Barbados is, simply put, a gem. Justifiably lauded for its fine, white sands and sparkling crystal seas, the island is considered by many to be the loveliest of all the Caribbean and it isn’t hard to see why. To this stunning idyllic tropical scenery you can add a people famed for their warmth and welcome which make any visit to this beautiful destination even more special.
Its capital, Bridgetown, is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site thanks to a plentiful supply of incredible leftovers from the days when the British ruled the island for 300 years and the tragic trade in slaves for use on the plantations was the norm. Besides the more than 100 historically-listed buildings the result of this island’s fascinating story is everywhere, coloring it with a proud and strong culture mixed together from British, African and indigenous Bajan elements.
Bridgetown is awash with things to see and do from visiting forts, museums and military tunnels to strolling the highly picturesque waterside boardwalk or shopping in 21st century malls.
When it comes to drinking and dining both the food and the atmospheres offered are something exceptional. Barbados is the birthplace of rum and the rum punch in its hundreds of varieties is a ubiquitous find here while elegant afternoon teas are still an island tradition, left over from the days when the wealthy British plantation owners and military officers first introduced it.
Further afield the island has additional delights such as a subterranean cavern complex accessible by tram, amazing snorkeling, the chance to dive down to the seabed on a submarine and mansion houses restored to former glories and surrounded by lush tropical gardens.
A Morning in Bridgetown
The first half of your day is spent exploring the remains of a colonial past which spanned four centuries and are so exceptional they have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Must-visits are the many gems of downtown Bridgetown as well as the Garrison which lies a little to the south. If you want to take in both it is possible if you just pick out a few highlights or alternatively you may prefer to dedicate all your morning to one or the other.
It is also worth mentioning that you can also do both entirely under your own steam. However, many choose to take guided tours because not only do otherwise out-of-bounds areas then become accessible but the history becomes extra vibrant and alive with the extra knowledge that guides can share.
For more than 300 years the British claimed Barbados as their own and so extensive and significant are the historical leftovers from that colonial era that all of downtown Bridgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bridgetown was the most important of the British Empire’s overseas ports for a long while with lucrative maritime trade centered around slavery and sugar production with manned fortifications built to keep its prize safe from other powers of the time such as the French and Dutch. Today Bridgetown and its military garrison are recognized as one of the most outstanding examples of British colonial architecture anywhere in the world with their incredible collection of historical churches, forts, mansions and buildings which emerged over four separate centuries.
The city’s original layout of streets has remained little changed since late medieval times with many arteries retaining their original names. Dotted among the colonial jewels are other outstanding highlights such as one of the oldest synagogues on the planet, fascinating museums and picturesque views of the water. Although the landmarks and sites of interest are many explorers will be happy to know that the downtown area is compact, making it easy to discover each of the major highlights on foot.
Full of highly photo-worthy opportunities, the wharf which runs along the northern edge of the Constitution River is often referred to as the Careenage. This title gives a nod to its use in former times as a place for cleaning and repairing trading boats and ships after long, long journeys over tempestuous seas. Boats were turned on their sides or ‘careened’ and made ready to be loaded up again to begin their long arduous return journeys.
Today this lovely waterfront area is sprinkled with shops and cafes from which those taking a refreshment pause can watch sailboats passing by or gaze across National Heroes Square with the lovely Parliament Buildings forming a backdrop. Although today the scenes here are picturesque and tranquil in a bygone era this was where African slaves would be brought ashore after tortuous journeys of thousands of miles and then auctioned off to the highest bidder. Be sure to pause at the commemorative plaque which pays tribute to the ́strength and resilience ́ of the many who endured this fate along with all those who ́fought in the cause of the abolition of the slave trade.
National Heroes Square
This tree-dotted square with its clam-shell fountain is another of the Bridgetown spots whose present day loveliness belies a brutal past. Plantation owners would bring their slaves here in order to inflict public humiliation and punishment with floggings and imprisonment within a cage. Understandably now viewed by islanders as something of a shrine to their ancestors, the square is ironically (and controversially) home to a 19th century statue of Admiral Nelson –a man known to have held strong negative views about the abolition of slavery.
The other significant monument in the square is the Cenotaph which honors those islanders which fell in World War I and II.
Dominating the northern end of National Heroes Square are the majestic Victorian era Parliament Buildings. Beautifully constructed using pale coral limestone in the 1870s in a Neo-Gothic style, the west wing features a clock tower which is one of the city ́s most distinctive landmarks viewable from various points around town. The east wing is adorned with some exquisite stained glass windows which depict the monarchs of the English throne from the 1600s until Queen Victoria. Today this structure continues to serve as the island ́s government seat as it has since its very beginning although of course today the Barbados flag flies from atop its tower rather than that of the British.
