Free-spirited, bohemian, arty, creative, relaxed, unpretentious, environmentally aware and open-minded are just some of the words that are often used to describe Fremantle, Perth’s historical port city, and her people. Once you go there, you will know why. It’s hard to find nondescript streets that are totally bereft of history, art, creativity, music or culture in swinging "Freo" (what locals fondly call Fremantle). Walk down a road and it is possible that you will see tree or lamppost that has been creatively adorned with brightly coloured yarn; go round a street corner and an imaginative piece of street art is there to greet you; head for the markets and a dreadlocked busker is strumming his stuff; on your way back you might just spot someone watering her organically home grown veggies and if you look closer, you’ll realise that the plant containers have all been ingeniously created out of recycled car parts or common household items. Such is the spirit of Freo. It has a cool vibe all of its own. Freo locals are deservedly proud and fiercely protective of this distinctiveness that sets them apart from their fellow Perthites.
Photo of the Fremantle Tram
Freo is situated about 30 minutes from Perth city and lies 19 km to its south, at the mouth of the Swan River. It is within the Perth metropolitan area and is easily accessible. You can get to Freo via a variety of ways. If you are coming by road, there are several highways that will lead you to the city, depending on where you are coming from: Stirling Highway (from Perth city), Great Eastern and Canning Highways (from Perth Domestic Airport), Tonkin and Leach Highways (from Perth International Airport), and the Bussell Highway (from Margaret River). You can also catch the Perth Airport Connect shuttle bus that runs between the Airport and Fremantle.TransPerth bus and TransWA train services run frequently and daily between Perth and Freo. Another option is to take the ferry via the Swan River from Barrack Street jetty in Perth city. Another way, a definitely more luxurious one, is to arrive at the Fremantle Passenger Terminal at Victoria Quay via a cruise ship. Getting around Freo is easy. Freo’s relatively compact size and mostly flat terrain makes it an ideal city to explore on foot. There are also the public CAT buses that service Freo’s CBD and part of South Fremantle. The Blue CATs depart every 10 minutes while the Red CATs arrive every 15 minutes daily except for certain public holidays. It operates from morning till evening. Please note that these buses are orange and their routes (i.e. blue or red) are displayed on the LCD display right above the bus driver’s front window. And if you want something completely different, then you can purchase a ‘hop-on-hop-off’ tour on the Fremantle Tram service or rent a 2 person scoot car from Scoot Freo and explore this swinging city on your own.
Photo of the Fremantle Prison entrance
Freo has an abundance of historical buildings and most function as hotels, government offices, tourist attractions, museums, art galleries or private residences today. Many are well preserved and have heritage listing. In fact, Freo is home to WA’s largest number of heritage listed edifices. It is therefore no wonder that many regard Freo as being the best model of what a well preserved 19th century Victorian port city should look like. Architecture and photographer buffs will enjoy wandering around Freo’s streets. During the British colonial period, convict labour was brought in from Britain to construct many of Fremantle’s landmark buildings such as the Round House, Fremantle Prison and the Fremantle Arts Centre. The Round House, built in 1831, is WA’s oldest public building and its first gaol (jail). The first hanging took place there and a "Whalers" tunnel still remains at its base. The public is welcome to watch the firing of the cannon that takes place at 1 pm every day. The notorious Fremantle Prison, built in the 1850’s, is WA’s only UNESCO World Heritage status building. It operated as a prison for almost 140 years until 1991 and is a major tourist attraction today. Its highly acclaimed tunnel tours (some parts are only accessible by boat) and spooky torchlight tours are one of the top must-dos in WA. More buildings were constructed during WA’s gold rush and some of these include the Fremantle Town Hall, the Fremantle Train Station and Customs House. Other worthwhile historical sites include Monument Hill, which is also Freo’s highest natural point and offers good views, and the heritage buildings that house the various faculties of Notre Dame University. If you like museums, then Freo will have plenty to offer you, including the Army Museum of WA which has an impressive collection of military weapons, army tanks, medals, uniforms and other memorabilia on display. The Fremantle Visitor Centre at Kings Square has designed several thematic walking trails, two of which are the historical Convicts Trail and the indigenous Manjaree Heritage Trail. You can get free copies of these trail maps there. For more information on the history of Perth and Fremantle, click here (insert link: Useful info - History of Perth and WA)
Photo of the HMAS Ovens which is next to the Maritime Museum
Freo is WA’s historical port city and continues to service large container vessels and fishing fleets; it remains a popular tourist destination for cruise ship passengers till today. Fremantle port was also where countless migrants first set foot in Australia, especially during the era when air travel was less commonplace and much more expensive.
