“There’s something magical about Sydney. This is fun, but it’s not magical.”

That, my friends, is how Him described funky, artsy Melbourne, but I’m not sure I agree. Sydney, that shining darling of New South Wales, boasts a glorious harbor, the iconic Opera House and some famous beaches, but Melbourne has spunk — and a whole lot of graffiti. This is city-sanctioned graffiti, however, and discovering and viewing Melbourne’s countless colorful laneways is akin to perusing an outdoor museum with no discernible end.

In fact, Melbourne is the stencil capital of the world, we learned from Matt, our friendly “I’m Free” guide during a rain-soaked tour of the city.

As the name implies, stencil art is the process of creating an outline –the stencil — of a figure or object within a paper, plastic or metal frame and then spray painting the inside of the frame to fill in the figure or object. This method, in my opinion, creates a more traditionally artistic design than all that crazy, illegible spray paint scroll — the kind typically associated with gangs.

On Stevenson Lane, we were treated to a stencil mural consisting of Aussie footballers, Melbourne-native Angus Young and Ned Kelly in his prison uniform.

Ah, Ned Kelly. A convicted murderer but local legend (and, to some, hero) nonetheless. The Irish immigrant and his gang of four created a name for themselves in the late 1870’s by robbing banks and, on at least one occasion, earning the affection of struggling homeowners by burning mortgage deeds in the process. But the gang reached legendary status by crafting homemade armor they then  donned to deflect police bullets during a June 28, 1880 siege at Glenrowen. The mould board armor proved surprisingly successful, but Kelly alone survived. Police officers brought him down by shooting at his vulnerable, unarmored knees.

The Honorable Sir Redmond Barry presided over Kelly’s trial and sentenced him to death for the murders of policemen.

“May God have mercy on your soul,” said the judge, which, according to all spaghetti westerns, was customary to say on such occasions.

“I’ll see you there,” was Kelly’s cheeky reply.

And he was right: Kelly, 25, was hung at the Melbourne gaol on Nov. 11, 1880. Just 12 days later, the judge died too.

Both the State Library of Victoria and the Old Treasury Building museum offer free exhibits on Ned Kelly with artifacts including his armor, letters, clips from a 1906 dramatization of his life (considered one of the first films ever) and one of several death masks created by Maximilian Kreitmayer, a phrenology (the study of character based on the size and shape of a human head) expert. Kelly’s frozen expression is eerily peaceful looking — like a sleeper enjoying a particularly enjoyable chapter of a dream.

“His smile in death was the result of active hope, self esteem and firmness,” read an inscription below the head. “No doubt in some degree, too, it arose from the calm of his mind under the pressure of the pious offices of the priest.”

The inscription is without attribution, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it came from the priest himself.

Another important figure to Melbourne’s historical record is John Batman, the man who infamously “bought” the land the city sits on from the Aborigines. Along with some dude named Faulkner, Batman is considered a founder of Melbourne. He died of syphilis only a few years after securing the land, and as he never sat for a photograph, any depiction you spot in a museum is merely a guess. Him’s just disappointed no one saw fit to name the city “Batmania.” That, my friends, would have been epic and would surely have clinched the city top status over fierce competitor Sydney. (Aside by Him: As it turns out, John Batman’s treaty with the Aborigines was declared void and illegal by the governor of New South Wales because the land was, technically, already owned by the crown.  This meant that in the 19th century in Australia there was a man named Batman who lived outside the law, and nobody knew what he looked like.  Just saying….)

Quite by accident, we stumbled across Melbourne’s (free) Shrine of Remembrance while cutting through the Botanic Gardens to find the Australian Open Venue (Him’s parents = BIG fans.) The memorial and accompanying museum honor the 114,000 Victorians who served in World War I. Of the 89,000 who served abroad, 19,000 died and most of them were buried in distant graves overseas.When word spread that money was needed to memorialize the fallen, Victorians actually lined up to donate. School children alone raised today’s equivalent of $430,000 to help. In 1934, a whopping 300,000 people attended the memorial’s grand opening.

We were fortunate to meet volunteer guide Donald Bergman during our visit. In addition to his winning smile, Bergman’s credits include serving in Vietnam. He now graciously donates his time to share stories of other Victorians who served as well.

