Shrill bird calls pierce the air above a dark, perfectly still pool covered in a layer of bright green moss. It looks so much like the Everglades, I half expect an alligator to glide by, but I’m not in Florida.
I’m in the middle of Perth on a cycling tour with GoGo Active Tours, and as we follow the glittering Swan River past acres of sprawling parklands towards the Matagarup Bridge, my guide, Matt, explains that the entire valley was once full of similar lakes that were central to the Whadjuk traditional owners’ way of life.
On the opposite side of the river, I can see towers of glass and steel rising high above the water and though the lakes beneath them are now hidden, this is still a city where multiple layers of history coexist regularly. So it’s fitting that the newest (and most impressive) cultural institution in town is called Boola Bardip, which means “many stories” in Whadjuk Noongar language.
The Western Australian Museum started life as a geological collection and there’s a spectacular hoard of precious stones and meteorites on display, but over the years it has expanded to become so much more than that. The most recent development is housed in a sleek contemporary design that wraps around five heritage buildings, and inside, the curators have woven multiple perspectives together just as skilfully.
The Origins gallery explores modern scientific and ancient First Nations interpretations of how the universe was created, while the Changes gallery examines the human impact on our environment, juxtaposing traditional land management practices with starkly beautiful photos of massive, open-cut mines across the state.
But one of the simplest exhibits in the entire museum is among the most striking; a delicate collection of cone shell beads that was threaded into a necklace 32,000 years ago is among the oldest pieces of jewelry found anywhere in the world.
FREMANTLE (DON’T CALL IT PERTH)
Boola Bardip contains thousands of stories from all over Western Australia but I only need to travel half an hour for a complete change of scenery. Lying at the head of the Swan River, bohemian Fremantle feels like another city entirely.
Fremantle Tours founder Michael Deller confirms that impression as he leads me through the maze of side streets in the port town, telling me proudly: “Freo has its own distinct identity… I would never say I’m from Perth.” You won’t find a Big Mac or Whopper anywhere in fiercely independent Freo. Instead, the “Cappuccino Strip” at the center of the action is lined with independent cafes and restaurants, and though it’s the first stop for many visitors, Deller sees it as “the trunk of our tree; we need it to keep us alive, but it’s not the best bit – you want to get out to the leaves and the flowers down the branches”.
Years of gentrification have transformed the area from a seamy port to a chic neighborhood and in between art galleries, independent bookshops, and tattoo parlors that have served both sailors and hipsters over the years, Deller points out the more obvious signs of that evolution. Within a few blocks, we spot a former bait shop that’s been turned into a cafe, a bustling bar in an old wetsuit factory, and a sardine-packing facility that has been converted into apartments, but the changes have been done respectfully and there’s still a pleasantly raffish air to even the most bougie spots.
By the time the tour ends at Nieuw Ruin, a buzzy wine bar and restaurant in a 150-year-old cottage, I’ve worked up quite an appetite. Fortunately, the walls are lined with hundreds of boutique natural wine bottles on shelves of reclaimed jarrah, and the seafood-heavy menu is as far-reaching.
I start with lightly pickled garfish rollmops that are far more approachable than their Scandinavian cousins, before trying the Scott Reef monkfish “under a fur coat”. The dish is as memorable as the name, a miniature artwork containing bright layers of dill-infused carrot, salted monkfish, beetroot, and potato salad crowned with salted roe that makes every bite a satisfying combination of flavors.
SUBIACO: A SUBURB REBORN
For AFL fans of a certain vintage, the name Subiaco is synonymous with the West Coast Eagles. But with the stadium an increasingly distant memory, the hottest ticket in this teeming inner-city suburb now is a seat at the Regal Theatre, an art deco palace that regularly hosts comedy, musicals, and concerts.
I’m too late for tonight’s sold-out show, but a few minutes away I find a spot every bit as enticing. Hidden from the street by lace curtains, eatery Lulu La Delizia draws inspiration from the retro stylings of the beloved nonna after whom it’s named, and the tables are adorned with candles in wax-covered wicker baskets.
A soundtrack of 1950s rock and roll confirms that this is a place where the good times are always rolling, and the waiter tells me with a grin that cutlery is optional as he drops off starters that set the scene for exquisite pasta dishes made in-house daily. Thick strips of squid ink bigoli come topped with succulent tiger prawns and an aromatic cherry tomato and basil sugo, while loops of saffron-scented gramigna with pork sausage, fennel seed, and sage are as hearty and juicy as the best northern Italian fare.
By the time my meal is over, there’s been a change of shifts on the streets of Subi, and the dinner set has given way to a more celebratory crowd. Splitting the difference between the two, I decide a nightcap is in order and head to the gold and marble-clad rooftop bar at the Vibe Hotel Subiaco.
With a drink in hand, I gaze over the glittering city spread out below me, from skyscrapers soaring above the city center to leafy suburbs stretching towards the Indian Ocean and offbeat Freo marching to its own tune in the distance. And I know that everywhere I look, there are plenty more stories just waiting to be discovered.
All of Subiaco’s greatest hits are within easy walking distance of Vibe Hotel Subiaco, the friendly suburb’s only full-service hotel. Opened in late 2020, the 12-story property boasts spacious rooms and a rooftop pool and bar that look out over the Indian Ocean. Rooms are from $188.
If you’re not driving, the easiest way to get between Perth’s spread-out suburbs is by train – stations are conveniently located within a few hundred meters of Boola Bardip, Freo’s cappuccino strip, and Vibe Hotel Subiaco.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Western Australia. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com