One thing’s for sure: Curaçao is not your typical island paradise. Yes, the picture-postcard warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and magnificent white sand beaches are the stuff of tropical-island dreams, but there’s much more that delights the senses here.
Situated 37 miles north of the coast of Venezuela, the country has been part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands since 1816, and a key port for international trade for centuries. The impact of the Dutch is apparent throughout the island, particularly in its architecture. And the country’s many other influences include Spanish (it was first a Spanish territory) and its first settlers, the Arawak people from the mainland of South America. The Creole language of Papiamentu, based on Portuguese but heavily influenced by Spanish, is the island’s official language.
As a result of its strategic trade location, the destination hums with a wide variety of international flavors throughout the island. Boasting incredible architecture and vibrant art, exciting culinary experiences (including the opportunity to taste the iconic Blue Curaçao liqueur straight from the source), and unforgettable deep-sea adventures, this autonomous country in the Dutch Caribbean is a must-visit for island lovers who want a rich cultural experience as well.
1. Architectural marvels and charm abound
The surrounding clear blue waters of Curaçao aren’t the only eye candy on this island. In pastel shades of the rainbow, the colorful houses of Willemstad, the island’s capital, look like they were made for Instagram snaps—although they date to the 17th century, when the Dutch colonized the island. The structures, designed in classic Dutch architectural style, were originally covered in white stucco, creating a blinding sight in the bright Caribbean sun. As island legend has it, a local doctor advised the city government to mandate the buildings be painted to save the eyesight of the residents.
Centuries later, the iconic, colorful capital is now a deeply ingrained part of the island’s heritage, and a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. The floating bridge leading to the capital is also justly celebrated. Built in 1888 by American entrepreneur and U.S. Consul Leonard B. Smith, Queen Emma Bridge—or the “Swinging Old Lady,” as she’s also known—is supported by 16 pontoon boats and two motors. At night, the bridge makes an especially beautiful sight, as its lights cast a shimmering rainbow on the water.
2. Art is everywhere
In addition to the stunning natural beauty, you’ll find man-made beauty on Curaçao in the form of inspiring, colorful murals that cover walls and even entire buildings in the Otrobanda neighborhood of Willemstad. Street art has truly blossomed in the past decade, with murals depicting flowers, angels, children, sea creatures and more—many with inspirational messages and empowering wisdom. Urban art lovers will delight in exploring the neighborhoods of Skalo and Pietermaai on the Punda side of Willemstad, which include murals by noted local artists like Francis Sling and Sander van Beusekom.
Another dazzling artform not to be missed is The Cathedral of Thorns, a magnificent sculpture the size of a building, created by Herman van Bergen, winner of the prestigious Cola Debrot Award in 2016, and constructed by unemployed youth on the island. The sculpture aims to raise consciousness of the similarities between religions, and includes symbols of today’s world religions and ancient, nature-based religions.
Look for art pieces from guest artists hidden inside its thorny walls as you walk through the mesmerizing labyrinth at Landhuis Bloemhof, a cultural center dedicated to the artist May Henriquez. Contemporary visual artists exhibit their work in this historical mansion that dates to 1735, set on a seventeen-acre estate. Check out Henriquez’s frozen-in-time sculpture studio while you’re there.
3. Dig into delicious, adventurous, only-on-Curaçao cuisine
It’s no surprise you’ll find an eclectic blend of culinary experiences on Curaçao—the delicious mix reflects the country’s diverse culture and history. Eat your way through the island, savoring dishes from the Netherlands and Indonesia, as well as Venezuela and multitudes of nationalities that call Curaçao home.
The traditional Caribbean stew karni stoba originates right here on the island. The seared meat—marinated with pepper and garlic and cooked with peppers, onion, tomato, and spices until it’s tender and stick-to-your-ribs thick—is a great way to replenish after a day full of adventures. Steamed green papaya chunks and potatoes make it extra hearty. You can find it at restaurants throughout the island, such as De Gouverneur, located on the Otra Banda side of Willemstad.
Adventurous eaters can also dig into a plate of yuana, an iguana stew, a staple of the island’s cuisine for which Jaanchies Restaurant is famed. Located in Westpunt, it’s been serving local cuisine since 1936. (You’ll easily find the dish in the Old Market in Punda as well). A cactus soup, called kadushi, is another unexpected local favorite—though its texture may be a bit of an acquired taste for the uninitiated.
Given Curaçao’s location, it’s no surprise that you’ll find an embarrassment of riches when it comes to restaurants serving fresh local fish. For a sophisticated dinner, head to Serafina for the red snapper, which is pan-seared and dressed with a delicate lemon sauce.
You’ll find many other ways to tantalize your tastebuds from morning to night. Hit the “Snek” stands for breakfasts of coffee, pastries, and sandwiches to fuel up for culture-filled days exploring the island. Willemstad is rife with these charming street-side cafes. And food trucks have been operating in Curaçao for the past 30 years, long before it became a trend elsewhere. Try the island-style barbecue such as sweet, tender ribs, barbecued chicken, and more at the bustling food truck scene, open daily. BBQ Express is a local favorite.
4. Experience underwater magic!
Ready to swim like a dolphin? You’ll feel like you are when you take a SeaBob excursion. The thrilling underwater scooter experience takes you to coral sites you wouldn’t otherwise access on a snorkeling expedition, spotting sea turtles along the way. There are several operators on the island, including Bearded Butlers, founded and run by locals.
For the more traditional-minded, there are also excellent diving and snorkeling adventures, all aligned with PADI to ensure safe and environmentally friendly diving practices. From incredible coral reefs, walls, and sunken ships, there’s plenty to explore here, the island’s dive sites are protected from strong currents, and the water is delightfully warm all year, making this a great place for newbies.
Be sure to check out the Blue Room Cave, known for its beautiful blue light, as well as Playa Kalki—also known as Alice in Wonderland due to its mushroom-shaped coral formations. Most resorts here have coral house reefs you can easily explore from the shore or join a guided tour for an unforgettable boat dive.
5. Taste the island’s game-changing liqueur
One striking yellow 19th-century mansion is not just any colorful Caribbean building. The Landhuis Chobolobo is the Home of the Genuine Curaçao Liqueur. Take a guided tour through the distillery and learn how the famous orange and blue liqueurs are made—using the dried zest of a special variety of bitter orange, laraha, which only grows in the Caribbean—and greatly influenced cocktail culture today.
Originally developed by the Senior Company’s first director, Edgar Senor in 1896, it went on to inspire multitudes of cocktails including the Blue Lagoon and Blue Hawaii, in addition to its use as a prime ingredient in classic margaritas. Infused with spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg, the liqueur has a pronounced orange flavor with a slight bitterness.
Beyond tasting the famed liqueur as it’s been produced since its origin, you’ll enjoy signature frozen cocktails crafted by mixologists in the charming courtyard bar. Toast to the fantastic time you’ve had on the magical island of Curaçao and bring a bottle or two home—you’ll savor the journey again and again with each sip.