Feb 13, 2013

Is Melbourne better than Sydney?

Sydney-Melbourne rivalry dates back to 1835 and there are still plenty who argue passionately that one city's better than the other. So is one really better? Or is it nonsense?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Panorama by AirPano

There are plenty of city pairs across the world with intense rivalries, but until Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution linked to this story I hadn’t suspected the long-standing competition between Sydney and Melbourne is of an order that attracts attention from beyond our shores.

It goes back at least to the late nineteenth century and the battle for the location of the new Federation’s national Parliament. Even in 1835 the first whites to settle Melbourne (from Van Diemen’s Land) chafed at the restrictions imposed on them by the colonial government in Sydney.

Maybe the rivalry is because the hierarchy of cities by size in Australia doesn’t follow the rank-order distribution common in many other countries. Sydney is bigger than Melbourne on most metrics, but it’s nowhere near twice the size as the rule requires.

Antagonism is probably inevitable when you’ve got two contestants close to each other in size. The challenger was once top dog and is prone to think the gap is smaller than it actually is.

And there is serious stuff at stake. During the 80s and 90s Melbourne bled finance jobs as Sydney assumed the dominant national role in this industry.

That all seems like ancient history yet every six months or so for as long as I can remember, another story pops up in the press suggesting one is better than the other.

There’s even a book on the subject – somewhere in my library I have a substantial paperback titled something like The Sydney-Melbourne Book, published in the mid 1980s (Google’s no help unfortunately).

Of course there are differences, most obviously in climate, topography and the cost of housing. If you can’t live without beaches or you work in the upper echelons of finance, insurance or the media, you’ll probably think Sydney is a better place to live.

If you work in the arts or medical research, love grunge, or your life revolves around AFL footy, you’ll probably prefer living in Melbourne. Housing’s cheaper, traffic congestion’s lower, and you get to see your city in a lot of TV dramas (a small delight that deserves more recognition!).

Right now Melbourne’s in a good place. It seems to have found a way to enjoy the advantages of size and density – especially in the city centre – without pricing out the sorts of activities that appeal to a hip demographic.

But whatever it is about a city that appeals to us, it’s ultimately subjective. It depends on a range of factors, like our tastes, interests, age, socio-economic status, and more.

One city will suit one person better than another. That congruence might even change with each new stage of life.

However I don’t buy the clichés like one city can’t produce good coffee or the people of one are friendlier than those of the other.

I reject the coffee claim out of hand. Sydney and Melbourne are big, diverse cities and they both have plenty of discerning customers demanding quality beverages.

Making good coffee isn’t that hard – if it were, elite baristas would be paid more than their customers! In the absence of hard evidence, it’s far more plausible the coffee is as good on average in Melbourne as it is in Sydney.

And people who claim as fact that one city is friendlier than the other are invariably extrapolating from subjective experiences. They don’t have objective and universal evidence; it’s just what happened to them.

I’ve lived in both cities for substantial periods. While there are differences, I agree with Anthony Sharwood’s (light-hearted) take that the similarities far outweigh the differences.

Despite variations in local geography, Australian cities are generally remarkably similar (that’s not true in some other countries). That’s the reason so many of them rank in the top ten on ‘world’s most liveable city’ indexes.

We’re apt to magnify the differences, but Australian cities are very much alike on critical variables such as education, health and personal security. And a job in Bunnings is a job in Bunnings no matter what big city you’re in.

They all have vibrant inner cities with cafes, pubs and music venues. They all have extensive tracts of suburbia (much of it interchangeable) for the 80%-90% who prefer something else. They all have the same TV channels.

It’s no surprise we tend to put a lot of weight on the marginal differences. The “best” city, though, is the one that suits each individual’s peculiar circumstances.

If you value an attribute in which one city excels, you’ll trade it off against those in which it does poorly.

Melbourne isn’t better than Sydney or vice versa, they’re just “different”. But they are more alike than they are different.

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30 thoughts on “Is Melbourne better than Sydney?

  1. Bill Parker

    When I first came to Australia I visited Sydney a few months later. It reminded me of London. The vista from Circular Quay is charming and refreshing. The restaurants in Darlinghurst, excellent. The city is vibrant and alive.

    I went to Melbourne later and found an equally vibrant city. Recently I was there and I found a “cigar” bar in Hawthorn that sold any brand of Scotch you could care to name. Only in Melbourne I concluded.

    So, both vibrant and very different. As for where I actually live… dull, lifeless and suburban at its worst.

  2. Alan Davies

    The New York Times weighs into the debate, 36 hours in Melbourne, Australia

  3. IkaInk

    @Supermundane – I think you need your sarcasm detector calibrated.

