Few Caribbean islands can offer up the diversity of our island country —where there's so much more than "rum, sun & reggae"—especially in the often overlooked capital city of Kingston, the heartbeat of Jamaica and the second largest English-speaking city south of Miami, Florida. Kingston overlooks what is the seventh largest natural harbour in the world. Like a fan, the city spreads north from the harbor as far as the foothills of the famous
What better way to combine business with leisure than to take in all that Kingston has to offer? With an eye on satisfying the most demanding visitor, this cosmopolitan city extends excellence in upscale high-rise accommodations, fine international dining, pulsating nightlife, business and financial services, shopping and culture. Just like any major metropolitan city, we have our share of street vendors, beggars and unappealing, less desirable areas, but north of the harbor and uptown, New Kingston sparkles!
Most people think of Kingston as being divided into two parts. It's not unlike a vibrant modern American city in that there's a downtown sector—stretching north from the waterfront to the busy traffic junction at Cross Roads—and also an uptown sector, which extends to the smart suburbs located at the base of the mountains. It will probably take you at least half a day to check out the downtown sights —maybe a bit more to encompass all the must-dos in the uptown area.
A great place to sample the essential atmosphere of this noisy and vigorous metropolis. Finding your way about on foot is pretty easy, since Kingston uses the grid system. If you get tired, flag down a taxi (fix the price beforehand) as rates are fairly reasonable and it's more straightforward than trying to tackle the chaos of the city's bus system.
The waterfront is a pleasant place to begin your tour of the area. Mixing alongside industrial-looking ships and warehouses, you get fishermen and pelicans, vendors flogging root snacks, and people dozing under the shade of a palm tree.
Ocean Boulevard is the waterfront's breezy main strip, and its focal point is the emotionally charged Negro Aroused statue depicting a crouched man breaking free from bondage. This is a replica of the original, now in the
North of the park is the elegant sky-blue wedding cake building of the
To the west, stretching three blocks from the Parade, is the crowded, colorful and cacophonous Jubilee Market (M-F)—also known as Solas Market. It inspired a famous Jamaican folksong: "Come we go down a Solas Market; come we go buy banana." Further west are the ghetto areas known as the yards, where hard hitting wall murals act as territorial markers. The region is a no go for tourists - even Jamaicans from neighboring areas think twice before entering the opposition's turf.
Duke Street & Around
Kingston has many handsome old churches, but one of the most impressive is the octagonal
Headquarters House & Gordon House
Two blocks west of East Street is
Gordon House is where Jamaica's parliament resides. The House of Representatives meets here most Tuesdays at 2pm, and the Senate sits in chamber on Fridays at 11am. Entrance to the public galleries, for a glimpse of how Jamaica conducts business, is free.
Other downtown sites:
Walk along North Street and you reach the imposing domed
The district north of Cross Roads—is where the commercial sprawl of hotels, banks, embassies and offices meets the residential areas of Hope, Mona, and Beverly Hills.
Centuries ago, uptown was mostly rural, save the odd sugar estate or livestock farm. But Kingston's wealthy merchants soon bought up the land—seeing in it a chance to escape the noise and bustle of the waterfront area. The process continues, and you will be able to spot newer, more fashionable residential quarters as far north as the foothills of the Blue Mountains.
The heart of uptown—a pulsating urban centerpiece dominated by high rise financial buildings bounded by Trafalgar Road, Half Way Tree Road and Old Hope Road. It is likely that your hotel will be located here and it's a good area too, for restaurants and bars (see Dining & Drinking section). You can also easily walk to all the most interesting sights from here.
Half Way Tree
This busy quarter about a mile west of New Kingston used to be a tiny village, dominated by the
Carry on walking east of Half Way Tree, and you hit
Half a mile up Hope Road brings you to Jamaica House (closed to visitors),used as the Prime Minister's office, and
Hope Road is also home to the much-vaunted
If you have wheels, consider driving into the Blue Mountains from here —or at least going up onto Skyline Drive—a road noted for its stunning views over the city and across the harbor to
Kingston's eateries, mostly centered in the New Kingston and Half Way Tree sectors, are plentiful, and for relaxing, open-air dining, especially after a busy day of meetings or sightseeing, New Kingston has some rich pickings. There are reasonable lunchtime choices downtown, and elsewhere anything from small jerk bars, where you can try out the island's spicy barbecued specialties, to up market seafood restaurants. Variations on Jamaican Cuisines are on offer in many establishments, but you will also find good Asian, Middle-Eastern, vegetarian and fast food restaurants, the latter, springing up around the Parade area and in the shopping malls.
