Top attractions in Melbourne: The spots that will make your holiday

CNN  — 

Melbourne, the second-largest city in Australia, overflows with first-rate attractions.

When you’re coming up with you travel itinerary, Melbourne is one place you shouldn’t forget.

It’s a destination that has it all – from cultural and architectural highlights to amazing outdoor locations. Here’s our subjective list of the top attractions in Melbourne and nearby locations:

City Circle Tram

The City Circle Tram is a great way to see Melbourne.

The City Circle Tram is a fantastic way for a newcomer to get the lay of the land or for Melbourne veterans to just get around and enjoy the sights.

In the Central Business District, the circular route goes clockwise and counterclockwise, rides past many of the major tourist attractions, has unlimited hop-on, hop-off service – and is free!

Audio commentary will give you some of the basics on key sights, too.

Federation Square

Federation Square is relatively new, but it's already become a central  gathering spot for locals and visitors.

New York City has Times Square. Melbourne has Federation Square. It’s only been open since 2002, but it’s already emerged as a key focal point for residents and visitors who are out for sun, fun and food.

Centrally located, you can enjoy cutting-edge art, plenty of restaurants and bars, numerous special events and lots of people-watching. It’s also within walking distance of other key attractions such as Eureka Tower (see below). (Corner of Flinders and Swanston streets, Melbourne, Victoria, 3000; +61 03 9655 1900)

Royal Botanic Gardens

You can enjoy the fountains and greenery of the Royal Botanic Gardens every day from 7.30 a.m. to sunset.

A gathering spot for tourists and residents alike, you’ll find more than 8,500 types of plants from around the globe at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Plan your visit and book walking tours of Ornamental Lake, learn about the effects of climate change and more. Or you can just arrive spur of the moment and bask in the beauty.

Have children with you? Then the Ian Potter Foundation Children’s Garden is a popular stop at the gardens, and the Aboriginal Heritage Walk lets you see the land through the eyes of the original inhabitants. (Birdwood Ave, South Yarra VIC 3141, Australia; +61 3 9252 2300)

National Gallery of Victoria

The National Gallery of Victoria has an impressive collection and is the largest art museum in the country.

The National Gallery of Victoria is a two-for-one kind of deal. It’s composed of two buildings within a short walk of each other.

As its name implies, NGV International (180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne VIC 3006, Australia; +61 3 8620 2222 ) has art from around the world. while the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia (Federation Square, Flinders and Russell streets, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia; +61 3 8620 2222) keeps it all in-country.

Either or both will make for a delightful interlude for art lovers, especially on a rainy day.

State Library Victoria

The La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library Victoria is nothing less than stunning.

This visit isn’t really about checking out books – it’s about checking out the magnificent structure that holds those books.

The State Library Victoria is housed in a stunning 19th-century building, and the La Trobe Reading Room, with its white domed ceiling, is a must-see.

The library also displays permanent and temporary art exhibits. (328 Swanston St., Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia; +61 3 8664 7000)

Mjølner Melbourne

This isn’t a restaurant list, but sometimes, a place to eat becomes an attraction in itself. And that’s the case with Mjølner Melbourne, which comes with a Thor/Viking theme.

The dark-lit spaces of the restaurant mix traditional Norse elements with a 21st century vibe, and the menu is heavy on meats. (106 Hardware St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia; +61 3 8393 9367)

Melbourne Zoo

Eastern barred bandicoots, small noctural members of the marsupial family, are hand-reared at the  Melbourne Zoo.

It’s hard to top seeing creatures out in the wild, but if a deep trip into the Outback isn’t in the cards for you, the well-regarded Melbourne Zoo can help fill your animal void.

Besides the popular native kangaroos, koalas, kangaroos and emus you’d expect from an Australian zoo, you can see elephants from Asia, lemurs from Madagascar and Sumatran tigers along with other far-flung animals. (Elliott Ave, Parkville VIC 3052, Australia; +61 1300 966 784)

Eureka Tower

The Eureka Tower (seen in center) opened in 2006 and gives visitors a bird's-eye view of Melbourne.

Many “best of” attractions lists will include a bird’s-eye observation post. Melbourne’s entry in that category is Eureka Tower, which affords its visitors the highest building view not just in Melbourne, not just in Australia, but in all of the Southern Hemisphere.

For the bravest of your travel party, there’s The Edge, a glass cube that extends out from the 88th floor to offer a moving view you’ll never forget. If you like your horizon-scanning more tame, stick with the more traditional Skydeck. It’s open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. (7 Riverside Quay, Southbank VIC 3006, Australia; +61 3 9693 8888)

Melbourne Museum and Royal Exhibition Building

Selfie opportunity! The Royal Exhibition Building is one of the finest examples of late 1800s architecture in Australia and makes a stunning backdrop for a photo.

This is another one of Melbourne’s fabulous combo experiences.

The Melbourne Museum covers a wide range of natural and cultural interests. You’ll discover everything from bugs and dinosaur skeletons to an in-depth history of the city. (11 Nicholson St., Carlton VIC 3053, Australia; +61 3 8341 7777)

The Royal Exhibition Building is a must-see for architecture fans. Built in the late 1800s, its eye-catching dome and fanciful paintwork provide a special atmosphere for trade shows and fairs. (9 Nicholson St, Carlton VIC 3053, Australia; +61 3 9270 5000)

Yarra River

You can take a cruise on the Yarra River or enjoy a stroll along its banks. It runs right through the middle of the city before emptying into Port Phillip Bay.