  4. matt quaid

    Indeed, Wow Wee, I concur. Sydney needs and should be comparing and competing with at least Singapore, Hong Kong etc, and this benefits the whole of Aust. Even Jeff Kennett realised this. Many sydneysiders think Melbourne is a great place to visit and shop etc.

  5. Dylan Nicholson

    [email protected]: Ah! A sydneysider with a sense of humour. I suppose there’s a first for everything…

  6. Wow Wee

    Actually, most of the mentions of Melbourne I’ve heard from people in Sydney have been complimentary.
    I think most Sydneysiders can appreciate Melbourne’s good points without feeling the need to needlessly put the city down out of some weird insecurity.

    Most of the rivalry does tend to be one sided from my experience.

    Not just the people but politicians as well. Always a dig at Sydney.

  7. Brigid Tancred

    I hate to break it to the people of Melbourne, but Sydney people very seldom think about your city and we certainly dont feel any rivalry. Why would we? The cities we compare ourselves to are New York and London, not Melbourne.

  8. Peter Hannigan

    The argument illustrates yet again why we have Canberra as the national capital. To have made either Sydney or Melbourne the capital would have made the winning locals unbearable!

  9. Shorty

    I’m surprised it took till post number 2 for someone to denounce Sydney.

    Ignoring the physical differences between the two places. The single most tiresome aspect of visiting Melbourne is having to listen to people tell you how good Melbourne/crap Sydney is.

    Melbourne: great place, pity about the people.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    I will say, if we spent a billion or so cleaning up the Yarra and extending residential/retail/restaurant zones along as much of it as possible, with a good dose of greenery and suitable provision of new public transport and bicycle routes, while we still wouldn’t have Sydney harbour or the beaches, we’d actually have a waterfront to be proud of.
    What would you fix in Sydney with that sort of money? (genuine question!)

  11. Hannan Meg

    I think the whole debate is ridiculous and I thought that it had died out long ago on the part of Melbournians. The only people I have heard raise this in the last 10 years are Sydneysiders. If You think Melbourne is a better city live in it. If you think Sydney superior move to or stay there. There are far more interesting things to debate than this.

  12. Rebecca Dunstan

    I think you are all missing the point. Perth is better than both. End Post.

    *runs away*

  13. Smith John

    What Steve777 said about ice cream and chocolate. But the argument is always fun.

    For the inner city tourist/flaneur – Melbourne has a better spine. Sydney has Circular Quay separated from Darling Harbour/Haymarket by 2km of dull congested mid city.

    I don’t buy the arguments that try to excuse Sydney’s traffic mess by pointing to the narrow streets. In Sydney’s CBD the streets are as close together as they are narrow. I bet if you calculated the ratio of private land to public circulation space in inner Sydney and Melbourne you would find it very similar. Inner Sydney’s traffic is a mess because the authorities are incompetent at managing it.

  14. Steve777

    The question’s a bit like ‘Is ice cream better than chocolate?’ It’s a matter of personal preference. Sydney wins on natural beauty, Melbourne on ease/difficulty of getting around and affordability of housing. I don’t like dull overcast weather, so I’m not keen on Melbourne Winters or Sydney Summers. Sydney has great beaches but most Sydneysiders have a long trek across permanently snarled traffic to get to the metropolitan beaches and nowhere to park when they arrive. However, the national parks inside and bordering the Sydney metropolitan area are great. As for the coffee, well, coffee’s coffee anywhere. As for the ‘vibe’ – well again, it’s personal preference.

  15. hk

    Yes Tom, urban Melbourne has many scenic walks of natural beauty; however in my view the walks along the edges of Port Philip Bay between Port Melbourne and Point Nepean are not as scenically dramatic as those along the edges of Port Jackson. Some of us find the combination of ferry access with walking nodes to trails provides a more stimulating and fulfilling personal experience than the one that is provided using car, bike or vehicular PT.

  16. Ed Charles

    You can definitely find Sydney coffee that is the equal to Melbourne’s. It’s just a lot harder to find.

  17. Steven Haby

    Hi Alan

    The Sydney-Melbourne book you refer to was edited by Jim Davidsonand published by Allen & Unwin in 1986 and a good copy is available for purchase from The Antique Bookshop & Curios in McMahons Point for about $27.00 among a few other antiquarian bookshops. The State Library of NSW should have a copy as would the National Library of Australia and the library that I manage here at Chelsea in Melbourne has a copy on our shelves. If you want to borrow our copy contact your local library or come on down to Chelsea along the bay and join up!

