Known for its beautiful beaches, coral reefs and laidback pace of life; the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao really is a dream destination. Located not too far off the Venezuelan coast, it makes up part of the ABC Islands with nearby Aruba and Bonaire lying to either side of it.
As it was colonized by the Dutch and is still part of the Netherlands, the tropical isle exhibits a mix of European and Caribbean cultural influences. Its capital Willemstad, for instance, is home to lots of colorful Dutch townhouses with its museums and historic sights focusing on centuries-old Jewish communities and the transatlantic slave trade.
While many of the best things to do in Curacao can be found in its largest city, most people come for its stunning stretches of sand and sparkling sea. As such, snorkeling and scuba diving are both hugely popular pastimes due to the abundance of marine life and pristine coral gardens that surround it. With so much going for it, the sun-kissed Curacao certainly makes for an unforgettable island getaway.
17. Christoffel National Park
Sure to delight nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike, Christoffel National Park sprawls across a large part of the northeast of the isle. As well as offering up loads of excellent hiking and biking, it has some amazing views, scenery and wildlife for you to enjoy.
Noted for not just its fauna and flora but cultural and historical sights too, Curacao’s largest national park is named after the mighty mount that rises 1,239 feet above the glittering coast and Caribbean. Established in 1978, it encompasses ancient Arawak Indian cave paintings, the ruins of historic old plantations and the Savanet Museum which explains more about the region’s past.
While hiking up to the top of its rugged peak, you can sometimes spot white-tailed deer, hawks and extremely rare orchids like the strong scented lady of the night. Once you reach its exposed summit, you can bask in phenomenal views over the park and the shimmering sea alongside it.
16. Hato Caves
Another incredible place to visit are the enormous, atmospheric Hato Caves which almost relate the whole history of the Caribbean country. On guided tours, you’ll learn all about its striking stalactites and stalagmites which lie just north of Willemstad, not far from the international airport.
Impressively in use now for over 1,500 years, it was originally inhabited by Arawak and Caiquetio Indians who left behind both intricate petroglyphs and cave paintings. Centuries later, the extensive underground cave system acted as a refuge for runaway slaves from the plantations.
Nowadays, it is instead tourists who head to explore its colossal caverns and amble about amidst all its interesting rock formations. Formed over the course of many millennia, their various shapes and silhouettes make for a spellbinding sight, particularly as they are illuminated by lots of little lights.
One of the island nation’s most beloved beaches, Blauwbaai (or Blue Bay in English) is situated just outside of Sint-Michiel, along the west coast of Curacao. Aside from its absolutely idyllic sands, sea and scenery, it is known for the colorful coral reefs and marine life that lie just offshore.
Lined by shady palms, its wonderful white sands gently curve their way around the small, sheltered bay which is ideal for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. Besides splashing about in its warm waters and seeing vast shoals of shimmering fish, holidaymakers can lounge lazily on the beach and enjoy fine views over the coast and sea.
In addition to its snack bars and restaurants, there are deckchairs and parasols available for rent with the Blue Bay Resort, its immaculate golf course and superb sculpture garden lying not far away.
14. Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue
Simply a must for those interested in history, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is remarkably the oldest surviving synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Located right at the entrance to St Anna Bay, its pretty pastel-colored building occupies a prominent spot in the historic heart of the capital.
While the community was founded in the 1650s by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, the current building was completed in 1730. Still in use today and very well-preserved, the ‘Snoa’ as it is known features three high-vaulted ceilings containing a Holy Ark and preacher’s pulpit. Ancient mahogany furniture and an old pipe organ are also on show as are fine chandeliers and stained-glass windows.
Most striking however is its sandy floor which is said to symbolize the forty years that biblical Jews spent wandering the desert. At the small museum next door, you can see tons of old artifacts, photos and learn more about the history of Judaism in Curacao.
13. Playa Lagun
Hidden away between two huge rocky headlands along the isle’s northwest coast is the peaceful and picturesque Playa Lagun. A lovely spot to spend some time, its crystal-clear waters and vibrant coral reef make it a very popular draw among snorkelers and scuba divers.
At the foot of the steep cliffs that tower overhead, you can find all kinds of silvery fish flitting about with languid green sea turtles and furtive squid spied every now and again. As the area’s marine life is so abundant, you don’t have to venture very far before coming across colorful corals, underwater rock formations and countless species of fish.