The Parliament Buildings are also home to the small and modern Museum of Parliament and The National Heroes Gallery. Besides the interactive exhibits which take you on a journey through Barbados political history from its 17th century colonial beginnings to the event of independence in the 20th century, you will also be able to tour parts of this beautiful building and its historic chambers.
St. Michael’s Cathedral
A two minute walk from the Parliament Buildings will bring you to the Anglican cathedral of St. Michael’s which dates from 1789 and which inside houses the largest pipe organ found anywhere in the Caribbean. The lovely stained glass windows throw colored light across the interior chapel while the marble baptismal font dates from the 17thcentury. This was salvaged from the original church predating the current structure and which was destroyed during a hurricane in 1780.
The Chamberlain Bridge
You can now double back to the wharf and walk across the iconic Chamberlain Bridge which spans the capital’s Constitution River. When the British arrived in the 1600s there was already an indigenous people-erected wooden bridge on this site. The British replaced the original primitive structure with a series of wooden bridges which through reason of fire or hurricane didn’t survive until eventually a stone bridge was built. This was converted to a swing bridge in the late 1800s and then true modernization came in 2006 when the bridge became a lift bridge.
If you cross the bridge you will pass through the stone Independence Arch and emerge into Independence Park which is home to a statue of local hero Errol Walton Barrow –the island ́s first prime minister and the man who led the fight to free Barbados from the ties of British rule.
The Blackwood Screw Dock
100m from the end of the bridge brings you to a site known as the Blackwood Screw Dock or Dry Dock. Originally this lifting dock which raised sailing craft from the water in order to carry out repairs was run on steam, built as it was during the Victorian era. It is now the only remaining example of its kind in the world and only ceased commercial operations in 1985.
You can explore the Maritime Centre here and see both historical artifacts and some original photographs from the dry dock’s earliest days.
The Nidhe Israel Jewish Synagogue
Crossing back over the Chamberlain Bridge again you can walk 600m north and find one of the city’s oldest buildings. This time it has nothing to do with British settlers but instead is the work of Jewish people who were fleeing religious persecution in South America in the 1600s.
Painted in pink and looking rather more like an elegant home than a religious building, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue – one of the oldest in all of the Americas – has occupied this site since 1654 although much of what you see today is the result of restorations following hurricane destruction in 1831. The beautiful mahogany and marble interiors have been reconstructed to resemble the original as closely as possible incorporating chandeliers and pineapple sculptures.
One of the synagogue’s most fascinating features is something which although extremely old was only unearthed in 2008 during an archaeological dig. What first emerged as a piece of marble was discovered to be an entire marble stairway which led down to granite-floored 8ft x 4ft chamber. This was the synagogue’s original mikveh –a ritual bathing pool dating from the mid-1600s. A natural spring filled the chamber with water and the alcoves which would have held lamps can still be clearly seen.
Today the synagogue is an active place of worship again while also serving as home to a museum which relates the story of Judaism in the Americas and Caribbean and on a more specific level of Jewish people in Barbados and the role they have played on the island. The museum’s displays also include several of the many thousands of artifacts which were unearthed on the site during the archaeological digs. If you choose to visit the museum a visit to the incredible mikveh is part of your experience.
You might also like to take a stroll around the cemetery next door where the oldest tombstone found to date is from 1658.
Morning Coffee in Bridgetown
For a lovely spot overlooking the Careenage from the south side of the river head to the Waterfront Cafe and gaze at the moored boats as you enjoy a morning pause. This tranquil spot removed from the bustling hub northwards offers you tables right by the waterside or a charming lounge interior of beautiful wall murals and vibrant Caribbean artwork. If you prefer a cold refreshment instead of coffee you can try some cooling Bajan lemonade and there is usually a cake selection if you are feeling in need of something to keep your energy levels up until lunch.
Another option which places you right beside the Garrison where your morning explorations will continue is the Coffee Barbados Cafe. Serving up coffee which many insist is the best on the island, this tucked away gem is one for the coffee connoisseurs and also a great choice for history fans. Coffee Barbados occupies what was once the 19thcentury stable building of the historical George Washington House and the gorgeous patio here allows you to gaze upon the tropical bloom-filled garden as you enjoy your exceptional quality coffee which comes in either iced or hot forms.
