The Great Southern’s largest town, Albany offers a wealth of historic sites to go with its incredible coastal scenery and some of the best beaches in the state. Albany sits on three main bodies of water – the deep-water Princess Royal Harbour, which the CBD fronts to the south; Frenchman Bay, which it fronts to the east; and Oyster Harbour, which is to the northeast and empties into Frenchman Bay. Collectively the waters are known as King George Sound, named after King George III by Commander George Vancouver in 1791, and where the Brig Amity arrived in 1826, establishing Albany as a convict settlement and making it the first permanent European settlement in WA.
What to see and do in Albany
Being the oldest European settlement in Western Australia, Albany has some wonderful colonial buildings, clustered around York Street – the CBD’s main thoroughfare. The self-guided Albany Heritage Walk Trail connects many of these – ask at the visitor centre for details, or enquire about a guided Heritage Walking Tour at the Museum of the Great Southern. The most recognisable building in town is probably the 1888 stucco-and-granite Albany Town Hall, notable for its cobblestone side wall and four-sided clock tower. The building has a long history of being at the centre of Albany’s cultural life; the first event held here was a ball, on the same day that it opened, and the building was even used as an early cinema in 1911.
Built in 1896, the red-brick and granite Albany Courthouse, with its distinctive round front corners and convolute arched entryway, is still in use today. Nearby, the 1852 Old Gaol Museum was originally established for skilled convict labour from Britain but was expanded to be an all-purpose prison in 1873. Further expansions were made to imprison women and Aboriginals – it was seen as a more secure (ie: escape-proof) facility than the one in Lawley Park. Aboriginal prisoners were held in a separate timber cell – you can wander through cell blocks and see their cell carvings. The gaol was closed in 1941 and it reopened as a museum in 1996. Though not open to the public, the 1869, National Trust-listed Old Post Office has a 25m clock tower; it was originally also used as a customs house and a telegraph office in addition to being a post office and is now the Albany campus for the University of Western Australia and Curtin University.
For a great introduction to the town’s history, visit the Museum of the Great Southern, the Albany branch of the Western Australian Museum. Overlooking Princess Royal Harbour, it is anchored by a replica of the Brig Amity, which you board via a gangplank – informative volunteers detail what life was like for the crew, convicts and soldiers aboard the original ship some 200 years ago. Other permanent exhibits include a one-room period school – complete with holes for ink jars in the desks – and a gallery featuring stories of the Menang Noongar people, as well as a lighthouse exhibition and marine discovery centre, both in the Eclipse Building.
National ANZAC Centre
Telling the war through the stories of the ANZACs themselves, rather than through historical or documentary narrative, the centre – on Mount Clarence, providing a view of where the ships carrying the ANZACs departed – is a multi-award winner. You take the identity of one of 32 actual servicemen or servicewomen during the war, and follow their journey and experience – from recruitment and enlistment to theatre – through a variety of multimedia exhibits. At the end you find out if your person lived or not and, if they did, what happened to them post-conflict. A truly moving experience.
The centre is located inside the 1893 Princess Royal Fortress, also known as the Albany Forts. Complete with original gun emplacements, barracks and batteries, the fortress was built to protect trade coming into Australia’s eastern colonies – losing control of the sea lanes around WA’s southern coast was seen as a security risk by all the colonies, and so construction of the fort was financed by everyone, with the guns supplied by the British. The fort sits within the 250ha Albany Heritage Park, which includes the Desert Mountain Corps Memorial at the summit of Mt Clarence – a 1964 recast of the original 1932 statue at Suez, which was damaged and then brought to Australia.
Stretching for 5km along Frenchman’s Bay, Albany’s town beach is a popular swimming, windsurfing and fishing spot, somewhat sheltered by two granite islands, Michaelmas and Breaksea. The Norfolk pines behind the sand have become iconic and a furor erupted in 2020 when the city removed a few for infrastructure reasons. An upgraded shark enclosure was installed in 2020, making the area safe for swimming. Another 4km north, Emu Point is the site of a narrow channel separating Oyster Harbour from King George Sound – the harbour side of the water is sheltered and very good for swimming. The views across the channel to Gull Rock National Park are grand, and there is a shop selling live blue crabs at the neighbouring marina.
