Best Things to do in Curacao

Best Things to Do in Curaçao | A Place Steeped in Diverse Heritage

Beach vacation spot
Beach vacation spot. Photo by Meg Pier

There are many reasons why Curaçao is such a popular vacation spot in the Caribbean. It could be that it’s a tropical paradise with sandy beaches and warm temperatures. Another could be the adventurous atmosphere, the island booming with energy and excitement. At Best Cultural Destinations, we think Curaçao’s rich cultural and historical existence is what sets it apart. Located 90 miles north of Venezuela, Curaçao belongs to the ABC group of the Caribbean, along with Aruba and Bonaire. Many have settled on this tropical island, including the Spanish, British and French. However, Curaçao has belonged to the Dutch Royal Kingdom for about 500 years. Aside from its European impact, Curaçao has been influenced by African, Latin, and Jewish cultures as well.

Dutch settlers landed in a natural harbor in 1634, turning it into the capital, Willemstad. This unique city embodies the multicultural experience that is Curaçao. Because of its proximity to Venezuela, Curaçao became a port during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many Africans were taken from their home to be sent to other countries around the Americas. The enslaved Africans that found freedom in Curaçao many centuries later, have deeply influenced Curaçaoan culture. 

Since its first settlement, another group found refuge on the island as well. Twelve Sephardic Jewish families travelled to Curaçao in 1651, seeking religious freedom from their home in Portugal. These families were able to establish a strong Jewish community on the island, building the oldest Synagogue in the Americas in 1732.

It is no surprise that Curaçao has blossomed into a beautiful haven for so many different cultures. With 50 nationalities, 4 spoken languages, and a diverse population of 150,000 people, Curaçao should be added to the top of your list of places to go.  

A word on Covid-19

The situation is in flux so make sure to check Curaçao’s guidelines, the policies of individual establishments, and whether the attraction you plan on visiting is open before booking a ticket.

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Dutch Influences | Willemstad

Sailboat coasts along Punda district, Curacao
Sailboat coasts along Punda district, Curacao, Image by Meg Pier

The capital of Curaçao, Willemstad, is a hotbed of European colonial architecture, Caribbean colors, and city energy. Due to the heat and direct sunlight of the island, settlers had to take into account Caribbean color. White buildings reflect a lot of light, making them hard to look at in a place with so much sun. The pastel coloring of the Dutch buildings shows how the Caribbean traditions were incorporated into the European architecture. These buildings have been painted various shades of red, yellow, green, and blue. 

Willemstad as a whole, is a very interesting place to consider when considering where to go on vacation. Its development began with the building of Fort Amsterdam, and only grew from there. The historic districts display traces of the varying countries that traded there. Known for its European style urban-planning, this historic town shines a light on the aesthetic influences of colonialism. The areas of Otrobanda and Scharloo display the Baroque style Dutch gable that was popular at the time. 

There are four major sections of the city center: Punda, Otrobanda, Scharloo, and Pietermaai. They are separated by Sint Anna Bay and the Waaigat which leads into the first discovered natural harbor, Schottegat. Connecting Punda and Otrobanda is the Queen Emma Bridge, a world famous floating pontoon bridge. Built in the late 19th century, the bridge is made up of 16 pontoon boats and two motors. This allows passing boats to slip through the area into the harbor. Known as “the Swinging Old Lady”, the Queen Emma Bridge is a unique landmark of years passed. 

The Pontoon boats holding up the Queen Emma Bridge
The Pontoon boats holding up the Queen Emma Bridge. Image by Meg Pier

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Punda, Willemstad

Punda was discovered first in the 17th century, making it the oldest part of Willemstad. Inaccessible to cars, pedestrians are free to roam the historic market area. Originally a warehouse district, Punda has become a fun spot full of places to eat, shop, and have fun. For those looking to experience nightlife in Curaçao, Punda hosts a free weekly event: Punda Vibes Thursday. Shops are open late, musicians play in the streets, and there’s even an art alley to explore. Anyone looking for their next vacation spot, could spend their whole trip just in Punda, exploring the streets and enjoying the beaches.

Night time beach spot in Curacao
Night time beach spot in Curacao. Image from pxfuel

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Otrobanda, Willemstad 

Travelling through the Otrobanda District of Willemstad will have visitors think they’ve been transported straight to Europe! Settled in the 18th century, Otrobanda became an area rich with the very aspects that make Willemstad so special. The main drag, Breedestraat, is a major street with plenty of restaurants, shops, and cafes to keep any visitor busy. For more immersion into Curaçao life, tourists can head over to Rif Fort, a 19th century historic monument. This fort offers more than just a look into history though, as it’s been converted into a shopping, eating, and live entertainment center. 

