BREAK out your best hat, it's Melbourne Cup time! Serious race-goers are not the only ones who head south for Australia's most famous horse race - the Melbourne Cup Carnival is a four-day bash that is as much fun for the uninitiated as it is for the real punters.
Each year more than 100,000 people attend the Melbourne Cup - and for many it is also a wonderful excuse to spend time in the host city.
There's much more to Melbourne than just a great racing carnival.
So while hat sales soar, frocks are fitted, champagne is sipped, forms are studied and bets are placed, there's plenty of time before or after race day to explore.
Melbourne is different from any of the other Australian capitals.
It's gracious, charming and its cobblestone alleys and laneways make the city one of the most exciting and easy places to explore.
Any time of the day or night, the heart of Melbourne will be abuzz with people out to uncover a secret new restaurant, café or bar tucked away behind an unassuming doorway.
Melbourne's most famous laneway is Flinders Lane, home to some of the city's best restaurants, including the amazing Cumulus (the table of the day is always an amazing array of eclectic treats).
But the laneways are plentiful and each has its own character. You will find cafes, jazz bars, galleries, graffiti and more.
One of my favourites is Hosier Lane, which runs off Flinders Lane and is home to one of the city's most popular and highly rated restaurants, the Spanish tapas bar Movida.
Other bustling laneways worth checking out include Degraves Street and Block Place - and while you're there, take a look at the fabulous Block Arcade with its mosaic floor and glass roof.
Many of the laneways run off Flinders Lane, so just go exploring and uncover your own secret spot.
Food lovers should head to the Queen Victoria Markets to discover deli delights, the likes of which you've only dreamed of.
Take a two-hour guided Foodies Dream Tour which will give you the insider tips on the best buys - and tastings along the way.
At Federation Square, take time to pop inside Champions, the Australian Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.
Even if you are not a serious follower of racing, you'll find it interesting and entertaining.
Free 45-minute guided tours give an insight into the history of thoroughbred racing in Australia.
To see Australia's most famous racehorse, the ill-fated Phar Lap, head to the Melbourne Museum at Carlton, where he stands in splendour in a glass case.
While Phar Lap is the museum's most-visited exhibit, there's plenty more to see including Bunjilaka, the award-winning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre.
Getting around Melbourne's major sights is easy.
Jump on the free City Circle tram (it's painted burgundy and cream) which runs every 12 minutes on a loop that covers Flinders, Spring and La Trobe Streets, and to Docklands.
Another option is the free Melbourne City Tourist Shuttle which stops at many major attractions including the Victorian Arts Centre, Federation Square and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The first of four-day Melbourne Cup Carnival is AAMI Victoria Derby Day on October 31, one of the most elegant, with fashions all in black and white.
Socialites jostle to be seen on the big day - Tuesday, November 3, -as Emirates Melbourne Cup gears up to once again be the race that stops a nation.
Crown Oaks Day - Ladies Day - is on Thursday, November 5.
Originally named for the fact that all the horses are fillies, it is now also considered to be one of high fashion.
For a more relaxed atmosphere, pack a picnic and take the kids along to the family-friendly Emirates Stakes Day on November 7.
Whatever day you choose, make sure you back a winner and take advantage of this fabulous city which is never more alive than during Cup week.
- Lee Mylne is the author of the recently released book Frommer's Melbourne Day by Day, $19.99.
■ For more information on the 2009 Melbourne Cup Carnival, check out www.flemington.com.au
■ Champions, The Australian Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, is open daily 10am to 6pm. Admission costs $9 adults and $5 children/concessions.www.racingmuseum.com.au
■ Foodies Dream Tour runs at 10am Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (except public holidays, including Melbourne Cup Day) and costs $30. For bookings: (03) 9320 5822 or www.qvm.com.au
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