There are plenty of reasons why Aruba is called “one happy island,” including its sunny skies, gorgeous beaches, and sophisticated culinary scene. But one of the biggest factors is the island’s multilayered culture that dates back centuries. From Aruba’s Amerindian heritage and colorful colonial architecture to its numerous murals, museums, and galleries, there’s much to discover here beyond the beaches.
For a country that’s only 70 square miles, Aruba is surprisingly diverse. Some 90 nationalities from more than 130 countries call the island home, including Colombians, Venezuelans, and Dominicans. When visiting, you’ll likely hear several different languages, such as English, Dutch, Spanish, French, and Papiamento—a mix that only adds to Aruba’s magic.
This variety of people leads to a unique culture, one in which Catholic churches and Dutch pancake houses coexist with native Caquetio artifacts and contemporary art. Here, we’ve rounded up the best cultural sites in Aruba so, when you’ve had enough sun and sand, you can find happiness in another side of the island.
Aruba Aloe Museum, Factory, and Store
First domesticated in Aruba in 1840, the aloe plant is so important to the island that its image is emblazoned on the nation’s crest. Crops once extended over nearly two-thirds of the island and, to this day, aloe remains Aruba’s largest export, explaining why the plant remains a frequent motif in local art and architecture. To learn more, visit the Aruba Aloe Factory in Oranjestad, where you can take a complimentary guided tour and observe the manufacturing process, including how aloe is “fileted.” Then head to the museum to browse a small collection of ancient aloe planting tools and books on the plant and its history.
As a Dutch constituency, Aruba has a heavy European influence, especially when it comes to food. Get a taste at the family-friendly Dutch Pancakehouse, which has been serving award-winning breakfasts in downtown Oranjestad for nearly two decades. Here, diners can choose from some 75 kinds of Dutch pancakes, a lighter, fluffier version handmade with local ingredients. Try sweet varieties like the Tropical Wave topped with peaches, pineapple, coconut flakes, and ice cream, or savory ones like the Country with bacon, mushrooms, and eggs. Also on the menu are poffertjes (Dutch-style silver dollar pancakes), mini waffles, eggs, and schnitzels, making it clear why the Dutch Pancakehouse won “Best Breakfast” in the annual Best of Aruba Awards for three straight years.
Alto Vista Chapel
With its pale yellow façade contrasting against the blue sky, the Alto Vista Chapel in Boca Nord is one of the most photographed places in Aruba. Built in 1953 on the site of Aruba’s first Roman Catholic church, the humble chapel, whose name means “high view” in Spanish, earns its moniker and then some. Make the winding trip up the hill to watch the sun sink into the Caribbean Sea, gaze down at the island’s eastern coast, or meditate in the Peace Labyrinth behind the building. On your way up, take note of the white crosses dotting the path. They symbolize the 14 stations of the cross and are the reason locals make pilgrimages to this chapel every Good Friday.
National Archaeological Museum Aruba
Located in an Oranjestad mansion built in 1870 by the grandparents of Boy Ecury (an Aruban-born hero of the Dutch Resistance in World War II), the National Archaeological Museum is full of fascinating ancient artifacts. Culled from three distinct periods of Indigenous history, the collection includes more than 10,000 pieces from Pre-Ceramic (2500 B.C.E.–1000 C.E.), Ceramic (900–1515), and History Cultural (1515–1880) times. Visitors will find shell and stone tools, decorative items, and food vessels, along with vestiges of Aruba’s gold rush. Of particular note is a limestone family burial cave, which, at 4,000 years old, is one of the oldest pieces in the museum. With its Dutch colonial architectural details, the building itself is also worth admiring.
Built between 1914 and 1916 on an octagonal base, this double-lens stone lighthouse near Arashi Beach is Aruba’s marquee landmark. Standing tall at 98 feet, it’s the highest structure on the island and offers the best views of Aruba’s western coast, with its sugary beaches and coral shorelines. It gets its name from the SS California, a British steamship that sank in nearby waters in 1891 and is now a fantastic dive site. While it’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for climbing, the best time to visit is sunset. To gain access after hours, book a private dinner for two from 6–8 p.m. and dine on three delicious courses at the top of the lighthouse as the sun dips into the sea.
Fort Zoutman Historical Museum
The museum is currently closed for restoration and plans to reopen in late summer 2022.
Located inside Aruba’s oldest surviving structure, the Fort Zoutman Historical Museum in downtown Oranjestad offers a riveting look at the island’s evolution. Open weekdays, it features artifacts and documents from the Caquetio people and Dutch colonists. The complex itself, however, is the real draw. Built in 1798 in honor of Dutch rear admiral Johan Arnold Zoutman, it was originally intended to defend Aruba against pirates. The adjacent Willem III Tower was built in 1868 and served as Aruba’s first public clock and lighthouse.
Museum of Industry
Housed in the iconic Water Tower in San Nicolas, the Museum of Industry details Aruba’s industrial history back to the 19th century. Through a range of elaborate displays and multimedia installations, learn about the role of gold, aloe, phosphate, and tourism in Aruba’s cultural heritage. Eventually, the museum also plans to host an incubator project, which will give Aruban youth the opportunity to present proposals for sustainable development on the island.
San Nicolas Art Murals
About 30 minutes from Oranjestad is San Nicolas at the southern tip of Aruba, the island’s second-largest city. In 2016, it became home to Aruba’s only mural district following the now-annual Aruba Art Fair. For the event, artists from around the world created large, brightly colored paintings on more than two dozen of the city’s buildings, gracing structures with everything from multi-colored lionfish and flocks of flamingos to native Arubans and surreal optical illusions. Today, visitors to San Nicolas can explore the mural district on a guided tour with Aruba Mural Tours. Founder Tito Bolivar, who also started the Aruba Art Fair, leads two-hour excursions around the district, telling the story of how he transformed San Nicolas from a so-called ghost town into the street art capital of the Caribbean.
San Nicolas Community Museum
At the intimate San Nicolas Community Museum, discover the story of the people of San Nicolas through memorabilia donated by Aruban families. Once the center of Aruba’s gold, aloe, phosphate, and oil industries, San Nicolas was a thriving town in the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the oil refinery closed in 1985 and tourism became the main industry in Aruba that the focus shifted to Oranjestad. Learn more by touring the artifacts on display at this two-floor museum, including ancient fossils and old newspapers. You can see a recreated colonial kitchen and a 19th-century barbershop before taking in city views from the second-floor terrace. The museum is housed in the old Nicolaas Store building, which served as a bookstore in the 1940s and has been carefully restored, with its original tile flooring and wooden doors still intact.
A reflective site for Marian believers, the Lourdes Grotto functions as a New World counterpart to the famous French shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, where it’s said that the Virgin Mary’s apparition once appeared. Come to marvel at the two naturally formed stone caverns, positioned across the road from one another in San Nicolas, as well as the oversize statue of the Virgin Mary, which weighs 1,500 pounds. A priest named Erkamp and his parishioners placed the imposing icon here in 1958. Now, every year on February 11, a procession marches from the St. Theresita church in San Nicolas to the grottoes, where a mass is performed to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Etnia Nativa Art Gallery & Museum
Built from recycled materials, the Etnia Nativa Art Gallery & Museum in Noord is the only residential building in Aruba that’s open to the public. Here, you can learn about the island’s cultural heritage on one-hour guided tours with an Aruban artist (available by appointment only) that show off objects like seashells, stone objects, and ceramics dating back 4,500 years. You’ll also see how art, the use of medicinal herbs, and shamanic practices developed over time in Aruba and contribute to life on the island today.