Essential Things to Do in Downtown Willemstad, Curaçao

Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao, is a vibrant and colorful destination that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. Its downtown area is particularly captivating, with a mix of Dutch colonial architecture and Caribbean charm. From historic landmarks and museums to shopping and dining, colorful downtown Willemstad has something for everyone.

This guide will cover everything you need to know about exploring downtown Willemstad in Curaçao, including hotels, restaurants, and things to do. 

Getting to Downtown Willemstad

Getting to downtown Willemstad is relatively easy, as it is in the island’s heart. The most common transportation options are taxis, buses, and rental cars. Taxis are the most convenient option, taking just 20 minutes from the airport to downtown Willemstad, and typically cost around $30, but prices may vary depending on the time of day and the specific taxi company.

If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, public buses are available and typically cost around $2 per ride. The bus service is operated by ABC Bus Tours. It covers most major tourist areas on the island, including the airport and downtown Willemstad. The buses run on a set schedule, with departures every 30 minutes, and are a great way to get around the island and explore at your own pace.

To help you navigate downtown Willemstad, having a printable map of downtown Willemstad (Curaçao) is a good idea. You can find a detailed area map online or stop by the tourist information center in the city center to pick up a physical map. With a map in hand, you can easily explore all downtown Willemstad has to offer.

Hotels in Downtown Willemstad (Curaçao)

Downtown Willemstad offers many accommodations to suit any traveler’s needs and budget. This vibrant city has something for everyone, from luxury hotels to budget-friendly guesthouses.

If you’re looking for a luxurious stay in downtown Willemstad, the Avila Beach Hotel is a top-rated option. This 4-star hotel offers stunning ocean views, a private beach, and a variety of on-site amenities, including a spa, fitness center, and multiple restaurants. Another great option is the Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino, which offers a rooftop infinity pool, a private beach, and a casino.

For budget-conscious travelers, several guesthouses and budget hotels in downtown Willemstad offer comfortable (for Caribbean standards) and affordable accommodations. The Pietermaai Boutique Hotel is a popular option, with rooms starting at just $82 per person per night. This charming guesthouse offers a central location, a rooftop terrace, and stylishly decorated rooms. Another budget-friendly option is the City Suites & Beach Hotel, which offers comfortable rooms and a convenient location steps from the beach, with rates starting at $58 per person per night.

If you are looking for something even cheaper, I recommend two hostels in Willemstad: the First Curaçao Hostel, a former ice cream factory, and the Bed & Bike, one of the best places to sleep and to rent a bicycle in Curaçao.

Restaurants in Downtown Willemstad (Curaçao)

Downtown Willemstad is known for its diverse and vibrant food scene, with various restaurants serving everything from local Caribbean cuisine to international favorites. The city is home to many popular local dishes that visitors should try during their stay, including keshi yena, a savory dish made with cheese and meat, and stobá, a hearty stew made with beef or chicken and vegetables.

The Ginger is an excellent option if you’re looking for a top-rated restaurant in downtown Willemstad. This restaurant offers a fusion of Caribbean and Asian flavors, with dishes like sushi rolls, pad thai, and jerk chicken. Another popular choice is Mundo Bizarro, which mixes Caribbean and Latin American cuisine, including ceviche, empanadas, and grilled seafood.

For those looking to try local cuisine, Plasa Bieu is a must-visit. This open-air food market has several stalls serving traditional dishes like stobá, keshi yena, and fried fish. Another popular spot for local cuisine is Jaanchie’s Restaurant, which serves various traditional dishes in a laid-back, rustic setting.

