Adelaide is the new Portland,” one thirtysomething musician tells me. He moved back to his hometown after years in Melbourne, and has returned to find the city going through a dynamic, creative phase.
The Portland comparison has been made before. Both cities boast a small population, great coffee, a thriving indie music scene, craft beer, progressive citizens, environmental innovation and a strong creative class who are drawn to the area for its affordable rents. It might have once been known as the “city of churches” – and one of the most buttoned-up, staid and provincial cities in Australia – but Adelaide has now well and truly relaxed.
In fact, for years, its small size had been a hitch to getting noticed. But that more human scale is now part of Adelaide’s appeal. With a population of just over a million, it has some glorious parks and gardens, and the city faces the Southern Ocean with beautiful beaches such as Glenelg and Seacliff.
People who move from the bigger, more expensive cities such as Melbourne and Sydney rave about the quality of life in Adelaide. They say that it can feel like a big country town, that the bush and the beach are not far – and that some of the country’s best wine districts are a short drive away. South Australia has a dry Mediterranean climate most of the year, although summers can become scorchingly hot, and that allows for some great produce to be grown in the surrounding landscape.
Adelaide may be most known for its food and wine but culture runs a close second. In February/March the city is transformed by a series of big arts festivals, from the Adelaide Festival and Fringe to the world-music festival Womadelaide and Adelaide Writers’ Week – all around the same time. Abandoned factories, multistorey car parks and back gardens are transformed into performance venues. More than a million tickets are sold during festival time – for events ranging from one-person cabaret shows, to some of Europe’s best touring operas.
And now that creativity is seeping into the rest of the year. While also home to many grand old pubs, Adelaide’s small bar scene is humming and there are boutique gin distilleries popping up in old colonial buildings, as well as almost 40 craft-beer companies and microbreweries, which have taken off since licensing laws were relaxed a few years ago.
On a recent visit, after catching an early cabaret show at the Fringe, I go for cocktails at the Pink Moon Saloon on Leigh Street, a small bar designed to resemble a mini ski lodge or a child’s cubby house. “Don’t talk to the log lady,” reads the sign on the door with a nod and wink to cult David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks . The bar is small, and packed to the rafters.
I move on to Madame Hanoi for dinner. Housed in one of the most handsome buildings in the city, this is a French-Vietnamese restaurant in the historic Railway Station building (now housing the Skycity Adelaide Casino). Shareable dishes include chilli tiger prawns with beans and kaffir lime, and braised pork hock. Adelaide’s multicultural food scene boasts excellent restaurants serving pan-African food such as the mouthwatering South African barbecue dishes at Africola; Cajun at Nola, a lively venue which also doubles as a brewhouse, and Mexican at Chihuahua, beloved for its delicious tequila-based cocktails.
But it’s the backstreets that are home to some of the coolest restaurants and most interesting cafés. In the city centre, Ebenezer Place, between Rundle and Grenfell Streets, is the perfect spot to spend a Saturday morning. This quiet lane is a hipster oasis, with a mix of apartments, boutiques and bars.
Local favourite Hey Jupiter has colourful tables and a wall of ornate mirrors, and serves waffles, baked eggs and its most popular dish, Berkshire pork-belly sandwich – but you’ll have to get there early before it sells out.
And its creamy, strong Five Senses coffee is sensational. A short walk away on Pirie Street there’s an unmissable pastry fix to be had at Abbots and Kinney. Robust and filling, these are no lightweight treats – such as the delicious Jean-Claude Van Ham, or ham and béchamel croissant. Artists, and fashion and jewellery designers are gathering in the area – taking over cheap-as-chips collective work spaces.
New urban hotel boltholes are opening up the city, too. I’m staying at the Mayfair Hotel in the 19th-century Colonial Mutual Life building, all cool greys and whites behind an elegant exterior, with bathrooms floored in subway tiles. It’s just around the corner from the city’s main shopping strip and a 10-minute walk to Adelaide Central Market.
Established in 1869, this is where the city’s foodies come to shop. The stall selling produce from Kangaroo Island has a range of locally produced cheese, yogurt, honey and eggs. Local celebrity chef Poh Ling Yeow – who has her own cooking show on the national network ABC – can be seen in a nearby stall prepping food for her café Jamface. It’s a great spot for lunch.
Many of the new businesses in Adelaide were started by young locals who have lived abroad or in Australia’s bigger cities, and returned to their hometown bursting with great ideas. One such is Yeow, as well as the local urban designer Daniels Langeberg, whose pedicab fleet EcoCaddy has brought zero-emissions public transport to the city. This clutch of talent is creating a palpable buzz on the streets of Adelaide, a city also lucky to be surrounded by natural beauty and fresh produce – and all a stone’s throw from Australia’s best known wine region.