Fremantle for families? For many, Fremantle is a destination for grown-ups with its old corner pubs, backstreet wine bars and buzzy cafés. It’s also a brilliant spot for families, with a lively weekend market, compelling museums, beachside parks, and a busy boat harbour.
Fremantle was an obvious choice for a family day out when my sister and niece joined us at our Adina apartment in Perth recently. Although it gave us a chance to develop a Fremantle for families guide for our readers with kids and as we discovered on the day, it’s a fantastic destination for families.
‘Freo’, as the locals call it, was once a separate settlement to Perth, yet the sprawling suburbs long ago absorbed the historic port into the greater metropolitan area. Perth’s outer suburbs now extend so far south that Fremantle, almost 20kms from the Perth CBD, feels like an inner-city neighbourhood.
We’ve spent a lot of time in Freo over the years, renting apartments for several months at a time while we wrote up our Lonely Planet Perth and Western Australia guidebooks. My sister and her children would meet us at The Esplanade Park where we’d catch up as we watched the kids play before ambling down to the Boat Harbour for fish and chips.
Here’s our guide to Fremantle for families.
Our Guide to Fremantle for Families
Getting there by boat is half the fun
One of the best things about Fremantle for families is getting there. Fremantle lies at the mouth of the Swan River, so while you can take the train there from Perth’s CBD, it’s much more fun to arrive by boat. Captain Cook Cruises’ The Fremantle Explorer (A$38 adult, $21 child, $95 family) departs Barrack Street Jetty at 9.45am, 11.30am, and 2.15pm and returns to Perth at 12.45pm and 3.45pm. They offer complimentary tea and coffee on all cruises and WA wine tastings on the last cruise. We took the first boat there and the final boat back, which gave us almost five hours in Freo – enough for a family with small kids.
The cruise in itself is a lovely way to spend 70 minutes, especially on a fine day. From Barrack Street Jetty it ducks under Narrows Bridge, cruises by the handsome Old Swan Brewery beneath Kings Park, the native bushland of the sprawling University of Western Australia grounds, and boats bobbing in the water at the swish Royal Perth Yacht Club, before reaching Millionaire’s Row with its headland of ostentatious, multi-level homes.
While the adults will probably find the captain’s commentary, focused largely on real estate prices, more fascinating than the kids will, children should enjoy watching the action on the water. All manner of people and vessels take to the Swan River, especially on weekends, from small sailing boats and luxury cruisers to kids learning to catamaran and oldies mastering the stand-up paddle board. There’s plenty of bird life at the protected areas that pepper the coast, and dogs taking their masters for walks along the slender sandy beaches.
Browse the E-Shed Markets
Once you hit land at Victoria Quay, head into the dockside E Shed Markets for a quick look. Firmly focused on the tourist dollar the markets are nevertheless a favourite with kids for their stalls focused on crafts and handmade toys. The market also offers activities for kids, from face painting to performances, and during school holidays offer the chance to pet farm animals among other things.
My niece made a beeline for the old-fashioned lolly shop, which sells an array of sweets and chocolates from around the world. And, yes, she really did behave like a kid in a candy store, so overwhelmed by all the confectionary choices she didn’t know what to buy. Our Fremantle for families day was off to a sweet start.
Step back in time in historic Fremantle
Mosey from the E Shed Markets across the car park and over the railway line and you’re on the edge of Fremantle’s historic quarter, which boasts the state’s largest collection of heritage-listed buildings. Distinguished by handsome sandstone buildings such as the Round House, and splendid brick buildings dating to the Gold Rush era of the 1880s, the warren of streets is now known as the West End and is Fremantle’s hippest neighbourhood.
In between the big corner pubs with their wrought-iron lace balconies and splendid old banks with the date they were built proudly painted on their façades, are some of the most eclectic boutiques and interesting shops in Perth, most of which line High Street. Note: the New Edition Bookshop has some beautiful children’s books. See this post for more on shopping in the West End.
Indulge in ice cream on Cappuccino Strip
High Street will lead you to Market Street and South Terrace, Fremantle’s main commercial drag, which is home to more retail pleasures. There’s much to interest children here, including sweet shops, games arcades, burger joints, and ice-creameries.
Fremantle excels at ice-cream, by the way. At Cold Rock, kids can choose their mix of chocolates, lollies, fruit and nuts to smash into their ice creams, while the specialty at Freo Waffles and Ice Cream is decadent sundaes.
As it turns the corner Market Street becomes South Terrace, better known as ‘Cappuccino Strip’, because of its abundance of cafés. Freo’s strong café culture is thanks to its European heritage, particularly Italians, Greeks and Slavs, who arrived after World War II and settled into Fremantle for the fishing industry.
Don’t miss the Pickled Fairy at South Terrace Piazza, for a breathtaking range of fairy costumes, wings, magic wands, unicorns, crystals, and CDs and books about fairies, dragons, goblins, and handsome princes. You might also spot a fairy or two fluttering around Fremantle Markets…
Explore lively Fremantle Markets
Located on South Terrace, lively Fremantle Markets is the place to be on weekends (Fri 8am-8pm; Sat & Sun 8am-6pm), when locals and tourists pack the splendid market building. The Victorian-era Fremantle Market Hall opened way back in 1898, when vendors would arrive by horse and cart, and operated as a wholesale fruit and vegetable market until the 1950s.