I suspect Bergman was alerted to our foreignness by our aimless wandering around the shrine crypt, and he approached us and kindly offered to show us around. He escorted us upstairs to the shrine and explained how seven men and two women labored for four years to handwrite the 89,100 names of enlisted men contained within the 40 books on display. He described how the shrine’s design was inspired by ancient Greek architecture and by the mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the tomb of the King of Caria (in modern Turkey). And he directed our attention to the center of the shrine floor to the Remembrance Stone which reads “Greater Love Hath No Man.” In the pyramid ceiling, there’s a brick-sized hole, a spot I had noticed earlier but had chalked up to a slight defect. Architects built this aperture so that at exactly 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 each year, sunlight filters through the hole and illuminates the word “love” on the stone. The timing was thrown off when Victoria started following Daylight Savings Time, but a system of mirrors in the ceiling has fixed that problem.

If you’re unable to celebrate Veteran’s Day in Melbourne, don’t fret: A light projector simulates the sunlight’s passage on the half hour. Just wait for the bugle call over the sound system.

We skipped the State of Victoria parliamentary tour to attend a (free) ACMI Screenworks tour and (no offense, Aussie politicians) were glad we did. The institute basement is a wonderland of interactive media. Film buffs will enjoy learning the history of the moving picture and marveling at ancient and replicated light boxes, projectors and television sets. There’s also an exhibit containing movie costumes and props such as Nicole Kidman’s Hindi wedding costume from “Moulin Rouge,” Cate Blanchett’s elfin ears from “The Fellowship of the Ring,” a piano key engraved by Holly Hunter in “The Piano” and the sword wielded by Geoffrey Rush in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” A Matrix-inspired time slice machine, working zoetrope and various games within the “Sensation” room will keep children — and adults — occupied for hours.

Tired of touring? The State Library offers free WiFi and free usage of PC’s (one room enforces a 15-minute limit on PC Internet usage, but hour-long sessions can be reserved at a kiosk in an adjacent room.) Even when the library is closed, the WiFi signal is sometimes strong enough to reach the building’s covered front porch (thus the congregation of backpackers after hours.) But don’t attempt to bring a backpack, remotely large laptop case or sustenance other than water inside. There’s a flamboyant, bald, middle-aged Asian employee who parks himself at the metal detectors and accosts everyone who walks by.

One morning, when we didn’t feel like grappling with this maniac and being forced to purchase a library locker, we amused ourselves by sitting in the building foyer and watching as others tried to sneak by.

“No big bag. Thank yooooooouuuuuu. Helloooooo. Bag too biiiiiiiig. No luuuuuunch,” he said, impossibly stretching words in a passive-aggressive, sing-song voice.

We both laughed, but that was a mistake. On our last day in Melbourne, Him found himself turned away for his biiiiiiig bag.

So is Sydney better than Melbourne or vice versa? Each city offers a different vibe, and I recommend foreign visitors spend time getting to know both. If Sydney (me) is the refined, graceful  elder sister (“HA!” – Him), Melbourne (Paper Sis) is her fun and easy-going younger sister. I will note, however, that Melbourne seems more accessible and affordable to backpackers. Unlike Sydney, where I felt intimidated to enter most St. George Street shops dressed in my backpacker’s uniform of cargo pants and hiking boots, I had no such qualms in Melbourne. Aside from the Vue de Monde in the Rialto building, where we were embarrassingly turned away for not dressing “smart casual,” I never felt unwelcome in Melbourne shops and restaurants. Here are some of my favorite:

Favorite Melbourne Shops:

Queen Victoria Market, 513 Elizabeth Street: Features fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, bread, souvenirs, housewares and clothing. Don’t bother with the food court. Find the delicatessen section for cheap (and yummy) sandwiches, wraps, salads, pizza, hot dogs and more.

Upmarket Aquariums, 442 Queen Street: Located in a basement at the bottom of the Queen Victoria Market, this humble shop has plenty of interesting reptiles, amphibians and fish to meet.

-The Gardens Shop, Royal Botanic Gardens: Great gifts for your green-thumbed aunt

The ACMI Gift Shop, Federation Square/Flinders Street: Great gifts for your film buff friend

RetroStar Vintage Clothing, Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston St. (at the corner of Flinders Lane): Large selection of men and women’s vintage, recycled and vintage-inspired clothing and accessories.

-Catherine Manuell Design, 273 Little Lonsdale St.: Beautiful bags and luggage.

-Design For Use, 322 Little Lonsdale St.: Adorable, unique gifts and homeware.

OM Vegetarian, 1/28 Elizabeth Street: All-you-can-eat Indian food for $6.50. Yum.

Shanghai Village B.Y.O. Dumpling House, 112 Little Bourke St: Renowned (at least locally) dumplings.

Vue de Monde: Just kidding! There are taller, more accepting towers in the city including the Eureka Tower (the tallest).