Picture an Amsterdam street with narrow buildings along a canal. Now redecorate in rainbow colors, and you have an idea of what Willemstad is like.
Willemstad is the capital of Curacao. It is a fascinating town with centuries of history, first-class photo ops, and a charmingly odd pontoon footbridge that hinges open to let boats through.
Willemstad is a place where you can comfortable wander around on your own for shopping and sightseeing.
The Saint Anna Bay runs through the heart of Willemstad. The bay is a natural harbor, which is deep enough to allow even cruise ships to moore directly in town.
Downtown Willemstad has two central districts on either side of the bay.
The eastern side, called Punda, is noted for its colorful Dutch colonial architecture that lines the front street of the bay (see as well "The story behind Willemstad's colorful buildings").
Punda is the oldest part of Willemstad and was the original Dutch settlement where the Dutch West India Company built fortresses at key points to protect themselves from foreign powers and pirates.
The ship merchants built structures along the bay that served as a shop and warehouse on the ground floor, and residence above.
Photo by: henri_hovi (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/henrihovi/2976656398)
The western side of town is called Otrobanda, which means "other side". This side is marked by the thick stonewalled historic Rif Fort, which now houses high-end retail shops, art galleries, and restaurants.
During World War II, the fort was run by the U.S. Army to protect the mouth of the bay. Nazi submarines were kept out by a large chain-link net that was drawn across the harbour.
Photo by: Paul (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulywood/8760405184)
What to See
Otrobanda has a jumbled mix of architectural and cultural styles, with narrow streets and winding alleys.
Beautiful architecture of the 17th and 18th century can be observed at the historic resort Kurá Hulanda, where Cobblestone pathways wind through 8 blocks of restored buildings. Here you also find Museum Kurá Hulanda, an anthropological museum that focuses on the predominant cultures of Curacao. It offers a world-class chronicle of the Origin of Man, the African slave trade, West African Empires, Pre-Colombian gold, Mesopotamian relics and Antillean art.
After the Queen Emma Bridge was built in 1888, wealthy merchants bought up cheap land on the Otrobanda side to built beautiful mansions. Many of these historic homes have been preserved and restored in recent years.
The statue of Pedro Luis Brion, dominates the square at the Otrobanda end of the pontoon bridge. Born in 1782 in Curacao, Brion fought together with Simon Bolivar to liberate Venezuela from the Spanish.
Fort Amsterdam, site of the Governor's Palace and the 1769 Dutch Reformed Church, guards the waterfront of Punda. The church, that is open for visits, still has a British cannonball embedded in it.
A few minutes' walk from the pontoon bridge, at the north end of Handelskade, the Floating Market features Venezuelan schooners tied up alongside the canal. They sell tropical fruits and vegetables, as well as handicrafts.
Near Fort Amsterdam, at the corner of Columbusstraat and Hanchi di Snoa, the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is located. The synagogue is the New World's oldest Jewish congregation, it dates from 1732.
Next door, the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum occupies two buildings dating from 1728.
You can walk the distance inland or take a short cab ride from the Queen Emma Bridge to the Curacao Museum. Located in the old Military Hospital dated 1853, the museum displays all kind of objects from the 18th century as well as paintings of local and international well-known artists.
The Maritime Museum is located in a beautifully restored building in the historic Scharloo district, just off the old harbour of Saint Anna Bay. It takes its visitors on a discovery tour of more than 500 years maritime history of Curacao. The story-line is illustrated through a permanent exhibition consisting of displays with authentic nautical charts, ship models, and navigation equipment.
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