The heritage port precinct of Fremantle, 19 km (12 miles) from downtown Perth at the mouth of the Swan River, is one of Western Australia’s most historic cities.
Founded on the Indian Ocean in 1829, Fremantle was intended to be a port for the new colony, but was only used as such when an artificial harbour was dredged at the end of the 19th century.
Fremantle is probably best known outside Australia as the site of the 1987 America’s Cup challenge. In the lead-up to that event, the city embarked on a major restoration of its gracious warehouses and Victorian buildings.
Today, “Freo” is Perth’s second city heart, and a favourite weekend spot to eat, drink, shop, and sail. It is a bustling district of 150 National Trust heritage buildings, alfresco cafes, museums, galleries, pubs, markets, and shops in a masterfully preserved historical atmosphere. European influences are strong, thanks to the migrant fishermen, especially Italians, who made Fremantle their new home. It’s still a working port, so you can see fishing boats unloading in the Fishing Harbour on one side, and yachts and container ships gliding in and out of the main commercial river-mouth harbour on the other. However, some of the buzz has gone from the historic heart since many of the buildings were taken over by the local Notre Dame University.
Weekends are the best time to visit Fremantle, with a wonderful hubbub of shoppers, merchants, coffee drinkers, locals, tourists, and fishermen. Take the train 19 km (12 miles) to Fremantle, at the mouth of the Swan River. Allow a full day to take in even half the sights, and don’t forget to knock back a beer or two on the veranda of one of the gorgeous old pubs, or sip an espresso on the Cappuccino Strip.
History of Fremantle
This area was settled thousands of years ago by the Noongar people. Several trails once joined on the south side of the Swan River, at a natural bridge almost spanning the Swan. This was the hub of intertribal trading routes. Aboriginal groups quickly came to occupy various parts of the area, known to them as Manjaree.
Fremantle’s European history began when the ship HMS Challenger landed here in 1829. The ship’s captain, Charles Fremantle, took possession of the whole of the west coast ‘in the name of King George IV’. Like Perth, the settlement made little progress until convict labour was employed. These hard-working labourers constructed most of the town’s earliest buildings; some of them, such as the Round House, Fremantle Prison and Fremantle Arts Centre, are now among the oldest in WA.
As a port, Fremantle wasn’t up to much until the engineer CY O’Connor created an artificial harbour in the 1890s. In 1987 the city of Fremantle was the site of the unsuccessful defence of what was, for a brief period, one of Australia’s most prized possessions – the America’s Cup yachting trophy. Preparations for the influx of tourists transformed Fremantle into a more modern and colourful city. In 1995 the Fremantle Dockers played their first game. And in 2006 a native claim title over the metropolitan area was successful – acknowledgement of the Noongar people’s ties to the land (though the claim in now under appeal).