You could be forgiven for thinking you'd accidentally wandered into Ancient Greece or Rome as you approach Melbourne's grandest war memorial, the Shrine of Remembrance. An imposing structure familiar to most Melburnians, the Shrine is located between St Kilda Road and Birdwood Avenue in South Yarra.
Visitors are sometimes surprised by the contrast between this extravagant monument to WWI and the less elaborate WWII memorial they pass on their way across the forecourt. Beneath the WWII cenotaph, the eternal flame burns brightly and, well, eternally, in remembrance of the 1939-1945 war. The Shrine itself was built to honour those who enlisted in the First World War, and reveals a stark contrast in attitudes towards the two conflicts.
Inside, the Shrine is given a seeping sense of solemnity by thick stone walls, which muffle both voices and light. The building has four levels, the lowest of which contains two exhibition spaces, and a gift shop has a wealth of good books and souvenirs.
A few stairs or a short lift ride takes visitors to the crypt, where the building's gravity well and truly gets the upper hand as you stare up at a bronze statue of father and son soldiers, representing the two generations of the World Wars. In the dark and quiet crypt, history presses heavily upon visitors as they consider the losses and gains of war.
The sanctuary is on the next level, and this is where the ray of light ceremony takes place on Remembrance Day. During the ceremony, thanks to some nifty astronomy, a couple of strategically placed openings and a mirror, a beam of light lands squarely on the Stone of Remembrance. The engraving on the stone – 'Greater love hath no man' – is part of a quote from the Bible, which continues 'than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends'.
Finally, for visitors who are able to handle the stairs, the view from the balcony is worth the climb. Given the Shrine's location just to the south of the city, its highest level provides 360 degree views of the CBD and nearby suburbs, as well as the surrounding gardens and reserve.
Entry to the Shrine is by donation, either via the front doors, which will bring you into the middle level of the Shrine, or via the visitors' centre, which provides an accessible entrance to those with limited mobility. Lifts are available with staff assistance to the crypt and sanctuary levels, but the balcony can only be accessed by those able to manage the stairs. As you enter the building, you may be asked to remove your hat, as the Shrine is considered sacred ground. Religious headwear is acceptable, of course.
The Shrine is easy enough to travel to – most St Kilda Road trams pass this way, or the energetic can walk from the CBD. Street parking is available all around the building. Be sure to arrive early on sunny weekends, as the area gets busy early with picnickers to the nearby Botanic Gardens.