Linking Middleton Beach with Brunswick Road, the 5km Ellen Cove Boardwalk around Ellen Cove provides stunning views out into King George Sound, as well as a whale-watching lookout (migrating humpback and southern right whales visit between May and November). About halfway along, there is also a life-size statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first President of Turkey in 1923–38, and commander of the forces that opposed the ANZAC troops at Gallipoli during World War I. He is carrying a speech he made to the first Australians and New Zealanders who visited the Gallipoli battlefield in 1934, laying down the foundation of a spirit of kinship between the Turks and the ANZACs even though they had been on opposite sides at Gallipoli.
Gull Rock National Park
Across Oyster Harbour from Emu Point, this highly scenic but somewhat underrated national park is great for swimming and views; the white sand tumbles down the green scrub-covered hills to the beach like a bag of spilled sugar. Beautiful Ledge Beach has a shipwreck that you can swim out to, while Nanarup Beach – technically not part of the national park, but on its eastern boundary – has a long, wide stretch of sand and a secluded cove.
Perched on Two Peoples Bay 40km east of Albany, this is one of the best beaches in all of Australia. If it was anywhere else in the world it would be sardine-packed with people, but it rarely is. The elevated car park gives you a great view of the curving white sands, complete with granite boulder, sandwiched between exquisitely blue water and green hills.
Climbing over these leads to a sheltered swimming area, and behind the granite rocks there is a walking trail to a boardwalk that has a natural wading pool. The highly endangered Gilbert’s potoroo was thought to be extinct for decades until it was rediscovered here in 1994; about 30cm long and weighing 10kg, it is arguably the world’s rarest marsupial.
Torndirrup National Park
Made up of three interconnecting peninsulas – Flinders, Torndirrup and Vancouver – south of Albany, this 3,906ha national park is known for its dramatic granite coastal scenery. As you head into the park along Frenchman Bay Road, turn on to The Gap Road for one of the first landmarks – The Gap, a rectangular hole in the granite cliff-face that causes explosive wave crashes, sometimes upwards over 40m. A viewing platform, partially hanging over The Gap, was recently opened – despite being that high up, sometimes visitors do get splashed. A short walk away over the granite is Natural Bridge, a large natural granite arch that forms a gateway down the rocks into the water. Driving back towards Frenchman Bay Road, you can see Cable Beach, highlighted by a massive marble-shaped boulder weighing several tons that was thrown up on to the beach by the sea – a reminder of how powerful the ocean is.
Continuing south on Frenchman Bay Road, the next left turn leads to the Blowholes, where water gets pushed up through the cracks in the granite, creating a visual phenomenon similar to a whale spouting. The walk from the car park is 1.6km return. Further south is the superlative Jimmy Newells Harbour, an earplug-shaped blue and turquoise tiny, sheltered harbour, in between two densely brush-covered hills. The colour contrasts here are remarkable and it’s one of the most scenic parts of the park, although it’s visible only from a viewing platform. Frenchman Bay Road then curves north, from where a side road leads to Salmon Holes, a wild and rough beach famous for its dangerous rock fishing (people can and do die here – if you are going to rock fish, do not blow off the precautions), before finally the road ends between two beaches on Frenchman Bay.
Travel to Albany
Albany is the end of the road for the Albany Highway, 413km/4½ hours from Perth. Transwa coaches can make the run in 6 hours (from A$66 one-way); take the route that runs through Williams and Kojonup.
By air, Rex offers daily flights from Perth to Albany Airport, 7km north of town on the Albany Highway. There is no public transport from the airport – you will need to take a taxi (about A$30) and book ahead, as it is unlikely there will be any waiting; try Albany City Cabs & Taxi.
Within Albany, TransAlbany operates six public circular bus routes. The most useful for visitors is the 803, which runs to Middleton Beach, Lake Seppings and Emu Point.
Arriving in town by car, when you get to the city’s notorious five-fingered roundabout, continue down the Albany Highway to York Street – the heart of the CBD and the historical district. Taking Chester Pass Road from the roundabout will lead you down a long commercial strip and eventually out towards the Porongurups; the other South Coast Highway exit will take you to Denmark.