abandoned colonial mansions in Curaçao
Caribbean, Curaçao

The Best Things to do in Willemstad • Exploring the capital of Curaçao

Willemstad is a wonderful place, pals. This gem of a city is charming, artistic, colourful, and quite frankly captivating, with some of the prettiest neighbourhoods I’ve yet to wander through in the Caribbean islands; the first day that I docked here I was instantly enamoured with its historic streets and friendly atmosphere. There are so many things to do in Willemstad, and places to visit- in fact it’s basically a giant open-air art gallery- that it’s still one of my favourite Caribbean cities.

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Things to do in Willemstad: table of contents

A very brief history of Curaçao and Willemstad

Bon bini! That’s welcome in Papamientu, pals!

When the Spanish first arrived on the island of Curaçao, which is only 40 miles north of the coast of Venezuela, they got to work pretty quickly enslaving the native islanders and sending most of them off to Hispaniola- the island which is now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Try as they might though, the Spanish never seemed to quite get to grips with the island- the climate here is very dry, so not good for sugar cane or tobacco farming like elsewhere in the Caribbean- and there wasn’t much in the way of precious metals to be found either. Curaçao became known as a ‘useless island, ‘and it was mainly used as a very large cattle ranch until the Dutch arrived on the scene in the 1600s.

The Dutch West India Company moved in after essentially winning the island in a war, and founded the city of Willemstad on the site of Sint Anna Bay, a natural harbour. Pretty soon Willemstad was a busy trading port, exporting salt from the island, but also playing a pivotal part in the Atlantic slave trade. And we all know, the slave trade was Big Business. People were shipped across from Africa to Curaçao, where they were sold to colonists in neighbouring Caribbean islands, and before you know it the streets of Willemstad were practically paved with gold. Fancy Dutch colonial architecture sprang up all over the place, with Portuguese, Caribbean, and Jewish influences (there were large numbers of Jewish immigrants to the island over the years), and this architecture has put the city on the map as a UNESCO World Heritage location.

The buildings here are seriously beautiful, guys, in a distinctly Euro-Caribbean fashion. In fact, part of the city almost looks like a flamboyant version of Amsterdam.

This melting-pot of nationalities also had a big old influence on the language, and Papiamentu- which is a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, several African languages and Amerindian- is still an official language of both Curaçao and the neighbouring island of Aruba.

Life in Willemstad- and Curaçao- rolled on through slave revolts, attacks and occupations by the British and the Venezuelans, at long last the abolition of slavery, and then the discovery of oil in Venezuela- which Curaçao hugely benefitted from thanks to its port at Willemstad and its brand spanking new oil refinery. Although, things did go quite swiftly downhill (financially speaking) when the refinery closed in the 1980s.

In the ’50s the island joined with other Dutch colonies to form the Netherlands Antilles, although by 2010 the Netherlands Antilles had been dissolved, and Curaçao is now a fully autonomous nation which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with Willemstad as the nation’s capital.

Which basically means, they do what they want to. Not what the Netherlands wants them to. Good on you, Curaçao.

Where to stay in Willemstad

  • Avila Beach Hotel for an absolutely iconic stay in a boutique hotel just a ten minute walk from the centre of town. The Avila Beach has its own private beach, a pool, and several restaurants on site- including the Blues Restaurant which has live music. Bonus points for the Avila Beach for the fact that the King of the Netherlands has stayed here.
  • The Renaissance Wind Creek Resort is a luxurious resort which is extremely popular for groups and families- particularly the American crowd, they bloomin’ love this place. They have a great beach club and the hotel is located right next to the Rif Fortress and the cruise pier.
  • The BOHO Bohemian Boutique Hotel is a small hotel in a stunning old colonial house in Pietermaii. I cannot stress enough how beautifully decorated this hotel is, and most rooms have a balcony (plus one with a hot tub.) This is perfect for the more independent travellers.
  • The nearby, equally tastfully decorated, Pietermaii Boutique Hotel is incredibly popular and has a mixture of small apartments and bedrooms; plus a pool set in a pretty garden courtyard.
  • And if you’re travelling to Curaçao on a budget, check out the First Curaçao Hostel, which is located in a renovated ice cream factory and has plenty of dorm rooms and a pool.

