Editor's Note — CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN) — Melbourne is an unlikely city.
Consider the conditions: a population of a little more than 4 million in the southernmost major city in mainland Australia, itself one of the southernmost countries in the world.
Yet it has developed into a thriving center of culture and good living, ranked the world's most livable city two years running by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
It's this unlikely ascendance that leads people to narrow their focus in looking for answers, putting Melbourne's exceptional bars, arts events, festivals, coffee and food under a microscope in search of some sort of ineffable essence when there probably isn't one.
It's basically a big city that only looks like a small one.
And that's a lot of its charm.
Make it smaller with our guide to the best of Melbourne.
Diplomatic Suite at Park Hyatt.
Melburnians (never Melbournians or, even worse, Melbournites) are traditionally skeptical of global brands encroaching on their proudly individualistic city.
But it's hard to begrudge the Park Hyatt.
Surrounded by cardinal landmarks -- imposing Parliament House, Gothic revivalism of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Old Treasury Buildings, Fitzroy Gardens -- it's somehow both discreet and showy on a long entrance driveway on the edge of the central business district.
There's the whole Italian marble, wood paneling, day spa luxury, best of Melbourne megillah, all a five-minute walk from the center of the city.
If you enjoy the sensation of history leaking from the walls of your bedroom, this hotel on CBD artery Flinders Street provides amply.
Alternately a former coffee storehouse, headquarters for the now-defunct Herald newspaper and a billiards center named for legendary Australian pool player Walter Lindrum, it's now a boutique hotel that exudes old world warmth without foregoing contemporary facilities.
Aspiring Fast Eddie Felsons can shoot some stick on an original, restored billiards table surrounded by Lindrum memorabilia.
Brooklyn Arts Hotel
With its seven rooms, resident dogs and convivial host in filmmaker and activist Maggie Fooke, it seems almost churlish to use the word "hotel" to describe this outpost of understated civility.
Conjuring images of identical rooms and the tiny soaps housed within them, this carefully maintained Victorian mansion is a reflection of its creative, eccentric Fitzroy environs, an ideal base from which to explore Melbourne's more bohemian north side.
Vue de Monde
Recently relocated to the 55th floor of the Rialto Building, Vue de Monde is Australia's greatest contribution to what you could loosely call "modernist cuisine."
Prices match its lofty heights and reputation, with food that combines a traditional French spirit with modern technique and uniquely local ingredients. Salt cured wallaby, anyone?
The deft interior use of recycled and sustainable materials creates a haute, yet unmistakably Australian dining experience.
Don't bother with the à la carte menu; go straight for the best of Melbourne entrees.
The rotovapped macadamia martini in the attached Lui Bar is worth a try.
Tapas with charm.
Spanish food generally, and tapas specifically, has had a profound impact on Melbourne's dining landscape over the last decade.
Similarly styled restaurants may get more accolades (or perhaps have more dedicated publicists) but Bar Lourinhã quietly and consistently trumps them all.
No meal is complete without at least one order of the yellowtail kingfish "pancetta" with lemon oil.
For the more adventurous there's always at least one interesting offal dish on the menu.
The concise, European-focused wine list rewards those willing to venture outside of cabernet and the like.
Established in the 1860s during Victoria's gold rush, Melbourne's Chinatown has a history with which only San Francisco's equivalent can compete.
Even then it's a close race.
Chinatown has no shortage of dining options, but it's the venerable Supper Inn that's graduated to institution status, good for restorative 2 a.m. bowls of congee tor lazy Susan banquets.
If you opt for the latter, the suckling pig is so essential it seems crazy that they even make you ask for it anymore.
The wine list isn't great, but you can bring in a bottle from the City Wine Shop, located further up Little Bourke Street.
I Love Pho
This authentic restaurant's BYO policy makes eating Vietnamese even more phon.
If you woke up amnesiac and groggy in the middle of Victoria Street, Richmond, it'd probably take a while to realize you weren't in Ho Chi Minh City.
Being recently unconscious, you might want a revivifying bowl of Vietnam's ubiquitous noodle soup, phởl.
I Love Pho looks markedly more modern than some of the (many) other choices, yet provides what is near-unanimously considered the best bowl on the strip.
There are a lot of traditional pizza revivalists in Melbourne, but newly opened Rita's Cafeteria doesn't conform to the trend.
Variations on the classic tomato-and-mozzarella formula abound, but it's an outlier combination of cavolo nero, blue cheese, walnuts and fresh grapes that blows even the best of Melbourne's culinary minds.
