Whether you call Melbourne home, or you’re just visiting the music, food and wine, finding interesting and fun ways to stay in shape that also get you out in Melbourne’s famously changeable weather is almost as easy as walking out your front door. Check out our list of free and low-cost options for getting the blood pumping.
It’s BYO running gear, but Melbourne’s famous Tan track has been the main event for runners in Melbourne since people started to run for fun (and exercise). Following the perimeter fence of the historic Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne south of the Yarra, the Tan Track began life as a tanbark-surfaced trail for horses before becoming possibly the most popular running track in the inner city. Hundreds of runners each day pound the (almost) 4km long aggregate track around the Gardens, through Kings Domain and along the Yarra River. You can try to beat the current record of 10 minutes and 12 seconds, or take in the scenic parklands and go at your own pace. There are regular events when runners can get an official time for their laps, too. While most of the grades are quite easy going, the hill up Anderson Street can be a challenge, though if the track is tackled anti-clockwise it presents a downhill run towards the river instead of a climb.
If flat ground is more your style, just a few kilometres south you will find another well known track, though possibly better known for a different kind of circuit than running. The Albert ParkLake track is just a little bit short of 5km, but carefully placed markers let you know when you have gone the full distance. The Lake is probably best known as the centrepiece of the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix, though runners will probably complete their circuit at a more sedate speed than the better-known race. The track is almost perfectly flat, so if hills are your enemy, this may be the place for you. Of course walking is just as popular, and there are plenty of families, dogs and kids using the space, not to mention numerous sporting clubs in the surrounding parkland.
Running around in circles is not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are walking trails along most of the shoreline of Port Phillip Bay, only a few blocks from Albert Park Lake. Much of the coast is periodically serviced by railway and public transport access, especially between St. Kilda and Sandringham, so running or walking long or short distances in one direction is pretty easy to organise if you check your start and finish points with the PTV journey planner.
Anyone with an aversion to the south side of the river can find a well-trodden surface around Princes Park in Carlton stretching for a bit over 3km. Again if running laps doesn’t do it for you, the immense 181 hectare Royal Park is only 200m away, which offers the flexibility of choosing your route to suit your ability. It’s Melbourne’s biggest inner city park, and the landscape varies from manicured parkland to remnant bushland vegetation. It’s also home to Melbourne Zoo, so the roar of the tiger, rather than the Eye of the Tiger may be the soundtrack to your run.
So maybe running is not really your thing, and you prefer a smoother ride. Melbourne is becoming a real cycling friendly city, from the public CBD Blue Bikes available for hire to ride around town, to the specially designed cycleways on some of the major road cycle routes into the city to segregate cyclists from other vehicle traffic. But possibly the most scenic way to enjoy cycling in Melbourne is the epic Capital City Trail which runs for 29km encircling the city entirely. Starting right below Flinders Street Station on the Yarra River, the trail is a combination of existing cycle trails linked together including components of the Yarra River, Merri Creek and Moonee Ponds Creek Trails, and a disused railway alignment called the Inner Circle Rail Trail. The trail is mostly easy riding, with only one major hill at Merri Creek, and a set of stairs in Abbotsford at a Yarra river crossing.
Passing through many fashionable inner suburbs of Melbourne, the opportunities for sightseeing, eating and shopping are massive, so it need not be a solely exercise-driven activity. The trail also intersects almost every metropolitan train line, so particular sections can be tackled individually without any problem at all. The Capital City Trail can also be used as a jumping off point for many of the radial bike paths spreading out from the inner city. This includes coastal rides along the Hobsons Bay Coastal Trail via Footscray, or the Sandridge Trail that connects to Port Phillip Bay. Many of the major river and creek valleys also have trails, including the Maribyrnong River and Moonee Ponds Creek to the west, Merri Creek to the north, the Main Yarra Trail to the east and the Gardiners Creek trail to the southeast. The Upfield Rail Trail also connects to the Capital City Trail and leads to the Fawkner cemetery in the North.