The best things to do in Willemstad: by neighbourhood

One of my favourite things to do in Willemstad- because I seem to have made wandering around and photographing places an integral part of my actual identity- is simply to explore each of the colourful neighbourhoods of the city. There are four main districts: Punda, Otrabanda, Sharloo and Pietermaii, and each one is just as captivating as the next. The city is compact, so it’s very easy to walk from one neighbourhood to the next (although you’d be forgiven for needing to sit down and have a few refreshment pit-stops from time to time. It is hot here.)

In an attempt to make this guide easier to follow, and better to plan from, I’ll divide my list of things to do in Willemstad up by neighbourhood. ‘Cause I’m nice like that.

Things to do in Willemstad: Punda

Punda is the historical centre of Willemstad, and therefore not just the oldest part but also the busiest, with shops and markets on every corner. Founded as a walled city in 1634, this was once the hub of the Atlantic slave trade, and while those days are long gone, the colonial architecture still stands tall along Punda’s mostly pedestrianised streets.

Cross the Queen Emma Bridge

The Queen Emma Bridge could technically also be included in the Otrobanda section of things to do in Willemstad, as it actually connects Punda, to the Otrobanda neighbourhood on the other side of the bay.

This bridge floats on actual pontoons, and it can open to allow ships to pass. My favourite time of day to walk along this bobbing-on-the-water construction is dusk or early evening, when the neon lights flicker on. Just a word of caution- if you hear a bell ringing, it means the bridge is about to open- so careful you don’t get stuck on the wrong side of the bay, or worse, on the actual bridge itself.

Affectionately known as the ‘Swinging Old Lady,’ from 1901 until the 1930s pedestrians had to pay a toll to cross; unless they weren’t wearing any shoes, in which case it was completely free of charge.

Check out Handelskade

If you’ve seen photos of Willemstad, chances are that those photos have included a picture or two of Handelskade: the brilliantly coloured row of colonial buildings along the waterfront on the edge of the Punda district.

This 18th century row is reminiscent of those buildings lining the canals of Amsterdam; just with a distinctly Caribbean twist, which is actually thanks to the headaches of a Dutch governor. When they were first constructed, these houses and warehouses were a brilliant white colour, which reflected the sun’s rays in a piercing glare. The governor blamed this glare for his headaches, and ordered that they be painted to reduce the glare.

(Also, there’s a table cloth shop here, which sells only table cloths and nothing else. Call me crazy but I really appreciated that.)

Appreciate the carillon clock

Maybe I’m easily pleased, but since my first encounter with a carillon clock (in Dresden, Germany), I love being around to hear the glockenspiel bells chiming if there’s a carillon clock in the area. The 23 bells of this carillon are mounted on a yellow wall in the heart of Punda, near the corner of a small square called Gomez Plein. The clock chimes every half hour, and beneath the bells is a doorway from which little wooden characters appear with the chiming. (Although I believe the characters only appear on the hour, FYI.)

If you don’t just happen to be around at the time of the bells playing their tunes, the best thing to do is grab a table at one of the bars or restaurants on Gomez Plein. (The Boho6 Terrace Cafe is normally a good shout.) Hang about here, drink in hand, and it won’t be long before the bellsong begins.

View the street art

There is brilliant street art to be found on almost every corner of the narrow lanes and alleyways of Punda; in fact, there’s so many beautiful murals that every time I visit I stumbled across something I hadn’t seen before. (And occasionally, an artist in the process of creating something new.)

Don’t just stick to the pedestrianised streets. Even around government buildings like Fort Amsterdam (the beautiful yellow and white fortress built in the 17th century at the mouth of the bay), there are stunning works of art splashed across outside walls.

Shop till you drop

Punda is a great area for shopping, with a mixture of well-known brands like Aldo, Tommy Hilfiger and Athlete’s Foot, as well as boutiques, art shops and souvenir shops.

Although there are plenty of cheap and cheerful souvenirs to be found in the streets of Punda, I always love to seek out locally-made products or pictures, and one of my favourite places to go for gifts in Willemstad is Lokale Handcraft and Art Gallery.

Have a browse at the floating market

The floating market in Willemstad is more of a market-which-arrives-by-boat, but it’s still very much worth a visit if you’re in the city during the early morning. The market runs between 6.30am and noon every day, and sells mostly fresh fruit and vegetables. (A very tropical lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, many of which I’d never seen before.)

The intriguing thing about this market, however, is that the vendors sail over from Venezuela each morning to sell their produce to the residents of Willemstad, before sailing back when they’re done. That’s how close the island is to South America.

Or a browse at Marshe Nobo, the round market

That’s right, Marshe Nobo is a big old round covered market right in the centre of Punda. It’s frequented as much by locals as tourists, and it’s a great spot to get a taste of Curaçao street food as well as pick up a souvenir or two to take home with you.

