We’re in an episode of the Jetsons.  A big long box floats towards us and halts. The doors open, pshhhh. People stream out, others stream in. The doors close again. A soft low hum whisks away tram. The momentary vacuum sucks a wisp of my hair, twirls it, and lets it fall back into place next to my ear. Horns honk, people shout. We’re back in Melbourne.

Still standing on the tram platform, Kirk ogles the trams as they appear to fly weightlessly along their tracks. “They’re just so darn cool!” Kirk has endured open-mouthed awe of Melbourne’s trams since we arrived. A bus/train hybrid, the tram is the best of both worlds. All the speed and efficiency of a train with the frequency and accessibility of a bus.

Another tram whizzes by.  “What number did we need again?” asked Kirk.  I double-checked the city transit map. “Number 112, heading west.” For three days we had one single task: explore Melbourne. The catch was to spend as little money as possible. No costly touristy stuff like theaters, zoos, sporting events, tower skydecks, or anything really that charged admission. This made it all the more challenging. We had just finished a peruse around Federation Square, the modern-styled plaza of the downtown area. Here we stopped in the ACMI (Australian Center for Moving Image) and spent nearly two hours inside exploring the exhibits. We actually high-fived each other when we found out admission to the center was free. Our favorite part was a video recording room that allowed you to make your own slow-motion Matrix action sequence. You could even email yourself a link to it online. (You can even watch it here: Matrix Timeslice)

How do you see a city for free? Get down to street level and start walking. It can be quite daunting to open a city map the size of a billboard and pick a single spot to begin. Melbourne made this decision easy for us with its “precincts.” These highlighted areas claimed to possess interesting character worthy of investigation.

The quiet tram smoothly brought us into the area of Fitzroy, home to the Brunswick Street Precinct.  Supposedly Melbourne’s “bohemian and artistic centre,” Brunswick promised to be a “visual feast.”

A visual feast it was. Eclectic and artsy, grungy yet creatively posh. Shop after boutique, cafes following bookstores, flower shops and record stores galore. Fantastic graffiti covered bare walls. We walked and walked, looked in every store window and tried to keep up with what was passing on the opposite side of the street. Never before had a place made me feel like such a dull person. Ever hear of “retail therapy”? We were approaching “boutique burn.” Kirk suggested we give our eyes a rest and turn off onto a side street. From crazy commercial we stepped into calming residential.

The architecture in Melbourne is so much more varied than anything we’re used to. Especially compared to Chicago’s blocks upon blocks of red brick three-flats. Here contemporary-modern lines sidled up next to ornate filigree. We treaded quietly down leafy streets and cobblestone alleys. Now this was cool. After spending all of our time amidst the skyscrapers of downtown, it was refreshing to wander among the homes of real Melbournites.

Around 4 o’clock we hopped another tram heading south out of the city. We headed for St. Kilda, an area that all of my Sydney friends had talked up immensely.  “Oh, I just love St. Kilda,” raved Toyah back in Manly. Hmm, I thought. Must see this St. Kilda place.

It’s always a bummer when the bar is set too high. Maybe it was the lame weather that hung drab overhead. Maybe it was the wrong time of day. The main drag, the Acland Street Precinct, was sort of happenin’, but it just didn’t hold our interest. It was about then that we had to find something that could speak to us. We walked to the waterfront. Kite-boarders!

We watched orange, green and red kites slowly zig-zag across the silvery water. The suns rays sliced through the heavy clouds and streamed glory down onto the shallow bay. Nothing short of beautiful.

Strolling the Fitzroy Street Precinct, we found our place for dinner: an Italian restaurant called Leo’s. Though the evening was rather chilly, we still sat outside, but underneath the heaters. A couple of beers added to the warmth. Ever the explorer of new varieties, I ordered a Bees Nees honey wheat beer. You could nearly see the dollop of honey floating in the glass. And ever the sucker for ‘oldies but goodies’, Kirk and I decided on an Hawaiian pizza to share. We decided to go all out and even ordered a piece of cake for desert, some sort of chocolate-honeycomb-fudge deliciousness that I’d most certainly blow one of my three wishes on if I had a genie in a lamp, if only I could eat it again.

Exhausted from the day’s explorations and most definitely blowing our tiny daily budget on – heaven forbid – a couple beers and pizza (and cake), we caught a tram back to our motel to turn in. It takes a certain style and frame of mind to travel on the cheap. When you do finally spend your diligently saved cash, it does make the purchase all the more sweet.