Lazing about on the beach and watching the fishermen come and go is just as pleasant with sunsets here being truly spectacular. Bordering the intimate beach are a snack bar and dive school with deck chairs and umbrellas dotted here and there.
12. Riffort Village
One of the best places to shop, dine and go out on the island, Riffort Village lies right at the mouth of St Anna Bay. With so many enticing shops and restaurants to try out, it is no wonder the massive waterfront mall is the first port of call for many passengers from the nearby cruise ship terminal.
Once a key part of Willemstad’s defenses, the 1828 Rif Fort was later used as a brothel, prison and police station before eventually becoming the chic shopping centre it is today. Lining its thick coral walls are dozens of upmarket eateries and unique boutiques with trendy bars and hip nightlife spots also featuring.
Aside from picking up some artisan jewellery and enjoying an aperitif, you can always head to the top of the fort for commanding views over the city, sea and historic Otrobanda district.
11. Mambo Beach
Yet another alluring stretch of sand to check out is the magnificent Mambo Beach on the southwest side. Set just a short drive from the synagogue and shopping center in the city, its bright white sands and brilliantly blue waters make it the perfect place to spend an afternoon or evening.
Much more developed than many other beaches on the island, its bustling boardwalk is lined by lots of shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. As a result, there is often a lively party atmosphere about the place with the vivid sunsets, cocktails and chillout hammocks all contributing to a memorable time.
There is still a lot of fun to be had during the day however with superb snorkeling and scuba diving trips taking you out to the nearby reefs. Other than all that, you can sunbathe, swim or shop while enjoying the stunning scenery on show.
10. Go Diving
When on Curacao and in the Caribbean, you just have to go scuba diving at some point. All around the isle are fascinating underwater worlds to discover with playful dolphins, graceful stingrays and shoals of tropical fish all spied amidst its gorgeous coral gardens.
Thanks to its ample marine life, countless dive shops are dotted along the coast with many dive sites actually being accessible from the beach. The ‘Blue Edge’ for instance, the Curacaoan shelf’s sharp drop-off, is lined by amazing formations with thousands of fish and marine mammals inhabiting its warm waters.
Other sites are just a short boat trip away with the coral-encrusted remains of the Superior Producer wreck and the magical Mushroom Forest counting among its most popular. As interesting sights and excellent visibility are guaranteed, diving is the highlight of many people’s holiday to the island.
9. Kura Hulanda Museum
A poignant and important place to visit, the Kura Hulanda Museum covers the long-lasting legacy of the transatlantic slave trade in the region. Full of engaging exhibits and centuries-old artifacts, it occupies what was once the home of a Dutch merchant and slave owner.
Lying along the western quayside of St Anna Bay, the complex of well-preserved colonial buildings once lay not far from the slave market in Otrobanda. Poor captives from Western Africa were often held at the house before being sold on to other slave owners on the island or even further afield.
Its very well-done displays look at how people were first captured in Africa and then transported to the Americas with others focusing on the cultural legacy this left behind. Alongside all its exhibits, you can see handcrafted statues and slave shackles, pre-Columbian gold and Mesopotamian relics.
8. Shete Boka National Park
Right next to Christoffel at the northern end of the island is Curacao’s only other national park: the stupendous Shete Boka. Named after the local term for an inlet, it is renowned for its breathtaking blowholes, beaches and bays where sea turtles often nest.
Protected as part of a park since 1994, the rough and rugged coastline looks almost otherworldly in nature as ginormous waves pound its sparse volcanic landscapes. Hiking about is an epic experience as you pass tangled trees and strange rock formations before emerging at a phenomenal viewpoint.
As it boasts the biggest waves and blowhole, Boka Pistol is where most hikers first head with Boka Tabla’s half-submerged cavern and the Natural Bridge also attracting lots of attention.
7. Cas Abao Beach
Very popular with both locals and tourists alike, Cas Abao Beach lies along the northwestern shore of the island, not far from Sint Willibrordus. As well as picture-perfect sands and sea, it has brilliant beachside bars, restaurants and even full-body massages for visitors to enjoy.
Appearing as if out of a travel catalogue, its bright white sands and twinkling turquoise waters make for some fantastic photos and even better viewing. While lounging lazily on the beach, you can gaze out over the nearby cliffs or rent kayaks and snorkels and head out to explore them yourself.
Although it looks like a small slice of paradise, Cas Abao has numerous sun loungers and parasols to make use of before grabbing a refreshing drink or meal at its small restaurant.
