, and buses run through nearly all of the inner suburbs, meaning you’re bound to be living or staying within a 2-10 minute walk of any transit stop no matter where you are (unless you’re in an outer suburb, in which case you’ll be relying on a bus). And get this: as of March 23 of this year, Melbourne’s transit system is finally on Google Maps! (For some inane reason, Melbs was way behind on the times and until now you had to plan your journey with a separate app.)
In Sydney, buses are the main form of transport. The train does stop at a few main stations in the city, but it’s better used to get in and out of Sydney rather than within it unless you happen to live and work close to stations. Sydney also has a light rail and a ferry system, though they’re used more as a novelty rather than a practical way of getting around.
One thing Sydney does have going for it, though, is its super-fast train to the airport which typically takes about 20 minutes. In Melbourne, there’s an airport bus that goes into the city, but it takes longer and is subject to traffic.