Australia’s indigenous history is mind-bogglingly lengthy. The traditional owners of this land stretch back some 40,000 to 60,000 years, making it the oldest continuous culture on Earth. It’s a rich culture filled with storytelling, respect for community and Country, and a deep spirituality, and it’s a part of this country more and more people are travelling to discover.
But you don’t have to travel deep into the Australian Outback to learn more about Indigenous Australian culture. There are actually plenty of opportunities right here in Melbourne.
In this guide, I’m sharing some of my recommendations for things to do in Melbourne to immerse yourself in First Nations culture and deepen your understanding of our country’s First Peoples.
I’ve done my best to check that information in this blog post remains current in light of the uncertainty around the world, but please check with individual businesses before booking. If you see any errors, please let me know so that I can keep this article updated.
This blog post may contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you).
Acknowledgement of Country
I acknowledge the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners of the lands and waterways of the area now known as Melbourne. I pay my respects to Elders past and present and celebrate the stories, culture and traditions of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Victoria and Australia.
Aboriginal history in Melbourne
The land on which Melbourne sits has always been an important meeting place for the five language groups of the Kulin Nation. First Nations people once lived on this land, fishing and hunting and undertaking sacred ceremonies and celebrations.
Despite growing up in this country, I’m still learning more and more about Aboriginal culture and history every day. I don’t have the confidence to provide an accurate and complete history here. Instead, I’ll leave the information about Aboriginal history in Melbourne to the experts.
Some suggested resources to read up about our First Nations people, their culture and history, and the extraordinary struggles they have been put through since colonisation are:
- Welcome to Country – both the website and the book for an overview of history and culture as well as different tours you can experience throughout Australia
- Common Ground – an incredible online resource that shares so much about Aboriginal culture; it answers so many questions that I’ve never even thought to ask
- The AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia is a great way to find out the traditional owners across Australia. The website also has many other resources to explore, and AIATSIS publishes The Little Red Yellow Black Book
- The Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia is incredibly detailed
- The Biggest Estate On Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage, about the systematic way that Aboriginal people managed the land
- Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, a collection of stories and memories by Aboriginal people about their experiences of life in Australia
- For fiction readers, some of my favourite Aboriginal authors are Tara June Finch, Melissa Lukashenko and Tony Birch
There are also many excellent movies and documentaries if you prefer to learn that way:
- In My Blood It Runs – an award-winning documentary that follows 10-year-old Arrernte boy Dujuan
- Beneath Clouds – two young people struggle with their history
- Bran Nue Dae – a road-tripping musical comedy-drama that is a lot of fun to watch
- The Sapphires – loosely based on a true story about four young Yorta Yorta women who form a singing group and travel to Vietnam during the Vietnam War
- The Tracker – a tracker helps three white men locate an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman
- Yolngu Boy – coming-of-age film about three Yolngu boys finding their way through a world where the modern and traditional ways are colliding
- Mabo: Life of an Island Man – important documentary about Indigenous Australian land rights activist Eddie Mabo
- My Name is Gulpilil – a documentary about legendary Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil
And so, so many more!
What’s the appropriate term?
Should you use Aboriginal, Indigenous Australians, First Nations or something else? Given I’m not Indigenous– and that even Indigenous Australians have different preferences– I’ll refer you to this article.
Never use derogatory terms like Aborigines or other words that I wouldn’t even stoop so low as to list here.
What to do to discover Indigenous Melbourne culture and history
Here are my top picks of things to do in Melbourne to learn more about our country’s rich Indigenous history.
1. Aboriginal Heritage Walk
In the heart of Melbourne lies the Royal Botanic Gardens. It’s a lovely place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
And it’s also where you can join a fantastic tour, the Aboriginal Heritage Walk.
