Things to do in Curaçao – A Day in Willemstad

If you find yourself vacationing on Curaçao, I highly recommend paying at least a short visit to Willemstad, the island’s capital, which also served as the capital city of the Netherlands Antilles, prior to its dissolution in 2010.

Willemstad, probably most known for its famous row of colorful waterfront houses, is not only picturesque, but also boasts some impressive history. The city’s excellent location in the Caribbean facilitated its role as a hub for regional trade for hundreds of years. Willemstad has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site and remains one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean, regularly serving as a port of call for large cruise ships as well as cargo vessels. Willemstad is best explored on foot and has actually been named one of the best walking cities in the world.

Tip: If you are staying at Hilton Curaçao, as our family did, a visit to Willemstad is very easy via the free shuttle the hotel provides for its guests twice a day. Just make sure to reserve your spot a day in advance at the front desk as the shuttle has limited seating and fills up quickly.

Here are a several interesting things to do in Willemstad, Curaçao for a day:

Established back in 1634 by the Dutch colonists, Punda is the oldest part of Willemstad and is considered the city’s historic center together with Otrobanda, the neighborhood on the other side of the bridge from Punda. Over the centuries, Punda has impressively managed to preserve more than 750 buildings as national monuments. Even if historic facts leave you largely indifferent, you can’t help but marvel at spectacular buildings in the Dutch architectural style as you stroll through Punda’s quaint streets. Signs in Dutch and Papiamentu, the native language of Curaçao, further add to the experience.

Things to do in Curacao - Houses of Punda as seen from Queen Emma bridge
Famous waterfront houses of Punda as seen from the Queen Emma bridge.

Today, Punda is known to be the liveliest part of Willemstad. The streets are not only lined with beautiful houses, but also numerous shops, art galleries, cafes, restaurants and more. The area also boasts a very lively nightlife.

Queen Emma Bridge
Besides its rich history and striking architecture, Willemstad is famous for the Queen Emma bridge, a 550-feet long pontoon bridge, which connects the city’s two oldest parts, Punda and Otrobanda. It is impossible to miss, as you will have to cross it in order to get to Punda. The bridge was originally built back in 1888 and required a toll to cross unless…you wore no shoes, but not to worry, today access is free for everyone.

What makes the Queen Emma bridge special is how it operates. Unlike typical bridges which span from one bank to another, it actually floats in the water, a result of being constructed with many shallow draft boats which are all connected together. The bridge, which the natives affectionately call “the Swinging Old Lady,” swings open like a giant gate several times a day to allow large cruise ships and other, smaller boats to pass from the sea into the St. Anna Bay. Watching it open and close is a very neat experience which you can witness either from each of the banks or, believe it or not, by standing on the bridge while it is being maneuvered opened.

Things to do in Curacao - Queen Emma Bridge in Willemstad
Watching the opening of the Queen Emma Bridge in Willemstad is one of the interesting things to do in Curaçao.

Tip: After walking around in Punda, take a break at one of several cafés or restaurants on the waterfront facing the Queen Emma Bridge. This location is a great place to watch the bridge open and close, and because this happens at least 30 times a day, your chances of seeing the action are pretty good.

The Floating Market
Whenever our family travels abroad, we always try to visit a local market to take in some of the authentic, local vibe. Willemstad’s market, located on the north side of Punda, is called “floating” because its vendors set up their stalls off the boats which they sail to Curaçao every morning from Venezuela, some 70 km or roughly 45 miles away! We were told the round trip, which takes approximately eight hours, happens regardless of the weather, be it heavy storms or bright sunshine. As expected, we enjoyed colorful sights and enticing smells of tropical fruits, crisp produce and fresh catches of the day, while practicing our Spanish.

Things to do in Curacao - Willemstad floating market
Colorful fruit stand at the floating market in Willlemstad.

For more “real island” experience, particularly if you are hungry, continue walking past the floating market towards the main post office. Just on the other side is the Old Market where local cooks prepare all kinds of authentic Krioyo (creole) dishes.

Museums and Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue
Willemstad boasts several interesting museums including the Curaçao Museum, which showcases the island’s rich and colorful history; the Kura Hulanda Museum, that highlights the island’s diverse roots, including the slave trade; and the Maritime Museum, which is focused on Curaçao’s maritime history. Given their themes, they will likely be most appreciated by older kids and adults.

Another interesting fact about Willemstad is that it is home to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest temple in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. The synagogue and the adjacent Jewish Cultural Museum, established in 1732 by Curaçao’s Jewish community, draw thousands of visitors every year.

Things to do in Curacao - Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad.
Entrance court at the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad.

If you have more time and are looking for more things to do in the area, I recommend the Curaçao Tourist Board website for more ideas.

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This post was written by Hilton Suggests Team Member, Vera H. Are you interested in traveling to ? Let us know if we can help you with any other recommendations. Tweet us for more great local travel tips!

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