Australia's first built World Heritage listed site is right here in Melbourne. It's the Royal Exhibition Building at 9 Nicholson Street, in Carlton Gardens. This graceful, long white building with its familiar dome is renowned as one of the world's oldest remaining exhibition pavilions.
I'd always thought the building was impressive from the outside, but was amazed when I stepped into its lavish interior. It was like being inside a cathedral, a banqueting hall and a painting all rolled into one. It was hard to know where to look.
There are frescoes Michelangelo might have been proud of painting, incredible detail in the windows and roof, and then there's the soaring dome. Restored in the 1990's, a huge amount of care and attention clearly went into this work.
Designed in 1878 by Melbourne architect Joseph Reed, it was completed in 1880 for Melbourne's first international exhibition. At that time Melbourne had unbelievable wealth, following Victoria's gold rush, the richest gold rush in the world.
The prosperity and optimism of the time is reflected in the building's flamboyant design, combining elements from Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and the Italian Renaissance.
While we might take trade exhibitions for granted today, they had special significance in the 19th Century, playing a key role in spreading the word about new ideas and inventions.
And for young unmarried women, these exhibitions were especially important – considered 'educational', they were one of the few locations a woman could be seen without a chaperone.
The building has a long history of hosting international exhibitions and was a venue for the 1956 Summer Olympics. It was also used as a temporary hospital in 1919 during the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic.
The building is also tied to Australian history on a national scale, hosting the opening of the first Parliament of Australia in 1901. It's an event that's been immortalised in the Tom Roberts painting "The Big Picture". (You can see this wonderful painting here).
I highly recommend checking out this huge part of Melbourne's history.
Regular guided tours are available most days at 2pm, subject to availability. All tours depart from the adjacent Melbourne Museum. Enquiries 13 11 02.