Top Attractions in Jamaica
Many rivers to cross, and beaches to check out, and swimming holes to test: Jamaica offers visitors a busy schedule of taking it easy. When the most difficult hike on your itinerary ends at a rain forest waterfall, you know you’ve come to the right island.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Jamaica’s most touristy site—famous for being featured in the James Bond movie Dr. No.—is also one of its most beautiful, in spite of the countless bodies that visit and attempt the climb daily, both locals and tourists. The view of the falls is spectacular. And call it cheesy, but it’s actually fun trying to ascend stone steps while being splashed by 600-foot-high powerful falls that cascade down into a jade pool. Grab a licensed guide on-site if you need one, otherwise latch on to one of the human chains you’ll spot when you arrive. The falls are just a stone’s throw from Ocho Rios, so any route or shared taxi will make a stop here for a few bucks.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Go tubing on the White River with Ocho Rios Jamaica Tours and cool off in one of Jamaica’s most picturesque bodies of water. The jade colors of White River, dotted with fishing boats along its banks, rocks, and leafy banks, make it an ideal choice for shutterbugs and nature lovers. Combine your tube float with a stop at Irie Blue Hole, for a fun leap into the river-fed sinkhole.
Harmony Hall, a popular art and crafts gallery, has assembled an impressive collection on the second floor of a former 19th-century Methodist manse near Ocho Rios. The works of more than 100 Jamaican artists and artisans are exhibited and sold here, and you’ll find yourself struggling to choose just one from among them, particularly with the variety of abstract and island-life paintings. Harmony Hall is an ideal spot to pick up a unique piece before dining at Toscanini, on the first floor.
Thatch Hill Rd, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
With a 20-foot waterfall, a deep turquoise pool, and underwater caves, the Irie Blue Hole is a special find. You’ll need to hire a guide in nearby Ocho Rios to bring you up the mountain to explore this off-the-beaten-track place, but it’s one of Jamaica’s most stunning swimming holes. The lush setting, surging blue waters, and options for cliff-jumping will keep you there for hours. This gorgeous blue hole is now attracting more visitors, but it never feels too crowded. Yet!
Negril, or the “Capital of Casual” as it’s known in Jamaica, is everyone’s favorite getaway, from locals to the visitors who return year after year. The buzz of activity on Seven Mile Beach’s powdery white sands is tempered by the breathtaking, serene views of the West End’s cliffs towering over the Caribbean. Lots of bars, hotels, and restaurants line Seven Mile Beach, and local eateries and smaller boutique resorts are perched up on the cliffs. While there’s more hustle and bustle and throngs of tourists on this end of Jamaica, the region still offers many secluded spots and unique experiences.
Rose Hall Road, Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica
While Jamaica has several “great houses"—former plantation houses—the Rose Hall Great House, outside Montego Bay, is one of its most visited. Set on beautiful grounds towering over the Caribbean, this 18th-century Georgian home was once owned by Annie Palmer. While touring, you’ll hear the legend that tour guides like to tell—that Palmer, nicknamed the “White Witch of Rose Hall,” was a cruel slave owner who tortured and killed many of her workers, some of whom were her lovers, before eventually being murdered in her sleep. There’s no truth to that story, but it adds to the eerie atmosphere of the property. In fact, haunted house night tours of Rose Hall Great House are offered.
Rafting on the Martha Brae River—a float down a three-mile segment of the river on a 30-foot bamboo raft—provides a pleasant hour or so in one of Jamaica’s gorgeous ecosystems. Passengers can slip into the water and swim beside the raft, or look for birds in the lush trees along the river’s banks, or just sit back and be carried along. The staging area is 20 miles away from Montego Bay.
Main Highway, A1, Falmouth, Jamaica
Adventurous souls should plan on a moonlit dip in the bioluminescent Glistening Waters, also known as Luminous Lagoon. Boats leave from a marina, located an hour north of Montego Bay, on scheduled night tours. As your tour boat speeds out into the dark of night, you’ll spot fluorescent blue streaks in its wake—bioluminescence that’s created when living microorganisms (in this case, dinoflagellates) are disturbed. You can jump in for a swim, too, and glow in the dark as you splash about. It’s an amazing phenomenon to witness, and it’s said to exist in only five lagoons or bays in the world. Back at the marina, the Glistening Waters restaurant offers beautiful views, as well as pre-cruise drinks and food.
