For most of my life, I hadn’t given much thought to the city of Perth besides knowing it as “that city sitting all on its own on the west coast of Australia”.
Then, a few years ago, as I began planning Aeroplan Mini-RTW trips around the world, Perth emerged as the farthest-away major metropolitan area from Toronto, where I lived. With Aeroplan, the farther away you fly, the more convoluted your routing is allowed to be, so I knew that taking a crazy Aeroplan-inspired round-the-world trip would go hand-in-hand with a visit to the capital of Western Australia.
And that’s exactly why I found myself there in February, the height of the southern summer, perched up in the Westin Perth and with two days on my hands to explore the city. As it happened, it was only just before arriving in town did I actually ask myself the question: so what is there to actually do in Perth?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. With jet lag posing a particularly thorny problem on this part of my trip, though, I decided to fit as much as I could into my two-day window, but still left plenty of things to do for next time.
Exploring Perth CBD
I spent the first day walking around Perth’s city streets, specifically the “downtown” part of the city which is better known as the central business district or Perth CBD.
Perth is a highly walkable city, with most attractions being within a 15–20 minute walk of each other. The Westin Perth is situated centrally within this cluster of points of interest, and I found it to be an ideal base for exploring the city – it was nice to head back to the hotel after walking around in the scorching February heat, throw back a coffee to quell the jet lag, and then head out again.
After waking up far too early and enjoying breakfast at the hotel, I worked for a few hours before heading out. My first stop was Elizabeth Quay, which is a relatively new urban development on the banks of the Swan River filled with promenades, public art, and places to eat and drink.
Most major cities around the world are home to one of these – think London’s South Bank or Toronto’s Harbourfront – and just like the city itself, Perth’s waterfront hotspot is relatively small and compact.
The major attraction here is the Bell Tower, which is an architecturally distinctive building overlooking the Swan River that rings its bells a few times a day.
The Bell Tower probably provides a decent view of the city and surrounding river, but I didn’t find the A$18 entry price to be quite worthwhile, so I didn’t find out for myself. (It wasn’t even that tall of a tower, anyway.)
I continued to the waterfront and strolled across the Elizabeth Quay Bridge, which spans across a small inlet of the Swan River, taking in the views. Notably, they’re planning to open The Ritz-Carlton, Perth here in Elizabeth Quay in October 2019, which looks like it’ll be an excellent property, and I’ll definitely be interested in staying here the next time I’m in town.
After looking at a few public art installations, I headed eastwards to my next destination: the Perth Mint, which quite a few readers had recommended as one of the more interesting things to do in the city. Having done the tour of our very own Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa not too long ago, I was curious to see how my second-ever mint tour would compare.
It turned out to be a pretty different experience, mainly due to the fact that Perth’s is a bullion mint, producing gold coins (and bars, ingots, etc.) rather than coins of the Australian dollar – those are minted in the Australian capital, Canberra, instead.
Our tour group pored over quite a few interesting exhibits, chief among which was the biggest gold coin in the world, which weighs one tonne and is valued at around $65 million Australian dollars. There are no security features on the giant gold coin when it’s on display during the day, because “no one could possibly steal it”, but that didn’t stop me from trying to devise such a plan.
I’m sure I would’ve eventually come up with something, but alas I was soon ushered into the viewing room for the live gold pour, in which our tour guide donned a protective mask and gloves and minted a gold bar right in front of our eyes.
It’s certainly not something you see every day, so I’d consider the admission price of A$19 to be money well spent.
The tour finished with some more words on the heritage of the mint, including the fascinating unsolved case of the 1982 Perth Mint Swindle, in which 49 gold bars worth $3.8 million in today’s money were stolen.
After that, I headed back to the hotel for some coffee, before continuing my walking tour to the Perth Cultural Centre, a multi-purpose area in the Northbridge suburb just north of Perth railway station that’s home to several important cultural institutions.
The Western Australian Museum is probably the star attraction here, but unfortunately it’s closed for most of the year for renovations, and will be reopening in 2020. You can also check out the Art Gallery of WA as well, but I wasn’t quite in the mood for art, so I just decided to walk around the State Library of Western Australia and enjoy the atmosphere around the grounds.
The clock was barely striking 3pm at this point, but my jet lag was creeping up on me fast, so I decided to call it a day and head home via the Murray Street Mall, a popular pedestrian street lined with shops and boutiques, before allowing myself to be consumed by slumber.
