Melbourne’s a wonderful city to live in if you like festivals. There are festivals to see most months of the year. The majority of these festivals are easy to get to as they’re held in the city centre. And you can do a lot at these festivals without paying a cent.
The first main one of the year is the Midsumma Festival in January which is a gay festival with loads happening over about a three week period. Events include visual art, theatre, cabaret, film, live music, sport and social and political forums and debates. Free events include a carnival, a Rainbow families picnic, dancing and the Pride March.
Australia Day on 26th January celebrates the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788 to establish the first European colony in Australia. The First Fleet is the name given to the eleven ships that sailed from Great Britain. There were 10 civil officers, 212 Royal marines, 28 wives and 17 children of the marines, 81 free persons, 504 male convicts and 192 female convicts on board.
There’s so much to do this day around the Alexandra Gardens/Kings Domain area you’ll be unlikely to see everything. This area is just a short walk from the city centre. Events include a big breakfast, a flag raising ceremony, woodchopping competitions, lots and lots of kids activities (most of them free) like face painting, a scouts bridge, sitting in a fire engine, farm animals to cuddle etc, a massive display of classic cars arranged by the RACV, free musical events including a concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, an aerial display and, perhaps best of all, Government House is open for a free tour – this was the official residence of the Governor-General of Australia from 1901 to 1930 and it’s gorgeous. The festival ends with a fireworks display over the Yarra River.
You’ll also find a separate Aboriginal festival on Australia Day called Share the Spirit festival in the Treasury Gardens. Everybody is welcome and it’s mainly a music event. You should be aware though that Aboriginal peoples often call 26th January Survival Day or Invasion Day rather than Australia Day!
Chinese New Year is also at the end of January or early February. Melbourne has the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world, dating from the gold rush days of the 1850’s. You’ll find a lot of action at Little Bourke Street in Chinatown in the city centre including dragon dances, lion dances, music, firecrackers, cultural acts, opera, singing, arts and crafts, childrens events and lots more.
The St Kilda Festival in February is a nine day festival though most people only seem to know about the main Sunday event which has over 50 music acts on a number of stages. Other events include comedy, poetry, visual art, theatre, beach sports and there’s a whole area set aside with kids entertainment. St Kilda is an interesting, generally upmarket beachside suburb only a 20 minute tram ride from Melbourne city centre.
The three day Moomba Festival in March on Labour Day weekend is one of Melbourne’s largest festivals. Events include a parade, live music on four stages, waterski-ing and wakeboarding competitions on the Yarra River, skateboarding and BMX biking competitions in Riverslide Skate Park, a Birdman Rally where the contestants try to fly across the river in their costumes or home made flying machines, kids entertainment in the Children’s Garden and finishing off with fireworks on the bank of the Yarra River.
The Comedy Festival in March/April is one of the three largest Comedy Festivals in the world alongside Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival. There are a number of free events, most of them in Federation Square which is an iconic modern development close to the Yarra River in the town centre.
The Melbourne International Jazz Festival in June also has a lot of free events. This festival began in 1998 and is getting busier each year.
Melbourne Day on 30th August is an annual celebration to commemorate the first arrival in Melbourne of Europeans in 1835. It’s actually a surprisingly small celebration but is really worth seeing. The City of Melbourne flag is raised by the Lord Mayor close to where the founding ship Enterprize first berthed in Melbourne. Tea and cakes are provided along with some aboriginal music and dancing. Then there is a cannon volley over the river by the Historical Re-Enactment Society…
… I went to this festival the first year I arrived in Melbourne and was amazed at how few people were watching – I had expected half the city to be there!
You can also normally get free entry on the Enterprize after the ceremony. The Enterprize is a replica of the ship that brought the first settlers – it’s normally berthed at Waterfront City, Docklands about a 20 minute walk from the ceremony.
The Melbourne Fringe Festival is an annual independent arts festival held over three weeks from late September to early October presenting new work each year by thousands of artists. It includes theatre, comedy, music, performance art, cabaret, digital art and circus performance. Up to a third of the events are normally free.
The Melbourne International Arts Festival (now commonly known as the Melbourne Festival) is a two week festival also in October. This is one of Australia’s flagship international arts festivals and one of the major multi-arts festivals of the world in terms of quality of work, innovation of vision and scale. Their website has a whole page devoted to free events.
The Melbourne Cup Parade takes place a day before the famous Melbourne Cup horse race. It features trainers and jockeys taking part in the Melbourne Cup and celebrates the rich heritage of Australia’s greatest race. The Parade normally travels down Swanston Street to Federation Square.