Wondering about what souvenirs are best to bring back from Willemstad? Blue Curaçao liqueur is the obvious choice, but handicrafts made by local artists (of which there are many) are another good idea.

Go swimming at the Marichi Pier

Our ship had been docking regularly at Curaçao cruise port for several months before my Trinidadian friend showed me the beach in Willemstad; up until then I’d presumed the closest beach to the cruise port was a taxi ride away.

The Marichi Pier juts out from a little beach right next to Queen Willhelmina Park, and despite its central location this generally tends to be a quieter spot where locals and families go for a dip; the first time we visited, there was a family group right next to us having a birthday party for their daughter, cake and balloons and all.

Although there are several beaches in Curaçao, these are generally resort-style, and you have to pay to enter. For a quick swim in the city, Marichi might not be glamorous, but it is free to visit.

Eating and drinking in Punda

  • Iguana Cafe, overlooking the bay and very popular with tourists. Perfect for watching ships sail in and out of the city, this place has a daily happy hour, a big selection of cocktails, and some classics on the menu.
  • Boho6. Sit outside on the terrace for lively vibes, whether for coffee, cocktails, breakfast, lunch or dinner.
  • Cascada Rooftop Bar and Kitchen, for a rooftop bar with 360º views of Willemstad this is a great choice. Either book lounge seating for drinks and nibbles, or a restaurant table for dinner; choose from a great selection of Caribbean-style tapas plates and stick around for the music and infinity pool.
  • The City Curaçao is just a little further along the waterfront than Iguana Cafe, and while the view is the same, the vibe is slightly sexier. The cocktails are beautifully presented, and personally I just love to order some finger food from their menu to accompany the drinks. Bitterballen, frikandel, and funchi fries are all absolute treats.

Things to do in Willemstad: Pietermaii

Next up came Pietermaii, just outside where the original city walls stood. This is probably my favourite area of the city, with brightly painted villas lining the streets, and a quieter atmosphere than nearby Punda. (Although things do become a little more lively at night when the jazz bars and cocktail clubs open up.) Around the 1970s Pietermaii was in a state of massive decline and was a dangerous place to be, but with an extensive urban renewal plan this was turned around and the area is now one of the trendiest spots in town.

Marvel at the neoclassical villas

The villas of Pietermaii are absolutely stunning- even the villas which are still in a bit of a state of disrepair, hurricane-battered and crumbling down. Balconies, pillars and shuttered windows are all characteristics of the architecture of this area, and mostly I enjoy wandering up and down and imagining which one I’d choose to live in if I could.

Chill out at one of Willemstad’s beach clubs

The city beach at Marichi is a no-frills option for a dip in the sea, but there is a far classier way to have a beach day in Willemstad.

The Avila Beach Hotel is an iconic boutique hotel in the Pietermaii district, and it’s well-known for being the hotel of choice for the King of the Netherlands when he visits the island. The hotel has two private sandy beaches, and even if you’re not staying at the glamorous Avila, it is possible to book a day pass to use the hotels facilities and access the beach.

If you’re more of a pool person, the St Tropez Ocean Club is another great spot for a more luxurious day of relaxation. The infinity pool and stylish lounge area overlook the sea (although there’s no access to the actual ocean, FYI), the club is a popular evening hangout too, with a bar and music.

Eat, drink and be merry

Pietermaii has a reputation these days of being the ‘SoHo of Curaçao,’ so whilst Punda is the place to sightsee, this neighbourhood is more about simply living your best life. So to speak. Head down to the fairy lights of Nieuwestraat (or the surrounding streets) in the early evening and find yourself a table at one Pietermaii’s trendy restaurants, then stick around afterwards for all the cocktails and music.

Eating and drinking in Pietermaii

  • Van Gogh Speciality City Roastery. This place is beautiful; you can’t miss the eye-catching blue building with its verandah, and the decor inside is exceedingly pretty as well. Service can be a little slow but the coffee is delicious and I love the atmosphere.
  • Ginger is a cozy but very hip fusion eatery which serves up Asian and Indian dishes with a Caribbean twist.
  • Mundo Bizarro is a beautiful Cuban-style restaurant and bar which has weekly live music.
  • Mi Familia. A great Italian restaurant in the heart of Pietermaii, for all your pizza and pasta cravings.
  • The Pink Unicorn at Broers Station is technically a food truck, with some outdoor seating available, and it is one popular spot. (Also its painted in suitably flamboyant bright pink and turquoise which I just love.) It serves Southern American soul food: mac & cheese, cornbread, fried chicken and collard greens to name but a few.