Good vegetarian options, appropriately quaffable wine, salads, pasta and risotto are also available.
You'll find South Pacific heritage -- and more -- at The LuWow.
Tiki and Kustom Kulture has been enjoying a quiet, Juxtapoz Magazine-led renaissance around the world.
With the former worldwide glory of Trader Vic's reduced to corporate drabness, it's up to places like the LuWow to provide ridiculously baroque South Pacific simulacra.
Owner Josh Collins has a background in set and prop design -- it shows.
Up front is the "Island Village," table service and tiki drinks with truly immoderate amounts of alcohol served in authentic mugs.
Out back, the "Forbidden Temple" features turbaned staff, cabaret and assorted live exotica.
It's almost impossible to overstate just how good people who enjoy a cocktail have it in Melbourne.
Based on industry awards alone, Black Pearl probably rewards your fancy drink dollar most richly.
But that's a soulless metric and the Pearl is anything but soulless.
Raconteurish bartenders, canonical classics and improbable originals are all specialties.
If a quieter, table-service affair is required, make a reservation at the upstairs companion bar, The Attic.
The Toff in Town
Another vaguely schizophrenic Melbourne venue, the Toff is a mid-sized live room with an outsized sound system.
The stage hosts everything from sub-rosa gigs by visiting internationals and performances from best of Melbourne locals World's End Press or Lost Animal, to drag balls at disco institution the House de Frost.
Across the hall are private carriages evoking the glory days of train travel, complete with buzzers for service.
The idea of celebrity spotting may be a little too overt for the collective Melbourne psyche, but if you were to do it you'd do it at the Toff.
Get it Wright: Bombay Sapphire gin, yellow chartreuse, fresh lime, cucumber and apple juice.
Bon vivant and raconteur Vernon Chalker is a Melbourne hospitality legend.
All his venues are worth bending an elbow at, but Bar Ampere is his newest and most distinctive, which is saying something.
Inspired by Filippo Marinetti's Futurist Manifestoof 1909 and named for the unit of electrical current, it's a steel-and-stone tribute to retro-futurism.
Aperitivi and digestivi, charcuterie and preserves constitute the bill of fare.
Chalker's first venue, Gin Palace, the 15-year-old home of countless martinis and infinite debauches, is conveniently located next door should the night call for more conspicuously indulgent surroundings.
The Gasometer Hotel
Rescued from Irish theme pub ignominy about two years ago, the Gaso has quickly become a best of Melbourne pub.
It eschews the city's traditional drink -- the omnipresent Carlton Draught -- for locally brewed craft beers on tap.
Traditional pub fare has been abandoned in favor of seasonal, themed menus.
More recently, the Gaso has emerged as the best place to hear some of Melbourne's emerging bands.
A recent gig featuring local heroes Royal Headache drew a queue snaking around the block.
Coffee table tomes and gift books abound at Metropolis.
As you've probably noticed, you can't read all the books in the world.
Which is why bookstores like Metropolis are needed -- to make sure the books we do read are worth the time.
Completely independent, with a specific focus on art, design, architecture and culture, Metropolis stocks imposing Taschen photography monographs, treatises on typography, local small-press oddities and illustrated children's books, with, it almost goes without saying, a lot in between.
If you remain bewildered, manager Molly is an encyclopedic delight.
Metropolis Bookshop, Level 3, 252 Swanston St., Melbourne; +61 3 9663 2015
If something can be considered even vaguely creative, there's somebody doing to a high, idiosyncratic standard in Australia.
The exclusively local womenswear and jewelry at Alice Euphemia is a testament to this rule.
Inside an interior designed by Edwards Moore, you can find psychedelic tribalism from Romance Was Born, grown-up girlishness from Kuwaii and understated elegance from LOVER, as well as jewelry from designers like Julia de Ville and Lucy Folk.
Even U.S. musician, film director and fashionista Kanye West famously had a poke around while he was on tour.
The only thing missing is clothing by Alpha 60, designed by siblings Alex and Georgie.
That's OK; their Flinders Lane store is less than a block away.
Alice Euphemia, Shop 6, Cathedral Arcade, 37 Swanston St.; +61 3 9650 4300
Third Drawer Down
At least you don't have to pick the soap out of it.
You want a liquid soap dispenser in the shape of a giant schnoz, don't you? Sure you do.
Or perhaps a coffee mug that looks exactly like a Canon 105-millimeter zoom lens.