Camrose District, Granville PO, Box21, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Take a stroll around Ahhh Ras Nantango Garden and Gallery, a terraced green haven created by Jamaican artist Ras Natango in the hills above Montego Bay. His artwork is displayed here as well as in many hotels on the island. The gardens provide a wonderful respite from the sun and beach, offering a botanical walk to learn about native plants and flowers, do a little bird-watching (18 of the island’s 28 endemic species can be found here), and take in a spectacular view of Montego Bay. There’s also a juice bar on-site and a chance to purchase the artwork as a souvenir. Free shuttles are offered to and from the resort area, so call ahead to book.
Just next door to crowded Doctor’s Cave Beach in Montego Bay is a quiet and spacious stretch known as Cornwall Beach. You won’t see more than a couple of people at a time here during the week. Late afternoons and weekends attract a few locals who come to relax and enjoy the restaurant and bar. A small entry fee—under US$5—covers the on-site facilities, including lounge chairs and snorkel gear. Cornwall Beach occasionally hosts a sunset beach party on Sunday afternoons with a “bottomless” Appleton mug option (that is, all-you-can-drink rum).
Blue Hole Rd
You’ll more than likely gasp when you first glimpse this 180-foot-deep, jade- and sapphire-colored body of water surrounded by verdant rain forest. Though you can spot it from the road as you drive along Port Antonio’s east coast, the Blue Lagoon is best appreciated while gliding across it on a bamboo raft. The entire scene looks straight out of the movies, which is why locals would probably tell you that it was a location for the eponymous 1980 movie starring Brooke Shields (which, in fact, was filmed in Fiji). Even if you don’t hop on a raft for a float, at least get out of the car to take in the stunning view. (An on-site restaurant and deck were closed for renovation some years back and still haven’t reopened.)
Port Antonio, Jamaica
This stunning white-sand stretch, just a five-minute drive east of Port Antonio, is the only beach in Jamaica with waves high enough to surf. Boston Bay is also one of the few remaining public strands on the island. It continues to attract more locals than tourists and as such is nearly vendor-free. You can watch kids splashing about on their boards, or you can rent your own for a Surfing 101 lesson. Be forewarned: As at many beaches, sometimes the waves are flat, but you can console yourself with a short stroll down the beach to the famous Boston Bay jerk chicken stands.
One of the iconic activities when visiting Jamaica is to raft along one of its rivers—particularly the long Rio Grande—and take in the island’s interior landscape. You can enjoy the Rio Grande’s range of flora and fauna during the relaxing, slow ride down its length. You’ll spot horses drinking along the riverbanks and plenty of tropical flowers and greenery, as well as locals cooling off near shore. Arrange your excursion with your hotel or an outfitter because you’ll need not only a raft but also a ride to the launch site at the mouth of the river, called Rafter’s Rest.
Blue Mountains, Jamaica
Lush source of the mellow, world-famous Blue Mountain coffee, Jamaica’s longest mountain range is nature at its best, seemingly a world away from nearby bustling, noisy Kingston. In these mountains 7,400 feet above sea level, the air is cool, the views—of villages and falls across the mountains—are magnificent, and, yes, the peaks look blue. The winding narrow roads, though occasionally nerve-racking, add to the overall mystical atmosphere. A handful of hotels and cabins, including the prestigious Strawberry Hill, provide lodging. Staying in the mountains overnight is highly recommended so you can take the famous sunrise summit hike.
Have you ever had a drink while standing at the top of a 1,700-foot vertical drop, as the sun sets into the ocean? That’s what you get at Lovers’ Leap, less than a half-hour’s drive from Treasure Beach. Pay a small entrance fee and walk through the bar to reach the balcony with the jaw-dropping view. Of course, there’s a legend to go with the name of the cliff: Two enslaved lovers jumped together from this spot to their deaths to escape from their colonial master who wanted the girl for himself. A wood carving of the lovers stands just outside the entrance. The sunset panorama here is arguably the most stunning view in all of Jamaica.
Black River, Jamaica
If you’ve ever longed for a ride down a river to spot crocodiles—and who among us hasn’t? [editor’s note: me!]—you can do just that on the Black River in southern Jamaica. The river cruises are a popular tourist attraction, but they never feel overrun. Enjoy an hour-long cruise past tall mangroves and ferns, spotting tropical birds and stopping when the guides greet crocodiles. The enormous reptiles swim right up and even open their jaws while passengers cringe and wonder if the guide’s hand is about to disappear. Don’t miss this fun chance to see some of Jamaica’s wildest interior.
