Calming pastels and other vibrant pops of color everywhere you look, the city of Willemstad is inviting, to say the least. This city is the capital of Dutch Caribbean island Curaçao and it is one of those destinations where travellers can really be immersed in a melting pot of culture and adventure.
Before we get into it, let’s talk a little about Curaçao. This Caribbean island is lively, beautiful and part of the ABC island chain that includes Aruba and Bonaire. Curaçao is about 45 miles north of Venezuela and has heavy Dutch influences. Curaçao is known for many things including its amazing beaches, great diving, well preserved history as can be seen in its many museums and art galleries, and the endless adventures that can be found in and around Willemstad.
When looking for some of the most amazing things to do in Curaçao you’ll find it is a good idea to start by exploring Willemstad. This city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its Dutch inspired architecture, 17th and 18th century fortifications, lively markets, great shopping centres, and so much more.
If you’re planning to travel to Curaçao and don’t know where to start, this Willemstad city guide will for sure point you in the right direction!
In this article on the Sandals Blog:
History of Willemstad
Top 10 points of interest in Willemstad
Five best places to dine in Willemstad
Five best places to shop in Willemstad
Top events and festivals in Willemstad
Best time to visit Willemstad
The bright and eclectic historic city center of Willemstad is made up of four quarters, of which Punda and Otrobanda are the most well known. Otrobanda literally translates to the ‘other side’ and is joined to Punda by the Queen Emma and Queen Wilhelmina pontoon bridges over Sint Anna Bay.
Willemstad is named after Dutch governor Willem II van Oranje. The city was named after him just after the island was conquered by the Dutch in 1634. Before then, the island was occupied by Spain, which explains both the Spanish and Dutch influences of this island. In fact, one of Curaçao’s core languages, Papiamento, was influenced heavily by Dutch, Venezuelan Spanish and Portuguese.
Historically, Willemstad has been known as a hub for the Atlantic slave trade. Later on the city became known for petroleum storage and refining, as well as banking and - of course - as the much loved tourist hotspot it is known today.
Willemstad is an artsy city, with murals and other forms of street art all around. There’s actually a law which stipulates that the buildings in Handelskade Street in Punda in particular, remain pastel colored and as quaint and lovely as they are.
Love dolphins? If yes, chances are you’ll love ‘the ultimate dolphin experience’ at Dolphin Academy in Curaçao. Open since 2002, there are over 20 Coastal Bottlenose dolphins at the Academy that visitors can interact with. At Dolphin Academy you’ll be able to swim with the dolphins as well as take in fun shows and other activities including Dolphin Snorkel, Dolphin Encounter, Open Water Dolphin Dive, Dolphin Swim, and more.
The ‘Swinging Old Lady’, which is the name the Queen Emma Bridge goes by locally, is a pontoon bridge in the city of Willemstad. It is hard to miss when in this area especially when it opens to accommodate passing ships. When the bridge is closed it can be cool to walk over and admire the city from this vantage, and when it is open, locals and visitors can take one of two free public ferries to get between the Punda and Otrobanda parts of town.
Curaçao has an interesting Jewish history which can be recounted at the Jewish Cultural-Historical Museum. This museum is part of the 1651 Mikvé Israel Emanuel Synagogue which dates back to 1651. The museum itself is small but inside you can find a wealth of information and exhibits including a centerpiece which is the original mikveh (bath) from a former rabbi’s residence. There’s also a Torah scroll on display which is said to have been brought to Curaçao by the first Jewish settlers.
Landhuis Chobolobo famously produces Blue Curaçao liquor from the peel of Valencia oranges found on the grounds of this plantation. It is located on the eastern end of the Schottegat, and while in Curaçao, it’ll be totally possible to sign up for an interactive and informational tour of this plantation where you can learn about its history, the production process of Blue Curaçao, and how it all began. There’s also a gift shop on the property where you’ll be able to buy your own bottle of Blue Curaçao to take home.
Inside Museum Kura Hulanda you’ll find important tidbits on Curaçao’s history including information about the slave trade, the culture of the people who were enslaved, and the abolition of slavery. This museum is set up in a 19th-century merchant’s house and slave quarters. Visitors to Kura Hulanda can also check out the impressive collection of West African art and artifacts and view the sculpture garden which highlights African influences on the culture of Caribbean islands like Curaçao.
Several times a day the Queen Wilhelmina Bridge in Willemstad Curaçao swings open to accommodate passing ships and this can be quite the spectacle. Not only is this pontoon bridge cool to watch, it can also be fun for strolling and sightseeing when the bridge is down and there are no boats in sight. If you do decide to cross this bridge while in Curaçao, definitely stop and take a selfie if time is on your side!
The Curaçao Sea Aquarium is great if you’re looking for a family-friendly attraction in Curaçao, or just somewhere to spend the day where you can get up close to marine life. You can choose to do the Ocean Lens experience at the Sea Aquarium which will give you a glimpse of Curaçao’s sea life while letting you stay perfectly dry, or try the Sea Lion Encounter which may just result in you getting the sweetest kiss on the cheek from an adorable sea lion. If you want something a bit more thrilling you’ll be able to feed sharks as part of the Animal Encounter, or just meet, greet, and feed some of the other sea life at the aquarium.
