Self-Guided Walking Tour of Willemstad, Curaçao | Otrobanda, Punda & Pietermaai

Written by Danielle & Adam – April 16, 2019

A self-guided walking tour of Willemstad promises a colorful mix of character and charm. We’ll start in western Otrobanda, then cross the bridge to pastel-colored Punda, and end the tour in vibrant Pietermaai. Even at a slow pace, this itinerary should take 8 hours or less.

If you’re looking for a self-guided walking tour of Willemstad that will lead you to popular hotspots as well as some lesser-known local gems, then this itinerary is for you.

We can’t promise the same historical background or depth of knowledge as you’d receive through an organized tour with a local tour guide. But we can promise to show you more than a dozen highlights of Willemstad, and lead you from point A to B to C, etc. in a logical order. Plus, we’ll drop just enough info for each location to make you dangerous.

Note to Curaçao cruise ship travelers: if you only have 8 hours to explore onshore, fear not: you should have no problem visiting each of these locations (exception of a restaurant that doesn’t open till 5pm).

Self-guided tour of Willemstad overview:

1. Stroll through Rif Fort & Renaissance Mall

2. Sample the island’s famous “green rum” at Netto Bar

3. People-watch at Brion Plaza

4. Admire Queen Juliana Bridge from afar

5. Cross the floating Queen Emma Bridge on foot

6. Wander along the pastel Punda waterfront

7. Visit Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue

8. Explore the local art scene

9. Pick a letter in Queen Wilhelmina Park

10. Venture beyond the crowds into the vibrant Pietermaai District

11. Enjoy the hippest walking street in town: Nieuwestraat

12. Grab a bite to eat

13. Kick back with a jazzy nightcap (and maybe a cigar)

14. Where to stay in Willemstad: review of Pietermaai Boutique Hotel

Self-Guided Walking Tour of Willemstad

Here’s a map of the highlights, in chronological order. Click on the map to open it up in a new browser. There you’ll find info on each location, and step-by-step instructions to guide you between them.

Total distance from beginning to end: just about 2 miles (3 kilometers)

Willemstad: quick lay of the land:

  • Around 150k people live in Willemstad. That’s ~95% of Curaçao’s population…not including tourists.
  • The main center of Willemstad is separated in two quarters: eastern Punda and western Otrabanda.
  • Punda (meaning “city”) was originally a walled city that became overpopulated in the early 19th century.
  • Otrabanda (meaning “the other side”) was connected to Punda in 1888 via the Queen Emma Bridge.
  • Many tourists only visit these 2 quarters. We’re going to take you further east into Pietermaai.

1. Stroll through Rif Fort & Renaissance Mall

The first stop on our tour was originally built to protect the island from pirates, nearly 200 years ago. Today, it serves as the gateway between happy-go-lucky cruisers and the magic of Curaçao—strategically located to protect the island from closed wallets.

Rif Fort is 19th-century fortress that’s been renovated by the Renaissance Resort and Casino group and includes a long list of restaurants, bars, live entertainment, and shopping options.

For those of you stepping off a cruise ship, Rif Fort is a short 5-10 minute walk from the cruise terminal.
For those of you not limited to cruise ship hours, you may consider ending your tour here, later this evening. Even on Christmas night, the live Caribbean music was bumping!

Day or night, Rif Fort offers panoramic views of Punda and the sea.

Rif Fort at sunset | view from the pedestrian Queen Emma Bridge

2. Sample the island’s famous “green rum” at Netto Bar

If this seems like an aggressive way to start the day, talk to some of the Netto Bar regulars who show up here when the doors open everyday at 8am.

The legendary tavern is home of the original “ròm bèrdè” (green rum)—100% homegrown and only to be found in Curaçao. So, what’s in it? You’ll have to ask Chu, a Curaçao native—and the current owner—who’s been working here for nearly 40 years. Fair warning: he’s a man of few words. You may not get him to divulge the secret recipe, but you will enjoy the rum.

Netto Bar will celebrate its 65th birthday this December, making it the oldest bar in Otrobanda.

“Work until the sweat pours off your forehead to achieve everything you want in life and always help wherever you can.” — Ernesto “Netto” Koster | Founder, Netto Bar

3. People-watch at Brion Plaza

The Brionplein (Brion Plaza) is the centerpiece of Otrobanda’s waterfront. You’re likely to find lots of people, a few stray dogs, and various street performers keeping things interesting within this lively plaza.

Otrobanda sign | centerpiece of Brionplein (Brion Plaza)

4. Admire Queen Juliana Bridge from afar

The tallest bridge in the Caribbean spans majestically across St. Anna Bay. Snap some photos from western Otrobanda while you can, because it’s time to head east.

travelhelix trivia: the Queen Juliana Bridge was built in 1974 to connect Otrobanda with Punda, making it the second bridge to serve that purpose.