6. Playa Porto Mari
Just a short way down the coast is another beautiful beach for sun worshipers to stop by: the pretty and peaceful Playa Porto Mari. While its rehabilitated coral reef is regarded as one of the isle’s best snorkel sites, it is also known for the feral but friendly pigs and iguanas that frequent the area.
Tucked away between two rocky headlands, its crescent-shaped bay offers up sublime swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving with a little dive shop located onshore. After exploring its underwater riches, you can always hike or bike about the three nature trails that wind their way along the shore.
For those who just want to relax and unwind, Playa Porto Mari also has you covered as its beach bar serves up some delicious Caribbean and Dutch food.
5. Dolphin Academy Curacao
One of not just the capital’s but country’s top tourist attractions, Dolphin Academy Curacao attracts huge numbers of visitors each and every year. At its state-of-the-art facility just outside Willemstad, you can swim, snorkel and scuba dive with dolphins while learning all about the majestic creatures.
Impressively enough, it is one of the only facilities in the world to work with trained dolphins out in the open sea. They live in four large lagoons that are connected by underwater channels and basins surrounding Sea Aquarium Park. As there is a constant flow of fresh seawater, fish and invertebrate species, they live largely as they would out in the wild.
Meeting their happy and friendly residents truly is an unforgettable experience as you play, feed and stroke them in their natural environment. Whether it is standing in the shallows, diving deep down besides them or heading out to the open sea to see them; you’re always guaranteed a great time.
4. Klein Curacao
About a two-hour boat ride southeast of the island is by far its most popular day-trip destination: the captivating Klein Curacao. Once a quarantine station for sick slaves and a burial site, it now instead entices tourists with its magnificent snorkeling and scuba diving.
Meaning ‘Little Curacao’ in Dutch, the barren, uninhabited island lies surrounded by the shimmering waters of the Caribbean Sea with a small lighthouse, former slaves’ quarters and shipwreck being its only noteworthy sights. The rest is completely deserted aside from a couple of palm-frond-covered sheds for fishermen and day trippers.
Its real riches lie in the abundant offshore reefs where you can swim about besides colorful corals, shoals of fish and some sea turtles. Other than that, you can bask on the beach and top up your tan while waiting for the boat back to Curacao.
3. Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge
Connecting the two historic halves of Willemstad is the ever-popular Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge which spans St Anna Bay. A delight to amble across, it offers lovely views of all the brightly painted mansions and Dutch-style houses that line the water’s edge.
Often referred to as the ‘Swinging Old Lady’, it was built back in 1888 to join Otrobanda in the west to Punda and Pietermaai in the east. Now lined by lit up arches at night, the floating bridge regularly opens to allow oceangoing vessels in and out of the bay.
In total, it stretches over 500 feet in length with historical markers at each end explaining a bit more about the much-loved landmark. Besides strolling across it, many people sit and grab a coffee at one of the nearby cafes and watch it swing open and shut once or twice.
2. Kenepa Beach
One of the most visually arresting beaches on the isle, Kenepa actually consists of two small coves, each with its own stretch of sand. Separated by large, rocky cliffs and a scenic lookout point, they can be found near the northern tip of Curacao, in between Lagun and Sabana Westpunt.
Known as Grote Knip and Kleine Knip, the two pristine beaches are bordered by rearing cliffs with the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean lapping at their shores. While the former has a large snack bar, several shade pergolas and is backed by a salt marsh, the smaller of the two boasts some superb snorkeling spots.
In addition to floating about and taking in the terrific scenery, you can always hike to the top of the headland for divine views over both the beaches. Some brave souls also dive off the top of the cliffs with sunsets here being particularly spectacular.
Undoubtedly the capital’s standout site, the handsome Handelskade lies right in the historic heart of Willemstad. Featured on pretty much every Curacao postcard, the charming collection of colorful colonial buildings make for some fantastic photos and viewing.
Looking out over the glinting waters of St Anna Bay, its instantly recognizable seventeenth-century buildings are painted in vivid yellows, blues, oranges and pinks. Part of the Punda district, its lively waterfront is now home to countless cafes, restaurants, shops and art galleries.
Asides from wandering about and taking in the pleasant ambience and architecture, you can sit and watch the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge from one of its chilled-out cafes. From here, you can easily explore the center and visit most of the city’s main museums and tourist attractions.