Laneways Street Artists at work on Union Lane.

Laneways in Melbourne: alleys, arcades and street art

There is a tangible energy in Melbourne’s central business district, where historic pubs and modern skyscrapers coexist and a steady stream of trams transport people down the main thoroughfares. We learned early on to explore beyond the major streets in order to get a good look at the culture that lies in the laneways in Melbourne. The alleys, arcades and street art we found were fascinating.

One of the trendy laneways in Melbourne

A History of Laneways in Melbourne

In 1837, Melbourne’s street plan was laid out in a grid with major and minor streets alternating (99 feet and 33 feet wide, respectively) resulting in blocks of 20 parcels of land. As building commenced, alleys, or laneways, between the buildings provided delivery entrances and a space for rubbish collection. In some cases, the only entrance to a shop was from the laneway. As time progressed, some buildings were remodeled (or rebuilt all together) and eliminated the space. However, other buildings upgraded their facades, but left the laneways as they were.

For a period of time, the dark laneways in Melbourne were far from inviting, but there was a surge in the 1990s to revamp these forgotten lanes. Art galleries, shops, restaurants and bars have repurposed the once seedy space creating atmospheric shopping, dining and drinking experiences. Most laneways aren’t marked on the free tourist map (a small Laneways brochure is available though), but we were never shy to detour into the narrow alleys, which led us to all sorts of gems.

One of Melbourne's many laneways - an alley repurposed with shops and cafes

Restaurants and Bars on the Laneways in Melbourne

Hardware Lane was one of the first laneways in Melbourne converted into usable space in the 1980s, and was done so with an Italian ambiance. We felt as if we had been temporarily transported to Italy as the scent of garlic and tomato wafted through the air. We dined alfresco and indulged in scrumptious antipasto, pizza and pasta at Max on Hardware.

Hardware Lane is filled with Italian eateries, many offering alfresco dining, like Max on Hardware.

Antipasto for three at Max on Hardware

To travel back in time, we headed to The Mitre Tavern on Bank Place. It’s the oldest building in all of Melbourne and has retained its historic appeal as the city has literally grown up around it. Originally built as a private residence, the first liquor license was issued in 1868. Today, business men huddle around tables with an after-work pint. We joined the Tuesday night trivia and our team, The Best Yank Trivia Team in the Southern Hemisphere, came in dead last, but that didn’t take away from our good time.

Mitre Tavern on Bank Place is the oldest building in Melbourne - sort of an original of Laneways

The Mitre Tavern on Bank Place.

On Corrs Lane, we found several niche bars, including Berlin Bar, that made us feel as if we had been let in on an incredible secret. But, the truly hidden gem is The Croft Institute at the end of Croft Alley. I glanced back over my shoulder more than once as we made our way down the dark laneway to the insane asylum themed bar. The drinks range from a $5 mystery can of beer to pricy craft cocktails stirred with syringes rather than straws.

The Croft Institiue is one of the most unique Laneways bars, tucked down Croft Alley...just keep going and you'll eventually find it!

The Croft Institiue is one of the most unique Laneways bars, tucked down Croft Alley…just keep going and you’ll eventually find it!

Arcades in Melbourne

Arcades differ from Laneways. They are for pedestrian use only and often feel much more refined with tiled floors and sunlight filtering through the ceiling. Rather than urban bars, there are cafes, chocolate shops, artist galleries and boutique clothing stores. Furthermore, they aren’t new. Two of the oldest arcades, Block Arcade and Royal Arcade, have been around since the late 1800s.

Block Arcade in Melbourne

The Italian tiled floor at The Block Arcade has stood the test of time. Long ago, The Block was the place to be seen.

The Royal Arcade is a bit of glam as far as laneways go - and has been since its inception.

The Royal Arcade is a bit like a glamorous laneway – and has been since its inception.

Laneways in Melbourne have Street Art

Not all laneways in Melbourne have been converted into trendy enclaves filled with eating and drinking establishments. Instead, many of the brick walls of the back alleys have become a place for street artists to share their work.

Street art is popular in the laneways in Melbourne, but the works are commissioned.

A popular work of art above Hosier Lane.

Entire laneways are covered in spray paint, stencil work and murals. But, it’s not graffiti (which is illegal); they are commissioned works of art. Through applications and permits, building owners can offer their walls for painting.

Laneways in Melbourne are known for Street Art, like on Union Lane.

Street art on Union Lane.

For walls that can be reached without scaffolding, the art is continually changing, which enhances the dynamics of the laneways in Melbourne. Hosier Lane is quite well-known for its street art and is seldom found void of people, but Union Lane and AC/DC Lane have fantastic displays, as well.

Street Artists at work on Union Lane, one of the popular Laneways in Melbourne

Laneway Street Artists at work on Union Lane.

We want to know: Have you ventured into the laneways in Melbourne? Which is your favorite?

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