Busy wharf in Fremantle, Melissa Krafchek

Although now linked to Perth by a sprawl of suburbs, Fremantle (‘Freo’ to the locals) has a feel that is quite different in both architecture and atmosphere. Today it is a major boat and fishing centre at the mouth of the Swan River, but it also has the streetscape of a 19th-century port. It is a place to stay, unwind and watch the world go by. You can shop at the famous Fremantle Markets, or rest at a cafe on South Terrace and wait for the arrival of 'the Fremantle Doctor', the refreshing afternoon wind that blows in off the Indian Ocean.

European settlers arrived at Fremantle in 1829. The settlement developed gradually, its existence dependent on whaling and fishing. The population was boosted with the arrival in 1850 of British convicts, who constructed the forbidding Fremantle Prison (now open to the public) and the imposing lunatic asylum, now the Fremantle Arts Centre. Many heritage houses and terraces with cast-iron balconies from this period have survived.

Fremantle was at the centre of the world stage in 1987 when it hosted the America’s Cup series of yacht races, following the win by Australia II – a Fremantle yacht – in 1983. Preparations for this huge event included the restoration of many old buildings in Fremantle, and the boost to its tourist economy has lasted to the present day.

Shipwreck Galleries

Part of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, the galleries are one of three sites showcasing Western Australia’s maritime history. The state’s treacherous coastline has doomed many ships to a watery grave. The Shipwreck Galleries, housed in the restored convict-built Commissariat building, document this chapter of maritime history. The most popular exhibit is the stern of the Batavia, wrecked in 1629, which has been reconstructed from recovered timbers. Cliff St;; open 9.30–5pm Thurs–Tues; admission by donation.

Grand old buildings

Fremantle has a compact cluster of lovely old buildings, beginning with the Georgian-style Elder Building at 11 Cliff Street. Made of brick and Donnybrook stone, it was once the hub of Fremantle's overseas trade. At 3135 Cliff Street, the Lionel Samson Building’s rich facade epitomises the opulent style of gold-rush architecture. The Esplanade Hotel, on the corner of Marine Terrace and Essex Street, dates from the 1890s and its newer extension blends in seamlessly with the original facade. Now the Challenger TAFE e-Tech, the Fremantle Technical College displays Art Nouveau decorative touches and boasts Donnybrook stone facings and plinth. It's on the corner of South Terrace and Essex Street. On the corner of Ellen and Ord streets, the grand old Samson House dates from 1900 and was originally built for Michael Samson, who later became mayor of Fremantle. Finally, there's the stone bell-tower and large stained-glass window of St John's Anglican Church, on the corner of Adelaide and Queen streets, and Henderson Street's Warders' Quarters, a row of convict-built cottages built in 1851, and until recently used to house warders from Fremantle Prison. (See also the Round House and Fremantle Prison, on this page.)

Fremantle Markets

One of the city's most popular attractions are these National Trust-classified markets, with their ornate gold-rush era architecture, which were opened in 1897. They offer a diversity of stalls: fresh produce, food, books, clothes, bric-a-brac, pottery and crafts. There is also a great tavern bar where buskers often perform. Cnr South Tce and Henderson St; (08) 9335 2515; open 9am–8pm Fri, 9am–6pm Sat–Sun.

Round House

Its name a misnomer, the Round House is actually a dodecahedron, with its 12 sides erected around a central yard. Built in 1831 by the first settlers as a prison, it is the oldest public building in the state. At 1pm each day, the Round House’s signal station fires a cannon – the time gun – and this activates a time ball (an instrument once used to give accurate time readings to vessels out at sea). The Whalers’ Tunnel underneath the Round House was cut by a whaling company in 1837 for access to Bathers Bay. 10 Arthur Head; (08) 9336 6897; open 10.30am–3.30pm daily; admission by gold coin donation.

Western Australian Maritime Museum

This stunning, nautically inspired building perched on the waterfront has six galleries, each of which explores a different theme in the state’s maritime history. Highlights of the collection of historic and significant boats include the yacht that won the America’s Cup – Australia II – and the Parry Endeavour, in which Western Australian Jon Sanders circumnavigated the world three times. Outside the museum are the Welcome Walls, a series of engraved panels that list the names of thousands of migrants who arrived in Western Australia through the port of Fremantle, while next door to the museum is another of its prize exhibits, the submarine HMAS Ovens, which was in service during World War II. Take the tour to see what conditions are like inside a real submarine. Victoria Quay; (08) 9431 8334; open 9.30am–5pm Thurs–Tues.

Leeuwin Ocean Adventure

The Leeuwin II – a 55-metre, three-masted barquentine – is rated as the largest ocean-going tall ship in Australia. It is available for half-day or twilight sails and for longer voyages along the coast of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. When in Fremantle, it is open to the public. B Berth, Victoria Quay; (08) 9430 4105.

Fremantle Prison

The first convicts arrived in Fremantle in 1850. Built with their own hands, this complex of buildings was initially used as a barracks and became a prison in 1867. Huge, forbidding and full of history, it was in use until 1991. Now visitors can experience the atmosphere on a guided tour, running every half-hour and taking in the isolation chamber and the gallows. The entrance can be reached via steps and a walkway around Fremantle Oval from Parry Street. 1 The Terrace; (08) 9336 9200; open 10am–5pm daily; Tunnels Tours daily and Torchlight Tours Wed and Fri (bookings essential).

Fremantle Arts Centre

This magnificent limestone building, with its steeply pitched roofs and Gothic arches, was also built by convicts. The colony’s first lunatic asylum, it is now home to an informative display on the history of Fremantle, contemporary art exhibitions, an excellent cafe, a craft shop with a range of wares made by Western Australian artists, a ghost walk and a garden. 1 Finnerty St; (08) 9432 9555; open 10am–5pm daily; admission free.

Fishing Boat Harbour

This popular restaurant strip for locals and tourists alike overlooks the boats of the local fishermen. Enjoy West Australian seafood at restaurants like Kailis Fish Market Cafe and Cicerello’s. On the footpath in front of Cicerello’s is a statue of AC/DC’s Bon Scott, unveiled in October 2008. Across the railway line is the Esplanade Reserve, an ideal spot to relax under the giant Norfolk Pines.