10 Things to Explore in Willemstad, Curaçao

Written by Rikka – July 13. 2019

When I visit new places, I rarely spend a lot of time in the main tourist areas. But the Otrobanda, Punda, and Pietermaai districts of Curaçao’s capital were unique and rich with history, art, culture, food, and fun. I am glad I spent time in this area both during the day and at night to discover the atmosphere in both settings.

I got stuck on a floating bridge, found a secret beach, uncovered unique historic landmarks, and posed with lots of street art. Everything I did I could easily experience in one full day of exploring Willemstad!

1. Riffort

Welcoming cruise ships into Sint Anna Bay, Riffort is 1 of 8 forts on the island and is part of Willemstad’s city-harbor UNESCO World Heritage site.

After it stopped being used for military purposes, the fort turned into a government building and then a police station. Now it is the Otrobanda district’s main tourist and shopping center since it is easily accessed by tourists who get off the cruise ships nearby.

Live music, dancing, food, souvenirs, and more can be found inside the fort. I walked through it to admire the history and architecture of the fort on one of my last nights in Curaçao. I didn’t stick around, though, as I prefer to spend more of my time and money in lesser touristy areas!

2. Queen Emma Bridge

An icon of Curaçao, I cannot say enough how much I loved this bridge!

Queen Emma Bridge is the floating bridge that connects the eastern Punda and western Otrobanda districts of Willemstad. It’s remarkable for a number of its features.

The bridge periodically separates from the eastern side of Sint Anna Bay to allow vessels to pass into the bay.

Typically the bridge opens about half way and for only a few minutes. Other times, the bridge opens fully and perpendicular to the shore, remaining open for a much longer period to allow bigger ships through. I was fortunate enough to witness both the short and long opening periods.

When it opens, you get “caught” in the middle. You cannot exit either side until it reattaches itself. I was so excited when I got “stuck” on the bridge because I didn’t expect it to happen. Most people wait at the ends to exit which gave me the opportunity to get some great photos without people in them.

My favorite part, however, was going at night to observe the arch lights that span the entire bridge. They rotate rainbow colors and light up the bay in streaky splashes of color.

3. Dutch Treat

Dutch Treat is a must stop in Willemstad. On the west side of Queen Emma Bridge in Otrobanda this food stand is perfectly situated for tourists to grab a quintessential snack straight out of the Netherlands.

Make sure you try the kaas soufle (my favorite!).

Check out my last post for more food recommendations in Curaçao.

4. Colorful Buildings

You won’t be able to take your eyes off the colorful buildings all over Curaçao.

Legend has it that the buildings around Curaçao used to be white. But a former governor blamed his headaches on the sun’s reflection off the white buildings. His solution was to have the buildings painted different colors.

Curaçao is famous for the Punda district’s row of colorful houses along Sint Anna Bay. They are a fixture of the area and an awesome feature on the bay to ogle at from Queen Emma Bridge.

However, this row is not the only one to visit. In the Pietermaai district, you’ll find an uphill row of colorful, single-story residences along Berg Altena Rd. Yes—people actually live in them!

Additional colorful homes can be found all over Willemstad and the rest of Curaçao, including large plantation houses in the nearby Scharloo district.

5. The Markets

Around the corner from Sint Anna Bay in Punda I found several different markets. The floating market includes boats mainly from Venezuela selling produce, fish, coconuts and other items along the shore.

Further down the street, I found booths set up with people selling souvenirs, jewelry, bags, clothing, and more. I bought a ring and necklace here that I absolutely love although it is not unique to Curaçao.

The salesperson told me the same necklace is sold all over the Caribbean. I imagine this is the case with most of the items sold here.

Across from the booths you will find a large round 2-story building called the new market. There’s lots for sale on the lower level, but the upper level has Zus di plaza where you can get some authentic, local cuisine.

6. Street Art

Walk all over Willemstad and you won’t be able to miss the frequent murals and street art. I loved exploring all 3 districts of Otrobanda, Punda, and Pietermaai to find unique street art in each one.

My favorite artist, and one of the most prolific around Curaçao, was Garrick Marchena. His murals typically have a beautiful depth of meaning to them.

The following is a collage of many of my favorite street art murals and sculptures around Willemstad:

7. Jewish Museum

Who knew the Caribbean had a historically significant landmark for Jewish people?

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is in the center of the Punda district of Curaçao. This is a truly remarkable historical structure because it is the oldest continuously used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.

This Curaçao Synagogue was completed in 1674 after a community of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish people from the Netherlands and Brazil formed in Curaçao. This community refers to the synagogue as snoa which is short for the Portugese/Ladino word “esnoga” (meaning synagogue). Tours are given daily for $10 except during the Sabbath. If you tour the inside, you will find that it uniquely has a sand floor!

As someone brought up culturally Jewish, I love seeing pieces of my ethnic heritage in unexpected places.

8. Queen Wilhelmina Park

Queen Wilhelmina Park is in the historic Punda area of Willemstad. Surrounded by cobblestone streets, in this park I found one historical sculpture seemingly overlooked by 2 nearby Instagram-worthy word sculptures.

The historical sculpture is of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. She stands prominently in the middle of the square.

But Wilhelmina was kind of epic! She became queen at 10 years old and was queen for 58 years from 1890 to 1948. This was longer than any other monarch in Dutch history. She was also the first woman billionaire in the world due to her business prowess. Go woman power!

After marveling a bit at Wilhelmina, I jumped into modern times to get my iconic “C-U-R-A-C-A-O” photo.

Painted in yellow while I was there in January 2019, the Curacao sculpture was traditionally painted blue like the flag with the iconic white stars on the first C.

The other word sculpture in this park spells out the word “D-U-S-H-I” which means “sweetheart” or “sexy” in papiamentu (a creole language spoken only in the Dutch Caribbean). You’ll find this catchy word spoken all over the island.

9. Marichi Pier

Marichi Pier is only a 10 minute walk from Queen Emma bridge. This spot is somewhat overlooked as it’s behind a parking lot for the Pietermaai district. But I loved it, as it is a quick escape from all the tourist spots of Punda. It seemed there were no tourists and that only locals were swimming here.

The pier offers a relaxing place to take in the clear, aqua-colored water of the Caribbean.

10. Nieuwestraat

Over in the Pietermaai district, this street in Curaçao became a small obsession of mine! A friend suggested I go to Ginger’s restaurant on Nieuwestraat which is why I found this street in the first place. It’s about a 15 minute walk from Punda so I would have totally missed it if not for her recommendation!

I fell in love with Nieuwestraat as a place to visit after dark because of its colorful buildings and lights strung around. Patrons sit and drink at restaurants out on the street or overhead on balconies. It was such a cool little area that I had no idea was there! It’s definitely worth a visit one night just to experience the atmosphere.

In Conclusion

There is no shortage of beautiful culture and history to take in while visiting the main tourist district of Curaçao’s capitol. I typically don’t spend too much time in these locations, but I am glad I did while in Willemstad!

After my fill of the city, I was ready for something a little more remote and connected to nature. My next posts will be all about my exploration of other parts of the island, including a hike to the highest point and snorkeling the shoreline.