Starting with a smoke ceremony to welcome you to the land, over 90 minutes an Aboriginal guide shares the traditional uses of trees and plants in food, medicine and tools. While walking through the gardens, you’ll learn about Indigenous Australians’ strong connection to Country. The tour ends with an at-times frank discussion about Indigenous culture and issues over cups of freshly brewed lemon myrtle tea.
I was lucky to have Den “the Fish”, a popular radio personality, lead the tour I took. As well as sharing his knowledge about the plants and trees we saw around the gardens, he was generous with his personal story of growing up Aboriginal in Australia.
His provocative questions about ownership of land – the Indigenous Australian concept of “ownership” versus the European notion – and respect for Mother Earth led our group into a deep discussion that left a lasting impact on me.
Check out more great Melbourne tours to learn about culture, history and food.
Important info about the Aboriginal Heritage Walk
Cost: $35 for adults, $17.50 for children
Address: Meeting place is the Visitor Centre, Royal Botanic Gardens, Birdwood Avenue, Melbourne
Days: Tours run Sunday to Thursday
Length of time: 1.5 hours, starting at 11 a.m.
Book the Aboriginal Heritage Walk online here | Read tour reviews
2. Aboriginal Tours and Education Melbourne
There are a handful of Aboriginal tours in Melbourne, and this one is one of the best. This is a trickier tour to get on to but worth it if you’re lucky enough to nab a spot.
Wemba Wemba-Wergaia man Dean Stewart runs the incredible “Walkin Country, Walkin Birrarung – the Aboriginal Yarra River Tour” showcasing Indigenous history in Melbourne. The tours are usually for larger groups like schools, universities and corporates – but they’re not impossible to join.
So, if you’re travelling with a large group, you should definitely reach out to him and see what can be arranged. If it’s just one or two of you, still shoot him an email and see if you can join one of his scheduled private tours. I managed to sneak onto one of the tours he was running for RMIT University.
Over two hours, our group was thoroughly entertained and educated by Dean’s deep, deep knowledge of Aboriginal Melbourne and the Indigenous Australians who called this area home before it became the city it is today.
We saw what the land looked like before colonisation, learned how its inhabitants lived here and then learned how the city grew and Aboriginal people were displaced. It was an important reminder to stop every now and then and think about the history of the land you’re standing on.
Dean is dedicated to education and has been instrumental in developing the Aboriginal Heritage Walk at the Royal Botanic Gardens and programs at the Koorie Heritage Trust.
Important info about Dean’s tours
As I mentioned, this tour isn’t public but you may be lucky enough to get a spot on a planned tour. Email Dean for more information at [email protected].
3. Try Indigenous cuisine
There’s been a recent surge in interest in using more native Australian ingredients in food. Don’t be surprised if you see kangaroo or finger limes or lemon myrtle popping up on the menus of many top restaurants in Melbourne.
But we also have a couple of restaurants in Melbourne that are specifically focused on celebrating indigenous ingredients.
Charcoal Lane is a social enterprise restaurant that provides hospitality training and mentoring to young Indigenous Australians. It’s in a historic building in the hip area of Fitzroy. The menu changes regularly but may feature wallaby steaks, crocodile ceviche and lemon myrtle soufflés.
I have a special place in my heart for Charcoal Lane, because my husband and I were married here.
Over in Yarraville in the city’s west you’ll find Mabu Mabu. This restaurant is the delicious brainchild of Torres Strait Islander chef Nornie Bero. Mabu Mabu means “help yourself” and you can certainly do just that by diving into dishes like the famous house damper, wattleseed porridge or grilled emu fillet. You can also pick up herbs, spices and teas to make your own creations at home.
Helpful tips for Indigenous Melbourne experiences
- Always ask for permission before taking photos, especially of ceremonies and sacred places
- Ask lots of questions! Indigenous Australians want to share their culture to foster understanding, and most tour guides are generally open to listening to your questions and answering them as best they can
4. Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
NGV International’s sister gallery is focused entirely on Australian art and artists.
