Melbourne The city's laneways offer quietly spectacular sights and sounds

How do you fill up a morning in Melbourne? If you have a thing for skyscrapers, especially those whose top floors are gold-plated on the outside, you could stop by Eureka Tower at the Southbank precinct, hop into the elevator, shoot up to the 88th floor in a matter of magical seconds, slip into a glass cube that eases out — a benign crystal tumour on the building's neck, the southern hemisphere's highest lookout point — and peer at the grinding march of human ants far below, oblivious to being observed. Or, wearing a loose-fitting leather jacket that says ‘Made in Pakistan', you could tour the city in a Harley-Davidson driven by a stout, silver-haired man whose attitude suggests an ageing rocker who slipped into an equally throbbing second career. Or, for something less instantly spectacular, you could lose yourself in the narrow strips of road that make up the laneways, where, during my first go-through, a guitarist named Matt Glass sat opposite a wall of graffiti, singing songs of love to unheeding passers-by.

The pieces of silver speckling the frayed-velvet bottom of his guitar case offered evidence of a handful of earlier strollers down this lane who stopped and listened. Perhaps they even bought a CD from his diagonally inclined stack, either as a reminder of an era where you could still hold an artist's work in your hand — before the concept of an album disintegrated into free-floating bytes of sound emanating from the back pocket of your jeans — or as thanks for the live music that he filled the air with as they looked into this shop and that one, the background score to their scenes of shopping. The laneways are filled with little shops selling little things. Even the cupcakes are little, as if catering to Lilliputians lurking about your feet. The one named Red Velvet — cherry-brown bottom, a crown of cream — melts in the mouth. Other shops promise other things. Haircuts for men. Toy supplies to Santa. But shopping is not the point, at least, not entirely.

Serendipitous discoveries

The point of the laneways is the clotted air of serendipitous discovery that you suspect may have inspired Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. Slip into one of the tiny stores and you'll find a salesgirl named Katya extolling the handpainted-ness, the handcrafted-ness, the authentic Russian-ness of the Matryoshka dolls inhabiting the shelves, shrinking unsmilingly from biggest to smallest. Some of the lanes have been converted to arcades (one of them watched over by statues of Gog and Magog, carved from clear pine), with arched roofs and cafeterias whose tables encroach defiantly on the already cramped corridors. This is part of the experience, sipping a cup of coffee (or chocolate) and watching excited people duck into stores selling things you didn't know were still available to be sold. Like supplies for witches and early Beach Boys vinyls. There are low-end stores and high-end stores. Keep walking long enough, and you'll exit a bohemian stretch of knick-knack shops and run into Tiffany's.

Across the street from Tiffany's — the laneways are bisected by main roads, a reminder that outside this pixie-dusted quaintness lies a real world, filled with cars and quick-gaited non-vacationers and trundling trams — an elderly man was playing one of Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello.

After he finished, he said his name was Des and that he was a historian and a teacher who taught at the “uni”. Buskers aren't typically known for their benevolent views of the human race, which is usually too caught up in its world to stop and donate a few minutes of its life in return for the pleasures of unsolicited music, but Des had nothing but good things to say about the “extremely international crowds” in these laneways, which constantly showed him a different side of human nature. “I get so tired of hearing how bad people are. People are so good. They tell you how good your playing is.” Perhaps these charitable views can be explained away by the charity. Everything that he makes here goes to the banks “which just don't let up”.

This mild draft of despondency may account for the many, many bars around, which seem to take pride in concealing themselves from public view. There are no awnings, no signs for some of these establishments, not even entrances — it's a kind of game Melbourne plays with its tourists, or maybe the barkeeps are just grumpy businessmen who like the low profile, limiting their libations to longtime customers and uni-teaching buskers.

Hidden delights

Unsurprisingly, their plans are sometimes foiled. A kind local with a knowing smile will escort you to a couple of inconspicuous trash cans, and then, as if by magic, you'll discover, across them, a winding staircase that leads down and opens out into a cavernous space with armchairs and stools and a counter in front of an array of intoxicating bottles. Stumbling upon bars in Melbourne's laneways is a treasure-hunt-type activity a distracted tourist can subject himself to. Only, you have to remember, sometimes, a trash can at a corner is just a trash can at a corner.