As a port, Fremantle did not have much success in the early days of colonisation until a brilliant engineer, C.Y. O’ Connor, improved the harbour by blasting away the large, rocky limestone bar that blocked the mouth of the Swan. The river was also dredged and two long moles were constructed to protect the entrance of the river. O’ Connor’s controversial idea of siting the port within the river’s mouth (as opposed to locating further down south along the coastline) began to bear fruit after many massive and expensive engineering processes had taken place and in 1897, the first large vessel, The Sultan, sailed into the Fremantle harbour. The survival of the harbour till this day, with little modification to its original basic structure, stands as a testimony to O’Connor’s expertise and foresight. The harbour can be viewed from the South Mole (via Fleet Street). Find out more about O’Connor by picking up a free copy of the C. Y. O’Connor Walking Trail from the Fremantle Visitor Centre. Maritime history enthusiasts should visit the Western Australian Maritime Museum, the Western Australian Museum Shipwreck Galleries and the HMS Submarine Ovens. You can gain an insight into WA’s affinity and long-time association with the ocean at the WA Maritime Museum. You can also see the famous Australia II yacht that wrested the America’s Cup from the Americans in 1983, thus ending their 132 year monopoly of the race. The Shipwreck Galleries is a fascinating museum that showcases artifacts from various shipwrecks as well as a reconstruction of part of the famous Batavia’s hull. It is the most important maritime archaeology museum in the southern hemisphere and well worth a visit. Another maritime highlight is the HMAS Ovens (S 70) which is a 90 m long Oberon class submarine that used to be in the service of the Royal Australian Navy. It is now a museum vessel and tours are conducted daily. Free copies of the Maritime Heritage Walking Trail can be obtained from the Fremantle Visitor Centre at Kings Square.
Photo of the Fishing Boat Harbour in Fremantle
The Fishing Boat Harbour first started as a single jetty with a fish market in the early 1900s. In 1919, a 300 m breakwater was built so that the fishing vessels could safely anchor there. The harbour and part of Fremantle underwent extensive renovation in preparation for the 1987 America’s Cup. Much excitement and optimism was generated in anticipation of the internationally significant sporting event. Freo became a livelier and more vibrant city as a result of the improvements made. It still operates as a commercial marina where fishing fleets dock and has pens for the mooring of leisure boats. Fishing Boat Harbour is a major tourist attraction of WA as it has many recreational facilities, seafood and a boardwalk that overlooks the tranquil waters of the harbour. It is especially famous for its seafood restaurants and brewery. We highly recommend taking a late afternoon stroll on the boardwalk, followed by a delicious alfresco seafood dinner. You can sit on the boardwalk itself and enjoy the harbour view while you eat. But don’t feed the seagulls as they can get rather greedy! You can also grab a high speed jet boat ride or book a sailing tour there. Swim at Bathers Beach and explore WA’s oldest public building, The Roundhouse or visit the art galleries nearby. There are some life-size public works of art displayed at the Harbour, the most famous being the statue of ACDC’s Bon Scott singing his heart out. The Shipwreck Galleries Museum is just across the road and is an interesting place to visit. On the other side of the road is Esplanade Park with its shady Norfolk pine trees. This is a great picnic spot and if you want to get a bird’s eye view, take a ride on the Skyview, a large Ferris wheel and see the harbour from way up.
Photo of one of the seafood dishes available in Fremantle
Freo is a great place to have a meal, enjoy a coffee or quench your thirst with a locally brewed beer. There are several breweries offering boutique beers and award winning tipples. Freo’s world famous ‘Cappuccino Strip’, located along South Terrace, is choc-a-bloc with street side cafes and restaurantsthat offer a wide array of coffee and multicultural cuisine. The Italian heritage of Fremantle’s inhabitants is evident in the numerous pizza, pasta and gelato outlets. If you prefer a seafood meal, then head down to Fishing Boat Harbour for a memorable Freo dining experience at one of the many seafood eateries there.
