Off the northern coast of Venezuela, the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao is visited by over a million tourists each year all flocking to get a piece of this island’s picture perfect coastline for themselves. Unfortunately most forget about the culture on Curaçao, which is vibrant, unique, and very much alive.
Curaçao is culture rich because this island isn’t designed to cater to foreigners. Instead, Curaçao relies on other industries other than tourism, such as oil refining, oil storage, and international financial services. What that means is that this island remains very local orientated. The result: Curaçao gives you a chance to have a more authentic Caribbean experience – something that isn’t possible in more tourist-orientated Caribbean islands.
Here we’ll show you exactly how you can connect with the colorful culture on Curaçao. From the festivals you need to check out, to the best food places to try!
Curaçao: A Brief Background
Historically, this island was inhabited by the Arawak and Caquetio indigenous groups until the Spanish enslaved most of the Arawak into forced labor following the ‘discovery’ of the island in 1499.
In 1515, nearly all the 2000 Caquetios living on the island were transported to Hispaniola as slaves with the Spanish finally settling on the island in 1527. It wasn’t until 1634 that the Dutch invaded the island and began their rule. It still took until 1863 for the slave trade to be abolished and for the economy to shift to wage labor. The history of the island is fraught and strained by colonial invasion, and the remnants of that can be seen today.
Today, the island is mostly made up of the Afro-Caribbean Curaçaoans with smaller pockets of Dutch, French, Latin, Asian, and Jewish groups. Because of its Dutch upbringing, much of the architecture, especially in the capital of Willemstad, follows the traditional Dutch style.
Curaçao is filled with plenty of opportunities to experience local culture and history — from festivals to museums. We hope this guide helps you make the most of your visit to this beauty of an island.
Connecting to Curaçao’s Culture: Cultural Activities on the Island
Because Curaçao doesn’t cater mainly to the tourists, a lot of the activities available to you on your visit are also frequented by locals. In that way, you are immersing yourself in the culture and living like a local. If you’re looking for a real insight into Curaçao culture then visiting any of the below is a fantastic choice.
1. Browse Caribbean Art at the Gallery Alma Blou
The Landuis Habaai 17th century plantation is home to Willemstad’s largest collection of work from Caribbean artists.
Local artists are highlighted in rotating exhibits, so you can always see something new when you visit. With a gift shop selling featured art pieces, cards, etchings, and other unique local products, you’ll have a one-of-a-kind piece to remember your visit to Curaçao.
2. Drink the Famous Blue Curaçao at Landhuis Chobolobo
The local distillery that produces the famous blue curaçao is available for you to explore and learn about how the liqueur is produced. If you’ve never heard, tasted, or seen this drink, then order a bottle! It’s delicious.
Dive into the history of the production process and sample some of the product right from the source.
3. Enjoy the Sights and Sounds of Curaçao’s Floating Market
A site visited by locals and tourists alike, the floating market can be found in Handelskade in Willemstad where wooden boats from Venezuela dock in the canal.
Get fresh local fish, fruits, and vegetables for affordable prices. It’s a unique and beautiful site that really transports you into the shoes of those living in Curaçao.
4. Immerse Yourself at Christoffel National Park
More than just a nature park, Christoffel National Park allows you to explore the natural culture of Curaçao in much the same way locals do on their days off from work. Take a safari or other guided tour led by a knowledgeable guide or walk one of the many hikes available to learn about Curaçao’s past.
Gain insight into old plantation life, including the old buildings that would have been used. Other tours allow you to brush up on Curaçao survival skills while camping overnight on a beach.
Festivals in Curaçao
If the Caribbean is known for anything it’s festivals, and Curaçao is no exception. All year round, you can find a variety of festivals and celebrations to make your stay in Curaçao memorable. Here are the ones we think are must visit:
1. Curaçao Carnival
This is the main festival of the year and runs throughout the whole of January. Like others of its kind, Curaçao Carnival features local music, concerts, brightly colored parades, beauty contests, and parties lasting throughout the month. And all cultures found on Curaçao – Dutch, African, Jewish, South American – come to celebrate together.
On Shrove Tuesday, witness the Festival di Tumba where a variety of talented music artists compete to win the title of Tumba King or Queen. The winning song then becomes that year’s festival theme. Experience the best music and culture that Curaçao has to offer.
2. Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival
On a different part of the festival spectrum, you’ll find the North Sea Jazz Festival. Only lasting two days, this festival is a lot more lowkey than Carnival though it still highlights the music that can be found on Curaçao.
This high-profile event also features visiting musicians – even Mariah Carey has performed here! In addition to jazz featured at the festival, the week leading up to the main event also features artists highlighting different genres like soul, R&B, and hip hop.
3. Salsa Tour
Featuring talented Salsa dancers from all over the world, Curaçao’s Salsa Tour is an event that is more niche than some other festivals around the island. This is not one celebrated by the entire island, but if you’re interested in Salsa, it is a great way to explore how Curaçao does it.
The festival consists of a selection of private events requiring tickets, but you’ll be able to witness dancing contests and participate in other events on the beach including water sport activities and horseback riding.
4. Curaçao Heineken Regatta
Unlike the others on this list, the Heineken (yes, that Heineken) Regatta focuses on the sporty side of Curaçao rather than the arts.
This festival takes places over three days near the end of January, with the international contestants starting the race in the capital of Willemstad. While the sailors race in an effort to try and get their hands on a prize worth thousands, everyone else gets to party on the beach and indulge in delicious barbecues featuring local foods. We know which part we like participating in the most!
