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Historic Willemstad Tour: Great Views, Dining and Shopping

Handelskade Willemstad
Handelskade waterfront; © Curacao Tourism Board

Willemstad is the capital city of Curaçao and quite possibly the best attraction on the island because of its historical and cultural attractions.

Out of all the cruise ports in the Caribbean, Willemstad is one of our favorites. What makes a walking tour of Willemstad so appealing is the colorful and historic inner city, which consists of the Punda and Otrobanda districts.

Dutch influences are everywhere; Curaçao is a “constituent country” in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The fascinating mix of Dutch and Caribbean culture along with its colonial history have made Willemstad a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Punda and Otrobanda districts are separated by a photographic canal and inner harbor. Punda is on the eastern side and Otrobanda on the western.

Pedestrians cross over the floating Queen Emma Bridge to reach the other side. Drivers use the high arching Queen Juliana Bridge.

We had two lengthy walking tours of historic Willemstad during a week-long trip to Curaçao. The weather was perfect on the days we visited.

We did the walking tours on our own. Otherwise, visitors can take a guided shore excursion with transportation that visits the highlights of Willemstad as well as other attractions on the island. A guided shore excursion will cost about $60 to $70 per person.

But Willemstad by itself can occupy hours of time with the amount of dining and shopping in its large tourism district.

Otrobanda District

Willemstad Map

Cruise visitors will dock at Otrobanda on the western side and find several interesting places to see and shop almost immediately.

The most obvious is the Riffort (also known as Rif Fort), built in 1828 to protect the city. The ramparts have been restored, and it has become Riffort Village. It offers shopping, restaurants and great views of both Punda and the Caribbean sea.

At the same location is Renaissance Mall, named after Marriott’s Renaissance Curacao Resort that is the centerpiece of the development.

Visitors will find about 50 shops and 15 restaurants and bars scattered throughout the mall and Riffort.

For more shopping, go to Breedestraat, which is the main shopping street for the district.

Just outside of Riffort is the Brionplein (Brion Plaza). It faces the harbor entrance and also reveals the Queen Emma Bridge. Local merchants set up stalls of locally made arts and crafts. Note that few are available on Sundays. The majority appear when cruise ships dock.

Several restaurants line this side of the harbor entrance and offer outdoor seating with more nice views of the area. The seating along the canal that separates the Punda and Otrobanda districts is especially inviting.

Then it is time to cross Queen Emma Bridge over the canal and into Punda. But first it is worth pausing by the bridge to absorb the view that lies ahead.

Punda District

Willemstad Curacao shopping
Willemstad floating market; © Curacao Tourism Board

The view of Punda from across the water is striking because of Handelskade, Punda’s famously colorful waterfront.

It is the main reason why Willemstad’s historic district is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist attraction.

When the visitor has taken plenty of photographs of Handelskade from the Otrobanda side of the river, it’s again time to cross over Queen Emma Bridge, also known as the Swinging Old Lady.

The bridge is a swinging pontoon bridge. It opens and closes sideways rather than up and down for ships that pass between the ocean and the inner harbor. It is the only one of its kind in the world.

Bridge gates will close and prevent pedestrians from crossing over until the ships have gone through it.

Once across, visitors will note Fort Amsterdam on the right. It is the city’s most prominent historical building, built in 1635 to protect the city and harbor. It is now home of the Netherland Antilles governor.

On the left, tourists may wander along a long line of open-air cafe tables that sit in front of the colorful Handelskade buildings. They draw numerous visitors who sit there for more relaxed and casual views of the water and the city.

Punda Is More About Shopping

But Punda has fewer restaurants than Otrobanda. It is much more about shopping.

The district has about a half dozen streets running in one direction and a half dozen running in the other.

We noticed that few shops sell typical tourist fare—i.e., T-shirts, coffee mugs with Curaçao stamped on it and so forth.

Instead, they all were filled with shops selling imported goods in the middle range of quality. One exception was the floating market with boats that brought all kinds of fruits, vegetables, bread, fish and other food to sell to tourists and locals.

Attractions within the district include the Maritime Museum and the Mikve Israel-Emanuel synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, dating back to 1732.

Plan on at least two hours to walk through all of the streets within the Punda shopping district. Plan on a longer than average lunch or dinner if sitting by the water.

Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. He is the author of four books about cruising in the Caribbean, Alaska and Mexican Riviera.
November 19, 2022

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