Things to Do in Downtown Willemstad (Curaçao)

Downtown Willemstad is a vibrant and colorful city with plenty of things to do for visitors of all ages and interests. Here are some of the top attractions and activities to check out during your stay:

Must-Visit Landmarks

Forts

  1. Fort Amsterdam: Situated at the mouth of St. Anna Bay, Fort Amsterdam is a historic site and a functional part of the government. A part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Historic Willemstad, this 17th-century fort houses the Governor’s Palace and several ministries. Don’t miss the church within its walls, where you can spot a cannonball from a British attack still lodged in the wall.
  2. Riffort: Overlooking the entrance to the harbor, Riffort is another captivating structure. It has been restored and is now home to various shops, restaurants, and bars. The fort’s upper terrace offers panoramic views of the ocean and the city, making it a favorite spot for sunset lovers.
  3. Fort Nassau: This fort is situated on a hill, offering 360-degree views of Willemstad and the surrounding areas. Initially built to protect the island, it now serves as a restaurant where diners can enjoy the vista while sampling local and international cuisine.

Historic Buildings

  1. Penha Building: One of the oldest buildings in downtown Willemstad, this structure stands as the epitome of Dutch colonial architecture. Built in 1708, it currently houses a luxury cosmetics and apparel store.
  2. Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue: This is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue still in continuous use. The interior features a sand-covered floor, representing the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert.

Other Notable Structures

  1. Queen Emma Bridge: Also known as “The Swinging Old Lady,” this pontoon bridge connects Downtown Willemstad’s Punda and Otrobanda districts. The bridge swings open when a ship must enter or exit the harbor.
  2. Queen Juliana Bridge: Towering at a height of 56 meters, this is one of the highest bridges in the Caribbean. While pedestrian access is not permitted, the views from the bridge are extraordinary, especially during sunrise and sunset.
  3. Handelskade: This is not a single building but a row of colorful, Dutch-style buildings lining the waterside. It’s one of the most photographed places in downtown Willemstad, and for a good reason.

Museums and Art Galleries

In addition to its vibrant culture and historic landmarks, downtown Willemstad shines as a hub for art and history enthusiasts. The city is home to an impressive array of museums and art galleries that offer insightful glimpses into Curaçao’s rich heritage, talented local artists, and international works of art. Here’s a rundown of some must-visit museums and art galleries in downtown Willemstad, Curaçao.

  • Curaçao Museum: Located in the Otrobanda neighborhood, the Curaçao Museum is housed in a former military hospital and offers a varied collection of exhibits. This museum provides a holistic view of the island’s history and culture, from antique furniture and historical artifacts to fine arts and a vintage car display.
  • Kura Hulanda Museum: This museum is an absolute must-visit for anyone interested in the African slave trade and its impact on Curaçao. Located just a few steps from the harbor where enslaved people once arrived, the Kura Hulanda Museum offers a poignant look at this dark chapter in human history through its extensive collection of artifacts and displays.
  • Maritime Museum: Situated near the water’s edge, the Maritime Museum takes you through Curaçao’s maritime history. With interactive exhibits and historic maritime artifacts, it’s an excellent place to learn about the island’s relationship with the sea.
  • Jewish Cultural Historical Museum: Adjacent to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, this museum houses an array of artifacts related to Jewish life and history on the island. The Jewish Cultural Historical Museum is divided into several rooms, each focusing on different aspects such as religious traditions, family life, and the contribution of the Jewish community to Curaçaoan society.
  • Gallery Alma Blou: Housed in a restored 17th-century mansion, Gallery Alma Blou is the oldest and largest gallery on the island. It specializes in Caribbean art, featuring works by local artists and artisans. You’ll find a diverse range of art here, from paintings to sculptures and ceramics.
  • The Art of Curaçao: This gallery is dedicated exclusively to artists from Curaçao. It’s an excellent place to understand the local art scene, featuring contemporary paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works. Frequent exhibitions and events make this a lively spot to visit.

Parks and Outdoor Spaces

While downtown Willemstad is most famous for its historic architecture and vibrant culture, it also offers a variety of parks and outdoor spaces where you can unwind and soak in the island’s natural beauty, especially if you are traveling with kids. 

From oceanfront promenades to lush gardens, here are some spots in downtown Willemstad, Curaçao, where you can catch a breath of fresh air.