Boasting some 150 stalls, the market still has an excellent fresh local produce section, in ‘The Yard’, with some of the most beautiful looking fruit and vegetables you’ll see around. The afternoon, when vendors reduce their prices, is an excellent time to do your shopping or pick up some fruit for the kids.
For post-market picnic supplies, make a beeline for Lawley’s Bakery for a loaf of sour dough, The Mousetrap Gourmet Cheese Shop for local and imported cheeses, Karutz Small Goods for wonderful handmade sausages and charcuterie, and Levi’s Doughnuts for dessert. You’ll find delicious locally made ice-cream at Ling Ling Icecream House on the corner of Market Lane.
The front section of the market called ‘The Hall’ has a real variety of shops and stalls, selling everything from handicrafts to handmade soaps. Kids love the Fremantle Markets Toy Shop and Fremantle Candy Store, where sweets are made right before your eyes.
Kick Back in Esplanade Park
Saunter down Essex Street to the Esplanade Park with its enormous Norfolk Island pines. A popular location for festivals, fairs and sporting events, there is always something going on in the shady park.
Families and friends sip coffee at the charming kiosk or picnic on blankets spread out on the grass while the children have fun. (It’s a wonderful place for picnics, but if you have more time than we did it’s worth heading to South Beach to spread out a blanket.)
Kids can amuse themselves by fooling around on the playground equipment, kicking about a football or playing cricket, and practicing their skateboard and scooter tricks in the excellent open-air skate park, which also has a rock-climbing wall and ping pong tables.
The Esplanade Park is also home to a 40-metre high ferris wheel, the Fremantle Tourist Wheel (adults A$12, children $10, family $40), which boasts sweeping views over the nearby boat harbour and beach from its closed-in gondolas.
Feast on fish and chips at the fishing boat harbour
Amble around the boardwalk of the fishing boat harbour, which is home to over 400 working vessels and leisure cruisers, along with seafood restaurants, fish and chip shops, cafés, and bars.
Stroll right to the end and cross the road to the small Port Beach if you want to dip your toes in the squeaky soft sand before settling in for a seafood feast. There’s a pleasant wooden boardwalk if you don’t and life size bronze statues hog the benches.
We’ve eaten at both Joe’s Fish Shack and Cicerellos before, so this time we opted for the Kailis Fish Market. First founded in 1928 by the father and grandfather of the current owners, the Kailis Kailis Fish and Lobster Market Café serves up some of the finest quality seafood. This also means it’s the busiest spot on the harbour, so despite the abundance of tables it can be difficult to get a seat.
If you can be flexible, arrive before noon, otherwise come in the late afternoon. Divide and conquer. Have one person wait for a table while the other places your food order (they’ll give you one of those beepers for the table and let you know when it’s ready) and the third goes for drinks. Whatever you do, never leave the food unguarded. The seagulls are fierce.
Do time at Fremantle Museum
Traditionally, a visit to Fremantle should involve a museum and there are plenty of excellent museums to choose from, from the fascinating Round House, where my Mum used to work as a volunteer guide, to the superb Western Australian Maritime Museum and Shipwrecks Galleries.
We decided to work off our fish and chip feast by hiking back up the hill to the Fremantle Prison museum, a couple of blocks behind Fremantle Markets. Convicts played such a crucial role in the city’s development, building some of the handsome sandstone architecture that gives the port city its character, we thought we should learn what life must have been like for them.
Some 10,000 convicts arrived in Fremantle in 1850, tasked with building the infrastructure for the Swan River Colony. Sadly, their first job was to build their own home, the ‘convict establishment’, which would become Fremantle Prison. A number of themed tours offer opportunities to get an insight into aspects of the convicts’ lives, including the Doing Time Tour, Great Escapes Tour, Tunnels Tour, and Torchlight Tour.
We chose the Doing Time Tour, which, with the assistance of a very animated guide, had us putting ourselves in the shoes of the inmates, from the time they were inducted and given uniforms to wear, through to meal time and punishments, to the time they spent in prayer in the prison chapel. The tour is a sobering experience that’s a must for any potentially wayward teens!
Fremantle is a wonderful walking city, but if the little ones need a break make your way to a bus stop and hop on the free CAT bus. Click through for the bus route map.
The blue CAT route carries passengers from Fremantle train station, all the way along Market Street and South Terrace down to South Fremantle where it turns around and runs north along Marine Parade, around The Esplanade, and via Cliff Street before turning right into Phillimore and Fremantle train station.
The red CAT bus runs from the Maritime Museum, along Phillimore past the train station, then turns into Queen Street, where it does a loop that runs by the Town Hall, up High Street, along Ord Street between the Fremantle Arts Centre and Fremantle Park, before turning into Beach Street and heading south via Cantonment Street to return to Fremantle train station and onto the Maritime Museum.