Located in Fed Square, there are several artworks in the Ian Potter Centre by prominent Indigenous Australian artists in the permanent galleries, including Albert Namatjira and William Barak.
There are also regular temporary exhibitions. When I last visited, I saw the striking portraits and pieces of Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung artist Maree Clarke’s Ancestral Memories exhibition. The thought-provoking Big Weather moved me, featuring pieces that recognise the deep Indigenous knowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have of weather systems.
Bonus: The Ian Potter Centre is free to visit. Looking for more free things to do in Melbourne?
Important info about the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Cost: Free, although some special exhibits have an entry fee
Address: Federation Square, Flinders Street and Russell Street, Melbourne
Opening hours: Open daily, 10am to 5pm
5. Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre
The Melbourne Museum is worth a visit to understand the history of Melbourne as well as see dinosaurs, creepy crawlies and a living forest.
But there’s also a huge section of the museum dedicated to the history and culture of our First Nations people.
The Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre is on the museum’s ground floor, and takes visitors on a journey from ancient times to modern day. Here, you’ll learn about the Dreamtime stories, how different tools were used, the importance of possum skin cloaks, and the struggles Indigenous people have faced from colonisation to today.
Don’t forget to end your visit with a wander through the Milarri Garden Trail, where you can learn about Australian plants, trees and flowers and their traditional uses as food and medicines in Aboriginal culture.
There are also many more exhibits to explore once you’ve spent time learning about our country’s history. The Melbourne Museum is a great rainy day activity in Melbourne.
Important information about visiting Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Cost: Adults $15, free for children 16 years and under
Address: Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson Street, Carlton
Opening hours: Open daily 10am to 5pm, closed Good Friday and Christmas Day
6. Koorie Heritage Trust
The Koorie Heritage Trust is an organisation working toward bridging the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and raising awareness and appreciation of Aboriginal cultural heritage.
Located right in Federation Square, the Trust’s building houses an art gallery, an oral history program and reference library, and a shop that sells Koorie-made art pieces and goods.
You can visit the Koorie Heritage Trust and have a look around, but I recommend joining one of their regular guided walking tours. These tours take visitors from Federation Square down to Birrarung Marr alongside the Yarra River. Birrarung loosely translates to “river of mists and shadows”, and it’s the real name of what we today call the Yarra River, the river that flows through Melbourne.
I joined the Birrarung Wilam (River Camp) Walk which explains the significance of this area.
This tour had so many unexpected surprises. Our guide Kieran pointed out several things that I’ve walked past before but either never noticed or never understood their significance to Indigenous Australians, including several Aboriginal art pieces.
Kieran was also incredibly open, encouraging people to ask questions about Indigenous Australian culture, even “taboo” topics. He explained that these discussions are important if people are to truly understand one another.
The tour ends back at the Koorie Heritage Trust with a demonstration of several weapons, tools and other artefacts.
The Koorie Heritage Trust runs a handful of different tours, but the Birrarung Wilam Walk is the only tour open to the general public. It’s well worth doing this to get an understanding of Aboriginal Melbourne.
Important info about Koorie Heritage Trust
Address: Levels 1 & 3, The Yarra Building, Federation Square, Cnr Swanston & Flinders Streets, Melbourne
Opening hours: The Koorie Heritage Trust is open daily from 10am to 5pm (closed all Victorian public holidays)
Cost: Free to enter; the Birrarung Wilam Walk costs $30 per person
Days: Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, tour starts at 1 p.m. (Update: this tour is currently on hold, I will update this page when tours return)
Length of time: 1 hour
7. Discover art along Birrarung Marr
Birrarung Marr is a great place to go if you need to take a break. This area alongside the Yarra River is a peaceful spot to sit and contemplate the river, let the kids expend some energy at the playground or attend one of the seasonal festivals that take place here.