Photo of the Fremantle Arts Centre
Despite having a population of only about 25 000, Freo has produced many extremely talented writers, artists, musicians and performers. There is no doubt that Freo is a cultural, music and arts hub. Some notables include writers Tim Winton, Kim Scott, Joan London and John Boyle O’Reilly, sculptor Greg James, musicians Bon Scott, the John Butler Trio, The Waifs, Eskimo Joe, Anna Gare and Little Birdy. This proliferation of talent in such a small community is pretty amazing – maybe there really is something in Freo’s water after all! Freo is a culturally stimulating and musically vibrant place – there are many nightly live music performances in various venues like pubs, bars and nightclubs. Buskers performing on the streets and at the weekend markets are a regular sight too. Major music events include The West Coast Blues & Roots Festival, the Norfolk Lanes Youth Festival which showcases talented young performers and the Fremantle Winter Music Festival. The Fremantle Arts Centre is worth a visit too. It is a handsome heritage building that used to be a lunatic asylum and shelter for destitute women. It now holds art exhibitions, hosts talks and has an art gallery and well stocked gift shop that offers many creative items on sale. You can also take the Art and Culture Walking Trail that will bring you to 33 art studios, galleries, public artworks and markets where local arts and crafts are sold. A free copy of the trail map can be obtained from the Fremantle Visitor Centre. A Writers Trail Map is also available at the centre.
Photo of one of the many unique shops in Fremantle
Freo has many unique and funky stores that cater for the shopper who wants to bring home something different. Whether you are after retro vintage clothing, edgy alternative street wear, rainbow hued fairy costumes or delicate handmade woven accessories, Freo’s retail outlets are likely to have what you’re looking for. Freo’s artistic vibe has no doubt contributed to the growth of its artists, painters, fashion designers, accessory makers and craftsmen. We highly recommend browsing at some of Freo’s specialty stores, art galleries, furniture and home ware outlets, boutiques and jewellery shops. There are also the famous weekend markets, the Fremantle Market and the E-Shed Markets where you can buy Australian souvenirs and unusual handmade items as well as fresh local produce such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, honey and pastries.
Photo of the sand bar at Point Walter
If you are looking for an outdoor experience, then we suggest spending some time at one of Freo’s beaches. Bathers Beach is easily accessible and is located close to the Fishing Boat Harbour and the Round House. It has a sheltered bay that is usually calm and is suitable for families. Bathers Beach is also a great place to watch the sun setting over the Indian Ocean. South Beach in South Fremantle is one of our favourite sunset watching beaches. This spacious white sand beach has free barbecue pits, benches and tables. Point Walter reserve is located about 17 minutes (8 km) from Fremantle, in the suburb of Bicton. Point Walter, with its long windy sand bar that juts into the river, offers stunning views of the Swan River, particularly at dawn and at dusk. It is a favourite local picnic, barbecue, swimming and fishing spot. This scenic reserve is a local secret and most people are happy to keep it that way. Shhh… don’t tell anyone else!
Photo of band performing at the Hulbert Street Festival
Freo is a lively, colourful and ‘happenin’ place. There always seems to be something going on, especially in the busy summer months. Things can become relatively quiet during winter but there will usually be other attractions to keep you occupied. Festivals, performances, exhibitions, displays, talks, sporting events…you name it, Freo seems to have it. One interesting event is the annual Blessing of the Fleet which takes place every October. This religious tradition was brought to Fremantle by the numerous Italian migrants who came from the coastal towns of Italy, particularly Molfetta and Capo d’Orlando. On this day, the fishermen and their families carry two sacred statues, Madonnas which represent their ancestral towns, and walk through the streets of Fremantle. This ceremony is a celebration of the fisher folks’ Italian heritage and also to seek their Madonnas’ blessings and protection. Another thoroughly entertaining event is the Fremantle Street Arts Festival which takes place every Easter in March/April. This is Australia’s largest street festival. An amazing number of international and Australian artists all converge in Freo to perform for free at various venues. Another of our favourites is the Fremantle Heritage Festival; during this event in May/June, many heritage buildings and sites throw their doors open to the public for free and guided tours and talks are available. The Fremantle Festival is Australia’s longest running festival. It will be celebrating its 108th year in Oct/Nov 2013. The Freo community is heavily involved in this major event and it is a celebration of the Freo people’s talents, heritage and close-knit community spirit. To find out more about Freo’s happenings, check out our events page.
There is so much going on in Freo that we don’t think you’ll be able to finish it all in one day, especially after we’ve given you even more ideas on what to do in our travel article. Have fun in Freo! See the virtual tours of the Fremantle Roundhouse and Monument Hill below.