On Knutsford Boulevard, you can find lots of vans selling a satisfying lunch for around US$2.50, and for classic Jamaican fast food, try Mothers, Tastee, or Island Grill. Their takeaway patties, or in the case of Island Grill Jerk Fish, make a great change from burgers (branches across that island).
Here's just a sampler of a few of Kingston's most interesting restaurants, by district.
The inexpensive Bench & Bar Restaurant is a magnet for office workers seeking good breakfasts and lunches. Lasagne and kebabs meet with curried chicken and steamed fish, with daily specials costing around USD 6. The owners also run the famous Blue Mountain Inn out of town in Mavis Bank.
The Ocean Restaurant is an unpromising-looking cafe facing the sea, but handy for lunch after a trip round the National Gallery of Jamaica. Very affordable dishes include chicken, goat and fish curries and steamed fish. Expect to pay around USD 3.
Chelsea Jerk Centre is a mecca for jerk dishes. This popular shack has spicy chicken and pork specialties doused in hot pepper sauce for around USD 3.
The Grog Shoppe, located in an old brick warehouse on the grounds of Devon House, offers a feeling of Port Royal in the 1680s. Cocktails are exotic and colorful (many people just come here to drink), and dishes include ackee crepes, suckling pig, Jamaican hotpot and callaloo as well as steaks and Blue Mountain burgers, with prices starting from USD 6. Try and get a table outside under the mango tree. Jazz is played on Tuesdays.
Devonshire Restaurant, also on the grounds of Devon House, is a smart restaurant in a cool, elegant setting. The best tables are located on the verandahs overlooking a forest of greenery. Dishes are fairly costly, and feature continental specialties with Jamaican accents, such as cream of red snapper chowder and tropical conch curry with mango, papaya and jackfruit.
At the Hot Pot, behind the Wyndham Hotel, you can sit at wooden tables under awnings in a courtyard and try out Jamaican favorites like xxtail soup, goat curry, bammy and stewed beef.
Indies Pub & Grill is an easy-going establishment popular with the after work crowd and New Kingston business lunchers who favor simple dishes like chicken, fish & chips and pizza. Inside it looks like a traditional English pub, though there is room to dine outside too.
Red Bones offers top notch Jamaican nouvelle cuisine in a lovely garden setting and trompe-l'oeil decorated dining rooms. Jamaica's in-crowd are regulars here, keen to try out imaginative dishes like drunken cod fish and herbed chicken and listen to blues music.
Akbar is Kingston's best Indian restaurant, with pleasant atmosphere and fabulously decorated interior.
Out of Town:
Jamaican born chef James Palmer presides over Strawberry Hill, part of Chris Blackwell's up market resort retreat. Palmer's signature is modern Jamaican cooking, and he even stages cooking courses. You dine either in the atmospheric colonial style dining room, or outside on the terrace. Sunday brunches feature jerk lamb with roasted garlic guava glaze, jerk pork, ackee and salt fish, fried bammy and more. Evening meals might include starters like Angel hair pasta with grilled jumbo shrimps, and such entrees as curried goat roti with mango relish or baked yellowtail snapper with lemon butter sauce.
Blue Mountain Inn is a romantic four-room oasis half way up the Blue Mountains, with a superb dining room run by the charming, hospitable duo, Ilean and Malcolm McInnes. There are four tiny dining areas to the taverna, including a roadside café and garden area with mountain views. Main courses feature dishes like Yallas River Shrimps with crayfish sauce, and Blue Mountain tree tomatoes.
BARS Kingston offers a good selection of cafes and hotel bars in the uptown district. Traditional bars are generally one-room affairs, reserved primarily for local men, where cheap rum is the order of the day.