Things to do in Willemstad: Otrobanda

Over on the opposite side of Sint Anna Bay is Otrobanda, which literally means ‘the other side.’ This area grew massively as the population of Punda and Pietermaii began to spill over, although once upon a time Otrobanda was known as the Spanish side of the city, with the other side being Dutch. If you’re arriving by cruise ship in Curaçao, you’ll dock at one of two ports in Otrobanda, and the whole area is a big old mix of commercial and residential. I love wandering through the quiet residential lanes of Otrobanda; the paintbox-coloured houses remind me of Burano in Italy.

Explore Otrobanda on foot

Otrobanda is another area which began to decline after its colonial beginnings, and like Pietermaii it was brought back to life when residents began to turn things around with a huge regeneration project. Colourful murals are daubed onto street corners a-plenty, along with stunning sculptures which sit quietly on residential streets.

It’s a really, really pretty place, and for me the beating heart of Willemstad. The main shopping street is filled with locals, and the quiet backstreets are lined with homes from where the sound of children playing, dogs barking and birds twittering drift outwards.

Visit the Kura Hulanda Museum

The Kura Hulanda Museum is dedicated to the story of the Atlantic slave trade, in which Willemstad was a key player. Back in the day, Africans were brought almost to this exact spot to be sold to people across the Caribbean and North America, and the Kura Hulanda Museum is largely considered to be one of the best museums in the Caribbean dedicated to their story.

Mix history with retail therapy at Rif Fort

Rif Fort was built in 1829 to protect Willemstad from vicious pirates who might be sailing through, and the coral stone walls were kitted out with canons to help with the defence. You might presume that this means that Rif Fort is just a place of interest for history buffs, but the fortress now contains an open-air mall and entertainment complex.

There are boutiques and gift shops here, as well as plenty of bars and restaurants, all within the protective walls of the fortress, which visitors a free to wander up and down as well. The majority of cruise passengers will need to walk through Rif Fort to get from the cruise ship to the centre of Willemstad, so the location couldn’t be more convenient.

If you carry on through Rif Fort and out the other side, you’ll reach the Renaissance Wind Creek Resort. Although the resort hotel is the main event, there’s also lots of upmarket shopping and designer boutiques to be found here, as well as a Starbucks, a cinema and a casino. This new and very modern development is very Americanised and completely separate from the cultural experience you’ll get in the rest of the city, but I enjoyed wandering through here every now and again to have a browse of the shops and use some wifi.

Go kayaking in the Mangrove Park

There’s more to this area than shopping and colourful buildings; directly opposite the Mega Pier cruise terminal (it’s literally two minutes walk away) is the Rif Mangrove Park. Mangroves are hugely important to the island of Curaçao, as they don’t just harbour many species of wildlife, but they also form a protective barrier against flooding from the sea.

This protected area has wooden walkways built through it for visitors to explore with their own two legs, but a more adventurous method of exploration is via kayak. You can book your visit and check opening hours for Rif Mangrove Park here.

Eating and drinking in Otrobanda

  • Bario Urban Street Food. I love the concept of Bario; the outdoor dining area has several windows serving different street food, craft cocktails and drinks. Choose from Piskechi for fish, Bario Skina for street food, Vegan Caribbean Flavours for- well, vegan Caribbean flavours, and Tenta Boka for dessert. All in casual but creative surroundings, with an artistic atmosphere.
  • Lionfish Caribbean is another intriguing concept for a restaurant, and this one is only open for lunchtimes. The lionfish is a highly invasive species which isn’t native to the Caribbean, but is very quickly taking over; conservationists are urging people to eat more lionfish as a way to help control the population and protect the marine life here. (Read more about that in this handy article.) This restaurant has a beaut menu of lionfish dishes (try the tacos), and also does a great job of educating visitors about lionfish, the reefs surrounding Curaçao, and the importance of sustainable fishing.
  • Restaurant and Cafe De Gouvenour is in a gorgeous old colonial building overlooking the bay, and its second floor verandah always seems to be busy so book early. This is a great spot for a special meal, and the kitchen serves both local and international dishes which are consistently highly-rated.
  • The Pancake Sensation. Honestly the Pancake sensation became a go-to for me partly because of the freshly squeezed orange juice and the fact that it was so close to the cruise pier (freshly squeezed orange juice is shockingly hard to come by in the Caribbean), but the pancakes (and poffertjes and waffles) truly are great, and the combination of ingredients available is seemingly infinite.
  • Dutch Treat is a great stop at night time, for a quick Dutch-style fast food experience. (There’s also a Dutch treat in Pietermaii.)
a man walking past a turquoise building

