Perth’s central area does not feel as rushed or as hurried as CBDs or downtowns elsewhere, and why should it? The city’s signature attraction, the massive Kings Park botanical garden, is located here, as are the gentle flows of the Swan River, the eclectic café and dining culture of the Subiaco and Northbridge neighbourhoods, and the state’s iconic beach at Cottesloe.
The whole central region of the capital just begs you to slow down, take a stroll, do some window shopping, find a gourmet bite somewhere and then finish it off with a drink at a funky bar. The area sets the tone for the relaxed vibe that defines the metro area. A visit to Western Australia should start with two or three days here, acclimatising to the atmosphere, before branching out into Fremantle, the Swan Valley or the Perth Hills.
What to see and do in Perth
This huge 400ha botanical garden and nature reserve on the CBD’s western border is undoubtedly Perth’s signature attraction. Aside from being one of the world’s premier botanical gardens, it serves as a focal point for the entire Perth Metropolitan Area (and even the state) and is an integral part of the city’s identity.
Enter the park through the red-flowering gum-lined Fraser Avenue, which leads to the entrance of two of the park’s most-visited attractions – the Western Australian Botanic Garden and the State War Memorial. This is also where you’ll find the visitor centre (from where you can pick up a map), Aspects of Kings Park (the gift shop, from where guided tours leave), Frasers Restaurant and the Floral Clock, an operating timepiece on a huge bed of flora, originally designed in 1962. Strolling down Fraser Avenue is one of Perth’s great pastimes, with its lemon-scented eucalypts lining both sides; a memorial plaque sits at the foot of each tree, commemorating a prominent West Australian.
Just opposite the restaurant is the Kaarta Gar-up Lookout, from where the views over the Swan River and the city, as well as out to the Darling Scarp, are some of the best in WA – note two of Perth’s tallest skyscrapers, 234m-high Brookfield Place (with the BHP Billiton name on it) and 249m Central Park (emblazoned with Rio Tinto) just to the left. At sunrise or sunset, it’s a living postcard and a must-see on a Perth visit.
Fraser Avenue ends at the State War Memorial precinct, site of one of WA’s largest ANZAC Dawn Services (40,000 people annually), which frames another spectacular view over the water and to the city skyline. An 18m obelisk honours all West Australians who have lost their lives in the service of Australia; the Flame of Remembrance in the Pool of Reflection in the same precinct is always burning, and represents the promise of West Australians. There are various other war memorials dotted around the park, and the Memorials Walk has 12 points of interest, including the South African War Memorial for West Australians who died serving in the Boer War and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial near the Roe car park. There are also monuments to those lost at Kokoda, Gallipoli, Crimea, Waterloo, Jews who died in both world wars, and those killed in the Bali terrorist attack in 2002.
Encompassing some 17ha, the Western Australian Botanic Garden, opened in 1965, features a staggering 25% of all flora found in WA. Much of it is grouped by region, and there are Wheatbelt and Great Southern plantings, as well as areas for Rottnest, Mulga and other WA locations. The wildflower display here in late winter is spectacular and showcases the state in miniature. Aboriginal culture features prominently within the garden. The 3.2km Boodja Gnarning Walk explores bush tucker (food), traditional medicines, Noongar language and indigenous use of plants, while on the Lotterywest Federation Walkway is a giant boab tree, the Gija Jumulu, which is estimated to be 750 years old and was a gift from the Gija people in the Kimberley region.
As you drive in on the Mitchell or the Kwinana, Perth’s CBD seems to rise up out of nowhere; a small cluster of gleaming skyscrapers that would not be out of place in Dubai or Tokyo. But Perth is not a dense urban jungle of high-rises; they are concentrated in the fairly compact and highly walkable CBD, providing a stark visible contrast to the rest of the city.
The CBD forms a rectangle, with the Swan River forming its southern and eastern boundaries, Kings Park its western boundary and Wellington Street its northern boundary. Inside, ample one-way streets, pedestrian malls and a plethora of cafés and restaurants invite leisurely exploration – a big city without all the big city hassle. Even parking isn’t a problem (well, not that big a problem anyway) – large ticketed garages are easy to find across the CBD.
Perth was founded here in 1829, and this spot remains one of the CBD’s focal points with its cathedral, town hall and old government buildings. Old and new contrast sharply here – with the hulking, modernist City of Perth’s administration building now across the street.