  • Waaigat Park: Right in the city’s heart, Waaigat Park is an oasis of green amid Willemstad’s urban landscape. The park is built around a saltwater lagoon and is a popular spot for residents and visitors. It features well-maintained walking paths, shady trees, and benches where you can relax. The park is also a regular venue for local events and festivals, so you might catch some live music or cultural performances during your visit.
  • Pietermaai Small Beach: While not exactly a traditional beach, this small, rocky stretch along the Pietermaai District is a quiet place to unwind by the water. Several bars and restaurants are adjacent to the beach, making it an ideal spot for a drink as you watch the sunset.
  • Koningin Wilhelminapark: This small but charming park is near the Queen Emma Bridge. It is named in honor of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. Its statues, fountains, and tropical plants make it a lovely place for a brief respite. The park also occasionally hosts small events and markets.
  • Otrobanda Boardwalk: Running along the Otrobanda side of St. Anna Bay, this boardwalk offers beautiful views of the Handelskade’s iconic colorful buildings across the water. It’s a perfect spot for a leisurely stroll, day or night. The area comes alive at night, with locals and tourists enjoying the cool sea breeze.

Things to Do

Downtown Willemstad is more than just a place to marvel at historic buildings and picturesque landscapes. It’s a bustling center filled with activities that can cater to everyone from the shopaholic to the adventure seeker. 

Whether you’re looking to indulge in retail therapy or get your adrenaline pumping, you’ll find plenty of options here. Let’s explore the myriad things to do in downtown Willemstad, Curaçao.

Shopping Options

  • Punda Shopping District: The heart of Downtown Willemstad’s shopping scene, Punda, offers everything from high-end boutiques to quaint local shops. Whether you’re in the market for designer clothing, unique Caribbean crafts, or exquisite Dutch cheese, you’ll find it here.
  • Floating Market: A visit to the Floating Market along Sha Caprileskade is an experience in itself. Not only can you purchase fresh produce and seafood straight from the boats, but you’ll also find a range of handcrafted goods like jewelry and trinkets.
  • Renaissance Mall & Riffort: This upscale shopping area near the Mega Pier features international brands, luxury jewelry stores, and local artisan shops. The adjoining Riffort also offers a range of dining and entertainment options.
  • Marshe Bieuw: Also known as the Old Market, this is the place to go for local crafts and souvenirs. Open-air stalls offer everything from handmade bags and clothing to traditional Curaçaoan snacks and delicacies.

Water Sports and Other Adventure Activities

Curaçao is an excellent place for an active vacation, with plenty of water activities that you can do.

  • Scuba Diving and Snorkeling: Though the best spots, like the Blue Room Cave or Directors Bay, are a little drive away, some dive shops in downtown Willemstad offer trips to nearby reefs. The underwater world around Curaçao is known for its vibrant marine life and crystal-clear waters.
  • Jet Ski and Parasailing: If you’re an adrenaline junkie, head down to Pietermaai Smal Beach, where various operators offer jet ski rentals and parasailing experiences. Feel the wind in your hair and get a bird’s-eye view of the downtown area from the sky.
  • Kayaking in St. Anna Bay: For a more relaxed adventure, consider renting a kayak to explore the serene waters of St. Anna Bay. It’s a unique way to see the Queen Emma Bridge and the iconic Handelskade buildings from a different perspective.
  • City Walking Tours: If you prefer to keep your adventures on land, various companies offer walking tours of downtown Willemstad. These tours can range from historical explorations to food-centric outings, giving you a deep dive into the local culture.

Cultural Activities

Downtown Willemstad is not just a destination for sightseers and shoppers; it’s a vibrant cultural hub teeming with festivals, music events, and theaters. The city’s rich blend of African, European, and Latin American influences creates a unique cultural landscape that is both fascinating and exciting to explore. 

Here’s a guide to immersing yourself in the lively cultural scene of downtown Willemstad.