Rif Fort Entrance
Rif Fort Entrance. Image by Pi3.124 on Wiki Creative Commons

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Scharloo, Willemstad

Known as the art district of Willemstad, Scharloo is one of the younger areas of the city. To get there, you just have to cross the Queen Wilhelmina Bridge from Punda. This district is covered in street art, which is actually encouraged by the city. Street Art Skálo is an artist founded organization that commissions murals around the Willemstad. This has become so ingrained in Willemstad’s culture that its street art is recognized by UNESCO as Curaçaoan heritage!

Muurschildering door Francis Sling in Scharloo
Muurschildering door Francis Sling in Scharloo. Image by Kattiel on Wiki Creative Commons

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Pietermaai, Willemstad

Historic Pietermaai is also younger compared to Punda and Otrobanda, but what it lacks in age, it makes up in energy. With just as much color as the rest of the city, Pietermaai gives visitors access to modern life in Willemstad. This area was originally residential, becoming home to the wealthy aristocrats who built European mansions for their stay. As the city grew, these mansions have evolved in shops, restaurants, and plenty of boutique hotels for visitors.

Pietermaai Restaurants
Pietermaai Restaurants. Image by Scottwmcintosh on Wiki Creative Commons

 Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Strength in African Heritage

Being a Caribbean island, visitors would be remiss not to recognize the darker parts of this region’s history. A center for Dutch slave trade, Curaçao saw thousands of Africans sold on its shores. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade created the primary business for Curaçao for the majority of the 17th and 18th centuries. Enslaved Africans would be brought to the island either to be transported to the Americas, or work as slaves on the islands themselves. 

An important moment in Curaçao’s history was the Slave Revolt of 1795, led by Tula Rigaud. The Revolt lasted a month before being suppressed by the dutch. Tula is widely regarded as a hero for human rights across Curaçao. 

The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863 but a small population of freed Africans remained on the island. Their contribution to Curaçao’s heritage and history is the epitome of strength and resiliency. 

Dutch and English translation of words etched into the Kura Hulanda Museum
Dutch and English translation of words etched into the Kura Hulanda Museum. Photo by Meg Pier

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Strength in African Heritage | Kura Hulanda Museum

The Kura Hulanda Museum succeeds at truthfully displaying the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. It shows the capture from Africa, transport to the New World, where these slaves were relocated across the Caribbean and South America. 

Established by the late Jacob Gelt Dekker, the Kura Hulanda Museum is a reminder that despite Willemstad’s beauty, its founding is steeped in tragedy. The museum consists of a series of collections documenting varying aspects of the multicultural roots that make up Curaçao. From an inside look into the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to Human Rights in the USA from 1864, this museum gives a full perspective of the diversity of this unique Caribbean island. It was important to Dekker that Kura Hulanda displayed how African culture has influenced the Caribbean, not just European. 

The Kura Hulanda Museum can be found in Willemstad, it is open Monday-Saturday, 9am-4pm. Tickets cost $10 USD with discounts for children and students. More information can be found: http://www.kurahulanda.com/en/museumx

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Strength in African Heritage | Christoffel Park

Monument to 1795 Slave Revolt, Curaçao
Monument to 1795 Slave Revolt, Curaçao. Image by Charles Hoffman on Wiki Creative Commons

The Christoffel Park in Curaçao is a place of great cultural and historic importance. Being the site of three former slave plantations, the landowners sought to find a new use for this place of tragedy. It was turned into a national park in the late 1970s, becoming the largest of its kind in Curaçao. Nature and history lovers alike will find something to do in this natural gem. 

With thousands of different species finding home in Christoffel Park, it’s like stepping into a real jungle. The park offers many hiking trails in varying difficulty for a different perspective. For those seeking a look into the history of this former plantation site as well as into African slavery on the island as a whole, Christoffel is home to the Tula Museum and the Savonet Museum. The Tula Museum is named after the aforementioned hero of Curaçao, Tula Rigaud, and the Slave Revolt of 1795. This museum will take visitors through the revolt itself, and explore how this moment ultimately led to the abolition of slavery on the island. 

The Savonet Museum will take visitors on a journey through the history of Curaçao, from its roots with the Arowak Indian tribe 4000 years ago to today. With the original homes of the plantation owners still being maintained, visitors will also get a look into life on the three plantations that used to make up the park. 

