As one of the most exciting cities in the Caribbean, Willemstad – Curacao’s charming colonial capital – allows visitors to experience everything from historic architecture and museums to world-class dining and shopping. Willemstad is divided by a central canal into two districts, Punda and Otrabanda. Generally speaking, Punda is of greater interest to travelers as the most interesting historic sites and shopping areas rest on this side of the capital. For instance, if you want to see the pastel-colored colonial homes that Curacao is famous for, the Punda section is certainly the best place to spend your time. On the other hand, Otrabanda – meaning “other side” – is known as the contemporary half of the city and home to some exciting new developments. Regardless of where you spend your time in Willemstad, you will find plenty of sites and activities capable of exciting any traveler.
One of the best ways to explore Curacao’s capital is by trolley. Each day these open-sided cars embark on a 75-minute tour of the city, passing by all of the most fascinating historical sites. Groups meet at Fort Amsterdam within sight of the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, one of the island’s most significant technological advancements. After touring the Willemstad by trolley car, tourists can walk across this pedestrian bridge that connects the Punda and Otrabanda sections of the city. As the walkway rests atop the city’s busiest canal, the bridge was equipped with a diesel engine and designed to swing open several times a day, allowing cruise ships and commercial fleets to enter the bustling harbor.
As Willemstad is a city rooted in rich colonial history and cultural traditions, local museums offer some of the island’s most captivating sites. One of the most interesting collections can be found at the Museum Kura Hulanda, one of the largest museums in the Caribbean. Showcasing the life’s work of Dr. Jacob Gelt Dekker, the restored colonial warehouses of Kura Hulanda are full of African artifacts and oddities. As African culture has played an important role in the postcolonial development of the Caribbean, several exhibits are devoted to this historical relationship. The most impressive example of this history is a full-scale reproduction of a colonial slave ship, modeled directly after a vessel that sailed from Ivory Coast to the Caribbean and the Americas. Located in Otrabanda, this fascinating museum is open everyday from 10 am to 5 pm and offers a unique, informative experience for the whole family.
Another good site to learn about the history of Curacao and the Caribbean is the Maritime Museum. Located in the picturesque neighborhood of Scharloo, the Maritime Museum details the history of the island from the arrival of the first inhabitants around 600 B.C. to the present. With the assistance of 40 permanent exhibits, visitors are able to chronologically trace the economic and cultural development of Curacao. Alongside the antiques, artifacts and historical maps, guests can also view a number of video presentations featuring oral histories offered by some of the island’s most colorful personalities.
Near the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, you can find the charming Curacao Museum. Housed in a 19th century military hospital that was painstakingly restored in the mid-20th century, this small museum is now home to historic paintings, sculptures and furniture crafted over several hundred years by local and Dutch artisans. The outdoor pavilion is also a popular destination as many performances featuring local and traveling musicians take place throughout the year.
This bustling neighborhood near Fort Amsterdam and the pontoon bridge also marks the entrance to the city’s best shopping district. As you walk through the Punda district and approach the harbor, you will uncover one of the most exciting stretches of shopping at the Waterfront Aches. This special ¼-mile strip is hard to miss as it is marked by historic 30 foot-tall stone arches and cobblestone walkways. Beneath the arches, you will find numerous specialty boutiques and restaurants, with options for every taste and budget. This waterfront district also offers great evening activities, as many businesses remain open late and the narrow streets are elegantly illuminated each night.
Near the central waterfront shopping area, you can also visit one of Curacao’s great shopping traditions. Each day, small boats line the city’s central canal and sell their products directly from their vessels at the Floating Market. As many of the boats arrive from Venezuela, Columbia and other Caribbean islands, the vendors not only offer the freshest produce and seafood imaginable, but also sell art, handicrafts and other unique products from throughout the region. The Floating Market typically opens at 6 am each day and new boats arrive throughout the afternoon, guaranteeing shoppers a distinctive experience whenever they visit.
When you visit Curacao, make sure to spend some time in the island’s captivating colonial capital. Regardless of what areas in Willemstad you visit, your family will be treated to sites and activities that are historic, cosmopolitan and always exciting.