Princes Bridge is one of the most important 19th-century bridges in Australia, and one of the city's best-known landmarks. Its location was established at the major crossing point of the Yarra River at the city's foundation.
Before construction of the first timber bridge across the Yarra in 1845, punts transported people and animals from bank to bank. In 1850 the timber bridge was replaced by a grand single-arched stone bridge, itself replaced by the present structure. The design by architects Grainger & Jenkins was chosen by competition in 1879, and the bridge was built by the prolific builders David Munro & Co. Opened on 4 October 1888, the construction involved doubling the width of the river for flood-mitigation purposes, and an impressive gateway into the city from the south was created. It is notable as one of the major projects of civic embellishment undertaken in the land boom years of the 1880s.
As the major access point into the city from the populous south-eastern suburbs, including for numerous tram lines, Princes Bridge has been an important traffic artery for well over a century. It also forms part of the major civic axis of Swanston Street, and has featured temporary arches and decorations during many important ceremonial and civic events, including the 1867 royal visit of the Duke of Edinburgh, the 1901 Commonwealth celebrations, the 1984 Victorian sesquicentenary, and the centenary of Federation in 2001.
Considered a major historic structure in Melbourne, it has featured prominently in many paintings, photographs and postcard views of Melbourne, including Ludwig Becker's Old Prince's Bridge and St Paul's by moonlight (1857), Henry Burn's Swanston Street from Princes Bridge (1861) and Frederick McCubbin's Princes Bridge (1908). Nineteenth-century illustrated newspapers regularly featured the bridge as a backdrop to the events of the day: Easter Monday river carnivals, rowing regattas, citizens returning home over the bridge at day's end, or the Yarra River in flood. Diving, swimming and lifesaving displays were popular at the bridge from the 1920s, and from the 1950s Moomba Festival events would use the bridge as stage and stand. The landing below the bridge was the starting point for popular interwar river cruises and excursion services to the Hawthorn Tea Gardens, Dights Falls, Williamstown and the Maribyrnong River.
Important architectural elements include the design of the piers as giant half columns, and the extensive use of wrought and cast iron in the structure and decorative elements (the cast-iron lamps were added in the 1920s). The main design features are similar to those of Blackfriars Bridge in London (1870). The Princes Walk Vaults connecting Batman Avenue to Swanston Street were added in 1890.