Exploring the Barbados Garrison and Its Historical Attractions
Part of the Bridgetown UNESCO World Heritage Site, St. Ann ́s Garrison is arguably one of the best places found anywhere in the Caribbean from which to appreciate the extent and complex history of British colonialism. Nowhere this side of the Atlantic has such an old nor complete example of this type.
Incorporated within the site are not just the historical military buildings and fortifications but also a tunnel network, the George Washington House, the Barbados National Armoury and the Barbados Museum.
The Garrison and Savannah
The British were fully aware that their Caribbean prize –first claimed in the 1600s -was far from secure unless they could defend it from other would-be colonizers who at the time were seizing various Caribbean islands as their own. Consequently, just a few decades after first settling, St. Ann’s Fort was raised for defense purposes and by the later part of the 1700sa full military garrison had been established. The West India Regiment was to continue here until 1906 and today those very same buildings which once housed soldiers and officers of the British Empire are serving the same or similar purposes for the Barbados Defence Force.
It isn’t only the structures themselves either which continue in similar roles to their original. The vast parade ground here known as the Garrison Savannah was once also the scene of horse races staged between British military officers and plantation owners and today the Barbados Turf Club continue to hold race meetings here.
Also within the huge area are several buildings which were once part of the military garrison but are now privately owned such as the offices of the Barbados TurfClub which were formerly officers’ quarters and the premises of the Barbados Yacht Club which were once the commanding officer’s private dwelling.
Arguably the most notable of all the Garrison’s historic buildings is the plum, sage and white Main Guard with its clock tower which date from 1803. The mounted cannons you can see here are genuine British weapons from the 1600s and beautifully preserved. If you are lucky enough to be visiting on a Thursday you will be treated to the sight of the formal guard-changing ceremony which takes place in front of the Main Guard at noon. Although these days the scene is one of re-enactment rather than current military practice with the ceremony performed by retired armed forces personnel, it is still a moving and not-to-be-missed sight. The guards sport the original scarlet-jacketed Zouave uniform which was assigned by Queen Victoria to the regiment in 1858.
Although you can wander by yourself and discover any number of historic leftovers the best way to fully understand what you are seeing is to take a tour. Doing so also allows you privileged access to certain places which would otherwise be off limits.
One garrison element which has only just come to light again is a network of tunnels dating from the early 1800s. So extensive are these underground passageways that their full scale is still being explored and no-one is completely sure as yet what purpose they served beyond drainage. The existence of the tunnels was discovered during building works at George Washington House in 2011 and visitors can tour these subterranean passages with a guide through their only access located in this historic building.
George Washington House
Before this house became quarters for British officers it was a private mansion residence and in 1751 a 19-year-old man and his brother, an invalid sick with tuberculosis, rented it for six weeks with the hope of bringing relief to his symptoms. The house was then known as Bush Hill House and the man, who never again made a journey outside of the US, was later to become the first president of the United States –George Washington.
The ground floor has been decorated and furnished exactly as it would have been when Washington stayed here and you can step back more than 250 years as you stroll through the rooms where this famous man once walked. The upper level has been converted into an exhibition space and the house also has a theater room where you can watch a short film which relates the events of Washington’s time on the island and the part it played in the political events which were to unfold later.
The Barbados National Armoury
Only accessible by tour, this armory museum is located inside St. Ann’s Fort in what was formerly a powder magazine storage facility. Along with military artifacts, the collection of artillery here is extensive and includes rare pieces from the 1600s and what amounts to the largest number of English cannons from the 1600s found together anywhere on the planet.
The Barbados Museum and Historical Society
Housed inside the Garrison’s former prison can be found the excellent Barbados Museum which is an essential inclusion for anyone who wants to understand the island’s cultural heritage and the various chapters of its story.
The non-profit museum is divided into themed galleries such as social history, decorative arts, military, island flora and fauna and African heritage which in their entirety encompass all things Barbados beginning from the very earliest habitation by man 4,000 years ago.
Lunch in Bridgetown
Like several of the Caribbean islands, Barbados cuisine reflects its cultural mix and history which in short means there is incredible diversity. While just about anything is possible the menus of the Barbados restaurants and cafes tend to be full of seafood choices, not a surprising feature for an island nation which is surrounded by waters full of nature’s bounty. The venues come in every form too, from street food stalls wafting mouthwatering aromas to elegant restaurants sophisticated enough to satisfy even the most discerning diner.