Treasure Beach, Jamaica
Along the southern coast, Treasure Beach is about as peaceful as Jamaican beaches get. A few well-known guesthouses and resorts are located in this fishing community, but you’ll probably see more locals than tourists around, especially when compared with the rest of the island. The black-sand beaches, teeming with shorebirds, are attractive, and happily there’s not much to do but catch the breeze, mingle with local families, and enjoy fresh seafood.
Peter Tosh, the reggae artist and cofounder of the Wailers, was born in the scenic coastal village of Belmont, and it’s here you’ll also find his tomb and memorial. Fans can visit Tosh’s burial site on sprawling property maintained by his surviving family as the Peter Tosh Estate. Stop by the grounds and chat with family members, who will tell you about the life of Tosh, one of the most popular Rastafarians in the world, and let you visit his grave in exchange for a donation. Die-hard reggae fans will want to include this stop on the way around the western coast.
Bourbon Beach, a popular beachfront music venue on Negril’s Seven Mile Beach, hosts local bands, reggae artists, or themed parties on an almost-nightly basis, to the delight of tourists and locals. People-watching at Bourbon Beach is great, the drinks stiff, and you get to dance in the sand to live reggae in Jamaica. The music starts up around 10 p.m. and continues until 2 a.m. Upstairs, a wide-open deck is open for stargazing or getting away from the crowd. Cover charges are only collected on nights when a recording artist performs. Alfred’s, nearby, is another longstanding option, offering live local acts three times a week for a US$5 cover.
Aqua Nature Park, a well-maintained and verdant retreat 40 miles east of Negril, offers visitors a chance to take a dip and cool off in the Venture River. The river, which flows through a swimming hole on the property, has small, colorful fish and a cascade. Owner Steven delights in conducting walking tours of his family’s property, and can teach you quite a bit about the Jamaican plants and fruits he grows. (Don’t miss seeing the enormous cotton tree.) A casual restaurant and bar, with some reggae playing in the background, rounds this experience out into a lovely, low-key afternoon escape for couples, families, or anyone looking for a taste of real Jamaica.
Reach Falls is an off-the-beaten-path delight. Located up in the John Crow Mountains on Jamaica’s east coast, this 30-foot jade-colored cascade tumbles into several pools in the surrounding rain forest. You’ll need a bathing suit and a waterproof camera to capture the natural splendor. Local guides are available to help you make your way across the swimming holes and levels, and show you the best spots. Or you can explore it solo. Because of its distance from tourism spots, there are no crowds, no harassment, just an entrance fee to your very own Garden of Eden. On-site changing rooms are available as you exit by the parking lot. Small fun fact: The falls play a minor role in the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.
6, 56 Hope Rd, Kingston, Jamaica
Though few tourists venture to Kingston, the capital and hub on the eastern coast of Jamaica, music fans should make the day trip to visit Bob Marley’s former home, now a museum dedicated to Marley’s life and impact on the world. A guided tour of this museum takes about an hour and a half and includes a 20-minute video presentation. Even devoted reggae fans will likely learn more about Bob than they ever knew. Exhibits include multiple awards, guitars, and his bed with an engraved headboard depicting a lion.
Shop #10, 26, Hope Rd, Kingston 10, Jamaica
When in Kingston, make time for a stop at Devon House, a grand 1891 Georgian mansion that was built for George Stiebel, Jamaica‘s first non-white millionaire. The lovely upright house and its 11 surrounding acres are now protected as a National Heritage Site, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not fun to be had. The sprawling grounds include shops, restaurants, a bakery, and a popular ice-cream shop, I-Scream. House tours can be arranged, but the grounds, landscaped with stately palms and fountains, are the highlight—it’s a great spot to take a stroll, read, shop, or dine. The mansion and its manicured lawns are also used for weddings and lavish events.
Jamaica’s primary public art museum, the largest of its kind in the Caribbean, is a key part of the island’s history. Established in 1979, it houses more than 2,000 pieces ranging from pre-Columbian works to those of contemporary Jamaican artists and also mounts temporary exhibitions on various aspects of Jamaica’s history and culture. The collection continues to expand and now includes videos, graphic designs, and street art. Guided tours are available, and there’s an on-site coffee shop and gift store.