5. Curaçao Restaurant Week
And speaking of food, Restaurant Week is a great opportunity to try some exciting cuisine if you happen to visit in Curaçao’s low season. Hundreds of restaurants all over the island participate in offering delectable three-course meals at really great prices in a bid to highlight all that Curaçao has to offer.
It’s an event that locals look forward to and one that provides the easiest and most affordable ways to try out eateries all over the island.
Getting a True Taste of Curaçao
If you don’t manage to get to Curaçao during Restaurant Week, don’t worry. The island has so many great restaurants to choose from, so you’re not going to be left without a choice of quality and affordable food.
However, if you’re looking for something fresh and local, going to restaurants that feature Dutch and Caribbean food is going to be your best bet for getting a proper taste of the island. Here are five restaurants on Curaçao that fit the bill.
1. The Captain Bar
A very affordable restaurant with an excellent location in Willemstad, you can drop in for a drink, a full meal, or for entertainment that may be playing on any given night.
The food, service, and value are all excellent, as is the quality and affordability of the Dutch and Caribbean cuisine – especially the meat and seafood.
2. Landhuis Klein Santa Martha Restaurant Boutique Hotel
Located in one of Curaçao’s many converted plantation houses, Landhuis Klein Santa Martha Restaurant overlooks Santa Martha Bay. It offers stunning views and delicious eats, including a combination of Krioyo (local) Caribbean and Dutch foods. With excellent food reviews and a laid-back atmosphere, it’s the perfect ideal of quiet island life.
3. Kokomo Beach Curaçao
An affordable restaurant, Kokomo Beach Curaçao definitely gives off Beach Boy vibes as it sits overlooking the water off Kokomo Beach. Have nice, barbecued meals featuring local cuisine, or grab a few drinks and watch the gentle movement of the ocean. A nearby swing is a great photo op if you go when the tide is low.
4. Karakter Curaçao
Another beachside restaurant, Karakter Curaçao features Caribbean and Dutch foods with other European influences. Although the menu is in Dutch, you’ll be able to find exactly what you’re looking for to fix those cravings. With friendly service and beautiful views, this restaurant is a nice stop for a peaceful bite.
5. Koraal Rooftop Terrace
This restaurant and bar overlooks a pool and ocean at the Coral Estate. With attentive staff, great drinks, and delicious food, along with a Sunday night barbecue that features brilliant entertainment, the Koraal Rooftop Terrace is more than just a restaurant; it’s an experience!
Historical Activities in Curaçao
Curaçao has a long and sordid history, so there’s many things to explore and learn about when on the island. The activities below are some of the best ways to gain an insight into the island’s past and daily life.
Although some of these may not be typical stops for the average tourist, getting close to culture means diving into its history as well.
1. Delve into History in the Island’s Museums
Curaçao is filled with unique museums that tell about its history. The Museum Kura Hulanda in Willemstad is one example. It documents the dark history of slavery in the Americas alongside the culture of the enslaved people, the slave trade itself, and the abolition of slavery. Additionally, you can learn about the influence of Africa on Caribbean culture that you see around the island.
Learn about the Jewish population of Curaçao at the Jewish Cultural-Historical Museum, a small museum located in 18th century buildings that were once the rabbi’s residence and bathhouse. Or you can go to the Curaçao Maritime Museum and learn about the island’s history from the Dutch West India Company to the central role of oil in the island’s economy in the 21st century.
Whether you go to one or several museums on Curaçao, you’ll walk away with a more in-depth knowledge of local life and history on the island. Which is always a good way to make use of your holiday.
2. Learn and Explore on Heritage Tours
Like museums, heritage tours provide insight into island history and life that would be missed just by walking around on your own.
Bus tours, walking tours, short tours, long tours – there are a variety available on Curaçao to choose from. If you’re interested in the Jewish history of the island, you might tour Jewish heritage. Alternatively, if you’d rather walk the streets and explore the architecture and history surrounding you, a walking tour might be better.
Whichever you choose, just make sure you find a company with a knowledgeable local guide so you can learn all that you can.
3. See Thousands of Years of History at Curaçao Caves
Get a glimpse into the geological history of Curaçao with caves that can be found all over the island. The biggest and most visitor-friendly of them is Hato Caves, which are more than 300,000 years old. Not only can you find a variety of local wildlife from the red-footed tortoise to your average bat, but the walls are also filled with history, which you can learn about on a guided tour.
The Arawaks are said to have lived in the area and petroglyphs from them can be seen from 1,500 years ago before the Europeans ever set foot on the island. There is also evidence that the caves were used as a hideout for slaves escaping their captors and living inside for months at a time. Gain interesting perspectives of Curaçao culture and history by exploring the island’s caves.
4. Get a Dose of Art and Culture at Landhuis Bloemhof
One of multiple plantations left on the island, this one is a unique combination of museum and art depicting the stories of the island and the history behind it.
With art from local artists, frequently changing exhibits, lectures, and workshops, Landhuis Bloemhof is one place that residents of Curaçao often visit for a dose of arts and culture.
Our Final Thoughts
Curaçao is magnificent because it refuses to be a tourist trap. When you arrive on the island, you’re immediately encouraged to live and act like a local.
That means finding authentic history, culture, and entertainment is much easier than on some other Caribbean islands. Whatever you do and wherever you go, we hope this guide has helped you navigate the island of Curaçao and it’s wonderful culture!