While each of us have different definitions of what constitutes the perfect lunch spot a combination of great value, lovely surroundings and plentiful quality food tend to tick all the right boxes for most people. At the charming Brown Sugar–located within the Garrison historic area and so wonderfully convenient –you can have all of this with a feast-like all-you-can-eat buffet lunch. Some true classic Barbados delights such as Bajan fish cakes, pepperpot, flying fish and pickled breadfruit are here to be sampled along with a seemingly endless choice of other mains, sides and desserts full of Caribbean flavors.
Although the food is enough of a draw to tempt both a steady stream of tourists and locals Brown Sugar’s location is also part of its allure. The setting is an old island home with ferns and exotic blooms adorning the dining patio while the wall murals add a colorful Caribbean touch. If you ́re lucky you will also be treated to live steel band performances during your lunch too.
Another way to sample something 100% Barbados is to head to Cuz ́s Fish Shackwhich is less than 100m west of Brown Sugar and so also conveniently close for when you have finished exploring the historical highlights of the Garrison.
Sitting at the southern end of Carlisle Bay -arguably the island ́s most tropically idyllic beach –Cuz ́s truly is a little wooden shack which you perhaps wouldn’t glance twice at but all those who pass it by without a thought are missing out on one of Barbados’s top culinary treats.
Island folk drive from far and wide to line up at lunchtime for one of Cuz ́s fish cutters which many insist is not just the finest on the island but on an international scale. Once your legendary sandwich filled with fresh fish, salad, egg and cheese has been delivered into your hands along with an ice-cold beer you can pick your palm-tree shaded spot overlooking the sea to enjoy it and find out what all the fuss is about.
An Afternoon in Bridgetown and Surrounds
Once you decide it is time to head off exploring again after lunch you can choose between an exciting tram journey into a natural wonderland of caves or stay closer to Bridgetown to enjoy any of the downtown highlights you didn’t have time to fit into your morning. Into this you can also slot one of the centuries old island traditions of taking afternoon tea just as the privileged colonial wealthy did in bygone days.
A Tram Journey into Harrison’s Cave
Easily accessible from Bridgetown is one of the island’s greatest geological treasures –Harrison’s Cave. This magical subterranean destination is a wonderland of underground streams, tranquil crystal pools and waterfalls, grand caverns, towering stalagmites and awe-inspiring stalactites which have formed over thousands of years. The oldest of these latter two have joined together to form complete columns which stretch from ceiling to floor.
The cave’s existence has been known about since at least the 1700s although its difficult access kept it from any sort of development until the 1970s. At this time the government decided to fund a project which allowed visitors to tour the delights on an open tram which is today the way most will enjoy this experience. The trams come complete with guides who will explain the formations you are seeing and the sounds you can hear and there are several stops and exhibitions where you can get off and explore at your own leisure.
More adventurous visitors can don hard-hat and headlamp to explore on foot exactly as those who first entered the caves would have done. This one requires a little agility though as some of the passages are only accessible on hands and knees. There is also another walk-in option –a bit less strenuous -which is offered once a month.
An Afternoon Alternative – Afternoon Tea
Once upon a time afternoon tea was a daily ritual on Barbados for the wealthy British who were continuing a centuries old tradition for the higher classes from back home in England. Today this tradition lives on and throughout Bridgetown you will find establishments serving elegant teas in beautiful surroundings.
For an experience of this kind which truly transports you back to the grandeur of the colonial era head to the Sunbury Plantation just a short taxi ride from town. More than three centuries old, this gorgeous former plantation house has been painstakingly restored and is now considered to be the island’s (some say the Caribbean’s) most stunning mansion. It is also packed with an outstanding collection of antiques which includes old horse-drawn carriages.
The stylish afternoon tea of sandwiches, cakes, and scones with cream is served in the open-air courtyard surrounded by tropical greenery. If you prefer to stay in town you also have choices such as the Water’s Edge Restaurant, part of the upmarket Bougainvillea Resort, which serves classic afternoon tea overlooking a private beach.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Bridgetown
From tiny rum bars to chic cocktail lounges and beach-side shack barbecues to haute cuisine venues, Barbados really does have it all on the drinking and dining scene. Choose from background soundtracks which include nothing more than the rhythm of the sea to the energy-filled melodies of a steel band and while the island’s multi-cultural food choices are seemingly endless seafood lovers especially are going to be in heaven.
It is almost impossible to think of the Caribbean without the image of colorful cocktails springing to mind at the same time and Barbados doesn’t disappoint on this front. Mojitos, daiquiris, piña coladas and many more all-time favorites are all here but for the adventurous there are 101 new inventions to try too with many establishments creating something uniquely their own.
