A local’s guide to Brunswick, Melbourne

October 12, 2017
Ellen Hookey

No one knows local life like our guides! That’s why we’ve asked them take us around their favourite ‘hoods and offer their insider tips on seeing the city like a true local. Local guide Ellen designed our Made In Melbourne tour of her favourite hometown ‘hood, Brunswick. If Brunswick sounds like your kind of place, too, Ellen can show you around the district on this custom-made urban artisans tour.


I have been visiting Brunswick ever since I was around 15 years old, when I would take trips in on the train from my country town, and marvel at the unique, colourful and wonderful weirdness of the place. Once I turned 18 I relished visiting the bars and pubs in the area; I’d go to gigs at the Retreat or the Penny Black, and swing dancing lessons at Bridie O’Reilly’s pub with my friends. After I finished university, I moved to the nearby suburb of Coburg, and I always take the tram through Brunswick on my way to the city. I come here often in my spare time to have brunch, catch a spot of live music or peruse the op shops.

tour guide in Brunswick, Melbourne
Local guide Ellen leading a tour of her favourite 'hood | Photo by Melbourne Urban Adventures

There are so many things I love about Brunswick. It seems to attract all the weirdos, but in the best possible way! People can be who they want here, they can dress how they like and it doesn’t matter. There’s also a big LGBTQ and immigrant community, which makes for a wonderfully positive and inclusive vibe. There’s a huge community atmosphere, represented by things like all the events and festivals that take place here, even trickling down to the little things like the community vegetable gardens. Because it’s quite a hippy-ish place, there are lots of environmentalists and like-minded people to myself who are interested in living a sustainable lifestyle.

Another thing I love is the Victorian architecture along Sydney Road, which is beautiful but can go so unnoticed just above the shopfronts at eye level. One of my favourite things about Brunswick is that there’s a heap of “op shops” (second-hand shops, charity shops, thrift stores, whatever you call them where you’re from!). Because of all the hipsters around, these are filled with really cool finds… it’s like a treasure hunt! I also love it for the bars, art and live music in general. It’s a rich tapestry of humanity, culture, art and history!

Why you should visit Brunswick

To witness a unique Melburnian hipster neighbourhood

Indulge in a delicious brunch in a trendy café, people-watch all the interesting folks walking on by, ride your fixie along the Upfield bike path, get a great locally roasted coffee and locally brewed beer — all these things are the products of the hipster culture that makes Melbourne and specifically Brunswick what it is today. It also means that if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, there are so many food options available for you!

To meet colourful characters and mix with locals

Brunswick is a delightful mecca of diversity and inclusivity in terms of the people here. Everyone feels free to wear what they want and express themselves in very different ways, which gives the suburb a beautiful sense of freedom. The variety of cultures present in the area is obvious just walking down Sydney Road. Everyone is so friendly, and shop-owners and bartenders are always willing to have a chat. Have a look at the “Brunswick Kind” mural near Sparta Place, a testament to just a few of the interesting people who have called Brunswick home throughout its history.

To experience art of all kinds

Street art, local theatre, independent galleries, a bustling live music scene in a bunch of amazing venues — it’s all here. Come for the Sydney Road Street Party in March (read more below). Visit the artist’s studios, where, if you’re lucky, the artists will invite you in to see what they do, such as at Squishface Studio or New Model Beauty Queen’s warehouse and factory. Or, just come on the Made In Melbourne tour and we’ll take you there ourselves!

My top 10 things to do in Brunswick

1. Catch a gig at JazzLab, Howler or the Spotted Mallard

My favourite live music venue is the Retreat Hotel, where they have quite a bit of folk, bluegrass and country artists come through and you can listen while sipping on a pint of craft beer. There’s a really cool stage which has distinctly Texas country-music hoedown vibes. When the music is done, you can grab a cocktail upstairs in the suave Amelia Shaw cocktail bar, which is a bit of a hidden gem, or pop outside to the spacious beer garden out the back.

