The Best of Papeete

Colorful and chaotic, at least by Tahitian standards, Papeete is Tahiti’s capital city and a cultural hub worth exploring. It’s undergoing a bit of a renaissance these days, with an infusion of graffiti street art brightening once gray buildings. Sip cappuccino at a chic sidewalk café while soaking up a rapid-fire French soundtrack, shop the vibrant market for everything from flawless pearls to bright parae, or catch a world-class dance and music performance.

Avenue du Maréchal Foch, Papeete, French Polynesia
Inside Papeete’s Vaima Center, the new Museum of Street Art Tahiti is dedicated to graffiti and other street art. Sarah Roopinia and Jean Ozonder curated the museum. The duo also founded Festival Ono’u, Tahiti’s international street art event, held over three days in October. Papeete has quite a vibrant street art scene with some 30 different murals created by world-renowned graffiti artists since the project began in May 2014. Head to the museum and festival website for a walking tour map. Many of the murals are truly impressive and have brought a colorful façade to a once grey walled capital. .
The islands of Tahiti have given the world a lot of popular ideas: This is the birthplace of the overwater bungalow, of surfing, the tattoo, and also . . . the food truck? Yep! Well, maybe not officially, but dozens of years before food trucks became popular, Tahiti was rocking the game with their roulottes. These trucks, which serve everything from traditional island fare to cheeseburgers, pizza, and Chinese food, can be found all around Tahiti, but the greatest concentration is in Papeete, where dozens of the colorful trucks congregate at Vaiete Square. Come for dinner or dessert.
Captain James Cook set up his observatory at Point Venus, one of the loveliest spots on the island. The transit of Venus, which happens maybe once a century, lets observers here see the planet move across the sun. (That’s the official reason for the name, but there’s no doubt Cook’s crew, after months at sea, had a different Venus in mind when they saw Tahitian women.) Now the point’s a windswept corner of the island that feels like there’s nothing between you and another world but the sea. The lighthouse here, Phare de la Pointe Vénus, was built in 1868, 99 years after Cook’s visit.
Avenue du Général de Gaulle, Papeete, French Polynesia
Bougainville Park is a tranquil, tropical oasis in the middle of the Papeete’s concrete jungle. Stretching from Boulevard Pomare to Rue du General de Gaulle, it makes for a lush and cool picnic (or roulettes take-away) spot. If you’re traveling with the kids there’s a playground here, and there are often floral, cultural and artistic displays on the grounds.
Rue Cook
If you are planning a visit in July, make sure it corresponds with the annual Heiva, which started back in 1881. The festival, which runs for a week and is held at Place To’ata in Papeete, is an iconic Polynesian cultural event showcasing dance, music and traditional sports, all of which have always held an important place in Polynesian communities. In ancient times, they were essential components of religious and political ceremonies. Dance was one of the most sophisticated and ritualized art forms performed in groups or individually. The dances performed during the week long event highlight the drama of an opera and the distinct imprints of an ancestral tradition. The dances are unique creations, for which the dancers train for six months or more. Text music, choreography and costumes are based on a historical or legendary theme and are often quite elaborate.
Set on a hill some 2,000 feet above Papeete, with impossible views of the sea and Moorea beyond, O Belvédère is the place locals take visitors for thrilling sunsets and good food. The restaurant and bar have the air of a tree house—the outdoor terrace is even built around the trunk of a tree. An inviting swimming pool on the hill below and occasional live music add to the already strong appeal. Arrange for a 5 p.m. pickup from your hotel to reach the restaurant in time for a celebratory sundown cocktail. The fondue is highly recommended.
Café Maeva serves excellent French coffee, smoothies, pastries, and proper meals up on the second floor of Papeete’s popular Le Marché shopping complex. Come for the good breakfast menu or wait for lunch, when a mix of Tahitian and French dishes are offered. The standout, a very fresh poisson cru, comes in a number of different versions. The free Wi-Fi and the warm, pleasant vibe may bring you back tomorrow.
To see how one family worked out their idea of living in paradise, head to the James Norman Hall Museum (La Maison de James Norman Hall). Hall was the coauthor of the book Mutiny on the Bounty, and with the book’s bounty, he bought a swath of Tahitian beach and built his dream house. Captain Bligh had been sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit to be transplanted in the West Indies where it was hoped it would prosper as a food source for sugar plantation workers, so don’t miss the breadfruit trees planted here. (If you’ve not tried the fruit, it tastes like a cross between a grapefruit and a pineapple. Delicious.)
56 Avenue du Commandant Destremau, Papeete 98713, French Polynesia
Tahitian black pearls are the one must-have. Here, you’ll find the highest quality and original designs that feature the strange deep shimmer of black pearl (and prices that seem one digit too long).
25, Rue Colette, BP 3396 PPT, Papeete 98713, French Polynesia
If you have a design in mind, there’s a good chance the Tahiti Pearl Market can make it in a few hours. It’s great fun to sort through the loose pearl bins to find the perfect specimen.
BP 343, Papeete 98713, French Polynesia
Restaurant l’O à la Bouche has better-than-usual seafood—try the papio (small amberjack) cooked with fruit. The joint’s not much on ambiance or views, but it’s run by a chef who cares and who can offer a delicious taste of both French and Polynesian worlds.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe