Downtown Melbourne is a slow-moving historic neighborhood that is hidden by fast-paced urbanization. The active train line that runs through it and the hustling traffic of US1 can make its subdued treasures nearly invisible to the untrained eye. If you are on US1 in the area of downtown it seems that the majority of tourist traffic heads over the bridge to the beaches, or turns into one of the many marinas or docks that line the Indian River. If only they knew what a treasure lies just a block over in the other direction.
The relatively small district of downtown would help seed what would become Melbourne, Florida, one of the largest urban areas on the Space Coast of Florida. The area has a rich and long history. The city was officially established in 1888, and would progress slow until 1893 when the Florida East Coast Railway’s first train pulled into Melbourne. Until the railway made its way to Miami, Melbourne was the point where people and cargo connected with steamboats on the Indian River to make their way down to Southern Florida. There are many identifiable historic points of interest, usually with posted signs that tell you about important historic millstones that happened at the location. Change, growth, and culture flowed through historic Melbourne—and it still does.
Downtown Melbourne is now so much more than its past; it is a quite community of older homes, quaint shops, historical sites, theater, antique stores, culinary destinations, and musical escapades. The atmosphere is that of a close knit community; locals know about its secrets, yet it’s still a hidden treasure to most. Owners of small shops run out to use the restroom, and leave small hanging signs that say “Be Right Back” accented with a hand drawn-smiley face. They stop into one of their larger neighbors’ stores to use the restroom, and ask their buddies how business is treating them. Then they are quick to wave good-bye and run back to their shops, normally greeting visitors on the street along the way.
The area is artist friendly—almost ever shop is showing off the work of a local artist. When asked, the workers are eager to engage in conversation about the art they display; even some of the local restaurants adorn their walls with pieces from local artists.
During the work week the restaurants are jumping with business with people who work close by. They clog the tables, noisily passing along jokes and office gossip. Skipping the generic cookie-cutter lunch options that are also within driving range, they’ve opted for the more unique and hand-crafted food choices to be found downtown. And true to the stereotype, locals know where good, cheap food can be found. Follow the crowds into restaurants like Matt’s Casbah and Meg O’Malley’s and you won’t be disappointed—the food is great, the prices reasonable, and the environment anything but cookie-cutter.
There are also many cultural options located in the district. Besides the plethora of galleries and museums, the area is also home to the Henegar Center for the Arts, the Melbourne Civic Theater, the Brevard Symphony Orchestra, and the Youth Orchestra. You could easily catch a performance without breaking the piggy bank.
If antiquing and specialty shops are your thing, you’ll have plenty of choices. From the store ran by a local teacher whose passion is gorgeous items from the past, to a high-fashion designer consignment store that’s ran by a chic woman who loves to recycle the divine, the area has a very wide variety of shopping and browsing experiences. One of the trends you’d find when you visit is that the owners love what they are selling, showing, or creating. It’s not unusual to be helped by the owner themselves while in the store. They’ll treat you special, and their excitement about their shop and their historic location is sure to rub off.
Despite the title “historic” , the area is full of youth and vitality. In fact, after ten o'clock many of the restaurants, and even some of the galleries, clear the floor for live bands and DJs. The scene and mood change as everyone from glamed-out couples, to punkers, and even men in kilts, come downtown to invade the night. There’s an Irish pub that has a crowd that can be rowdy and fun; or maybe you’d like a Martini and Tappas place that features laid back music and gourmet treats. How about a relaxed Asia-themed bar where the manager serves strong drinks and friendly service? There is even a gallery that has free Salsa lessons and great drink specials. When the sun goes down, it’s definitely not time to go home.
While there is a constant roll of events and activities hosted downtown, if you can only visit one time let it be on the second Friday of the month. That’s when the area hold’s its monthly “Friday Fest”. This event is themed each month, and all the locals insist it’s the time to see the area at its peak. The stores are open, and the main street is closed down to traffic to accommodate a carnival-like atmosphere that includes live performances and art displays that spill onto the streets. It’s definitely a family-oriented event, so you could bring the kids, though the atmosphere becomes more for adults later into the night, as you would expect. Adults are going to love it because of the great food, wine, beer, and music. Both parking and admission are free, which means everyone is a bit happier.
Historic Melbourne is a blast from the past. It is a community that is full of wonderful shops, culture, and food for visitors to experience. Out of the ordinary, it’s definitely a great day and evening that will leave you planning your next visit.
Where / Parking
Downtown Melbourne is a neighborhood, so no specific address can be given. You can find tons of free parking off of E. Strawbridge Ave (a.k.a New Haven Blvd.) and S. Harbor City Blvd. (a.k.a US 1). There are lots of signs posted from the city pointing you to various areas for parking all over the area. All of the city parking is free.
Links to help you start planning before you go
Downtown Melbourne (a.k.a Historic Melbourne) - http://www.downtownmelbourne.com/
Henegar Center for the Arts-
Melbourne Civic Theater-
Brevard Symphony Orchestra -
Cuba! Gallery of Fine Art -
LoPressionism Art Gallery-
Meg O’Malley’s -
Island Pasta Company -