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Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens

By Stu O’Brien

What is the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens?

Completed in 1880, Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building was built for the international exhibition movement, which showcased industrial, scientific, and artistic developments from around the world. The garden around it, Carlton Gardens, was designed at the same time. The Centennial International Exhibition, held in 1888, attracted more than one million visitors.

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Text: Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, Australia. Images: above, the gardens; below, the building.
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Since the beginning of the 20th century, the building has served a variety of others purposes. In 1901 it hosted the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia; in 1919 it housed an influenza hospital for the Spanish Flu epidemic; and in 1956 it was a venue for Olympic events including weightlifting, wrestling and basketball.

Why is the Royal Exhibition Building and the surrounding garden a UNESCO World Heritage site?

UNESCO recognises the authenticity of the Royal Exhibition Building as a primary factor in its listing as a World Heritage site. According to UNESCO, the Great Hall is ‘the only [surviving] Great Hall from a major industrial exhibition of the late 19th and early 20th century,’ while the grounds maintain the same boundaries from the original plans drawn up in 1879. As such, the two elements together ‘reflect the global influence of the international exhibition movement,’ which promoted industrialization and knowledge exchange worldwide. Inside, some original murals from 1880 remain intact, while additional works from 1901 were restored in 1994.

The Royal Exhibition Building with it's high central archway topped by a dome, and a fountain in the foreground.

What can you expect on a visit to the Royal Exhibition Building?

Visiting the Carlton Gardens, the site of the Royal Exhibition Building, is free on any day of the year. The gardens are home to fountains, lakes and tree-lined avenues, and are a popular destination for locals and tourists.

Entrance to the Royal Exhibition Building is only available via a guided tour, or if an event is on. The Dome Promenade tour, operated by Museums Victoria, covers three levels of the building and entrance to the dome, with 360-degree views from the top. Check the Museums Victoria website for bookings and prices.

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A flat formal garden and skyscrapers in the background.

Is the Royal Exhibition Building worth visiting?

Yes, as the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Melbourne, the Royal Exhibition Building is your only opportunity to visit a listed site. Inside, visitors can immerse themselves in the enormity of the halls, learn about the history of the building and Melbourne, and gaze at the murals overhead. Meanwhile, the surrounding Carlton Gardens make a pleasant destination in themselves. A stroll through the gardens also offers visitors an opportunity to appreciate the scale of the building, and its varied architecture.

Try a bicycle tour of Melbourne that includes a stop at the Royal Exhibition building, or click on the image below for lots of other things to do in Melbourne:

What sorts of travellers would like the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens?

The Royal Exhibition Building appeals to a wide range of people. The building itself combines several different architectural styles, including Byzantine, Italian Renaissance and Romanesque. The stories of its history, found on plaques inside and outside, provide interesting reading.

The Carlton Gardens are family friendly, and are often used for picnics, recreation, and even wedding and modelling photography.

Looking between two rows of shady trees at the domed center of the building. A photographer in the foreground is busy photographing a woman in a dress.

Tips for visiting the Royal Exhibition Building

The Dome Promenade tour runs daily from 9:00am-5:00pm. Book tours through the Museums Victoria website.

As any local will tell you, Melbourne’s weather is often unpredictable, and it is not unusual to experience ‘four seasons in one day.’ If you are planning a stroll through the Carlton Gardens, or a picnic with friends, make sure you check the weather. Come prepared for rain, wind, and sunshine.

As you plan your trip in Australia, consider visiting other Australian UNESCO sites.

There are many accommodations in Melbourne within a short distance of the site. Click on the map below to explore your options.

Where is the Royal Exhibition Building?

The Royal Exhibition Building is in the Carlton Gardens, north-east of the Central Business District. It is easily accessible via Melbourne’s famous tram network, with the free City Circle tram passing by daily as well as routes 86 and 96. The closest train station is Parliament Station, a short distance by foot.

You can find more information on the Royal Exhibition Building at the Museums Victoria website.

Stu O’Brien is a travel writer and founder of travelonastustring. Each month a new article is published, inspired by his experiences living, working, and travelling in more than 75 countries.

Have you been to the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

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