Its most striking figure is the imposing St George’s Anglican Cathedral, a Gothic Revival church built in 1888 with handmade bricks. The showpiece of the Anglican Church in WA, it remains one of the most important religious institutions in the state – its brick interior arches and walls, chandeliers and deeply sloped roof give it an understated elegance. The grounds have memorials to important West Australians and soldiers, and a Soldiers’ Chapel that honours Anglican soldiers who fought for Australia in World War I. The cathedral’s choir is nationally acclaimed and there are often lunchtime concerts; see website for dates.
Opposite the cathedral are the State Buildings. Western Australia’s government centre since the 1870s, the site has seemingly hosted every government agency at one time or another, from immigration to treasury to the police court to the premier’s office. Its final tenant was the Department of Land Administration, which left in 1993. Redevelopment some years later saw it begin to regain its former glory as an entertainment centre and today it is steeped in historical elegance with dozens of boutiques, dining options and a luxurious hotel.
Barrack Square and Elizabeth Quay
On the banks of the Swan, 400m south of Cathedral Square, Elizabeth Quay is the brainchild of former premier Colin Barnett – who said he decided the need for riverfront redevelopment after walking Brisbane’s South Bank with his wife in 2009, making him realise Perth’s vibrancy had fallen significantly behind not just Asian cities but Australian ones too.
The area is dominated by the pointy, 82.5m tall Bell Tower, home to the 18 Swan Bells, a dozen of which came from St-Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Buckingham Palace’s parish church in London. The bells rang in Trafalgar Square for centuries before being donated to WA for the nation’s bicentenary celebrations in 1988. The bells ring Monday, Thursday and Sunday for an hour from noon, and there are interactive exhibits inside on how to ring the bells. If you think that bell ringing is just about standing around pulling ropes, a visit here will change your perception.
On the other side of Riverside Drive from the square are the well-manicured Supreme Court Gardens and Stirling Gardens, Perth’s oldest gardens, a landscape classified by the National Trust and originally used in the 1830s to help cultivate plants from seeds. Both gardens surround Perth’s oldest building – the Supreme Court of Western Australia, dating from 1836. Today this houses the Old Court House Law Museum, one of the world’s only law museums, home to over 2,000 artefacts that document the legal history of WA dating back to colonial times.
Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA)
Housed in the Perth Cultural Centre, the 18,000+ works here – the first one purchased in 1895, including paintings, sculptures and indigenous works – are the state’s premier collection. The gallery is diverse, with art from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 20th-century Australian and British artists as well as those from the state. In late 2021, it launched ‘The View From Here’, the gallery’s largest-ever showcase of West Australian art, involving 230 artists and 361 works. The rooftop has also been converted as a part of this, framed by the Perth skyline, with an open-air sculpture walk.
WA Museum Boola Bardip
Originally established in 1891 at the old Perth gaol, the name of this museum means ‘many stories’ in the Noongar language – appropriate for an institution that views itself as a centre for the exchange and communication of WA’s stories. The connection between people and place is a special emphasis of this museum, and this permeates through all its exhibits, transforming the space from a dull display of objects into a vibrant showcase of Western Australia, its people, stories and land, in all entirety.
The museum is organised around three themes: ‘Being West Australian’, geared towards showcasing the state’s diversity; ‘Discovering Western Australia’, offering visitors a gateway to the wonders of the state; and ‘Exploring the World (Western Australia’s place in it)’, which aims to define the state and its contrasts and niche in the global community. Permanent exhibitions include ‘Reflections’, which explores perspectives of different West Australians that make the state what it is – from those descendent from millennia-old Aboriginal cultures to new migrants – while ‘Changes’ looks at how humans have changed the environment to suit their needs – from Aboriginal land management to contemporary financial uses like mining.
Just across the river from Kings Park and the CBD in South Perth, this 125-year-old zoo houses both local favourites like bilbies, black cockatoos, potoroos, tree kangaroos and gliders and far-away exotics like lions, lemurs and penguins. You can get to the zoo by ferry from the CBD – the entrance is 500m from the Mends St Jetty.
Known as ‘Subi’, this Perth suburb 5km west of the CBD is known for its upscale, hip bars and cafés, preserved architecture and stately homes. When the Perth to Fremantle railway was constructed in the 1880s, a station was built in Subiaco that ignited an economic boom and an influx of settlers, business and industry. Many of the houses built during that period survived and are still in use today – 791 buildings in Subiaco are Heritage-listed.
In particular, Subiaco houses are known for their leadlights – coloured, decorative and elaborate windows with glass separated by lead and metal bars. They are similar to stained glass, though leadlights are more associated with commercial enterprises and housing, and have a more simplistic design than the stained glass found in churches. Subiaco’s Leadlight Night – usually in December – has free walking tours where residents are encouraged to leave their hallway lights on, making their door and window leadlights highly visible to the public. Ask the visitor centre for details. The city also offers a self-guided Leadlight Tour on its website that starts and ends at the Subiaco Museum.
