Melbourne doesn’t hit you the way New York does with its skyscrapers or Chicago does with its deep dish pizza.

When you think of Australia, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Next to cute kangaroos, most likely it’s the Opera House in Sydney. Sydney is often trumping Melbourne with its popularity. The two cities have sustained a metropolitan rivalry ever since the Sydney surpassed Melbourne on the economic world stage in the last half of the twentieth century. It’s true, Melbourne can’t really compete with Sydney on the surface. Sydney steals the spotlight with its iconic Opera House and complimentary Harbour Bridge together claiming the award for most unforgettable postcard skyline. Not to mention the harbour itself, so charming with its white sails moving to-and-fro in water that sparkles in all the right places.

No, Melbourne is not a city that takes your breath away through the airplane window. It doesn’t boast many recognizable monuments or sit idyllically on the ocean. It’s weather is nothing to sing about, either. It is, however, a city not to be dismissed. Melbourne’s beauty runs more than skyline deep.

Our first afternoon in Melbourne fell hostage to our travel exhaustion. After a couple hour nap, we awoke to the daylight already bleeding away into evening. In an effort to make the most of it, we headed out to get some sidewalk under our sneakers.

Kirk can’t pass a bicycle shop without walking in, even if it’s only for a minute’s browse. As we neared the Chapel Street shopping precinct, a particular establishment advertising custom designed bikes attracted Kirk to the window like a fly to fruit pie.

A bell dinged our way in and the shop owner meandered over and introduced himself as John. “Looking for anything in particular?”

We told him not especially, we were mostly in to admire. Sensing genuine interest, he struck up a conversation with Kirk. Sensing a comfortable air and ensuing license for photography, I broke out the camera.

After shooting a fair amount of frames, they were still at it. “Any plans for Melbourne?” inquired John.

“Well, she wanted to go see the penguins,” Kirk said, nudging me with his elbow, “but the trip seems pretty expensive.” The ‘penguins’ were the famous Ferry Penguins of Phillip Island, a two-hour drive from Melbourne. Every evening they come waddling out of the sea up the beach in a big parade that ends only after each bird has found his own nest. Supposedly it was a sight to see.

“Now there’s a waste of time,” John countered. “The thing about the tourists is they always come with a checklist. Like in Sydney, they have to see the bridge, the opera house.”

What can I say? I’m a sucker for flightless birds dressed in feather tuxedos.

John goes on. “It’s not about the checklist. It’s the lifestyle. It’s harder to see, you need a little more time.”

And maybe some green. Unfortunately for us, attempting to experience the lifestyle of the urbanite requires a bit of cash, of which we couldn’t spare much. We stepped out of the bike shop onto the street, the sky now indigo in twilight. Past the nice restaurants and designer boutiques we walked, past the swanky bars and even the local pubs with happy hour specials. Like obedient children told not to spend their allowance all in one place, we dutifully stretched our dollars as far as they’d go. At the grocery store.

Apples, bananas, sliced meat and sliced bread. We acquired provisions to make ourselves packed lunches to avoid spending quadruple eating out. We would be seeing Melbourne on a shoestring. It was the ‘look but don’t touch’ method. Fortunately you don’t need to touch anything to admire – take a photo or two – and enjoy.