Mambo Beach promises lots of excitement for vacationers looking for an energetic scene. Just about any time of day you can check out the Mambo Beach Boulevard which includes lots of shopping options with the Curaçao Sea Aquarium nearby. Mambo Beach itself has a sprinkling of luxury beach clubs and restaurants that are worth checking out while in this area. Usually it costs around USD$3.50 to get onto Mambo Beach, but if you visit one of the beach clubs in the Boulevard area you’ll be able to access the beach for free.
There are many highlights of the Curaçao Maritime Museum experience but among the things that leave the biggest impression is the working model of the Steam for Oil refinery that has been at the center of the island’s economy for years. Other than that there are displays that detail parts of the island’s history touching on things like the Dutch West India Co., the slave trade, the growth and progression of Willemstad, and more. There are biweekly labor tours also run by this museum which can be fun, and it might just be worth it to do a combination tour to get the most out of this experience.
Built in 1634, Fort Amsterdam is also one of the oldest historic landmarks of this island. There’s a church at this fort that is still used for weekly services and tell tale signs like the cannonball from a British ship that remains embedded in the exterior wall of the church, speak of the volatile conflicts involving Europeans that once took center stage on this Caribbean isle. Fort Amsterdam also houses the Office of the Governor General of Curaçao.
Also read: 54 Amazing Things To Do In Curaçao to get a better idea what else there is to do on the island, outside of Willemstad.
If you’re looking for an elegant dining experience with delectable menu options, The Wine Cellar can be the perfect choice. This establishment’s reviews speak of ‘phenomenal food’, ‘a great atmosphere’, and ‘impeccable service’. Popular menu items here include the stuffed mushrooms, rack of lamb, and lobster bisque. You can also try the crêpes Suzette which is a favorite with diners and sample the wide selection of wines available.
Art and innovation collide at Kome restaurant in Pietermaai which presents a menu that includes everything from sandwiches and pasta, to beef brisket and baked goods. Kome’s interior is trendy and inviting and it’ll be quite the treat to order one of the favorites off their menu complemented by a craft cocktail made with fresh fruit juice. Popular dishes include the chicken and waffles, hanger steak, the calamari, the fish tacos and the duck.
From the restored colonial building where this restaurant is housed, the view is nothing short of mesmerizing. Add to that the delicious Dutch and Caribbean inspired food served here and what you’ll have is one of the best places to dine in Curaçao. From this restaurant you can delight in unrivalled views of Sint Annabaai and have the most romantic evening at the sophisticated bar which includes a terrace. Popular dishes include the Caribbean chicken, the steak grilled on the Green Egg, the beef stew and the salads.
The location, service and food stand out at this establishment and the views of the open sea definitely add some points to the overall appeal. Diners love the risotto, tenderloin, grouper and the Chef’s Choice surprise menu this establishment offers and also just stopping by to hang out and enjoy some drinks and appetizers. Overall, BijBlauw is worth trying at least once while in Willemstad.
Old Market in Willemstad is a popular place to dine for authentic island cuisine with specialty items like pumpkin pancakes, whole red snapper, cactus or goat stew, and more. Customers usually sit at picnic tables inside the large barn looking building that houses this restaurant to dine. This is definitely a good eatery for the adventurous foodie.
Foodies will love all-inclusive resort Sandals Royal Curacao! This resort offers its guests 9 unique restaurants and 3 food trucks. The best part? Food and (alcoholic) drinks are always included, always unlimited!
Curaçao is one of those islands that is known for good shopping. This is a duty-free port, and things like embroidered linen, clogs, cheese, art, craft, and much more can be found in abundance. Most of the good shopping spots are near Punda and Otrobanda’s Breedestraat.
Curaçao is great for shopping, and Punda is one of those places where you’ll find a variety of options whether you’re looking for souvenirs, clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, electronics, or something else. The streets in this area are pedestrian-only so you won't have too difficult of a time getting around. Aside from the shopping, in Punda you’ll be struck by the beauty and vibrancy of the streets and the openness of the people who’re always willing to point you in the right direction.
Mambo Beach Boulevard is every part the entertainment strip you’d expect to find on a happening Caribbean island like Curaçao. This strip is great for shopping, dining, and entertainment with plenty of room left over to dive into the crystal clear waters of Mambo Beach which is one of the best beaches in Curaçao. No matter the time of day you visit Mambo Beach Boulevard, there’s always something interesting to do!
There are about 50 shops at the Renaissance Mall & Rif Fort which offer a little something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for something cool to wear, jewelry or accessories, beauty products, or pretty much anything under the sun (including famous brands!), you’ll find something to suit at this unique shopping mall which is housed in an old Fort.
Good to know: Punda and Rif Fort are within 10-minute walking distance from each other and shoppers often combine the two when exploring Willemstad.
Zuikertuin Mall is ideal for an intimate shopping experience especially if you don’t have a lot of time to spare, but want something specific. There are around 25 shops at this mall, 5 restaurants and a market. Zuikertuin opens from 9:00am - 8:00pm Monday to Saturday, and on every first Sunday of the month from 10:00am - 4:00pm.
