Carlton is one of Melbourne’s most polished and charismatic inner-city suburbs, with a strong cultural heart.
Carlton made a name for itself as Melbourne’s Little Italy from the 1950s, known for its abundant pizza and pasta joints along its main artery, Lygon Street.
When Italian migrants arrived in the area (then a Jewish enclave) post-World War II, they brought with them espresso, olive oil and a way of good living that laid the foundations for the stellar food and wine scene that Melbourne has since gained glowing international recognition for.
While a portion of the area is still made up of proudly family-run businesses that are generations deep, including Italian restaurants that have waitstaff hustling on the footpath to draw in passers-by, there are now countless cafes in Carlton, along with cute shops and trendy restaurants, offering a range of cuisines.
Here are some of the best places to eat and drink, places to stay, and things to do in Carlton.
Carlton restaurants and cafes
As the suburb that has served as the cultural heartland of Melbourne’s Italian community for decades, it’s no surprise that Carlton is renowned for its food scene.
Carlton Wine Room
This charming corner wine bar occupies three levels and has a classic bistro vibe.
Pull up a stool at Carlton Wine Room. (Image: Visit Victoria)
Run by an all-star cast of Melbourne hospo pros (who have experience working at Melbourne institutions like Coda, Cutler & Co, Supernormal, Marion and Tonka), this place knows how to draw Melbourne’s foodies.
The venue attracts Melbourne’s foodie crowd. (Image: Visit Victoria)
Carlton Wine Room’s seasonal Euro-accented menu is designed to enhance the stellar wine offering.
Discover the Euro-accented menu.(Image: Visit Victoria)
Vertue Coffee Roasters
Vertue in Carlton (the original of now three in the city) is very ‘Melbourne’ in the sense that half the battle is finding it.
Find Vertue Coffee Roasters hiding down a laneway.
Tucked down a nondescript laneway next to the Shell servo, Vertue opens into a high-ceilinged, industrial-style space with rough brick and timber walls, concrete floors and a smattering of bright artworks and draping plants.
The breakfast and lunch menus are reliably hearty and creative, and the cookies and coffee are ace, too.
The food here is as good as the coffee.
Brunetti is a Carlton classic that still draws the masses – day and night, seven days a week.
Brunetti has your sweet cravings covered. (Image: Visit Victoria)
Much like the steps of Flinders Street Station, Brunetti has been the default meeting place for generations of uni students, old friends, suburban families, and anyone needing time to kill either side of seeing a film at the Nova.
Find an Italian cake, biscotti or sweet to satisfy every craving.
Along with old-school coffee, you’ll find a trove of traditional Italian cakes, pastries and biscotti.
Few Melbourne restaurants can compete with this elegant Rathdowne Street dame when it comes to looks, charm and old-fashioned good service. Owned and run by a duo of industry veterans and located in a gorgeous old Victorian-era terrace house overlooking leafy Carlton Gardens, Epocha embodies a warmth and grace not easily found these days. The menu favours seasonal produce and it’s here that an unassuming roast chicken will remind you of the great joy of simple things done well. Arrive early for a cocktail on the terrace.
Expect good old-fashioned service at Epocha.
Beku Gelato came into being further up Lygon Street in neighbouring Brunswick East, but migrated south along the suburb-crossing street into Carlton after the pandemic.
Swing by Beku Gelato for a cool treat.
This Asian-style gelateria deviates from your usual ice cream flavours, with a rotating menu that could include pandan rice pudding, malted barley corn, cendol and durian gelato. The less adventurous will be able to find familiar comfort in flavours like chocolate and coconut. All gelato is hand-crafted with love.
Gorge yourself on drool-worthy gelato.
Baker D. Chirico
Known to fans simply as ‘Baker D’, Daniel Chirico is considered a god for lovers of exceptional baked goods. Following traditional methods, his sourdough breads are among Melbourne’s best and at his handsome, timber-lined Carlton outpost, there’s little chance of leaving with a loaf of bread alone. Choose from classic French pastries and traditional Italian cannoli, bomboloni and biscotti.
Baker D. Chirico’s sourdough is up there with the best sourdough in Melbourne. (Image: Visit Victoria)
If you want a table at Hakata Gensuke in Melbourne’s CBD, you’ll likely be affronted by a long line snaking down the block. But, hot tip, you can get the same ramen in Carlton and likely walk straight in. Hakata Gensuke was founded by Chef Kousuke Yoshimura, a lauded ‘ramen champion’ from Japan who brought his culinary skills to Melbourne.
