A trip to Curacao would not be complete without a trip to the capital city of Willemstad. This charming city with its candy-colored buildings is not only a shoppers paradise but also rich in Dutch history.
The main center of Willemstad is actually made up of 2 quarters, Punda and Otrabanda which mean “City” and “The Other Side”.
Parking in Willemstad can be a bit tricky if you aren’t prepared for it. Thankfully, our friends at The Dive Bus told us about some free parking areas around Willemstad on both sides of the bridge so we wouldn’t have to pay for parking, something that can get costly.
There are quite a few amazing tourist attractions to see in Willemstad and while they are all great I’m sure, we wanted to explore and see what we could find on our own, without a roadmap of course.
While we did stop and take in some of the more popular attractions, we also stumbled on some other amazing places throughout the city.
The Swinging Old Lady
While the two quarters of Punda and Otrabanda may be separated by water, navigating from side to side can be quite fun. We had heard about “The Swinging Old Lady” from a few people on the island and while it may sound a bit questionable, it is actually a floating pontoon bridge. Okay, I know that even sounds a little odd but stay with me on this.
The bridge was first constructed in 1888 to connect the two sides. Resting on 16 pontoons that resemble boats, it is operated by a tender who moves it basically the same as you would a boat, with a motor.
Riding the bridge is as much a tourist attraction as the bridge itself so when the bridge tender sounds the alarm that the bridge is about to move, which happens quite frequently, people actually find a place to stand and ride.
Of course, the ride can be short or long, depending on the size and number of boats needing to pass.
While it is not illegal to ride the bridge, there are signs stating everyone needs to be off the bridge when the bell sounds. With the number of people who ride the bridge, the rule is loosely enforced.
Candy Colored Buildings
After crossing the bridge, we arrived in Punda or the “city”. Filled with the candy-colored buildings and brick paved narrow streets, it was like stepping into what I imagine the Netherlands may be like.
So why are the buildings on the island painted such vivid colors? Well, as the story goes, centuries ago when the buildings were constructed, they were made from random bricks salvaged from the ballast of ships which were finished with a lime plaster made from ground-up shells. With the strong Caribbean sun, the buildings would bleach to a bright white.
Supposedly, a former governor who claimed to have suffered from severe headaches said that they were even more severe due to the bright white buildings. Convinced that the bright buildings only made his headaches worse, he decreed that all buildings be painted a color to alleviate his headaches. Of course, he was also a shareholder in the local paint store on the island so that may have played a part too, who knows.
At any rate, the colors somehow stuck and have been the calling card of Curacao for centuries and even new homes continue to be painted vivid colors today.
Locks Of Love Sculpture
Once off the bridge, don’t forget to stop at the heart-shaped lock sculpture. Inspired by the famous bridge in Paris, this sculpture is full of “locks of love” left by visitors to the island.
Installed in February 2017, just in time for Valentine’s Day, the sculpture is part of the ongoing Punda beautification project as well as focusing on local artists.
Over the years, thousands of visitors to the island have left their messages of love in the sculpture. We had fun reading where the locks were from and the messages written on them. I just wish I would have had a lock to leave, maybe next trip.
Scattered throughout the city, the artwork is both diverse and beautiful. Walking the narrow streets, we never knew what we would stumble upon next which made the adventure even more exciting. From relief work to street art, we were frequently surprised with amazing works of art.
From birds to flowers and butterflies, the relief works of art showed in allies, on the entrances of buildings, even on the streets themselves.
From sculptures to relief to what may be considered graffiti, there are interesting and beautiful forms of art everywhere.
While some may consider some of the art to be graffiti, it really was interesting and showcased the talent of the street artists. I have often admired those who can take cans of spray paint and create such detail and beauty. I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
The Curacao Maritime Museum is a hidden gem in Punta and is a wonderful tribute to the maritime history of Curacao.
Easily within walking distance of the swinging bridge, the museum sits a bit hidden from the busy tourist areas. Across a small bridge from the main buildings of Punta, we found the museum with its massive anchor and chain welcoming us in.
The museum is open Monday – Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and offers both guided and self-guided tours. We took a self-guided tour which took us about an hour or so. Of course, we stopped and looked at everything and read a lot about each piece and the significance it played in history.
To get into the museum, there is a cost of $7 U.S. per adult and $3.50 U.S. for children 6-11. Under 6 years of age get in free.
Once inside, you will find 3 floors of maritime models, artifacts, and history. One of the most interesting parts of the museum is at the beginning of the tour which is a video history of how Curacao was discovered.
I am not a big history buff but I was quite intrigued with the history and surprised to learn the part the U.S. Navy played in the island’s history.
The museum is laid out similar to the levels of a ship with long “planks” as well as a beautiful spiral staircase that leads from one level to the next.
Walking through the museum feels like walking in a ship full of history. From the incredibly detailed models to the artifacts, there are pieces of Curacao’s maritime history everywhere. Even for a person who doesn’t get all that excited about history, I highly recommend taking the short self-guided tour.
Food And Drink
With all that walking around, you are bound to get hungry, and thirsty and there is no shortage of great places to eat and drink in Willemstad. On the Punda side, we found the Iguana Cafe that is right off the bridge on the edge of the canal.
One thing on the menu that is very Dutch are the Bitterballen. We had tried them in a restaurant close to home so we knew we had to try them here since, after all, this is a Dutch island. While they weren’t exactly as we remembered, they were still a nice tasty treat to start with.
The menu is quite diverse offering Dutch, American, even some Venezuelan favorites.
We decided that we would stick with familiar favorites for our entrees so BLT and pulled pork to the rescue. Of course, they were a Dutch twist on the American classics but still tasty.
If you’re a shopper, then Willemstad could be your nirvana. There is no shortage of places to shop from affordable souvenir shops to high-end, luxury shops. Weaved throughout the maze of buildings, there are large and small shops to suit any taste and budget.
One of the most famous is Rif Fort which sits on the Otrabanda side of the bay. Established in 1888, its coral walls that are nearly a foot thick once housed 56 cannons and protected the island from pirates and invaders. Today, it’s home to shopping, food, entertainment, the Rif Museum, and is a world UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Whether you are in Curacao for a day or a week, a trip to Willemstad is a must. From the amazing architecture to history, everyone is sure to find something they love about this colorful city.