The Fitzroy–Collingwood Times:
Volume 3

Four Streets That Say It All

Follow SMA Projects as we dive deeper into the much-loved stretches of Fitzroy and Collingwood that help to define the neighbourhood.

“As happens when places undergo influxes of cool people doing cool things, local spots to eat, drink, shop and experience art invariably become cool, too.”

Brunswick, Gertrude, Smith and Johnston. Each street is a household name in Melbourne’s Inner North, each with its own distinct personality. The role that these strips play for locals of (and visitors to) Fitzroy and Collingwood is evolving all the time. Together, they provide the grandest boulevards of the neighbourhood and create an all-encompassing block that’s just a half-hour loop to experience on foot – notwithstanding any distractions of the eating, drinking or shopping variety.

For local residents, of all ages and from many different stripes, this is a blissful bubble. Living right at the source of the best food, drink, art and culture that the city has to offer, it’s easy to start to feel like you need a damn good reason to leave. Even Melburnians south of the river, friendly rivalry aside, can feel pride when they see these four streets regularly crowned by leading publications as among the coolest in the world. These four stellar reputations exist for good reason.

Golden hour bathes local eateries and retailers in a warm glow

Brunswick Street

Since the mid-19th century, the southern end of Brunswick Street has been a humming retail strip. To early European residents of Fitzroy, this felt far flung from the hustle and bustle of the city. For much of this time, Brunswick and Bourke streets were vying for the title of the Melbourne’s ultimate shopping destination.

At the turn of the 20th century, the industrial revolution recast the entire neighbourhood as a place of manufacturing. In turn, its shops began to serve more utilitarian everyday services to meet the needs of Fitzroy’s factory workers. Dozens of pubs met their other, equally vital, needs.

As heavy industry has slowly progressed further out of the city, Brunswick Street has moved through a number of distinct identities. Most indelibly, it was a hotbed for Melbourne’s countercultural revolutions of the 1960s, 70s and beyond. Artists of all mediums and movements called Brunswick and its smaller side streets home.

Much has changed since that heady era, but a certain bohemian legacy has survived. At Blackcat, a long-standing and much-loved corner bar on Brunswick Street, you can still absorb the kind of frenetic energy Helen Garner captured in Monkey Grip – her debut novel, set largely in that pocket of the neighbourhood.

The culinary institutions along this stretch of Fitzroy are legion. Among them you’ll find Marios Cafe, Vegie Bar and Naked for Satan, one of Melbourne’s most iconic rooftop venues and must-see for visiting friends and family. A lively, young nightlife keeps the rest of the pubs and bars along Brunswick Street comfortably heaving once the weekend arrives, with hole-in-the-wall takeaway joints keeping the revellers well fed.

Just a little stretch of road can punch well above its weight

Gertrude Street

Walking from Brunswick to Smith? Gertrude. Need a new look for an upcoming event that seems pretty casual but is deceptively très chic? Gertrude. Hunting down a wedding present that says: “I have taste, you have taste, and that’s why we’re friends”? Gertrude.

In the most recent iteration of its very official list, Time Out listed Gertrude as the second coolest street in the world. It’s easy to see why. The Gertrude sensibility is simultaneously global and hyperlocal, like walking down Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Los Angeles or the Thames in Buenos Aires’ Palermo neighbourhood.

Nowhere is this dichotomy louder than in the boutiques along Gertrude. Cult local designers and curators (Handsom, HAVN and The Standard Store, to name a few) happily sit beside premium global brands like Le Labo, Sydney-born Mud and Melbourne-born Aesop.

Gertrude also falls under the dominion of Andrew McConnell – one of Melbourne’s most revered restaurateurs. This one street features McConnell ventures in fine dining (Cutler & Co), an upscale wine bar (Marion), pub revivalism (Builders Arms) and daily dose convenience (Morning Market). However, many smaller fish in this medium-sized pond have built loyal communities of their own and handily survived the tumult of our pandemic-era hospitality industry.

A Saturday or Sunday morning brunch in this part of the neighbourhood may mean putting your name down for a half hour wait, but any day of the week along the length of Gertrude Street you’ll find folks relishing in the art of the long lunch. Whatever the weather, al fresco dining and leisurely wine-ing is what the compact wine bars of Gertrude do best. It’s Fitzroy at its most sincerely European and Epicurean.

A slice of the world where casual is cool and cool is casual

Smith Street

Smith Street may have one foot in Fitzroy and the other in Collingwood, but – unless you’re an AusPost employee – there’s no real border observed between these two postcodes. Smith Street has a singular identity as a place that’s grungy, laidback and creatively energetic all at once.

Collingwood in particular has a legacy as the historical home of Melbourne’s breweries, once having more than 40 operating in the neighbourhood, including the heritage-listed Yorkshire Brewery – one of the last left standing in the area. Now, Smith Street has become a powerhouse of cultural production. More and more designers, agencies, publishers, galleries, artists, co-working collectives and other creatives of all kinds are increasingly calling this stretch of the neighbourhood home. As happens when places undergo influxes of cool people doing cool things, local spots to eat, drink, shop and experience art invariably become cool, too.

This particular stretch of the neighbourhood is changing in more ways than just the kinds of industry it attracts. Ever-more-luxurious developments are cropping up above its retail façades, as the next iterations of Fitzroy and Collingwood is ushered in by the skyrocketing demand for more housing stock.

Smith Street, most notably at its intersection with Gertrude Street, proudly holds the status as the queer nightlife capital of the Northside. From punk cabaret to countless pubs and clubs, this is where queer people from around Melbourne, Australia and the world commune in a shared sense of belonging, safety and history. It’s one of the indelible marks of this enlivened neighbourhood.

There are plenty of barely-hidden gems along this bustling stretch

Johnston Street

Of these four A-list streets in Fitzroy and Collingwood, Johnston is the one that until recently has often been overlooked. It’s lived many lives, however – at one point as the leading theatre precinct of “suburban” Melbourne, home to both The Regent and The Lyric theatres. These two sites played many roles for successive generations of the 20th century, as vaudevillian theatre made way for the movies, which fell to the talkies, all before bursting into technicolour.

More recently, with both these iconic theatres now gone, Collingwood Yards helps carry the torch as the street’s cultural hub. For many Melburnians, however, Johnston today serves a distinctly functional purpose. It’s a hardworking arterial street for sizeable chunk of city’s traffic cutting either east or west. Even with its steady thrumming of cars, a walk along Johnston Street is good for the soul – and often a necessary part of local life, multiple times a day.

There are plenty of lively corners on Johnston Street, with new retailers and local businesses popping up all the time. Among them are some of the neighbourhood’s late-night icons, like Old Bar, The Shady Lady and The Night Cat.

For pedestrians, Johnston also lands smack bang in the middle of Fitzroy and Collingwood. From here, every part of the wider neighbourhood is easily reached by foot. Walking north or south, down any number of smaller residential streets, is to reveal the many locally loved pubs on Napier Street and cafes on Gore Street that are ever-so-slightly off the beaten track. From Johnston Street, the good life for which Fitzroy and Collingwood are known the world over, always feels decidedly within reach.