**Abstract** : This paper investigates the three-dimensional temporal instabilities and the transient growth of perturbations on a Von Kármán vortex street, issuing from the development of the primary instability of a parallel Bickley velocity profile typical of a wake forming behind a thin flat plate. By solving iteratively the linearized direct Navier Stokes equations and its adjoint equations, we compute the optimal perturbations that exhibit the largest transient growth of energy between the initial instant and different time horizons. At short time horizons, optimal initial perturbations are concentrated on the points of maximal strain of the base flow. The optimal gain of energy and the mechanism of instability are well predicted by local theories that describe the lagrangian evolution of a perturbation wave packet. At time of order unity, hyperbolic region leads the dynamics. Only at large time (t ? 20), the growth is led by the most amplified eigenmode. This eigenmode evolves, when the wavenumber increases, from perturbation centred in the core of the vortices, to perturbations localised on the stretching manifold of the hyperbolic points. At finite and large time, the gain in energy is initially associated with a mechanism reminiscent to the anti lift-up mechanism described by Antkowiak and Brancher [J. Fluid Mech. 578, 295 (2007)] in the context of an axisymmetric vortex. Presently, the optimal initial condition (the adjoint modes at large time) corresponding to streamwise streaks localised on the contracting manifold of the hyperbolic point induces streamwise vortices aligned with the stretching manifold of the hyperbolic point (the direct modes). The localisation on distinct manifolds of direct and adjoint eigenmodes is more pronounced when the Reynolds number is increased. An interpretation is proposed based on a balance between diffusion and stretching effects that predicts the thickness of the energy containing region for the adjoint and the direct mode decreasing as 1/?Re. The extra gain of energy due to non normal effects grows, since direct and adjoint modes are localised in different regions of space, i.e., the stretching and contracting manifold, a novel effect of the so called convective non normality associated with the transport of the perturbation by the base flow. © 2011 American Institute of Physics.