No? How about screen-printed pillowcases by local illustrator Kat Macleod?
Co-located with The Museum of Art Souvenirs Store, Third Drawer Down is the best parts of every arty souvenir shop you ever loved distilled into a small storefront off of Gertrude Street, Fitzroy.
There's an abundance of whimsy, but it's smart whimsy.
Like Sharper Image for the art literate and design conscious.
Third Drawer Down, 93 George St., Fitzroy; +61 3 9534 4088
Melbourne has a surfeit of carefully curated designer and vintage markets.
But for the unfiltered bulk of the city's garages and storage rooms, catching an early train to the eastern suburb of Camberwell is necessary.
Running since 1976, the Sunday market opens at 7 a.m.
Like the best of these types of places, there's always the promise of a scandalously cheap gem from stallholders that range from tchotchke vending stalwarts to university students offloading suddenly passé wardrobes.
The Astor Theatre
Every city has a cinema, but it's the 75-year-old, two-tiered art deco edifices that are getting thin on the ground.
Yet the Astor is no fusty, repertory house where movies go to die -- quite the opposite.
Its ability to project in the near antiquated (yet never bettered) 70-millimeter format, and the cutting-edge (yet rarely supported) 4K digital format sets it apart.
Make sure you see something projected in either fashion on the Astor's gigantic screen.
Australian Centre for the Moving Image
Federation Square is a monolithic cultural precinct designed by LAB Architecture Studios opposite the iconic Flinders Street Railway Station.
Of Fed Square's myriad events and attractions, one sure bet is something interesting happening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
Retrospectives of rare and significant films run every Wednesday at the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Other programs include director talks and exhibitions that have included historical materials from the Stanley Kubrick archives, a celebration of 50 years of Australian television and the current "Game Masters" video game exhibition.
The Convent humbly bills itself a "community resource and incubator for creativity, the sharing of ideas and a place of enjoyment."
Not a real convent -- or, at least, not anymore -- Abbotsford is, rather, a convocation of heritage buildings housing cafés, galleries, farmers' markets, craft markets and nice places to sit outdoors on a summer's day.
It's also home to the Collingwood Children's Farm, which is worth attending even if you aren't a child, if for no other reason than to whisper your troubles to Duncan the Goat Listener, the most empathetic goat there ever was.
If during your time in Melbourne you were to restrict yourself to visiting the two big state-run galleries -- the National Gallery of Victoria (spread over the iconic NGV International building on St Kilda Road and The Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square) and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art -- you would have taken in some superlative art.
For visitors who want to dig deeper into what's new in Melbourne's art scene, artist-run initiatives (ARIs) are the places to do it.
Here are four of the best.
"Theorist Training Camp/Practice Piece" combines working out, study and practice into a single action performed for, and assisted by, the audience.
Established in 1993, West Space is one of Melbourne's oldest ARIs, known for its "challenging, experimental, exploratory and diverse" work.
Examples include Euginia Lim living in the gallery completely alone for an entire week, interacting with people only through the Internet in "Stay Home Sakoku: The Hikikomori Project."
Other noteworthy artists to exhibit recently include Tony Garifalakis, Max Creasy and Laith McGregor.
TCB Art Inc.
Down one of the more forbidding Melbourne laneways, and up an even more forbidding set of stairs, TCB is the most punk rock of these small galleries.
Look out for work by Thomas Jeppe, Josey Kidd-Crowe or Veronica Kent.
TCB Art Inc, Level 1, 12 Waratah Place, Melbourne
Less a gallery for kings to exhibit work and more a reference to its location on King Street, Kings ARI perfectly illustrates the relevance of such initiatives in keeping the best of Melbourne's art scene so famously vital.
Fostering the development of new talent through its dedicated Emerging Artist Program, exhibitions are spread over five separate spaces, which means a consistently diverse range of work by exciting young artists.
Kings ARI, Level 1, 171 King St., Melbourne; +61 3 9642 0859
Platform Public Contemporary Art Space
Much has been written about the integration of art into the fabric of Melbourne's streets, but no place illustrates this philosophy more deeply (in both a literal and figurative sense) than Platform.
Platform consists of three exhibition spaces, the primary one located in a pedestrian underpass connecting Degraves Street with Flinders Street Railway Station.
Thirteen glass-fronted cabinets originally installed to house advertising now host a constantly rotating selection of artwork that has been enlivening dreary commutes for more than 20 years.
Platform Public Contemporary Art Space, Degraves Street Subway, Melbourne