Lime Cay, an uninhabited island about two miles off of Port Royal, is a favorite destination of Kingstonians for white-sand beaches, sunbathing, and swim time. This is an ideal deserted escape on weekdays, and weekends are usually only a bit busier and bring a few vendors. Don’t count on the vendors, though: Bring your own food, water, sunscreen, and snorkeling gear. Wear water shoes, as there can be urchins. To arrange a trip over, ask at your hotel, or inquire at the bar on Morgan’s Harbour called the Y-Knot—they’ll help you find a boat ride or fisherman willing to take you to the island for no more than US$20.
Port Royal, Jamaica
Port Royal, once known as the wickedest city on earth and the Sodom of the New World, revels in its pirate past. The once-great city, now a fishing port, was at its height in the 1600s, when numerous brothels and drinking establishments thrived on pirates’ plundered gold. In 1692, the effects of an earthquake submerged part of the port, a tragedy that has actually preserved the town from being torn down or built over. Entire buildings and streets are clearly visible just beneath the water. The town that remains on dry land offers visitors fascinating archaeological sites to explore, including fortified walls, cannons, and crumbling buildings.
Accompong Maroon, Jamaica
You won’t regret a visit to Accompong Town, an authentic Maroon village in the hills of Cockpit Country. The Maroons, descendants of enslaved West Africans first brought to Jamaica by the Spanish, fought British slaveholders—by cleverly using the nearly impenetrable hills and hollows as a base from which to strike—and eventually won their independence. Since 1738, they’ve mostly lived in their own communities, largely autonomous and separate from other Jamaicans. The best time to visit is the first Monday in January, for the annual Maroon Day Festival, when hundreds of Maroons from around Jamaica and abroad, as well as a few thousand tourists, descend on Accompong Town for a day of drumming ceremonies, food, and celebration. You can tour the village by appointment; make arrangements to visit with a driver. A museum, near the entrance to the village, displays historic artifacts, photos, and memorabilia. The Peace Cave, a short hike from town, is where Captain Cudjoe, the warrior and leader, signed a treaty with the British that recognized the Maroons as an independent nation and granted them 1,500 acres of land in the region. Walk around and take in the gorgeous, serene mountainous views, and learn the extraordinary history of a free people.
Hellshire Beach, Hellshire, Jamaica
Action-packed Hellshire Beach, the easy beach choice for many Kingston residents, is lined with dozens of wooden food shacks. Aunt May’s is a solid pick for a classic Jamaican beachside meal, serving fresh fish with festival (fried dumplings) or bammy (cassava flour flatbread), lobster, and other seafood. Hellshire is particularly busy on weekends, when locals take a break from their workweek, and sees relatively few tourists, so it has an authentic Jamaican vibe like few other beaches.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
If you’re looking for a break from the beach and the noise, head to Konoko Falls Park (formerly known as Coyaba River Garden) for a quiet picnic, swim, and nature walk through beautifully manicured gardens. The Mahoe tiered waterfalls—a smaller, just-as-picturesque version of Dunn’s River Falls but rarely crowded—cascade through the park, and an on-site museum showcases the history of Jamaica’s first inhabitants, the Taino. The park offers gorgeous views of Ocho Rios’s bay below. Climbing and swimming in the falls, at your own pace, is great fun.
Mystic Mountain is one of the most fun and relatively new attractions in Jamaica for both adults and adventurous kids. It’s hard to say what’s more exhilarating: the gorgeous rain-forest backdrop and mountain views, or the roller coaster–like bobsled ride that takes you along winding tracks while you scream your lungs out. If that’s still not enough, hop on the Sky Explorer—a chairlift that will carry you slowly above the canopy, at 700 feet high, for breathtaking views of the entire Ocho Rios area and even adjacent Dunn’s River Falls. Or get your bathing suit on and hop inside the steel waterslide that will dump you into an infinity-edge pool overlooking Ocho Rios’s stunning bay below.
The hike up the Mayfield River to the waterfall nicknamed the Washing Machine requires walking in the river itself at times, and at one point, swimming through a tunnel. Along the way, you’ll be surrounded by lush fern trees and bamboo. You’ll need water shoes, a swimsuit, and a sense of adventure to take part in this, one of the best ways to see Jamaica‘s verdant interior. The trailhed is an hour’s drive from from Negril, and you’ll find lockers and a small restaurant there. Guides are always on hand to show you the way—you won’t make it without them, they know all the right places to place your foot. (Be generous with your tips—they may be having a great time, but this is their job.) The reward at the end of your hike? Two waterfalls. Swim underneath and feel the refreshing force of nature.