For an extensive choice of perfectly mixed cocktails head to Scarlet. The chic interior of this former chattel house is a vision of red and black accented by sparkling glass and with walls adorned in pop-art images of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. If you are a daiquiri fan you have to try the apple variety here which is something of an island rarity and should you need something to keep you going until the main event of dinner the Bajan snacks are considered top-notch.
For those in search of cocktails but who prefer to sip on their drinks alfresco with a Caribbean Sea view the Cafe Sol in St. Lawrence Gap is another choice. Established for more than two decades this well-loved spot has had plenty of time to refine its art and the margaritas here which come in an incredible number of varieties are considered by many to be the island’s best. The mojito range is also extensive while other offerings include beer and sangria and with the venue offering two separate happy hours you can try out a few of them without breaking the bank.
Cafe Sol’s vibe is lively with a touch of refinement and the setting lovely. The interior is all bright yellows, blues and reds with beautifully painted wall decorations and interesting knick-knacks dotted around. At night the candles and lanterns create a cozy and romantic space while the open-air patio looks straight onto St. Lawrence Bay.
While cocktails are abundant the one drink which is found everywhere is rum punch. Barbados is where rum was accidentally invented, so the story goes, back in the 1600s and today the island is home to some of the oldest distilleries on the planet producing what is generally accepted to be among the best rum in existence.
Mixing rum punches has been turned into an art form with the results ranging from subtle differences which only true connoisseurs would notice to flavor sensations that are obvious to anyone.
If you want to make rum the focus of your sundowner drinks and are keen to see how the locals do it head to the John Moore Bar–one of the island’s longest running rum shops. Should you be looking for shiny refinement this slightly ramshackle rum shack might not fit the bill but if you want an idyllic setting and the chance to sample something quintessentially Caribbean it doesn’t get any better than this.
The back deck here has you stepping straight onto the sands of a tucked-away beach so you can sip your rum punch or Banks beer while watching the locals play dominoes and enjoying the sea breeze.
Like island destinations almost everywhere that have rich fishing waters encircling their shores the restaurants of Barbados tend to offer an especial treat for seafood lovers. From street-food stalls to fine dining spots fish and shellfish in incredible varieties is a menu staple with options such as the atmospheric but unpretentious Lobster Alivean ideal choice.
Some of the highlights of Lobster Alive are the live soft jazz, the wonderful vibe and a beach deck with some tables planted right on the sand but the ultimate draw here is the incredible lobster. Succulent spiny lobsters arrive here via the owner’s small aircraft from Bequia Island to be placed alive in the restaurant’s tank. So huge is this feature which will hold as much as 3000lbs of lobster at any one moment that a ́lobster man ́ has to actually get into it to fish out the orders which are then turned into delectable dishes for the patrons.
For those who opted for sundowners in St. Lawrence Gap it will take little effort to transition from drinks to dining. Located just eight kilometers south of Bridgetown this area serves as the island’s restaurant and bar hub and your options are plentiful. One of these is the Castaways Bar and Grill whose menu features a little of everything including pastas and pizza.
This is a beautiful spot for romantically-inclined beach-lovers and alfresco fans as the charming fairy-light-sprinkled wooden balcony here perches you just over the water and if you dine early you will be treated to one of Barbados’s amazing sunsets as an extra treat.
An Evening in Bridgetown
Catching the ocean breeze with a favorite drink in hand at one of the many beach bars is of course an obvious way to round off your Bridgetown day. However, if you still have some energy left and want to keep exploring to the last there are also some wonderful choices.
The Garrison’s history-infused buildings which collectively tell the story of centuries of colonial might are not just possible to explore as a daytime experience. Join a highly atmospheric night tour to uncover the more mysterious, chilling and at times macabre past of this area with an expert guide. During the tour which takes in George Washington House, the Military Cemetery, the subterranean tunnels and more you will visit sites of executions and murders and hear the background stories behind these gruesome events.
For an evening of underwater wonder and a journey along the seabed climb onboard a real submarine for a true bucket-list experience. The Atlantis Submarine Tours will take you down 150ft and although this journey is possible in daylight hours doing it at night adds considerably to the romance and atmosphere where the amazing coral reefs and the unbelievable nocturnal aquatic life which teems there are lit up in glorious color by the submarine lights. At the end of your dive you can share cocktails and snacks with the dive crew and ask any of the questions you might still have from an experience which is as unique as it gets anywhere in the world.
If you’re ready to take on Barbados and visit these incredible hotspots, contact one of our vacation planners today!