Queen Juliana Bridge | view from the pedestrian Queen Emma Bridge

5. Cross the floating Queen Emma Bridge from Otrobanda to Punda

In 1888, the Queen Emma Bridge (also known as “The Swinging Old Lady”) became the first bridge to connect Otrobanda with Punda. It’s a pedestrian pontoon bridge that opens as needed to let ships pass through into St. Anna Bay.

Before crossing to Punda, be sure to admire the pastel houses from afar.

Top left: Queen Juliana Bridge | bottom right: Queen Emma Bridge

6. Wander along the pastel Punda waterfront

Curaçao’s most iconic landmark: the row of pastel-colored colonial buildings that line the Punda waterfront. After you step off the Queen Emma Bridge, make an immediate left on Handelskade and soak in these bright and beautiful colors up close.

Ominous clouds over the pastel Punda waterfront

7. Visit Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue

Would you have guessed that the oldest continually-used synagogue in the Americas lives in Curaçao? Although today, only a few hundred Jews live on the island (well below 1% of the total population), Curaçao was once home to the largest Jewish community in the “New World.”

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue dates back to 1732, and services are still held in English and Hebrew every Friday night, Saturday morning and on holidays.

  • Open to visitors on weekdays from 9:00am-4:30pm
  • Closed on Saturdays, Sundays, Jewish Festivals and public holidays

8. Explore the local art scene

Willemstad is home to an emerging art scene waiting to be discovered. Explore the side streets of Punda, and you’ll find beautiful street art and a number of galleries.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the Curaçao art scene, here are some recommendations that were given to us:

Or click here for a full list of artists

9. Hop inside your favorite letter in Queen Wilhelmina Park

No visit to Willemstad is complete without an obligatory photo of (or inside of!) the enormous letters that spell out DUSHI and CURAÇAO in Koningin Wilhelminapark (Queen Wilhelmina Park).

What does “dushi” mean? Like the Hebrew word “shalom,” the Papiamento word dushi has several meanings. As a noun, it means “dear” or “sweetheart.” To describe food, it can mean “delicious.” But regarding life in general, dushi is a catch-all for describing “all the good stuff.”

Puttin’ the D in DUSHI
Puttin’ the A in CURAÇAO (one of them at least)

10. Venture beyond the crowds…east of Punda…into Pietermaai

Sadly, many Curaçao visitors don’t explore beyond Otrobanda and Punda. But just a few blocks east of Punda, there’s much more beauty waiting to be discovered—plus far fewer tourists—in the vibrant Pietermaai District. A wander through Pietermaai promises beautiful Dutch-colonial architecture and charming, narrow streets.

Only one row of buildings separates Pietermaai street—the main drag—from the ocean. Find an alley, a parking lot or another opening (there are plenty), and pop on over to the waterfront to enjoy the sound of mellow waves crashing.

Sunset from the Pietermaai District

11. Get a taste of the hippest walking street in town: Nieuwestraat

The Pietermaai District is home to the coolest street we discovered after a week on the island: Nieuwestraat. Colorful pastel buildings line the one-way street, lighting up the area by day. At night, hip outdoor cafés fill up with locals—and a few tourists in the know—as the nightlife engine begins to rev up.

12. Grab a bite to eat

We had fabulous meals at both of these Nieuwestraat restaurants:

  • Ginger: mouthwatering fusion of Caribbean, Asian & Indian flavors (opens at 5pm every day)
  • Mundo Bizarro: good food, relaxed outdoor seating and live music on Saturdays (breakfast, lunch & dinner available; check hours)

13. Kick back with a jazzy nightcap (and maybe a cigar)

Miles’ Jazz Café offers a funky atmosphere staffed with savvy bartenders who know how to mix up a cocktail. Cigars are also available for purchase.

You’ll find more info on their Facebook page than on their website. But what you really need to know is the following: this place exists and offers great vibes. Go check it out!

Where to stay in Willemstad

Search accommodation in Curaçao, and 80% of your results will be within Willemstad and the surrounding area. On Christmas Eve, with no place to stay, we decided to literally knock on doors. In the process, we discovered a gem.

The Pietermaai Boutique Hotel offers modern, spacious accommodation that stands out from the other options in the area. Check out our complete review and get an inside look.

Tip: they’ve only got a handful of rooms & suites. So if you’re planning a Curaçao holiday, lock up your room today, using your preferred link below:

We hope this itinerary helps you plan an amazing self-guided walking tour of Willemstad.

Whether you hit every spot on the list, or diverge a bit and choose your own adventure, you’re guaranteed to find a bit of history, plenty of charm, and a whole lotta color, wandering these streets.