Hakata Gensuke is renowned for serving Fukuoka’s authentic ramen in Carlton.
This simple cafe serves Fukuoka’s signature Hakata tonkotsu ramen, which is based on a rich pork bone broth. They serve house-made noodles and will tailor noodle firmness to your liking.
Get in the line early to snag a table at Hakata Gensuke.
The Heart of Carlton
In an age of high inflation, a sign in a cafe that advertises ‘1970s prices’ is a welcome sight. At The Heart of Carlton, it’s no joke – you can pick up a bowl of steaming pasta or soup, or a toasted sanga, for just $5, making it a popular spot for a mish-mash of locals and students from the nearby University of Melbourne.
You’ll find an overflowing bookshelf at The Heart of Carlton.
Pleasingly, the place doesn’t feel cheap, with the tiny cafe decked out with artwork, postcards and various knick-knacks to create a cosy vibe.
Musical instruments on display at the cafe.
D.O.C Pizza & Mozzarella Bar
At this casual yet elegant corner restaurant, tucked off the main drag of Lygon Street, you’ll find mozzarella and salumi of honourable provenance plus a great Italian-leaning wine list.
Simplicity and tradition are key here, so don’t expect complicated toppings. The San Daniele with DOP buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto is a signature, while the Pizza ai Porcini with wild mushrooms, mozzarella, pecorino and truffle oil is more seductive than Sophia Loren in fishnets.
Find delicious yet uncomplicated toppings in D.O.C Pizza & Mozzarella Bar.
Lygon Street’s original purveyor of continental wine, food and deli items, King & Godfree, spawned a precocious new offspring in the shape of artisan gelateria Pidapipó in 2014. On a warm day, this is the place to indulge in a scoop or two of Italian gelato.
Treat yourself to an artisan gelato at Pidapipó.
Carlton bars and pubs
Carlton isn’t just about food (well, not quite) – there are plenty of trendy bars and pubs where you can absorb the suburb’s atmosphere and satiate your thirst.
Green Man’s Arms
Green Man’s Arms is peak Melbourne in the sense that it serves an exclusively vegetarian menu and proudly caters to all kinds of dietary requirements. The menu changes with the season, but you can expect to see dishes like a Sunday roast made with nuts and lentils, hearty curries bulked out with sweet potato, and chunky eggplant schnitzels.
Green Man’s Arms features an exclusively vegetarian menu.
The pub, which looks like a trendy version of your grandma’s house, complete with floral wallpaper and ruffled lampshades, supports local food producers and has a good range of local craft beer.
Wedged into a narrow, unassuming space near Lincoln Square park, Bar Holiday is a buzzing red-brick watering hole that serves bar snacks and satisfying main meals, so you can turn your afternoon session into dinner if you please. Pull up a wooden stool on the footpath and sip cocktails to a soundtrack of smooth tunes, emanating from the double-decks on the front bar.
Bar Holiday serves up stellar cocktails and satisfying meals.
Snack Monster celebrates the conviviality that comes from a tapas and pintxos-style menu, which supports a generous cocktail and local and international wine list.
Let the friendly staff sort you out with a platter of tasty morsels from a hand-written specials’ menu and enjoy the ambience of the long and colourful bar, which is reminiscent of a restrained, high-end antique shop.
James Calexte Watson, better known as Jimmy, established his namesake wine bar in 1935, making it a city-leader in the boutique bar scene. As a wine merchant, Jimmy is credited for helping to introduce table wine to Aussies, who, at the time, favoured beer and fortified wine.
The two-storey establishment is European in style, with al fresco and indoor dining, and there’s a display of collectible wines, with dusty bottles dating back to the early 1900s. Out the back is a leafy courtyard – the perfect spot to sip an Aperol Spritz on a warm day.
Jimmy passed away in 1962, but Jimmy Watson’s restaurant and wine bar lives on, as strong as ever.
Milk the Cow
Good wine paired with good cheese; that’s what Milk the Cow does best. This bustling licensed fromagerie in the heart of Lygon Street offers more than 180 varieties of artisan cheese, displayed in a five-metre-long cheese cabinet.
If that sounds overwhelming, choose a perfectly paired cheese and wine flight or tuck into a gooey pot of rich fondue. For a different spin, you can pair your cheese with gin or whiskey.
