MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — To the freshly arrived American tourist, accustomed to thinking of Australia as a sprawling, nearly homogenous continent, the intense rivalry between the country's two largest and vastly different cities, Sydney and Melbourne, seems odd and bemusing.
For some 150 years, flamboyant, free-wheeling Sydney - Australia's answer to New York City - has gleefully engaged in verbal jousting with its southern neighbor, conservative, sophisticated Melbourne - a smaller, cleaner version of Boston.
Indeed, jealousies between the two cities were so rancorous last century that the nation's founding fathers finally decided to locate the political capital between them. Canberra, with its federal parliament, came into being in 1927.
What makes the rivalry so confusing to the uninitiated is that many Australians won't admit it still exists. "There's no rivalry here anymore," declares a Sydney hotel manager. "But I'll tell you what," he adds, "the only good thing about Melbourne is the road out."
Likewise Melbourne's hospitality industry is dubious about the merits of its rival. "I like Sydney," says a Melbourne cafe assistant. "But they drink the worst coffee over there."
A longstanding Melbourne resident, who declines to be named, describes her city as "the grande dame" of intellect, culture, and refinement. On the flip side, "Sydney is the 35-year old letting it all hang out," she says.
Australia's first colony, Sydney was founded in 1788 as a British convict outpost and gateway to the rest of the continent. But in the 1850s, it was overtaken by upstart Melbourne, which grew rich from gold rushes in its state of Victoria.
Since the 1970s, the balance has tilted back to Sydney's favor. It is now Australia's financial capital and the site of two-thirds of the country's international company headquarters. Sydney's population is about 4 million to Melbourne's 3 million residents.
Last year, Sydney hosted about 1.5 million more international tourists than did Melbourne. Sydneysiders boast that their climate is sunnier, their town more vibrant, their scenery more breathtaking. Though Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay and murky green Yarra River are pretty, they cannot compare to Sydney's spectacular coastline, especially its stunning vivid blue harbor - the location of its famous opera house. Lawyer Nicholas Mulcahey says Melbourne is a pleasant place to visit, but he prefers Sydney because "it's the biggest city, the most successful city, and there are more things to do."
But Melbournians remain convinced their city is superior in the things that really matter. Melbourne's city center is replete with majestic, splendidly preserved 19th century buildings, luxurious green gardens, and a wonderfully European influence.
While body-conscious Sydneysiders flock to beaches during the summer, Melbournians are more likely to be found enjoying a rare sunny day in cosmopolitan cafes and street markets.
Stereotypes of "frivolous Sydney" and "dreary Melbourne" still persist. When attorney Carolyn Lidgerwood moved from Melbourne to Sydney three years ago, she could not believe it when people asked how much money she made, and talked incessantly of real estate prices. "I thought it was just a stereotype, and it was actually true," she laughs.
The cities' differences became more obvious after she attended art exhibition openings.
Melbourne's exhibitions were crowded with "crusty old law-firm partners" and art patrons dressed in "navy-blue Chanel cardigans," Ms. Lidgerwood recalls. Soap opera stars and celebrities graced Sydney's exhibitions. "Beauty was everywhere," she says.
Rugby vs. Football
The two cities also rally around different sports. Sydneysiders No. 1 winter sport is rugby. "We play sports here, says the Sydney hotel manager. "It's not like Melbourne. They play that girl's sport," he says, referring to Australian rules football, frantically followed by Melbournians.
It's true that the rivalry is fading among the younger generations and developing a more good-natured tone. But commentators warn that the intercity wrangling needs to stop. As Melbourne's newspaper, The Age, reported, political analysts believe the two cities need to develop closer ties if they want to compete with Japan and America's West Coast. "Unfortunately, none of that will happen as long as this stuff goes on," one insider was quoted as saying.