Entry to the park starts at 7:30am on weekdays and 6am on Sundays. The park closes at 4pm on weekdays and 3pm on Sundays, with tickets costing $12 for adults, and discounted tickets for children. 

 Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Caribbean Energy

Street art in Curacao
Street art in Curacao. Image by Meg Pier

The Caribbean influence on Curaçao is most notably its location. Before the island was colonized, it was inhabited by the Arawak and Caquetio Amerindians tribes. These people likely traveled from the mainland and settled on Curaçao. When the Spanish originally landed there, they deported all of the indigenous peoples as slaves. Since then, many Southern and Central American people have traveled back to Curaçao, effectively bringing the Caribbean culture back to it.

Caribbean culture in itself is multicultural. It is a mix of African and Latin origins which have developed into a unique and rich heritage. Most specifically, Caribbean colors have had a large effect on Curaçao. There are rumors that these colors came to be when Governor General Albert Kikkert, in the 19th century, was getting migraines from the blaring sun reflecting on the white houses. He gave orders to change the colors of the houses and this is what created the colorful Dutch architecture of Curaçao.

In its essence, visitors will be able to feel the Caribbean energy of Curaçao within minutes of arriving. There are a few places that will give an even better look into the Latin influences on the island. Once a year, the Tumba Festival is held during Curaçao Carnival. Visitors can get to see the music culture of the island while the best compete to showcase their Tumba talents! In addition to music, the culture of herbal healing is important to Curaçao, with access to Den Paradera, a garden dedicated to the collective knowledge of Otrobanda-born Dinah Veeris.  

Performer at the Tumba Festival
Performer at the Tumba Festival. Image by Meg Pier

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Caribbean Energy | The Tumba Festival

The Tumba Festival is a music contest filled with excitement and energy, a unique insight into the musical culture of Curaçao. A competition to find the Tumba King and Queen which determines the official anthem of the Curaçao Carnival. Each song is sung in Papiamentu, the language of the “ABC Islands” of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. 

Tumba music has a rich history based in strength. African slaves were denied the right to bring their culture to the plantation, so were forced to adapt. They created their own forms of music, which started with Tambu. Having limited access to instruments, Tambu was known for its percussion music. Tambu eventually became Tumba through influences of jazz and Latin music, with the incorporations of more modern instruments. 

The festival itself takes place in late January, with qualifiers and finals available to visitors. More information can be found: https://www.Curaçao.com/en/event/tumba-festival-2020-finals

Performer at the Tumba Festival
Performer at the Tumba Festival. Image by Meg Pier

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Caribbean Energy | Dinah Veeris’ Den Paradera

Dinah Veeris
Dinah Veeris. Image by Meg Pier

Born and raised in 1939 Curaçao, Dinah Veeris has dedicated her life to the art of herbal healing. She has studied herbs all over the world, gathering knowledge on the practice of healing the body and mind. Her journey started by collecting the ancient knowledge that would have otherwise been lost by older generations. She founded Den Pandera in 1991, in the eastern area of Curaçao. Den Pandera includes a botanical garden and historical garden, giving insight to the expansive encyclopedia of Dinah Veeris’ mind. 

The name Den Paradera is in reference to a famous garden created by the indigenous peoples’ of Curaçao in the same area. Even Spanish colonizers came to this garden to be cured when they arrived, naming it ‘En Paradera’. Dinah Veeris continues this tradition of healing into the modern age. 

Just a fifteen minute drive from Willemstad, Den Paradera is open from Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm. There is also a store attached where visitors can buy an assortment of products made from the herbs in Dinah’s garden. More info: https://www.dinahveeris.com/

Dinah Veeris’ Den Paradera
Dinah Veeris’ Den Paradera. Image by Meg Pier

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Explore Jewish Heritage

Looking for freedom to practice their religion, twelve Sephardic Jewish families travelled to Curaçao in 1651. These families brought Jewish culture to Curaçao, further diversifying the island’s culture. Prior to finding safety in Curaçao, these families were persecuted for their religion in Portugal and Spain. They were forced to worship in their attics, putting sand on the ground to soundproof their homes, preventing passerby from overhearing them.

The families fled the Inquisition in the 17th century and landed in Curaçao, establishing a strong Jewish community on the island. Due to the religious freedom offered by the Dutch following their defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Jewish people were able to find a safe haven. 