Milk the Cow has the perfect cheese to pair with your wine. (Image: Visit Victoria)
Johnny’s Green Room
Nice day? Feeling a rooftop sesh? Johnny’s Green Room, the rooftop bar above King & Godfree, is your spot to soak up the sun with a 360-degree view across greater Carlton and the city. The hip bar underwent a renovation in 2023, so is guaranteed to be looking fresher than ever when it reopens its doors in December 2023.
Things to do in Carlton
Between meals, you can spend hours wandering around Carlton, with plenty of things to see and do.
Carlton Gardens were designed for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880 and sprawl across an impressive 64 acres.
Towering elm trees line a criss-cross of walking paths, and bright flower beds, lily pad-laden ponds, and the 10-metre-high Hochgurtel Fountain sit in the foreground of the city’s skyscrapers, making this park a favourite spot for Instagrammers and anyone who wants to enjoy a peaceful paradise right near the CBD. The iconic domed Royal Exhibition Building is here too – Melbourne’s only UNESCO World Heritage site.
Aside from the leafy lawns of nearby Carlton Gardens, there is perhaps no finer place to while away a spare Carlton hour than at this enduring Lygon Street icon.
You’ll spot Readings Carlton on Lygon Street. (Image: Visit Victoria)
A local fixture since 1969, Readings Carlton is a well-stocked independent bookshop that has long drawn lovers of literature, film, poetry and music with regular readings, signings and in-house performances and erudite specialist staff. Pop next door to the children’s bookstore if you want to pick up a classic.
Rummage through the book collection to leave with your next great read. (Image: Visit Victoria)
With 16 screens, Cinema Nova is one of the biggest independent cinemas in the southern hemisphere. As well as blockbuster movies, Nova champions international and art-house films and is a key location for many of Melbourne’s film festivals.
Cinema Nova screens everything from blockbusters to art-house films.
The cinema is fully licensed and has a decent wine list, so you can enjoy a drink before kicking on at one of the many surrounding bars and restaurants in Carlton. You can get cheap tickets on Mondays, and keep an eye out for ‘meet the filmmaker’ sessions.
Take advantage of the fully-licensed bar.
The Melbourne Museum provides insight into Victoria’s multifaceted history and culture through permanent and temporary exhibitions. Inside, you can find a forest gallery, which shares information and stories about trees and wildlife; the Melbourne gallery, which tells the city’s story; the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, which showcases the traditions and knowledge of Koorie people and other Indigenous cultures in Australia, plus much more. There’s also a dedicated gallery for kids.
Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre showcases the traditions and knowledge of our Indigenous cultures. (Image: Visit Victoria)
Stretching into Carlton North, Rathdowne Village is a section of a beautiful tree-lined street of the same name. Go for a meander past boutique shops, pretty cafes, and tightly packed Victorian terrace houses. The 150-year-old precinct, once served by a cable tram to St Kilda, brims with charm.
In the mood for some fun? Ballers Clubhouse has games galore, including ball pit ping pong, karaoke, pool, shuffleboard and social darts. A DJ and quirky cocktail menu keeps the energy pumping.
Find games galore at Ballers Clubhouse. (Image: Visit Victoria)
If you need somewhere to rest your head at the end of the day, there’s a selection of comfortable accommodation in Carlton.
Zagame’s House is a luxury, 97-room hotel at the city-end of Carlton. There are five room types, all with king beds, and if you opt for a neon suite, your room will come with a fully stocked wine and cocktail bar.
Zagame’s House is chic and classy. (Image: Sharyn Cairns)
The chic hotel was established by brothers Victor and Robert Zagame, who bring sustainable practices to their property where possible through energy and water conservation and bio-based oil cleaning products. Got a pooch? Zagame’s House is a dog-friendly hotel.
Stay in the stylish Zagame’s House.
169 Drummond Street
To immerse yourself in the heritage of the suburb, book a room at this 19th-century terrace house. 169 Drummond Street’s original features include polished floors, cedar staircases and marble fireplaces, and these are complemented by a collection of antiques and curated artworks. This B&B feels more house than hotel, so expect it to feel warm and homely.
The Eminence Apartments by CLLIX
The Eminence Apartments are located on the fringe of the CBD, a 10-minute walk from the Queen Victoria Market, and offer modern one and two-bedroom apartments. They are a solid option if you want a spacious abode and your own kitchen.
Get cosy in your suite with a balcony at The Eminence Apartments by CLLIX.