Many sun-seeking travelers are familiar with tourist-friendly Aruba. But those looking for a more relaxed, lifestyle-focused island where they can experience cultural heritage, wellness, and outdoor adventure without being overwhelmed by cruise ships and crowds are sure to love its underrated (and stunning) neighbor, Curaçao — the “C” in the so-called ABC Islands just off the coast of Venezuela. (The “A” stands for Aruba and the “B” for Bonaire.) While the entire trifecta remains part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, it’s Curaçao that packs the biggest cultural punch. And it’s apparent everywhere you look.
“Our island is colorful — and so are our souls,” says Dewi Pomario, a Curaçao tourist board guide. “The people of Curaçao are so proud of our culture, our traditions, our food, and our relaxed way of living.”
Best suited for travelers who aren’t content to spend their entire vacation at the pool, Curaçao offers an off-the-beaten path alternative that trades casinos, all-inclusive resorts, and restaurant chains for a more intimate, authentic experience.
The capital of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, serves as the center of Curaçao’s fascinating multi-ethnic culture, a rich mix of European and Caribbean influences with a celebrated artist community. There, travelers venture beyond their hotel to explore incredible natural sites like rocky coves and salt flats, local restaurants serving delicious fusion specialities, and wellness traditions at Den Paradera Herb Garden.
From swimming with green sea turtles and getting painting lessons with a resident street artist to sipping cocktails in the trendy Pietermaai district and visiting healing salt flats, here are some of the best ways to feel Curaçao’s magic.
Discover Flemish Architecture In the Caribbean
Filled with quaint colonial buildings — arguably the best surviving examples of European architecture in the Caribbean — Willemstad could easily be confused for a Dutch city if it weren’t for all the cheerful, candy-colored paint. Check out the sites on a Green Wheels scooter, an eco-friendly and convenient option for those looking to see and Instagram as much as possible. Be sure to stop by Wilhelmina Plaza, the Governor’s Mansion, and the bright yellow Penha Building. No trip to the island is complete without strolling across the gently swaying Queen Emma Bridge. Built in 1888, it ranks as one of the oldest wooden pontoon bridges in the world. But be on alert: A siren announces when the bridge is about to swing open to allow boats to sail through, and you don’t want to get stuck.
Immerse Yourself In A Thriving Contemporary Art Scene
In addition to its cultural past, Curaçao boasts a vibrant street art scene that stretches throughout Willemstad’s charming neighborhoods, from the famed Colorful Steps in Otrobanda to kaleidoscopic paintings in Scharloo Abou. In fact, the island’s electrifying vibe can be felt just about everywhere you go, thanks to its dynamic, warm residents. “I believe it’s not only the artist community that contributes to the atmosphere of the island,” says Francis Sling, a popular street artist. “A large part of the people living here are creatives in their own way. It’s as if you’re walking in a huge play.”
While it’s certainly possible to explore Curaçao’s art on your own, walking tours like Dushi Walks and Art Tours Now, founded by artist Avantia Damberg, lend context to everything you see. For an even more hands-on experience, attend a painting workshop by request at the studio of Francis Sling, whose larger-than-life murals are beloved throughout the island. Looking to bring home a bit of Curaçao’s creative spirit? On narrow Windstraat, a de facto “art alley” in the Punda neighborhood, you’ll find a treasure trove of galleries and arts and crafts boutiques, including Serena’s Art Shop, famous for its Curaçao Chichi figures hand-painted by local female artists.
Dive Into An Underwater Paradise
Want to get away from it all? Discover some of the most stunning scenery in the entire Caribbean on the rural west side of the island. Located along the protected Curaçao Underwater Marine Park, many of Curaçao’s beaches, such as Playa Kenepa Grandi and Playa PortoMari, offer bright, clear water and healthy coral reefs near the shore, making them ideal for an afternoon of swimming and snorkeling. One of the best ways to experience as many as possible (Curaçao has 38 in total) is by zipping around by jetski with Tourrific Curaçao.
Get your adrenaline going by cliff jumping at Playa Forti and swim with green sea turtles at Playa Kenepa Chikí. If you feel the need to go deeper (literally) Curaçao offers some of the best scuba diving in the world with top-notch outfitters like Ocean Encounters. From a tugboat wreck in only 15 feet of water to a thrilling drift dive with sharks and rays, this is the place to hit the water, whether it’s your 500th time zipping up a wetsuit or you’re first.
Dig Into A Diverse Feast
On some Caribbean vacations it might be tempting to take full advantage of the resort’s all-inclusive meals. But Curaçao has a thriving food culture that should be explored. No better place than at Bario Urban Street Food, a bustling “food court” style restaurant popular with travelers and locals alike. Each window or “snek” stand — a type of to-go cafe — serves its own curated menu of tropical cocktails, desserts, vegan food, or street food. Dine on specialties like chicken satay, stoba fries (fries topped with a traditional beef stew), roti, ceviche, and bolo di cashupete, a cashew cake typically reserved for festive occasions, while listening to live music. Afterward, have a nightcap at the newest addition to the trendy Pietermaai district, Ochenta Cocktail Bar, where bartenders mix drinks using the freshest ingredients and local brands, including authentic Blue Curaçao made of the peels of the native bitter Laraha orange (something that’s near to impossible to get outside of the country).
Experiment With Traditional Self-Care
Curaçao offers a wellness culture all its own in addition to the expected poolside massages and lavish facials. Once used by the Dutch for salt mining, the island’s precious saliñas, or salt flats, are now designated nature reserves. But that doesn’t stop some locals from sneaking in to bathe in the mineral-rich waters which are said to boost skin health. If what ails you is more than skin deep, stop by Den Paradera Herb Garden where you can learn about herbal healing and wellness from legend Dinah Veeris. Decorated by the Dutch Royal Family for her contributions to the community, Veeris invites people to stroll through her calming oasis and offers holistic health advice and products such as immunity-boosting tea and salves for bug bites. “The traditional medicinal plants of the island of Curaçao is a culture, a knowledge that we must preserve,” says Veeris. “Nowadays you see that so many people want to go back to nature and want to live a healthier life. The traditional medicinal plants have so much to offer us.”