The Swan River
At 72km long and 21m at its deepest point at Mosman Bay, WA’s best-known river forms an integral part of the state’s identity and was the lifeblood of the colony’s original European settlements. It’s also a focal point of Perth’s outdoor activities, with miles of footpaths for walking, jogging and biking, and the waters teem with boaters, kayakers and swimmers. Swans on the Swan hires out everything from pedal boats and SUPs (A$55/hr) to kayaks (A$35/hr), but if you need some guidance then Water Wanderers offer kayak tours (from A$75pp) led by Leonie, who was long-term president of the Ascot Kayak Club and a veteran of kayaking expeditions in North America.
Located in the river between East Perth and Victoria Park and connected by a causeway is Heirisson Island, a nature reserve with a 2km walking trail, great birdwatching (look out for great egrets, ospreys and Australian ibis) and a kangaroo sanctuary. There is also a statue to Yagan, the Noongar leader during the Swan River Colony days.
Some 15km from the city centre is the epicentre of Perth’s beach culture, Cottesloe Beach, which has been a see-and-be-seen place for over a century. With both reefs and waves, it’s a great spot for surfers, snorkellers and beach cricketers, and the blue and green waters backed by the dense Norfolk pines behind make for a truly wonderful setting – though the beach was the site of one of WA’s most notorious shark attacks, when in 2000 local resident Ken Crew was killed by a Great White.
The star of the show here is the Cottesloe Beach Pavilion, sometimes called the Indiana after the Indiana Teahouse – originally constructed in the 1920s, it was demolished and replaced by another pavilion in 1983. This was deemed too small, however, and another new building (though designed to look traditional) was erected on the original foundations. Public interest in the teahouse remained muted until Taylor Swift visited in 2012 and shared on social media how much she loved the building. Now – partly due to publicity, and partly because it really is a lovely building in a popular spot – it is arguably Perth’s most recognisable building with its wide arches, semicircular windows recalling an image of the sun and green dome roof.
Theatre and arts
Theatre goers should try and catch a show at His Majesty’s Theatre. When it opened on Christmas Eve 1904, it was the largest theatre of its kind in Australia. Today, shows range from black comedies like Hell Hath No Fury to Neil Diamond tribute acts. Guided tours of the facility are also on offer; check the website for times and prices. There are numerous theatre companies in Perth, one of the most notable being the Black Swan State Theatre Company who put on many original performances at a range of venues.
Travel to Central Perth
Perth is very well connected to the rest of Australia and other countries – it’s just really far away.
Flights depart and arrive at Perth Airport, a major international and domestic gateway. It’s 12km east of the CBD; there are two terminal areas – T1/T2 and T3/T4 – and they are not within walking distance of each other (about a 15-min drive apart), so note which terminal your flights arrives at/departs from. A free transfer bus connects the two.
To get downtown, TransPerth bus route 380 connects Elizabeth Quay and T1/T2, while route 40 connects Elizabeth Quay and T3/T4. By car, it is best accessed from the Tonkin Highway. There are competitively priced short- and long-term car parks at both terminals; parking can be booked online.
From the eastern states, voyaging from Sydney to Perth (or vice-versa) on the Indian Pacific is considered to be one of Australia’s great train journeys: a four-day, three-night trip covering 4,300km.
Within WA, Transwa-operated trains connect Perth and Bunbury (2½hrs) on the Australind; Kalgoorlie (6hrs 50mins) by the Prospector; Merredin (3hrs 20mins) on the MerredinLink; and Northam (1hr 20mins) on the AvonLink. The Prospector and the MerredinLink depart from East Perth Terminal, the Australind, from Perth Station and the AvonLink, from Midland Station.
Ample coach options connect Perth to the rest of WA. From East Perth, Transwa connects to the southern part of the state, from Bunbury to Esperance up to Geraldton and Kalbarri, and points in between and through the Wheatbelt and parts of the Goldfields and Mid West. As its name suggests, South West Coach Lines specialises in the South West Region and offers direct and express services from major towns like Bunbury, Busselton, Dunsborough, Margaret River and Manjimup to Perth Airport and Elizabeth Quay Busport. Integrity focuses on the Mid West and the north of the state and offers a variety of routes, including hop-on, hop-off between Perth and up to as far north as Broome. Their terminus is Midland Train Station, but there is also a stop on Wellington Street, at the Perth Tourist Bus Stop.