    Steven the Librarian in Melbourne

  18. supermundane

    This article is comment bait for the Melbournians who feel their city has been impugned by the mere suggestion that Sydney and Melbourne are broadly similar. The temerity. That some have predictably rushed to Melbourne’s defense kind of proves Alan’s point that the differences are generally subjective and blown out of proportion.

    Alan is right. Both are broadly similar and the differences broadl come down to topography and some historical peculiarities. I happen to like and dislike both cities for similar and for different reasons. I was born in Sydney. I’ve spent a good deal of time in both cities; I’ve lived in both for a number of years and now live in neither. Here’s how I see it in my objective and subjective opinion.

    Sydneysiders do incessantly go on about property-prices and it drives me nuts however Melbournians in my experience go on about Sydney (and how inferior it is). The merest, mos incidental mention of ‘that city’ sets a Melbournian into default ‘Melbourne is better than Sydney’ mode. You’re practically guaranteed to get an ear-bashing with all the same tedious and subjective talking points based on often limited experience of Sydney, typcially a weekend there years ago style of thing. Of course, when a Melbournian reflexively responds to hearing Sydney mentioned they invaraibly assrt that Melbourne is more cultured than Sydney (which is false from my experience) while they tend to be employed as a shop assistant, barman or barista. Skinny-jeans, a beard, dressing in black, a fixie and being able to hand the customer the correct change doesn’t make you cultured. Apparently the place is so thick with culture that the coffee and the beer in Melbourne town comes infused with it. You can’t take a breath without imbibing the stuff or walk down the street without stepping in it even if are an accountant or a receptionist.

    As to the whole small bar scene – another point of comparison that invariably crops up – thanks to Clover Moore (Melbourne hasn’t had a mayor of her calibre from recolllection) there’s been an explosion of hole-in-the-wall bars across the inner-city of Sydney over the past five years to the point that the number and choice is broadly comparable with what you’d find in Melbourne. While this is a good thing, you’ll find that in both cities, they are generally stocked with the same smug wankers on both sides of the bar. And as to historic inner-city areas of both cities be in Fitzroy/Brunswick and Newtown/Enmore give me the spontaneous and long-established goth, industrial, feral, left-anarchist, self-organising subculture of Sydney’s inner-west over the identikit, off-the-shelf, self-important hispterism you find in Melbourne’s inner-east. Also there’s nothing to compare to the wonderfully seedy, raffish and bohemian air of the Cross and Potts Point. A show like Rake could never have been made in Melbourne.

    It also may come as a surprise to many given Melbourne’s reputation for grand Victorian architecture that Melbourne comparatively lost more of its heritage than Sydney. Sydney certainly should never have lost its tram network however – a travesty. Both are blughted by a level of suburban sprawlthat would make the good burghers of Phoenix, Arizona shake their heads. As to Melbourne being a centre of contemporary architecture – plastering a facade with a random collection coloured polygons – does not make for good, considered architecture. Much of the contemporary architecture in both cities but particularly in Melbourne is trite, arrogant, vacuous, kitsch and in 15 years it’ll be frankly embarrassing.

    IkaInk: I’ve had coffee in Melbourne that also happens to taste like burnt nutmeg and tin. Your point proves nothing. I’ve also had excellent, middling and poor coffee in both cities. If the greatness of a city comes down to its coffee then there’s a small city on the other side of the globe that’s trouncing both Melbourne and Sydney in those stakes, and that happens to be Oslo. Seriously. Worse weather than Sydney or Melbourne of course but clearly coffee is where it’s at when it comes to grading cities.

    Cycling is generally a more pleasant experience in Melbourne although neither city would even rate against your average third-tier European conurbaton such as Leeds, Dusseldorf or Kaliningrad for safety and amenity. Drivers are more aggressive in Sydney towards cyclists and the police more aggressive in Melbourne. Try riding without a helmet in both cities for comparison.

    Of course these issues of cycling amenity, culture, coffee and bars is broadly indistinguishable for roughly 90 percent of the denizens of both cities living in the ‘burbs.

  19. Wow Wee

    Wow… can’t believe some of these replies.
    How defensive can people get? Are people’s sense of self worth measured by the status or others’ perception of the city in which they live?


    Was there an argument centred around Melbourne’s flat terrain?
    O. M. G. … missed the point!

  20. Tom the first and best


    Melbourne has plenty of nice walking places. There are many creeks with walks along them. There are also rail trails.

  21. hk

    Comparing “Sydney” with “Melbourne” is always an intellectual challenge.
    In terms of what is offered to the Flâneur. I find the 20 minute walking catchments from Flinders Street Station far more interesting than any 20 minute urban catchment in Sydney.
    However Sydney wins by miles for quality ferry based harbour walks. Melbourne has a long way to go before its ferry, river edge, and bay side walks compete with what is available in urban Sydney.

