High there ... the quirky Brother Baba Budan cafe.

High there ... the quirky Brother Baba Budan cafe. Photo: Eddie Jim

Jo Hegerty proves you don't have to spend a lot to enjoy the hidden haunts - and the coffee - in this city.

A weekend in Melbourne for me has always meant arriving with an empty bag and leaving with it full of boutique buys. My equally stuffed stomach would be in recovery mode and my credit card would be a limping, quivering wreck.

This time around, I intend to do it on a budget but there are some things I just can't resist. Like good coffee, quirky bars and that ultra-hip vibe one doesn't get living in Brisbane.

"Budget holiday in Melbourne?" scoffs the other half, chopping up my Visa.

I'll show him.

I catch the Skybus from the airport ($16) and from there it's only a short walk to the Metro Apartments on Bank Place I've decided to stick to the CBD and stay away from my usual shopping targets. Chuckling at the irony of my address for the weekend, I set out on Little Collins Street, heading towards Swanston.

At Bourke Street Mall, a crowd is watching a busker in front of the GPO. She's young, pretty and kind of goth, and is singing opera with the most unbelievably pure and soaring voice. I sit on the steps and watch as the singer Gabriel Sage is her name begins to sing One Beautiful Day from Madame Butterfly. A mother watches, absentmindedly bouncing her baby on her knee; next to her are some Asian tourists and a woman who has kicked off her heels and is rubbing her ankles. Trams go by, shoppers shop and a businessman charges through the crowd, finishing a phone call. Suddenly he stops and looks around, shocked to find himself between the performer and a captivated crowd.

At Lounge (243 Swanston Street), I apologise for my lateness. My friend suggested this trendy, relaxed student haunt in sympathy for my budget. We sit upstairs near the balcony and from here we can watch the cool kids both inside and out as we chow down on vegan massaman curry ($13.90). I suggest a beer but my thrifty friend points out that if we're going to have just one drink, we should do it somewhere spectacular.

Across the road is Curtin House, often described as a vertical laneway. The lift isn't working so we burn off lunch as we pass bars Cookie and The Toff in Town, and some cool-looking shops from which I am dragged. Finally we reach Rooftop Bar (252 Swanston Street), six storeys up and with a 360-degree view of the city buildings. We order a pint of Little Creatures each ($8) and pull up a floor cushion in the astro-turfed beer garden to enjoy the afternoon sun. God I love this city.

Banned from the shops and with an hour or so to kill before meeting my cousin for dinner, I head to another of Melbourne's institutions Pellegrini's Espresso Bar (66 Bourke Street), a proper Italian cafe. On the way, I pass Hill of Content bookshop (86 Bourke Street), built in the 1920s when this was the rough end of town. Bookshops are my one true weakness and I am drawn in to browse the refined selection. The carpet is thick and red, the bookshelves heavy wood and it's all I can do not to sweep up an armful of hardcovers and run out the door. I'm saved by a display of orange Penguin Classics. With their retro covers and bargain price tag ($10), these are exactly what one should be reading in Melbourne. Moments later, I'm reading Breakfast At Tiffany's and sipping a coffee ($3) so good it makes my eyes well up. The narrow cafe is packed but I feel completely at home.

Dinner that night is dumplings ($20) but not in anything so common as a restaurant Red Door Antiques and Yum Cha Cafe (1-3 McIlwrick Street, Windsor) is an oriental furniture shop by day and dumpling house by night. Somehow, it works the yum cha is fresh and flavoursome, the service slightly chaotic and the setting certainly different.

In the morning, a friend in the know leads me to the best coffee in Melbourne at Brother Baba Budan (359 Little Bourke Street), known to locals as "the one with all the chairs on the ceiling". I order a single-origin latte ($3) and chocolate brioche ($3) and give little whoops of joy as I consume both.

Today's food theme carries on as we head to the Queen Victoria Markets, where we browse the fruit and veg, buying some ripe figs to cleanse the palate, then spend a happy half hour tasting salami, cheese and olives in the deli section. All this is a preamble to the main event a spicy sausage piled high with sauerkraut from the Melbourne Bratwurst Shop ($4.50).

We spend the afternoon on the free tourist tram that encircles the CBD, then sit for a while in Federation Square admiring the wacky buildings and watching earnest poets bare their souls to a gathering crowd.

After a tisane ($6) at the Oriental Tea House (378 Lt Collins Street) just around the corner from my hotel, my lunch friend comes to my hotel for dinner and we drink the free bottle of wine that came with the room package while I cook the fresh pasta and sauce ($18) from Vic Markets. She's very impressed by my budgeting but decides I need one blow-out so we weave through the city streets, ending up in one of those dodgy laneways that smell like old rubbish. Next to a pile of milk crates is an unmarked doorway and my girlfriend leads me up dark stairs lined with old Chinese portraits.

We're seated in a small bar furnished entirely in red and a spunky young man welcomes us to New Gold Mountain (Level 1, 21 Liverpool Street) and introduces himself as our waiter for the night. I choose a cocktail that costs more than tonight's dinner and sink back into the opium-den atmosphere of the place.

Ah, Melbourne even when you're broke, it's a rich experience.

The writer travelled with assistance from Tourism Victoria and the Metro Apartments Bank Place.

TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE

Metro Apartments, at 18 Bank Place, is offering a winter special until the end of August - for $130 two people can stay a night in a one-bedroom apartment with separate lounge and cooking facilities, plus a free bottle of wine. Phone (03) 9604 4321, see metrohotels.com.au.

THINGS TO DO

Poetry readings are held on the second Saturday of every month, from 2-4pm in the alcove of Jolimont Expresso, Federation Square.