Curaçao is best known for the richly colored colonial architecture in its capital city, Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its appeal lies in its unique blend of cultures, warm and LGBTQ-friendly locals, pristine blue-green waters and white sand cove beaches, diverse cuisines, and complex history. The population of 160,000 is spread across 171 square miles of this kidney-shaped island 40 miles from Venezuela comprising at least 55 nationalities. Most locals speak four languages: Papiamentu (a Spanish and Portuguese-based creole language), Dutch, Spanish and English — a fluidity that empowers nimble thinking and open-mindedness.
Same-sex marriages aren’t performed locally, though they are legally recognized. Curacao Pride takes place in the fall, which is also a great time to visit when families are back to school and much of the rest of the Caribbean is fretting about hurricanes. Awe-inspiring art is found everywhere: live music, colorful murals, plein-air (and even underwater) sculptures, and art galleries crammed into historic alleyways in Willemstad. Find more trip-planning information at curacao.com/en.
Curaçao offers a wide variety of options for accommodations, from modest Airbnbs to ultraluxury hotels and most major US brands, but to maximize your local experience (without sacrificing quality), we recommend dividing a four- or five-night stay between the Bario for its proximity to historic sites and wide variety of cuisines and the Dream/Zoetry complex to wind down your experience in a luxurious beach-side setting.
Local entrepreneurs (one of whom is openly gay), opened the Bario Hotel, a chic property in an increasingly gentrifying neighborhood a short walk to Willemstad with unique units (some with kitchenettes) in restored and colorfully painted historic buildings. The restaurant/lounge area boasts three local eateries. There is a pool and on most nights there is a DJ or live music. Not to worry, early risers — it quiets down by midnight.
The All-inclusive Dreams Resort Hotel, Spa & Casino and Zoëtry Curaçao share a dreamy location in the leafy fishing community of Piscadera, a 10-minute drive from Willemstad on Curaçao’s southwest facing coast. Think turquoise waters, glorious sunsets and not a care in the world. Make sure you have at least one meal of fresh seafood at Oceana at the edge of the bay. You’ll often find groups of queer locals hanging at Crafty Iguana Brew Pub. Zoëtry is pricier, but there are far fewer families, and while both are LGBTQ friendly, this one is exuberantly so.
The Willemstad area boasts myriad culinary influences, mouthwatering fresh seafood, and other specialties, whether at the most expensive haute-cuisine Dutch dining room or a humble beach shack. Mosa/Caña Bar & Kitchen combines two previously separate concepts. Mosa serves international, tapas-stye dishes and shared plates in a homey environment. Caña is a Latin-inspired Caribbean bar and kitchen offering tacos, ceviche and other fresh seafood and meat dishes. Bario Urban Street Food at the eponymous hotel (see above) offers a range of food styles in an outdoor market environment: upscale street food, plant-based delights, and a variety of dishes involving the invasive but delicious lionfish.
While sightseeing downtown, carve out an hour for lunch at Plasa Bieu, an authentic local food hall located in the heart of Punda offering a wide variety of local dishes. Try bonchi kòra (red bean bean soup) and funchi (fried polenta). In the vibrant ex-pat popular Pietermaai area BijBlauw offers sophisticated Dutch takes on local cuisine. It’s pricey, and you’ll mostly find other North American and European patrons, but the outdoor beachside setting is gorgeous.
At the other end of the price and sophistication scale, one of the most highly recommended food experiences is Kas di Piskado Purunchi, an example of what locals call a fish shack, a casual indoor/outdoor restaurant perched on an inlet just outside of Willemstad en route to the airport. There’s usually just one daily option comprised of fresh fried fish served with fresh salad, fried banana, and avocado and krioyo sauce.
First things first, soak up the rich, complicated history (involving the slave trade) of Curaçao and its friendly vibe, sparkling water views, eye-popping colors, and abundant art with Step-by-Step Curaçao, offering a two-hour city tour on electric-powered step-on, seatless bikes with fat tires that can easily power up the occasional steep hills for $30/person. This tour covers the major sites, including the 1888 floating Queen Emma Bridge, the sand-floored, 17th-century Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the architecture and plazas of Willemstad, local neighborhoods, and numerous stops to ogle artwork and sample local snacks.
The best place to taste authentic Blue Curaçao liqueur is the Curaçao Liqueur Distillery at Landhuis Chobolobo, offering a fun, fast-paced tour tracking the history of the island through this potent azure liqueur in a distinctive bumpy glass bottle. The tours include samples and the opportunity to enjoy or even mix Blue Curaçao-based cocktails.
Curaçao’s flag includes two stars. One is for Klein (or little) Curaçao, an uninhabited island eight miles off the southeast coast with an abandoned lighthouse, several shipwrecks, and the longest and whitest sand beach in the country. It’s a two-hour catamaran tour with the expert seafarers of Blue Finn and features an appetizing all-you-can eat lunch, cocktails, music, and some narration.
Rent a car from your hotel to visit Westpunt, the rural, western part of the island, home to Curaçao’s most beautiful beaches, a sprawling national park, and plantation houses — beautiful but stark reminders of slavery. First, head to Shete Boka National Park, adjacent to Christoffel National Park, home of the highest peak on the island. The park covers more than six miles of the north coast of the island, featuring rocky waves and 10 small bays where three species of sea turtles are known to lay eggs, as well as the famous Boka Tabla cave.
A highlight of your visit will be the SEABOB Experience with Bearded Butlers Curaçao at Playa Piskadó with Andy, the incredibly handsome owner. Think of it as a handheld underwater electric jet ski enabling you to dive and swim quickly underwater for as long as you can hold your breath. No training or certification is required. It’s $90 for an hour, and Andy points out significant underwater elements, including sea turtles and art placed on the sea floor!
Grab lunch at Karakter, a beachside restaurant with delicious tapas, sandwiches, and fresh-caught seafood. Conclude your exploration of the west with a relaxing afternoon on the beach at Playa Kenepa Grandi located on the far west side where you’ll find the vibrant, crystal-clear blue-green water and the pristine white sand beaches of your Caribbean fantasies.
NYC-based Ed Salvato is a freelance travel writer, instructor at NYU and the University of Texas at Austin’s NYC Center and an LGBTQ marketing specialist.