A milestone for the mysterious

A milestone for the mysterious
Jack Hayes

Ask any Melburnian what makes their city famous, and inevitably, laneways, art and culture will dominate their responses.

We love a hole-in-the-wall café, an enigmatic piece of public art or a cocktail bar so secret you’ll be cursing Google Maps.

Unlike our northern neighbours, with their big-ticket tourist icons, Melbourne is a city that has built a brand on hiding its secrets.

As Roald Dahl said, “Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

A believer in Melbourne’s magic and lover of all things mysterious is Fiona Sweetman, owner and director of Hidden Secrets Tours which celebrates 20 years this May.

Melbourne in 2004, Ms Sweetman will tell you, looked unquestionably different to the city we know today.

“At the time, Melbourne wasn’t popular, the laneways weren’t where people went. There was a certain dirtiness or grittiness to it. We called it the fine grain,” Ms Sweetman said.

“Only then, Lord Mayor John So started to talk of Melbourne as a brand, rather than just a city. There was no street art on Hozier Lane, MoVida had only just opened, and Andrew McConnell hadn’t opened a CBD venue yet.”

Ms Sweetman had returned from France and admittedly didn’t like Melbourne very much.

Melbourne’s corporate jungle, which architectural commentator Norman Day described in 1978 as “an empty useless city centre”, was an unfriendly place for an artsy dressmaker with dyslexia who struggled at school.

But the small laneways and the businesses that called them home were places where she could find a community, one that would eventually underpin two decades of work and life in Melbourne’s CBD.

“The storytelling of entrepreneurship is one I love. This is a city where you can start something and make it happen if you really believe in it,” she said.


Hidden Secrets came to be when a friend of mine, who was a publisher produced the Deck of Secrets, a small deck of cards that were all about the bars of Melbourne. She received a grant to turn this into something physical and promote tourism ahead of the Commonwealth Games.


“I ran into her, and she asked me if I was working. I said no, I’m not making another wedding dress in my life, and she said ‘I have a job for you’.”

“I didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have much desire for money, I was 31 and life was easy. I wasn’t dealing with crazy brides, and I was hungry for learning. I think that was probably half the excitement.”

Fast forward 20 years, Ms Sweetman now has 15 staff who run four main tours: the famous Melbourne Lanes and Arcades, Café Culture Walk, Progressive Degustation Walk and the Golden Mile Heritage Walk.

“We call them free and independent traveller tours … they are the tours we list with a regular departure. The laneways and arcades are our most popular tour, we run that twice a day, six days a week. We only take eight people, the guides love it and means you don’t need microphones, you can talk to people face-to-face, eye-to-eye.”

“We’ve started outside Time Out café for 20 years, we’ve had coffee at Koko Black at Royal Arcade for 20 years, there’s a lovely loyalty around the city.”

“I think it’s great we’ve created a commercially viable business, and those around us are as well. Across all of the walking tours in Melbourne, there is probably 50 people employed. That’s pretty awesome.”

These days, Ms Sweetman juggles her time between running Hidden Secrets Tours at her office in the Nicholas Building and her work with the Victorian Tourism Industry Council (VTIC).

While she may not be the one walking and talking, but her love and passion for Melbourne tourism and all things hidden remains, even if some of them are in plain sight.

“You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s the beauty of Hidden Secrets. Most of the places we take people to aren’t that hidden,” Ms Sweetman said.

“My story is much like many others in the city. I fell in love with the idea that small people could make it big, and Melbourne is the perfect story for that.” •

Like us on Facebook