Day Trip to Fremantle
The agenda for Day 2 in Perth was to make a day trip out to the city of Fremantle on the coast of the Indian Ocean. It’s a short 30-minute train ride from Perth railway station, although I could’ve also chosen to take the ferry from Elizabeth Quay.
Since Western Australia was a pretty unfamiliar territory to me, I decided to take a guided tour of the Fremantle Prison in order to get some background on the history of the area. This 15-acre site was originally used to house convicts that had been sent over from Great Britain, playing a key role in the settlement of Western Australia, before it closed in 1991 and became a recognized heritage site.
Besides the guided tour, I also enjoyed the free exhibits here at Fremantle Prison, which spoke in detail about Australia’s troubled history involving convicts and prisoners.
Most people know that the Australian nation, as we know it today, was essentially founded by convicts brought over from Great Britain. But that’s only true of the Eastern Australian colonies – I hadn’t known that the Swan River Colony, the first white settlement in the state of Western Australia, was in fact an exception to this, and only accepted prisoners later on in the colonization process as a source of cheap labour.
As I wandered the exhibits, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Australia and Canada in terms of our nations being built on brutal invasions against Indigenous populations, and indeed, the extent to which we continue to deal with the lasting impacts of those actions in the present day.
I see Australia as a very similar nation to Canada, and our shared history of colonization is one of the biggest factors in forming that connection.
The prison tour took a surprisingly long time, so it was about midday when it finished. I walked around the Esplanade area for a while, taking in the lively seaside scenery and stopping for a coffee along the way, before heading back to the Fremantle Markets for a quick sushi lunch.
In many ways, Fremantle reminded me of the seaside resort of Brighton on the south coast of England – easy-going vibes, right on the water, and dining and drinking establishments galore.
While the Western Australian Museum’s main facility in the Perth Cultural Centre was closed for the year, it also has two seafaring-themed museums here in Fremantle: the Maritime Museum and the Shipwrecks Museum. I paid the latter a visit, which focuses on maritime archeology and tells the story of the many shipwrecks along Western Australia’s coastline. It wasn’t a bad way to spend half an hour, especially as admission is free.
I would’ve continued on to the Maritime Museum as well, except 1) that one has an admission fee of A$15 and 2) the jet lag was again starting to rear its ugly head, so my body began instinctively heading in the direction of Fremantle railway station for the return journey.
However, I mustered up the energy to get off the train just before the final stop, at City West station, so I could walk to Kings Park to check out the unparalleled city views from there. It was worth the trip, despite the sleepy state that I was in.
That would be my final act in exploring Perth on this trip – as dusk approached, the jet lag soon took over for the night, and I was off to Auckland on a seven-hour flight on Air New Zealand very early the next morning.
Next Time in Western Australia
Whenever I visit someplace new, I inevitably feel some level of pressure to see and do as much as I can. But for me, part of the fun lies in taking things at your own pace and being comfortable with leaving some things for a potential return trip in the future, and my time in Perth was no exception.
Rottnest Island is at the top of this list. This island sits just offshore from Perth and Fremantle, and is reachable via a quick ferry ride from Elizabeth Quay. As a protected nature reserve, it features pristine white-sand beaches, gorgeous shallow waters, and of course, the quokka, a small marsupial that’s unique to Rottnest.
If I had another day in Perth (and could’ve mustered up a full day’s worth of energy), I would’ve definitely made it out to Rottnest on this trip. Alas, I didn’t, so onto the top of the list for next time it goes.
Beyond that, Perth is often described as the most isolated city in the world, with the city surrounded entirely by the Indian Ocean on one side and the vast Australian outback on the other. Therefore, I’ll definitely want to plan a trip in the future, ideally with Jessica in tow as well, so I can immerse myself in the sheer natural biodiversity of Western Australia.
We’ll definitely want to get out of the city and drive along the coast for a few days, checking out things like the wineries of Margaret River and the Pink Lake near the town of Esperance.
Oh, and I gotta take an Instagram photo at the Blue Boat House, that’s for sure. 😉
For a place that I hadn’t given much thought to beyond “that place certainly looks far away from all the other places in that place down under”, Perth was a pleasant surprise. I greatly enjoyed the days I spent both exploring the central Perth CBD and heading out to Fremantle for a day by the water.
I’m glad that the Aeroplan Mini-RTW gave me a reason to visit, and I certainly look forward to returning in November when Perth shall serve as the destination of yet another audacious round-the-world trip.