  22. IkaInk

    Pft! Melbourne clearly has more artistic culture, better sports and better food! It is only Sydney’s weather that makes it even in the slightest bit bearable!

    Gosh, last time I was there I was attacked by junkies, served coffee that tasted like burnt nutmeg and ground up tin, and couldn’t find a single band that wasn’t playing bad covers in the entire gig guide! If it wasn’t for that damn Opera house I’m sure they’d never get any tourists either.

  23. Alan Davies

    Sean #2:

    I had no idea Alan Davies was visiting from QI and was such a local expert!…And Melbourne DOES have a friendlier, country town and community-based feel, unfortunate residents like Carl Williams aside.

    Is that you, Lock?

    Sean, can you offer some evidence or argument in support of this bald assertion? If not, I’ll ask Stephen to fry you.

  24. Adrian

    They are both massively dodgy, unfriendly and unrealistically expensive. I’ll take Brisbane.

  25. Tom the first and best

    Melbourne and Sydney have different climates. Sydney has humid summers. Melbourne`s summers are drier (much nicer).

    Melbourne did not get rid of its trams. History has sidded with Melbourne on this matter.

  26. MarkD

    Three hours after posting and only one comment! Clearly not a burning issue to your readers. For me, on my meagre wage I reckon I can live better in Melbourne and the pace seems gentler here. The number and quality of attractions in Sydney make it my first choice destination for a long weekend away, with Hobart a close second (thanks to MONA).
    If Sydney wasn’t there, it’d make the most beautiful National Park–I totally get why it’s the most populous of our cities and a great international city.

  27. Sean

    I had no idea Alan Davies was visiting from QI and was such a local expert!

    The stress quotient of driving in Melbourne, even close to the CBD, with its generous roads, parking lanes, tree-lined boulevardes, service roads and invitations begging you to do a U-turn just about anywhere CAN make a huge difference to your quality of life.

    Then Melbourne architecture was 20 years ahead of Sydney for a long time until Bob Carr’s ‘style guide’ was forced on developers in the late 90s. And they generally don’t do hideous overdevelopment the same as Sydney. And generous footpaths, cafe culture and urban spaces in Melbourne mean the CBD is a genuinely pleasant place to walk around, unlike the panning Sydney recently got from a visiting Norwegian urban planner. People in Melbourne aren’t obsessed so much with money for its own sake and are happy to spend time and effort on public architecture and moments of whimsy — all of which add to quality of life. And the general building architecture and style has a lot more class in Melbourne, combined with its picturesque trams and parks.

    Then people in Sydney are real estate and money-obsessed, and are selling over-inflated pieces of tat and calling it a dwelling. Usually in the flight path. Or else it’s a fibro hut.

    Then the grid layout and generous roads in Melbourne greatly reduces congestion and makes it much easier to learn the road system than Sydney’s chaotic layout. And there is something more soothing about the flat terrain of Melbourne than Sydney’s hills and gullies and ridge roads.

    Then there’s the generous parks and gardens around Melbourne. And the North Melbourne/Carlton Lydon St area which completely and utterly craps all over Sydney’s attempt at a ‘little Italy’ in Norton St bang in the flight path. Oh, and the flight path. Tullamarine airport verges on empty farmland, Sydney gets 6am to 11pm flights coming in overhead in the inner suburbs at 100 ft.

    And Melbourne DOES have a friendlier, country town and community-based feel, unfortunate residents like Carl Williams aside.

    OK, the funny thing about Melbourne is the weather.

    Unfortunately Alan Davies missed all the key differences in this EXTREMELY anodyne and inconclusive piece. Oh, and apparently he’s not from QI, he’s an urban planner.

    Of course, the KEY difference between Sydney and Melbourne: people in Melbourne walk around wondering what the meaning of life is, Sydney people KNOW what the meaning of life is, it’s to get a harbour view.

  28. Dylan Nicholson

    I had an opportunity to go and spend a few days in Sydney next month, but in the end turned it down partly due our yearly travel budget already being quite stretched, but also honestly partly because I just don’t feel any particularly desire to visit again. But I would like to spend a few days cycling around it to see how it compares as a cycling city – both as a casual “getting around” rider, and as a serious cyclist that in Melbourne is really spoilt for choice with the number of excellent road rides, both mountainous and flat that are easily accessible, especially if you’re happy to drive or train a few hours out towards the northern regions of the state.

    As long as urban planners and transport decision-makers in each city learn from each other as to what works well and what doesn’t so much, a bit of (mostly) friendly rivalry’s probably not a bad thing.

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