Things to do in Willemstad: Scharloo

Finally the Scharloo neighbourhood began life as a plantation of the Dutch West India Company, and although a few houses were built here it didn’t really start to develop until the mid 1800s. There was a sizeable Jewish population in Willemstad, and wealthy Jewish merchants began to build some seriously fancy villas on the streets of Scharloo; even more people moved here after a hurricane destroyed part of Pietermaii in 1877, and very quickly Scharloo became known as the wealthiest part of Willemstad. These days a lot of the villas are used as government office buildings or museums, but there’s also art galleries galore and many more murals to be spotted on your wanders.

Visit the Maritime Museum

It goes without saying that Curaçao has a strong maritime tradition- pirate ships, slave ships and cruise ships have all docked on these shores. So if you fancy a peek at Willemstad’s maritime past, the Maritime Museum is just across a bridge from the Punda district, so super-easy to reach.

Things to do in Willemstad: Mambo Beach

Willemstad is a big city compared to the other ABC islands capitals, (Kralendijk, Bonaire and Oranjestad, Aruba), and although the centre is very navigable on foot, the Mambo Beach area right on the outskirts is a popular spot which you’ll need a bus ride or taxi to reach.

Chill (or party) at Mambo Beach

Some of my pals love Mambo Beach- in fact almost all of them love Mambo Beach. It’s not just a beach, but more of a resort complex, with boutiques, trendy cafes and restaurants, bars, clubs, and a beach. (In all honesty the beach pales into insignificance compared to everything else going on here.)

If you like everything together in one place, with cocktails and sun loungers available at your service, you will probably love Mambo Beach. I’ve visited in the daytime to chill and enjoy some wonderful brunches, and at night-time for beach parties, and although it’s a fun place to be I’m much more of a wild beach kind of a gal. There’s a mandatory charge to enter Mambo Beach (although this is normal practice for beaches in Curaçao), and it can get extremely busy, so I actually enjoyed it more when I forgot about the beach altogether and focused on the food and drinks instead.

True story.

Visit some aquatic friends

The Curaçao Sea Aquarium is just a little further out than the Mambo Beach area, but it’s still only 15 minutes by road from the centre of Willemstad. Built directly on the waterfront, it’s one of the only aquariums in the world to use an open-water system, which means it uses natural seawater in its tanks. There’s a dolphin show and animal-feeding experiences available, as well as touch tanks.

Eating and drinking in Mambo Beach

  • Bliss the Berry. The juices are incredible, the coffee is delectable and the brunches are out of this world. Truly one of my favourite breakfast restaurants in Curaçao.

Things to do in Willemstad: excursions

Of course, just because you’re staying in Willemstad- or visiting on a cruise ship- that doesn’t mean you have to just stick to the city limits. There are plenty of places to visit on the island of Curaçao, and these are just some of the most popular excursions from Willemstad.

  • This full day private tour of Curaçao is brilliant not just because of the fantastic guides, but because the itinerary is completely flexible depending on your wishes and needs. Tours can include snorkelling with turtles, heading to the national parks and colonial houses, to the ostrich farm and caves, and walking tours of the city. Literally, whatever you want to include, will be included, and you’ll have a fun and informative guide to lead you every step of the way.
  • To see some of Curaçao’s best beaches, book this beach-hopping tour. Beaches like Grote Knip, Playa Piskado and Cas Abao are all super pretty beaches- where you’re likely to encounter turtles- and they’re also all the kinds of places I prefer over the resort-style Mambo Beach. (Soz, Mambo. No offence.)
  • If you have less time on your hands, head straight to Playa Piskado to swim with sea turtles. This excursion includes a guide who will photograph your experience.
  • For something completely different, head out to the Curaçao Liqueur Factory for a tasting, and then on to the Hato Caves. The tour only lasts a few hours, so you could book this and then head onwards to a beach or into the city.

There’s no denying that this is truly one of the most vibrant cities in the Caribbean, with such an eclectic blend of cultures and a strong Dutch influence. And with the sheer variety of things to do in Willemstad, and neighbourhoods to wander, it’s clear that Curaçao is very much more than just a beach destination.

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