Perth is a city to come home to. This remote, west coast capital spent decades caught in a cultural time warp — it was one of those places people left as soon as they could. But with the economic momentum of the mining boom, grand new development projects, and a high quality of life on offer, Perth has begun to lure back those who departed in search of greener pastures.
The city is defined by its urban sprawl. Located on the Swan River and backed by the hills of the Darling Ranges, it sweeps down to the port of Fremantle in the south, encompassing the coastline all the way up to Cottesloe and out to Rottnest Island.
In the CBD (Central Business District), two major infrastructure projects are altering the city. The massive Elizabeth Quay development aims to bring the waterfront back into the area, with the first stage set to open in November. However, it’s the Perth City Link that’s brought about the biggest change, routing the train line underground and connecting Perth’s centre with the Northbridge district. This previously blue-collar migrant area has shed its seedy red-light aura to become the centre of Perth’s food scene. Elsewhere, Leederville and Mount Lawley are popular for their shopping and cafe culture, while the port of Fremantle remains Perth’s most charming destination, with its heritage cottages, relaxed vibe and community-driven initiatives.
With more sunshine than any other Australian state capital, locals are naturally fond of the beach, and have their pick of more than a dozen between Fremantle and Cottesloe.
But it’s what lies underneath the ground that’s had the most significant impact on the city. There’s no way to overstate the impact of the Western Australian mining boom on Perth’s transformation. This influence, coupled with a growing population and a time zone in sync with most of Asia, has seen Perth become a key economic hub. It’s also home to more self-made millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world, and that success has inspired a number of entrepreneurial passion projects that have enriched the city. People believe in Perth, and new ventures are helped along not only by a hunger for new things, but a willingness to give them a go.
Perth is a young city coming into its own. See it on its way up.
Where to eat
In run-down areas of Fremantle, several new restaurants have revitalised cavernous former warehouses. Along with a sit-down service, Bread in Common supplies artisanal bread to venues around Perth, while The Raw Kitchen has a shop and yoga studio. Elsewhere, The Mantle takes a collaborative approach to dining, with three restaurants and a bar sharing a space.
In Northbridge, Lucky Chan’s is evidence of Perth’s appetite for new food concepts. Sitting among the more traditional Chinatown fare on William Street, the restaurant was crowd-funded by locals who had their names adorned on the wall in return for a financial contribution to the start up.
At the high end of town, much fuss is being made of Aussie chef David Thompson’s new restaurant — due to open later this year. However, it’s the multi-award-winning degustation menu at Restaurant Amusé, run by local Perth husband-and-wife team Hadleigh and Carolynne Troy that’s currently widely considered Western Australia’s finest.
One of the first to open was 399, on William Street, kicking off a revitalisation of Northbridge and cementing the suburb as small-bar hotspot. Today, it remains a local favourite alongside more than a dozen gin joints, including The Bird, Ezra Pound and Sneaky Tony’s — a password-protected bar behind unmarked steel doors down a graffiti-covered alley.
Over in the CBD, hiding behind another a set of unmarked doors, you’ll find Varnish on King, Bartender Magazine’s 2014 Australian Small Bar of the Year, famous for its bacon flight: five rashers served with five different whiskies.
One thing you’ll notice is the amount of locally made booze on display: gins including West Winds (infused with lemon myrtle, bush tomato and wattle seed), wine from the Swan Valley and Margaret River regions, and local craft beers like Nail Ale and Feral. A new whiskey producer, Whipper Snapper Distillery, has also opened (its first batch of whisky won’t be ready until next spring, so try its Crazy Uncle Moonshine for now).
Despite many of the city’s venues being converted to restaurants, Perth has sustained a strong live music scene that’s cradled talent such as Tame Impala, The John Butler Trio and Eskimo Joe. The scene clusters in Fremantle and Northbridge at Mojo’s Bar and The Odd Fellow bar in the basement of the Norfolk Hotel. And, if you’re closer to the CBD on Friday night, pass through an old phone booth and down some stairs and you’ll find yourself at the Jazz Cellar.
What to see
The massive infrastructure developments that Perth has seen have been accompanied by a major street art initiative. Western Australian not-for-profit cultural organisation Form launched Public in April 2014, bringing together 45 artists to transform 35 gritty urban spaces. An enthusiastic response saw Public return in 2015 with 50 artists dressing 42 walls.
But it’s not just the outside of the buildings that are being transformed. Located in an abandoned four-story Fremantle department store, Many 6160 is Australia’s largest temporary space-reuse project, home to three-dozen artisans who set up shop selling everything from hats by local label Kate and Abel to art by Perth artist Anya Brock. The retail-focused ground floor is open to the public from Thursday to Sunday, and there are also plans to transform the basement into an art gallery.
However, it’s the second-story production floor that’s the real treasure, a shared workspace for creatives, ranging from fashion designers to boatbuilders. While the building is scheduled to become government offices, the owners have agreed to let the current occupants stay for now, creating a micro-economy of 100 businesses.
Top 10 local tips
02 Keep an eye out for the resident pod of dolphins in the Swan and Canning Rivers.
03 Take the ferry out to Rottnest Island.
04 Enjoy some generous free samples at Freemantle’s Brewhouse, part of the Little Creatures brewery.
05 Pick up an overhead locker-friendly apple strudel flight pack from Corica Pastries.
06 Fitness freaks should take a deep breath and attempt the 242 steps known as Jacob’s Ladder in King’s Park.
07 Stay in the newly constructed Alex Hotel for its gorgeous rooftop views of the CBD and Northbridge.
08 Head to Mullaloo beach in Perth’s northern suburbs for a swim.
09 Take a wine tour in the nearby Swan Valley, Western Australia’s oldest wine-growing region.
10 Perth bakes during the summer, so wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water.
A local’s meditation on the history of the city. Wallpaper* City Guide Perth. RRP £6.37 (Phaidon).
Footprint Focus Guide Perth, by Andrew Swaffer & Katrina O’Brien. RRP: £7.99.
Lonely Planet Perth & West Coast Australia, by Brett Atkinson & Steve Waters. RRP: £15:99.
Hide & Seek: Perth. RRP: £7:99 (Explore Australia)
On screen: Crush (2009): An American house-sitter meets the girl of his nightmares.
These Final Hours (2013): A young man ditches an end-of-the-world party to try to reunite a girl with her father. Spoiler alert: everyone dies.
Last Train to Freo (2006): Two thugs cause chaos for their fellow passengers on the train to Fremantle.
The Reckoning (2014): Revenge thriller staring Luke Hemsworth.
Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)