It’s also home to several artworks that celebrate the physical and spiritual connections that Indigenous people have with the land and Country. Wander along the eel pathway, see the shields representing the five groups of the Kulin Nation, carved message sticks and many more pieces. There’s not a lot of information on site about the pieces, so this website page has helpful background.
I highly recommend the Koorie Heritage Trust Birrarung Wilam Walk mentioned earlier so that you get explanations of the art in the area. But if the tours don’t line up with your visit to Melbourne, then you can wander the area yourself.
Important info about Birrarung Marr
Birrarung Marr is located alongside Federation Square – follow the signs down to the area alongside the Yarra River.
8. Take a self-guided walking tour
The City of Melbourne has designed this self-guided walking tour, which links 14 significant Indigenous Melbourne sites. From monuments, scarred trees and historical meeting places, you can explore Aboriginal Melbourne at your own pace.
Take your time wandering past Parliament House to see the paving inlay designed from an 1880 painting by Aboriginal leader William Barak, before strolling through the Fitzroy Gardens to see one of the trees used a long, long time ago to create canoes, shelters and shields.
Along Birrarung Marr, explore the remarkable artworks. In the Docklands, wander over Webb Bridge, the design of which is inspired by an Aboriginal eel trap.
This walking tour should take you around 2 to 2 ½ hours to complete at a nice pace.
Want to buy Indigenous artworks?
Thinking of taking a souvenir home with you? Spend some time making sure you ethically purchase Indigenous artworks. The Indigenous Art Code has information on how to do this. In Melbourne, there are several reputable galleries to purchase from. Don’t buy anything from the souvenir shops along Swanston Street – that stuff is more than likely made in China and not by a First Nations artist.
9. Alcaston Gallery
One of Melbourne’s top commercial galleries, Alcaston Gallery is known for its exhibits celebrating Indigenous Australian artists.
At any time of the year, you can see stunning paintings, weavings and carvings from renowned and up-and-coming Aboriginal artists.
Alcaston Gallery Executive Director Beverly Knight has been a key player in paving the way for fair trade for Indigenous artists.
Important info about Alcaston Gallery
Address: Level 3, 50 Market Street, Melbourne
Opening hours: Tuesday to Friday 11am-5pm, Saturday by appointment
10. Bangarra Dance Theatre
While not Melbourne based, if you’re lucky you might be able to catch a stunning performance by Bangarra when you visit Melbourne.
This Sydney dance company was established in 1989. It has been wowing audiences in Australia and around the world with their exquisite storytelling and dance performances. The costumes, music and set design combine with the movement of the dancers to create a spectacular show.
You can check out upcoming performances on the Bangarra website.
11. Festivals and events
All our festivals are all a little out of whack at the moment given the pandemic. But check out What’s On to find out if there are any Indigenous Melbourne festivals during your visit.
Some festivals to keep an eye out for include:
- Reconciliation Week activities
- NAIDOC Week celebrations
Outside of Melbourne
If you’ve got time to get outside of Melbourne, there are more opportunities to experience Indigenous culture in Victoria.
- Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre – located in Geelong, just a 1.5-drive from Melbourne, the centre has an art gallery, café, cultural education programs and the chance to feed wallabies Website
- Brambuk: The National Park and Cultural Centre – the gateway to Gariwerd (the Grampians National Park) in Victoria’s west, this centre should be your first stop on a visit to the park Website
- Native Plant Talks at Cape Otway Lighthouse – one of the best things to do on the Great Ocean Road, Australia’s oldest surviving lighthouse hosts daily native plant talks Website
- Worn Gundidj at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve – join one of the interactive tours to learn about the use of native plants for food and medicines, throw a boomerang, or take a twilight nature walk over a dormant volcano Website
Final thoughts on Indigenous Melbourne experiences
Melbourne is full of rich Indigenous culture and history. Learning more about this will enhance any visit to the city. Experiencing any of the activities in this article will help give you an insight into our history.
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Featured image courtesy of Visit Victoria