  • Curaçao Carnival: One of the most colorful and exciting events on the island, the Curaçao Carnival is a feast for the senses. Featuring vibrant costumes, lively parades, and infectious music, the festivities usually culminate in a grand parade through the streets of downtown Willemstad. Visiting during the Carnival season is an experience not to be missed.
  • Punda Vibes: Every Thursday evening, the Punda district comes alive with Punda Vibes. This weekly festival turns the streets into a party, complete with live music, dancing, and local vendors selling food and crafts. The event’s highlight is the spectacular fireworks show over St. Anna Bay.
  • North Sea Jazz Festival: This music festival attracts international and local jazz talents annually. Though the main events occur at the World Trade Center, smaller performances and jam sessions often happen in downtown Willemstad.
  • Pietermaai Live: This event brings local and international musicians to the historic Pietermaai District. Genres range from jazz and blues to reggae and pop. The cozy bars and restaurants in the area offer the perfect setting for an intimate musical experience.

Concerts at Fort Amsterdam

The courtyard of Fort Amsterdam occasionally serves as a venue for classical concerts. The historic setting provides an evocative backdrop for performances, making for an unforgettable evening.

Theaters

Luna Blou: This is the main center for performing arts in Curaçao. Located in downtown Willemstad, Luna Blou hosts various performances, from traditional plays to contemporary dance and musical shows.

Family-Friendly Activities

Downtown Willemstad isn’t just a playground for adults; it’s also chock-full of activities that families can enjoy together. From educational excursions to outdoor fun, there are numerous ways to keep the little ones entertained while allowing adults to relax and enjoy. 

Here are some family-friendly activities to consider when exploring downtown Willemstad.

Interactive Museums

  • Children’s Museum Curaçao: This interactive museum is a dream come true for families. With hands-on exhibits focusing on science, art, and culture, children can learn while having fun. It’s a great way to spend a few hours, especially on a hot or rainy day.
  • Maritime Museum: For families with older children interested in boats and maritime history, the Maritime Museum offers interactive displays and even model boat-building workshops. It’s educational but engaging enough to capture the imagination of young minds.

Outdoor Adventures

  • Waaigat Park: Perfect for a family picnic or a relaxed afternoon, Waaigat Park offers a safe and clean environment where children can play. The park is often the venue for family-friendly events and festivals where kids can enjoy games, rides, and treats.
  • Otrobanda Boardwalk: A leisurely stroll along the boardwalk offers family photos, ice-cream breaks, and birdwatching opportunities. The view across the bay to the colorful Handelskade buildings makes for a memorable backdrop.
  • Boat Tours: You can cross Anna Bay on a ferry, which children will love. In Willemstad, you can also leave for more extended boat tours exploring the magnificent west coast of the island or the pristine Klein Curaçao.

Art & Craft Workshops in Punda

Various stores and art galleries in the Punda district offer art and craft workshops suitable for children. From painting to creating their own souvenirs, these activities not only entertain but also let the kids explore their creative side.

Food Tasting Tour

For families with somewhat adventurous eaters, a food-tasting tour can be a fun way to explore downtown Willemstad. Sample local flavors like pastechi (a type of pastry) or freshly caught seafood. Try to make some local dishes by hiring a local chef who teaches you the secrets of Curaçaoan cuisine.

How to Explore Downtown Willemstad

Exploring downtown Willemstad is a must-do activity to include in your Curaçao itinerary. You can find some tips on how to explore downtown Willemstad and make the most of your visit:

  • Bike Rentals: Renting a bike is a great way to explore downtown Willemstad at your own pace and exercise while you’re at it. I suggest you read my guide on bike rental in Curaçao for all the details on choosing the best provider. 
  • Scooter Rentals: If you’re looking for a fun and efficient way to explore downtown Willemstad, renting a scooter is another excellent option. One of the best scooter rental companies in the area is Nr1, which offers a variety of scooter styles and sizes to choose from. They also provide instant confirmation and competitive prices, making it easy to book your rental online.
  • Walking Tours: For a more immersive and educational experience of downtown Willemstad, consider taking a walking tour. The tours take you through the historic districts of Punda and Otrobanda, with stops at landmarks like the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue and the Queen Emma Bridge. These are the main options for free tours in Willemstad:

Frequently Asked Questions

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