No one is saying she's a great beauty, but the Yarra River is Melbourne's centrepiece, slicing the city down the middle and creating a natural boundary for north-south rivalries.
Early in the morning, you can stand on the Princes Bridge and watch rowers training on its murky depths. Huge numbers of people walk its curves when they traipse with mates from the city to the MCG. In fact, it's so much a part of our lives that we often don't notice her.
This summer, though, the Yarra's edge has come alive again, as we embrace outdoor dining, and venues along its length have formulated ways to utilise once-wasted spaces. Here, we've revisited some old favourites and raised a glass to the new.
It's a day to celebrate when an old favourite gets a Palm Springs-inspired makeover. That's what happened at Ponyfish Island, the bar beneath the Evan Walker Bridge. An update of the former dive bar had long been in the works, but it wasn't until the forced lockdown that owners Jerome Borazio, Grant Smillie and Andrew Mackinnon had a chance to make it happen. Punters can now sit at terrazzo-topped tables beneath custom-made shades while sipping on a jug of sangria. Of course, there's also icy cold beer, Australian wines and a tempting list of cocktails, served up alongside a regularly changing menu of snacks.
Southbank Pedestrian Bridge (off Southgate Avenue), no phone, ponyfish.com.au
Yarra Kitchen & Bar has a dedicated spritz menu. Photo: Supplied
Beers and more
Beer bar Hopscotch has joined the fray, launching Yarra Kitchen & Bar right outside and perched on the water's edge. There's nothing better on a sunny day than an offering from the spritz list – the Sicilian combines gin, lemon, jasmine water, limoncello and soda – alongside a loaded Aussie prawn roll. Of course, given its heritage, there's a good selection of tinnies as well as the new summer favourite, seltzer. The bar is hanging around 'til March and, best of all, it's dog friendly.
Sandridge Wharf, Southbank, 03 8563 0053, yarrakitchenbar.com.au
It's long been a favourite pit stop for anyone walking between the city and MCG, but there are a couple of other reasons – apart from its riverside perch – to stop by Pilgrim Bar. Did you know, for example, that (almost) everything on its drinks list is from Australia? There's Starward whisky, Dead Man's Drop rum, 23rd Street vodka and small-batch gins from right across the country. Those gins are being given top billing during summer as Pilgrim does two-hour bottomless G&Ts and tapas Thursday to Sunday. It's $59 a head and you need to book.
Vaults 15–19, Federation Wharf, 03 9654 9575, pilgrimbar.com.au
Petanque Social at Crown. Photo: Emily Leighton
On a roll
Pull up a day bed, grab a set of boules and set yourself up for leisurely revelry. Inspired by the beach bars of Capri, Petanque Social is one of the newest venues along Southbank and allows guests to enjoy the best of many worlds. Each of Crown's riverfront restaurants has a hand in the menu here, so if you feel like salmon and spicy tuna sushi maki rolls from Nobu, but your bud wants loaded chilli fries from San Antone, you're both in luck. Of course, there's a full bar service, along with big screens for all the summer sports action, DJs and jazz on Sundays.
Crown Riverwalk, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank, 03 9292 5777, crownmelbourne.com.au
Float to nowhere
Back for its fifth year is Arbory Afloat. There's a beach-house vibe this time around, with terracotta-hued umbrellas fending off the afternoon rays, lush greenery surrounding slatted timber tables, and a plunge pool to lower the temperature. As always, there's an excellent selection of Euro-inspired snacks, seafood and wood-fired pizza to fuel a serious session. Look out for Four Pillars Beach House Gin (pictured), created especially for this floating bar. Distilled using layers of citrus flavours – grapefruit, orange, lemon peel and lemon myrtle – as well as strawberry gum, Davidson plum and pineapple sage, it comes on tap and as a base for summer-fun cocktails.
2 Flinders Walk, Melbourne, 03 9629 1547, arboryafloat.com.au
Putting on the spritz
Does anyone remember a time when Riverland Bar wasn't a part of Melbourne's scene? When the old vaults beneath Federation Square were converted into the undercover areas of a bar sitting right on the Yarra, it was pure genius. It stands the test of time, serving up frosty tap beers and glasses of local sparkling wine that go perfectly with an afternoon in the sunshine. Get in quick, because the summer special is a fix of pizza and spritzes – $49 for all you can eat in a two-hour window.
Vaults 1–9, Federation Wharf, 03 9662 1771, riverlandbar.com
On the roof
It's fair to say that, despite its central location, Melburnians often forget about Transport Hotel, the massive venue that takes up a decent wedge of Fed Square. Its third level, rooftop Transit Bar, is the place to be as the sun sets. The views over the river are superb and there's often something on: Sunday DJ sessions, comedy on Wednesday, and live jazz on Saturday nights.
Federation Square, 03 9654 8808, transporthotel.com.au
Herring Island is a hidden gem. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
Island in the stream
Sitting smack bang in the middle of the Yarra, opposite Como Park, is Herring Island. On this tiny patch of tranquillity you'll discover a picnic area and sculpture park. There's a free punt service at weekends and public holidays from January to April, but you can access the island yourself by kayak or water taxi during the week and outside the summer season. Bring your own supplies, but keep things simple by ordering a mezze grazing box from social enterprise Free to Feed.
Start a fire
What's better than being beside the Yarra? Being on top of it, of course. For something a little different, grab your mates and hire an Aquadonut. These electric boats, circular in design, come with a gas barbecue station in the middle of a picnic table, as well as a sun shade. All you need to bring is something to cook, drinks, some music and a sense of fun. There's no need for a boat licence – you'll be given instructions before you head off.
84 New Quay Promenade, Docklands, 03 8677 0899, aquadonut.com