The port city of Fremantle, on Australia’s west coast, is like an old friend you haven’t seen for years. Time may have passed but the connection is felt immediately, and remains as strong as ever. It woos with its offbeat, hippie vibes, it’s glistening harbourside and cawing gulls, its role as the birthplace for much of Australia’s great live music and its trailblazing craft beer scene.
Once a separate town, Fremantle has been engulfed by greater Perth, and is only short trip from the capital’s centre (the train stop is minutes from the main café strip). It is not unlike England’s Brighton – the smaller and more eccentric seaside cousin of the big city to the north. Like Brighton, part of the city’s immediate charm is found in its ornate buildings and curving streets from another era, as well as the creative locals that inhabit them. Thanks to these eclectic souls, Fremantle is one of the must-stay places for anyone heading Down Under.
Live music is integral to the fabric of Fremantle and not just because it’s the final resting ground of AC/DC legend Bon Scott. Fremantle is the narrative backdrop for many a song penned by famous Australian musicians from Paul Kelly to The Waifs. And it wasn’t all that long ago that the rootsy John Butler (of John Butler Trio fame) could be found busking in the streets here; he now has a recording studio in the place he calls home.
There’s still plenty of music to be heard in Fremantle today, whether at the family-friendly Fremantle International Street Arts Festival (streetartsfestival.com.au; held annually around Easter) or from the slew of buskers outside Fremantle Markets on the weekend. The best live music venue in Fremantle is the long-standing and somewhat grungy Mojos Bar where genres range from reggae to rap – and everything in between. Also check out the listings for the Fly By Night Musicians Club, an iconic not-for profit operation that’s hosted homegrown talents like Tame Impala, San Cisco, Katy Steele and Eskimo Joe. While they get some bigger indie names in, many gigs still only cost a tenner.
Finally, if you can time your visit for it, get yourself to the Fremantle edition of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival (fremantle.lanewayfestival.com) which brings local and international acts to town at the tail end of summer.
Mixed-media, painting, portrait photography, found-object sculpture, immersive installations, electronic gigs and fashion shows…. yes, gallery-goers visiting Fremantle’s PS Art Space (psas.com.au) in the historic West End are in for a treat. Home to the state’s largest concentration of independent artist studios, Fremantle has very much established its own scene.
Further proof of this city's creativity can be seen at the nearby Moores Building (fac.org.au/moores-building) – tie in your visit with breakfast in the back yard garden. The contemporary gallery is managed by the Fremantle Art Centre, another worthy destination which hosts a free summer concert series on Sundays and is home to an exceptional gift shop. FOUND is full of locally designed ceramics, high quality stationery, and creative trinkets you probably don’t need, but you will really want to have.
However, there is now a handful of smaller drinking establishments earning the love of the locals. Mrs Browns in North Fremantle, housed in a Victorian terrace, is one stand-out example. From malbec to merlot, wine is the focus here with around 30 options on the menu. Pull up a chair in the intimate courtyard to while away a balmy afternoon.
Plonk enthusiasts will also feel at home at Whisper Wine Bar which focuses primarily on Australian and New Zealand wines, but has a splash of French producers on the list -- a nod to the nationality of the owners.
By dusk, Strange Company (strangecompany.com.au) is where you want to be. The side-street bar draws an ebullient crowd, clustering around the bar, spilling onto the pavement and crowding small tables where fine wine and good value small bites are enthusiastically shared. Its funky wooden interiors were designed by a local architect.
The same crew has recently opened up an homage to 70s Australiana in Ronnie Nights (facebook.com/ronnienightsfremantle). The fun-loving small bar hosts kooky events such as beer yoga and provocative poetry, but on regular evenings you’ll find a busy bar grooving to loud, vintage tunes like an old school house party. skewer-style eats, craft beers, local wines and cocktails keep you going.
On the cocktail front, Bathers Beach House is a fine option, with the seaside and sunset views providing a compelling argument for a lengthy lounge. Nab a deck chair and sit here with your toes in the sand, sipping a ginger margarita while gazing towards Rottnest Island – it sure brings home West Australia’s fantastic remoteness from the rest of the world.
West Australia's Margaret River may be famous for its foodie scene, but Fremantle's reputation is gathering pace. First take your tastebuds to The Raw Kitchen, a short walk from Fremantle’s Town Hall. Found in a 1920s warehouse, this diner has ultra-healthy plant-based cuisine, served with a variety of seasonal dishes and buckwheat-base pizzas. The exposed-brick and polished concrete floor aesthetic has that cool urban feel, albeit with warm and friendly staff. The Raw Kitchen also sells a variety of natural sweet treats to take away (try the fig and cacao ‘bliss balls’) and has a smoothie bar, a yoga program, a kombucha microbrewery and a shop (aptly named, Zero Store) with a range of sustainable homewares, vegan cookbooks and local artisan produce.
A different natural food vibe is found at Bread in Common, makers of rustic bread (wood-fired on volcanic stone) served at countless eateries around town. Bread in Common has an all-day brunch menu for the late starters, seasonal hipster dishes (think ricotta and broad beans with mint, or mushrooms with miso and soya) and cult numbers such as the lamb ribs with black garlic, plus an expansive local cheese and wine list.
Propellor (facebook.com/propellernorthfreo) is more of a local secret. Its Middle Eastern flavours and friendly service draw many to North Fremantle (and it’s opposite Mrs Browns and Mojo’s, so why not kill two birds?). Its ‘feed me’ menus are exceptional value – due justification for a Levantine feast. If the place is heaving, the Mediterranean menu at Habitue, just across the road, is another excellent option, especially when there’s live jazz playing.
Beyond its cultural and culinary offerings, the longest standing drawcard is of course Fremantle’s coastline. As well as dining, drinking and gallery hopping, make time to sit and watch at least one striking sunset from the grassed area at Leighton Beach (North Fremantle) and one ocean swim at the pristine and spacious South Beach (South Fremantle).
Then you will know what the ‘Freo’ spirit is all about.
This article was updated by Lonely Planet Local Fleur Bainger in June 2018.