4 words sum up my experience in Melbourne: Café, art, nature and wine.

The cafe culture in Melbourne is so strong, you can sniff out a café in every turn of the road, especially along Brunswick Street, which is home to the best graffitis and local labels. Australia is also home to a gamut of fashion labels. Labels to note include Life with Bird and Cameo the Label, which have a contemporary aesthetic.

Having done the legwork, here are my top picks of Melbourne, which probably will take up a good 2 to 3 days, depending on your pace of travel.

Not to be missed is a scenic road trip down the Great Ocean Road. Rent a car and plan your trip wisely so you can catch the 12 Apostles before the sun sets.

Because if you get distracted along the way (understandably so, as there are many picturesque stops and parks along the way), this is all you will get to see. 12 Shadows.

A cafe that stood out was the MART Cafe (which stands for “TRAM” backwards), as it was literally located at a rail stop. I got off the train, and voila, my favourite brunch place was right before me.

MART cafe serves up a mean espresso and have a variety of breakfast offerings from poached eggs to sausages. Affordably priced, a set would not cost more than AUD20. Open 7 days a week from 7.30am to 3.00pm, it is the ideal place to have a hearty breakfast and coffee. Other good brunch places include The Hardware Societe that whips up delicious French & Spanish inspired breakfast dishes, such as chorizo sausages and more.

MART (Middle Park Light Rail Stop)

We found the highly acclaimed Koko Black unimpressive. Their pastries and bite-sized treats were average fare, and not mind-blowing.

Of course, we could not forget a decadent dose of San Churros’ hot chocolate and churros which is, by far one of the crispest most addictive desserts we had in Melbourne. Churros aside, they have pretty darn good coffee too.

San Churros

Little Cupcakes is not to be missed too. We enjoyed their range of moist and dainty cupcakes in a variety of unconventional flavours, such as black velvet and snowy pistachio. They have gluten free and vegan offerings for those who require them.

Mighty Melbourne

As for burgers, the ‘healthy’ burgers at Grill’d, which make use of 100% grass fed beef and mutton, are highly recommended. I had to try the Mighty Melbourne (AUD13.90). The juicy beef patties packed a punch with beetroot, relish, herbed mayonnaise and crispy trim bacon.

Get your steak fix at The Meat & Wine Co, which as its slogan suggests, is a cut above the rest, with a fantastic selection of grain-fed or pasture-fed beef. I honestly had no clue how to tell apart all the options on the menu, but I was assured that the staff knew what was good. I tried the lowest of their range, the New Yorker (300g) at AUD34, and ordered a side of button mushroom sauteed with onion (AUD 10) to go along. I recall wolfing down the mains and sides, rubbing my belly in full satisfaction.

A trip to Melbourne is incomplete without visiting Yarra Valley, which houses Melbourne’s finest fruit farms and vineyards. There are many tour agencies that offer tours of Yarra Valley. Depending on your preference, a tour to Yarra Valley can take from half a day, up to a full day. Together with 3 others, I went for a tour that allowed sampling of 5 wines, such as that from Yerring, Rochford Farm and Dom Perignon. Our tour included a stopover for lunch, where I got to sample a tasty, slow-cooked Lamb Ragu Pasta.

Melbourne is nothing without its people. Recently, I got to speak with Remco Brigou from Belgium, who was one of the few handpicked out of 110 applications, by the owners of Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery to work for them in Melbourne.

Remco is now a full-time chocolatier living in Melbourne together with his girlfriend, who is a pastry chef. Aside from travelling to Vietnam for an internship, Melbourne marks Remco’s the first time out of Belgium for work, and he is loving every minute because it makes him feel so alive. 

On his love for Melbourne: “It has a very specific character. When people think of Australia, they think of Kangaroos and desserts but Melbourne gives me the vibe of a more European-styled city. Sometimes when I’m in Melbourne, I forget that I’m actually in Australia. There’s also a lot of culture and a lot of things to do.”

Image credit: Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery

Popspoken: Being a chocolatier is an unconventional choice, how did you get started?

Remco: I started when I was really little. I was already making a lot of tarts and pastries with my mother who in turn got inspired by her father’s baking. From then on, I’ve always wanted to become a pastry chef but in a restaurant so I went to cooking school and learnt everything from the basics of the kitchen. When I started to do my specialisation in chocolate and pastry, I became hooked to chocolate and wanted to continue working with chocolate and I fell in love with it even more.

Me and my girlfriend we are both in the same industry – she’s a pastry chef and I’m a chocolatier. We both wanted to travel and this was difficult because it’s hard to find similar jobs for both of us. It was by coincidence I found an advertisement on the web about a company who was going to open a chocolaterie in Australia (Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery) and they were looking for Belgium chocolatiers and pastry chefs. So I applied and after a lot of to and fro correspondences, we both got hired. It was good luck.

Popspoken: White chocolate or dark chocolate.

Remco: Dark chocolate. Why? Because white chocolate is not really chocolate! When I was little I always loved dark chocolate because of the bitter taste. Ever since I’ve become a chocalatier, I’ve learned to appreciate the dark chocolate flavours much better. With dark chocolate, you actually get the taste of the cocoa beans.

It’s the same if you are a sommelier, if you’ve a stronger wine with more tannin, people who are unfamiliar with wine, the go for the sweeter wines. But if you really are someone who knows about wine, you want to have the strong wines to have a nice flavour. With chocolate,  it’s the same thing.

Image credit: Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery

Popspoken: For the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery, Leanne and Ian Neeland had to choose from 110 applications, and they eventually chose 4 from Belgium and 2 from France – why do you think your application stood out?

Remco: I don’t know, you have to ask them! (laughs) We never had any feedback as to why they picked us over the others. Apparently they were very happy because they hired us but I think maybe because I was honest about who I am and I didn’t try to sell myself too much. Sometimes there are people who go for job applications who oversell themselves, and I’m not at all like that. Even if it is negative, it goes to show that I’m honest.

Popspoken: What is a mantra that you live by?

Remco: ‘There is no point of living if you can’t feel alive‘ — That was something that I saw when I was little. I don’t really remember where I got that from. But when I was 18 I went to Vietnam, when I was 17 I did an internship in the South of France. So I think you really have to profit off your life, and do as much of things as possible, because I think that if you don’t, and you stay your whole life at the same job, for example behind the desk doing boring stuff that you really don’t like – I think you don’t live.

So that is why you need to enjoy life and do as much as possible to have a meaningful life.

Popspoken: What is your guilty pleasure?

Remco: Chocolate.  I like my chocolates, but I also like my beers.

I’m from Belgium, and we are known for our beers. In Belgium, what we do is that we have a lot of dishes, especially Belgium dishes, and if you eat that, you have to drink a beer. For example, we have Flemish Beef Stew, and it is made with beer, and you can eat it with bread or potatoes, but I prefer it with fries. And with that, you also drink a beer.

I like eating fries, Belgium fries. Fries with mayonnaise. In Belgium, there is a place that you go where they sell fries, and all the meat is fried. So it is like a fish and chippery in Australia where everything served is fried. And we have like 20 different kinds of sauce there. That is something that I really miss!

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All images in this post are by the Popspoken team, unless stated otherwise.