2. Get a kebab gözleme or cheese pie from Alasya

This place is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so you know you can always rely on it when you’ve had a night out and you’re feeling a bit peckish. There are a lot of places to get kebabs on Sydney Road, which is Brunswick’s main street, but this is the best one in my humble opinion.

3. Visit an exhibition at beinArt Gallery

beinArt Gallery has a lot of weird and wonderful exhibitions come through, mostly centred around surrealist or “lowbrow” art. The gallery features an array of different artists who work with a variety of artistic forms and mediums. Some of the art is a bit dark and morbid, but I kinda like that.

Melbourne, Brunswick, shopping
So many shopping gems to discover in Brunswick | Photo by Melbourne Urban Adventures

4. Nab a bargain from the gigantic Brotherhood of St Laurence op shop

There are so many dresses and knick-knacks, including plenty of vintage stuff. You could spend hours in here, honestly! It’s one of my favourite op shops in Melbourne.

5. Party at the Brunswick Music Festival

If you’re lucky enough to be here in March, there’s the Brunswick Music Festival, where venues around the neighbourhood host bands and other events. The centrepiece of the festival is the Sydney Road Street Party, where Sydney Road is shut down to traffic for a day and there are food stalls and dancing and it’s just an amazing time!

6. Have a beer at The Brunswick Green

This is a favoured local watering hole with an awesome beer garden containing lots of greenery. It’s cosy and kooky, the bartenders are friendly and you’ll always meet someone interesting here. There’s also heaps to look at, with quirky and kitsch pictures, music memorabilia and a vast spoon collection (!) covering the walls. The Brunswick Green hosts regular live music, and the food’s not too shabby either! Alternatively, if you’re vegan, you can visit The Cornish Arms, which has the largest selection of delicious vegan pub food in Melbourne.

7. Get a caricature done at Squishface Studio

Squishface is a local comic artist and animator’s studio, and if they’re open you can mosey in and watch the artists at work! There’s a cheeky sort of humour about the place, and you can tell that the folks who run it love what they do. There are comic books and zines created right in the studio that can be bought, some having won awards. Squishface comics are also sold ‘round the corner at Santa Carla, another fun little shop. You’re able to get your own hand-drawn caricature at Squishface, or if you bring in a photo, one of a loved one, which I think makes a pretty unique and awesome gift.

Squishface shop, Brunswick, Melbourne
A stop at Squishface is a must | Photo by Melbourne Urban Adventures

8. Have brunch at John Gorilla Café

Housed in an old dentist’s studio with stained glass window details, John Gorilla is one of my favourite places for brunch. They have a delicious menu, with an array of pastries and cakes on offer, and they just do really really good coffee. There are a bunch of artworks and knick-knacks around the place which make for fun décor, it’s light and airy and there’s a cute little courtyard for those sunny days as well.

9. Visit The Boroughs

This adorable and quirky store represents Melbourne’s designers and artists. Great for gifts for loved ones as well as for yourself, the owners support sustainability and community-mindedness. Here you can choose from an interesting selection of books, stationery, homewares, skin care products, chocolate, eyewear, posters and prints. My favourite thing I got from here was a little book on prolific Melbourne Victorian architect Joseph Reed, and a creative’s guide to Hong Kong for my boyfriend.

10. Escape city life at CERES

CERES Community Environment Park is a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s a sustainability centre and urban farm by the Merri Creek, which promotes environmental and sustainability education. The surroundings of CERES offers a little bit of greenery and nature that I find always boosts my mood when I visit. There’s a cruelty-free café and the park hosts a makers’ and flea market every Saturday.

How to get to Brunswick

Take the Upfield train line to Jewell, Brunswick or Anstey station; otherwise go for the Melbourne experience and take the Number 19 tram from Elizabeth Street in the CBD.

About Ellen:

I’ve been a Melbourne historical and sightseeing tour guide for over four years now; however I have only just started working with Urban Adventures, helping to develop the exciting new Made In Melbourne Shopping Tour of Brunswick, which I’ll be leading as well. I’m super pumped to be on the team and I’m really looking forward to showing people around one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Melbourne.

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