Entrance to Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue
Entrance to Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue. Image by Meg Pier

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Explore Jewish Heritage | Landhuis Rooi Catootje

Founded by one of the original Jewish settlers, Landhuis Rooi Catootje dates back to the 1820s. A bright yellow majesty of a house, Landhuis Rooi Catootje was originally named “Rust en Vree” which translates to “Peace and Quiet.” A fitting name for a tranquil house sat atop a hill, ready to accept a cool breeze into its halls. Rooi Catootje is also the name of the neighborhood where this landmark sits, a place used for water drainage during the rainy season. 

It came into the possession of the Maduro family in 1853. Passed down through the family for nearly a century, the house was made into a historical landmark in 1974. It is now open to the public for visiting. A stunning collection of antique furniture as well as access to a reference library give visitors an inside look into the history of Curaçao. 

Just a 15 minute drive south from the airport, this location is a must-see in Curaçao. Open weekdays 9:00am-12:00pm, visitors can find Landhuis Rooi Catootje east of the country’s capital, Willemstad. Hidden behind trees in a busy area of Curaçao, it is easy to miss this landmark. Those who keep their eyes open will be glad to find this beautiful estate! More info can be found at: https://www.madurolibrary.org/museum

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Explore Jewish Heritage | Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue

Sand floors of Mikve Israel Emanual
Sand floors of Mikve Israel Emanual. Image by Meg Pier

There are several places you can visit to learn about Jewish heritage in Curaçao. Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is one of them, being the oldest synagogue in the Americas. The name translates to “The Hope of Israel”, a fitting title for a place so tranquil. Mikvé Israel-Emanuel found its home in Willemstad in 1732. 

The Inquisition was just getting started in Spain and Portugal, making Europe a dangerous place for Jewish people. Many fled to “Low Countries” (now the Netherlands and Belgium), who had defeated the Spanish Armada. Being part of the Dutch Kingdom, Curaçao was a place where Jewish people could settle and practice their religion safely.

Even to this day, Mikvé Israel-Emanuel upholds the legacy of their forefathers. As a testament to the tribulations of the congregation’s past, the floor of the synagogue is covered in sand.

Across the Queen Emma Bridge, the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue can be found in the Hanchi Snoa district. More info can be found: https://snoa.com/

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Explore Jewish Heritage | Jewish Historical Cultural Museum

The Jewish Historical Cultural Museum
The Jewish Historical Cultural Museum. Image by Meg Pier

Just next door to Mikve Israel-Emanuel, visitors will find the Jewish Historical Cultural Museum. An array of religious historic artifacts from the congregation’s past are displayed on the Museum’s walls. From photographs to paintings to memorabilia, the Museum is a look into the centuries long history of the Mikve Israel-Emanual congregation. 

Hand decorated Ketubahs are exhibited in the museum. A ketubah is a beautifully ornate cloth that operates as a prenuptial agreement for a Jewish wedding. The Ketubah is created to outline the responsibilities of the groom as it pertains to his bride. The museum alongside the synagogue was built from one of the original Rabi’s home and bathhouse built in the 18th century. While renovating, the ‘mikvah’ (bath) was discovered and has become a focal point for the museum. One of the original Torahs is also on display in the museum, brought by those first 12 Sephardic families. 

The museum is open to visitors on weekdays from 9am-4:30pm. Those intending to worship in the Synagogue are welcome to do so Fridays 6:30-7:45pm and Saturdays 10am-12pm. Anyone wishing to attend a service are asked to dress respectfully and according to the Synagogue’s guidelines. More info can be found: https://snoa.com/

Best Things To Do In Curaçao | Explore Jewish Heritage | Beth Haim Cemetery

Beth Haim Cemetery
Beth Haim Cemetery. Image by Meg Pier

Consecrated in 1659, Beth Haim means “House of Life” in reference to the Jewish belief that the soul is immortal. Jewish settlers and their descendents have been buried in Beth Haim Cemetery for hundreds of years, making this an integral part of Jewish heritage in Curaçao. A dedicated National Monument, Beth Haim is also the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere.

From a distance, the cemetery appears to be a collection of plain cement slabs. A closer look will show visitors elaborate designs on the gravestones at Beth Haim. These designs are meant to inform the viewer of the deceased, their name and the way they died sometimes. This was typical practice for Jewish people in Western Europe, which was brought over to Curaçao by those first 12 families. 

Those looking to visit Beth Haim Cemetery are welcome as it is open to the public. For a guided tour, you can inquire at Mikve-Israel Emanuel. 

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