Melbourne rests along the banks of the Yarra River, and one of the best ways to see the city is from the waterway.

Melbourne River Cruises offers boating services, and you can choose all types of sightseeing or dining cruises.

Not into paying for a boat ride? The banks of the river are great for walking and biking for free. (Southbank Promenade at Berth 5, Melbourne, Victoria 3000, Australia; +61 3 8610 2600)

Abbotsford Convent

Abbotsford Convent is a haven for arts and nature lovers.

Art lovers and religious history buffs converge at Abbotsford Convent. This former convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an order of the Roman Catholic Church, has 11 historic building and gardens devoted to the arts and nature.

Along the banks of the Yarra, Abbotsford holds studios, galleries, cafes, plenty of green open space and even a radio station. You’ll find all manner of special events at Abbotsford – music, art and even a Brewers Feast. (1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford VIC 3067, Australia; +61 3 9415 3600)

St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral

Melbourne's beautiful St Paul's Cathedral is open for tours.

In central Melbourne, glorious St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral would look right in place in England, though it was not consecrated until 1891.

Visitors are welcome to take a tour or join a worship service.

For an interesting cultural experience, you can witness a Mandarin service on Saturday mornings. (Flinders Lane and Swanston St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia; +61 3 9653 4220)

Southbank and South Wharf

Areas such as Southbank explain why Melbourne appears on so many high-quality-of-life lists.

While individual attractions are great, you really get to know the soul of a city by visiting its neighborhoods. A great place to start is the upscale Southbank. This area is for the visitor up for some fine dining and nightlife, too. This entertainment district is chock full of restaurants, galleries and clubs.

And at South Wharf, you’ll find restored sheds housing waterfront bars and restaurants. Be sure to check out the permanently docked Polly Woodside. Built in Belfast, Ireland, in 1885, you’ll see how goods were transported around the world in the last years of the sailing ships. (21 South Wharf Promenade; South Wharf 3006 VIC; +61 3 9699 9760)

Fitzroy neighborhood and Brunswick Street

Mural-spotting is just one of the fun things you can do in the Fitzroy neighborhood.

If you find Southbank a bit proper for your tastes, visit the funky neighborhood of Fitzroy and Brunswick Street, the main artery running through it.

North of the Central Business District, Fitzroy has seen some gentrification but for now still holds onto its edge. Find art galleries, shops selling vintage items and bookshops of all kinds of genres.

You may want to go bar hopping along Brunswick Street. The cozy Black Pearl is a favorite with its comfortable sofas and specialty cocktails. (304 Brunswick St, Fitzroy VIC 3065, Australia; +61 3 9417 0455)

St. Kilda

Luna Park in St. Kilda is just 15 minutes or so  outside of Melbourne's Central Business District.

St. Kilda is a bohemian seaside neighborhood that holds an amusement park with a definite Coney Island feel. So what can you do here?

– Climb aboard the Great Scenic Railway, the world’s oldest continually operating roller coaster, at Luna Park – or choose one of its calmer rides. (18 Lower Esplanade, St Kilda VIC 3182, Australia; +61 3 9525 5033)

Watch for penguins at the St. Kilda Breakwater.

– Stroll, cycle or skate under the neighborhood’s palms.

– Catch live music at the Palais Theatre. (Lower Esplanade, St Kilda VIC 3182, Australia; +61 3 8537 7677)

Port Campbell National Park

The Twelve Apostles, a collection of limestone stacks off the shore of the Port Campbell National Park, is one of Australia's most memorable sights.

Now we head out of Melbourne to some nearby spectacular wonders of nature.

Near the top of any list would have to be Port Campbell National Park, famous for its wave-sculpted rock formations and the Twelve Apostles, one of the world’s most grand land-meets-sea locations.

Along with the hiking and spectacular views at the park, you can go fishing, canoeing, swimming and diving. (Great Ocean Road, Port Campbell VIC 3269, Australia; +61 3 131963)

Phillip Island Nature Parks

Phillip Island is a gorgeous and easy getaway.

Let’s sum up Phillip Island Nature Parks, about 90 minutes from Melbourne, in one word: penguins. This is one of the places to view them, and the website features a penguin arrival clock. But actually, these curious birds are only the start of your sightings at this scenic getaway.

You can also take an EcoBoat Tour where you may spot seals or visit cuddly koalas in treetop boardwalks at a conservation center. Or you could visit a heritage farm on nearby Churchill Island where you can milk cows, shear sheep and even crack some whips! (Penguin Parade: 1019 Ventnor Road, Summerlands, Victoria 3922; + 61 3 5951 2800)

Peninsula Hot Springs

We've walked you around enough. How about a relaxing visit to the Peninsula Hot Springs?

All this touring can make a tourist tired, right? That’s where Peninsula Hot Springs comes into play. You can come relax in thermal spring waters in a pretty natural setting.

If you want to do more than soak, you can enjoy spa treatments, join exercise groups, take an indigenous cultural walk and even dine there. (140 Springs Lane, Fingal VIC 3939, Australia; +61 3 5950 8777)