For a longer ride, try taking the train all the way to the end of the Lilydale line from the city, and hit the Rail Trail to Warburton. The entire trail is 40km one way, and the grades are generally not too steep as the old steam trains that ran along the route until the mid 20th century couldn’t handle really steep hills themselves. The trail is completely off-road, though there are some crossings involved, but the surface is generally well-maintained and in good condition. It generally follows the Warburton Highway, and access to the towns along the way is pretty handy for breaks and snacks. The countryside is incredibly scenic with a mixture of farmland and bushland, views of the Yarra Valley and forest-covered mountains all along the way.
Depending on your fitness level, you could ride the whole trail and back to Lilydale in a day, stopping for lunch at one of the bakeries, restaurants or cafes in Warburton. Or you might choose to stay over in one of the numerous B&B’s in the area, or even camp out and ride back to the train the next day.
If both running and cycling seem a bit too strenuous, remember that most of these tracks are open to walkers as well. In some places, such as around Abbotsford Convent, there are narrow walking-only trails that give you particularly good views of the surrounding Children’s farm and the Convent, and back over the city of Melbourne. This connects to the Yarra Bend park,which continues along the Yarra. But for some serious walking trails, you need to jump on a train and head out to the nearby Dandenong Ranges.
The Belgrave line terminates right in the foothills of Mt. Dandenong, and you can change on to the old time steam train Puffing Billy to get further into the Great Dividing Range from there, or jump off and explore the local area. The Dandenong Ranges National Park has seemingly endless walking trails that can take you from Belgrave almost all the way to Lilydale on the other side of the mountain.
One of the more popular walks in the area is the 1000 steps. This is easiest to start from Upper Ferntree Gully railway station on the Belgrave train line and is well signposted. As to whether there are actually 1000 steps in the stone staircase, you will have to count your way up to find out for sure. It’s a popular tourist attraction, and has been made a memorial to the Second World War Kokoda campaign with a commemorative statue at the end. In more practical concerns, there’s also a cafe there for refreshments before heading back down, or further into the park for more walking.
Options for taking a free swim in Melbourne are numerous, especially if you prefer swimming in sea water. Beaches are close and easy to access from the city by train at Williamstown, and most of the Sandringham line passes close to the bay. If you disembark at Middle Brighton Beach station, you’ll for some terrific pier-encapsulated swimming at the Middle Brighton Baths, surrounded by plenty of open water. The Frankston line follows the curve of the sea further around the beach at Mordialloc. If you don’t want to go further than the tram will take you, at St. Kilda you could swim laps in filtered, heated seawater at the refurbished sea baths for $13, or head to Port Melbourne for fresh sea swimming.
As for the river, it’s not really advisable to jump in too close to the city. Further out of town, the river is a lot cleaner and clearer, and if you want to take a dip you can take your togs with you on the Warburton Rail Trail (where we cycled that gorgeous trail); it follows the Yarra River for a fair portion of the journey. Or you could take a bus to Warrandyte, about 30km from the CBD in Melbourne’s east and jump in there. Buses run right from the CBD, and then it’s a just a stroll to the river. Pound Bend is a popular swimming spot if you have a car (or are willing to make the 2km walk) with quite deep sections, and cool, clear water.
Sure – running, walking, swimming and cycling are great exercise, but they are not everyone’s idea of a good time. Dancing is a completely different way to get exercise, and if it’s more your kind of exercise, you can find free Salsa lessons in Melbourne if you know where to look. You may not be the best dancer after only one lesson, but it’s a fun way to finish off a day and will certainly get your heart racing for a while. However you prefer to stay active, it’s easy to find something to suit you in Melbourne.
If you’ve made a renewed commitment to exercise, or just to get out more and discover your home city, well done! Your body will thank you endlessly. Now some considerations for your peace of mind – being physical comes with its own set of risks, though they are vastly outweighed by the benefits. Running and cycling and similar athletic endeavours may leave you open to injury that requires remedial work like physiotherapy or massage. A good health insurance policy with the right extras can provide rebates for these services, as well as cover you for any private hospital stays should your injury be a little more serious. You can also be covered for your ambulance membership. Just be sure to compare providers so you don’t automatically pay top dollar in order to relax and know you’re taken care of.