Sambil is a shopping center in Curaçao where you can also find entertainment, restaurants and sometimes even events happening. There’s a kids’ park, bowling alley, a trampoline park known as the ‘Xtreme Zone’, a cinema, an interactive technological center for the whole family known as the ‘Click Zone’, a family train inside the mall, Rodito rides for shopping and entertainment, and even soccer fields. Of course, there’s also shopping! If you can get away from all the excitement for a while you just might be able to walk away with more than a couple of good finds.
Heineken is known for hosting super fun events and in Curaçao one of the brand’s standout happenings is the Curaçao Heineken Regatta. This is a sporty event held late in January which sails off from Willemstad. Usually spanning for three days, sailors compete for a monetary prize while spectators enjoy beach barbecues and parties.
Islands are made for jazzy festivals like the Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival where you can let your hair down as your body sways to rhythmic and captivating tunes. This music festival is one of the most popular in Curaçao and it involves two days of excitement in Piscadera Bay. This festival usually happens in the month of August on this island and features artists from around the world. While jazz is the main attraction, other genres including soul, hip hop, and R&B are also played and performed, particularly during the week leading up to the big event.
Held in the low season, Restaurant Week in Curaçao is a great time to travel to the island if you want to indulge in specials from many different restaurants on the island and enjoy an array of cuisines. During Restaurant week which is usually held in October, hundreds of restaurants join in on the fun, many offering delectable 3-course meals at amazing prices. This event tends to go past one week and it is a great way to get bang for your buck when it comes to tasting the best Curaçao has to offer.
The cycling crowd will love the Amstel Curaçao Race which is about 50 miles long (80 km). This cycle race happens at the start of the high season in November and usually sees some big names in the cycling world. If you’re traveling with family, this is not only a great event to check out while in Curaçao, but it is an amazing time to visit this island overall.
Tip: For a complete overview of all events throughout the year, read our ‘best time to visit Curaçao’ article!
The best time to visit capital city Willemstad coincides with the best time to visit Curaçao which is between the months of December and mid-April. These months are considered peak season, and around this time of year there’s usually more activities happening on island and great temperatures.
Although this can be a great time to go, there’s hardly a bad time to visit Willemstad or Curaçao in general as this island has consistently warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine. Though there is a wet season from October to December, you’re unlikely to see long-lasting rains as this is mostly a dry island.
A vacation as exotic as one on the island of Curaçao requires accommodation that is just as memorable. A hassle free option would be an all-inclusive resort, and there are a few options to choose from in Curaçao including Sandals’ newest resort in Curaçao which is located on a 30-minute drive from Willemstad.
Sandals Royal Curaçao is an adults-only resort, designed for couples, featuring 350 luxurious rooms and suites.
The resort offers guests unlimited food and (alcoholic) drinks at 8 restaurants and 3 food trucks. Guests are able to enjoy free water sports, and free snorkeling and scuba diving trips. Golf aficionados also have access to the neighboring 18-hole, par 72 Pete Dye championship golf course with ocean views.
The three main languages spoken in Curaçao are English, Dutch, and Papiamento.
There are no ride-sharing services on the island of Curaçao, but you can try the option of a shared taxi while there which can be less costly than a regular taxi.
Yes, you’ll be able to find taxis to get around in while in Curaçao. It’ll be easy to recognize official taxis on this island as they have a licence plate with the letters “TX”. Taxis on this island are not metered and drivers rely on fare-sheets to calculate charges. Some taxi drivers do upon request take on the role of tour guide, taking visitors to different parts of the island. If this is the kind of service you’re interested in, let your driver know in advance.
It can be helpful to get a car rental in Curaçao, but this isn’t always needed. You can explore the various attractions by taxi or even by public bus. If you’ll be staying at all-inclusive resort Sandals Royal Curaçao the top-level rooms include a MINI Cooper which you can use to explore the island during your stay, free of charge.
Great nightlife is one of the things Curaçao is known for. While on the regular this is mostly a chill and peaceful island, at nights things heat up with quite a few bars and clubs. Beachside bars are especially popular in Curaçao, like those around Mambo Beach which often feature DJs and live music. Curaçao also has several music festivals annually including Carnival and King’s Day celebrations.
The currency used in Curaçao is the Netherlands Antillean guilder.
Start with a hard ‘C’, and keep in mind that the ‘ç’ (c-cedilla) is pronounced as an “S”. When you say it out loud Curaçao should sound something like ‘Cure-ah-souw’.
Water temperatures on Curaçao’s beaches are on average 81°F (27°C) annually which is perfect for cooling off without getting too chilly.
Willemstad is one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean. It is perfect for the vacationer looking for a city that has it all, somewhere that is also in close enough proximity to some of the best all-inclusive resorts in Curaçao.
The beauty and color of Willemstad are among the first things you’ll notice when you get there. As you explore, you’ll encounter more and more fascinating people, and as you get to know more about Willemstad and Curaçao in general, you’ll experience some of the most interesting things to do on this island. One thing’s for sure, your memories in Willemstad will last a lifetime.