Recommended outdoor venues include Peppers (31 Upper Waterloo Road), a popular bar attracting the after-work crowd and which also serves jerk pork and chicken; and Carlos' Café (22 Belmont Road), very much an in-vogue meeting place.
Elsewhere, try the Jamrock Sports Bar & Grill (66 Knutsford Blvd), which stages a happy hour. Popular with the in-crowd, this sophisticated joint features wall-to-wall TVs, and loud music.
Music abounds in Kingston. Its unofficial title, "Nashville of the Third World," points to the numerous recording studios that have blossomed throughout the city and that have given birth to new titles and bands almost every month of the year. As with the rest of the island, buses double as mobile discotheques, and shops and bars blast reggae, ska and dancehall (types of music) from mammoth speakers pumped up to the highest possible decibel. You can get a good idea of Jamaican music just from wandering the streets of Kingston. Better still, hit some clubs to hear live bands perform.
The current big rhythm in Jamaica is dancehall, a compulsive, somewhat monotonous rap linked to a danceable reggae beat. You'll find it nearly impossible to understand the lyrics unless you are familiar with patois (the Jamaican dialect). The songs mostly address everyday issues like corruption, sex and money, often with a controversial message—one of the reasons why dancehall is so popular.
Reggae developed during the 1970s as singers like Bob Marley and the Wailers and Jimmy Cliff gained popularity throughout the island. By the time of Bob Marley's death in 1981, reggae had achieved international acclaim. Both the Bob Marley Museum and the Tuff Gong Recording Studios, run by Marley's son Ziggy, are well worth a visit (see Recommended Tours).
Friday night is the time to catch live music in town (expect to pay around USD 2-USD 5 entry fee) and the daily newspaper, The Gleaner, gives good listings, particularly for dancehall venues. Remember that the scene doesn't really start to shift until around midnight. There is also a good retro scene where vintage oldies pull in the nostalgia crowd.
Clubs include Asylum, a very popular club, packing in the crowds on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Countryside Club, close to Half Way Tree, is a well-designed outdoor venue featuring live music, including Latin (Cuban) on Thursdays.
Extremes in Portmore is a popular out-of-town local disco with dancehall on Sunday nights. The Junkanoo Lounge in the Hilton Kingston Hotel is popular with an older, more international clientele. It attracts an older clientele who come for the Latin beat on Saturdays. The club also features Salsa, Lambada and Merengue.
Theater & Dance
Kingston has a year-round calendar of lively theater and performance, mostly with a local flavor. Plays often incorporate dance and include a message—sometimes concentrating on the tribulations of the poorer classes, or commentary on the slave era. That said, many performances are bawdy, upbeat affairs, and whatever your tastes, be it comedy, tragedy, sexual romp or political satire, there will surely be something to suit. Most of the plays feature Jamaican patois, but not so that you won't understand what's going on in a general sense.
Jamaican pantomime is a distinctive art form completely different from British pantomime, though there are nods in the direction of traditional fairytales from the British Isles. Folklore is prominent, audience participation high, and song, dance and satirical stabs at the political scene are rife.
Jamaican dance covers classical, African and contemporary forms. Kingston is blessed with having the acclaimed National Dance Theatre Company based at the Little Theatre. The troupe, famed for its elaborate, colorful costumes and African themes, was founded in 1962. The dancers have given worldwide performances under the directorship of Rex Nettleford.
The Ward Theatre north of Parade features the city's primary annual pantomime (running December through April), Jamaican folk singers and other kinds of performance. The Little Theatre is home to the NDTC, whose season runs from mid July to mid August, with performances also in November and December. The Barn Theatre on Oxford Road features lively folk and jazz performances by the University Singers as well as shows by the Cari-folk Singers, a troupe renowned for preserving traditional Jamaican folksong.
Extremely popular with the locals, Kingston's cinemas feature a good smattering of Hollywood hits. Most are located uptown with tickets selling for cheap. Expect an intermission and to stand for the National Anthem. The most comfortable include the five screen Carib Cinema on Cross Roads, and the Palace Cineplex at the Sovereign Centre on Hope Road. Better still, there is a popular drive-in for breezy night time movie watching at Harbour View (situated a little outside of Kingston).
Kingston has a vibrant art scene. Kick off with a visit to Kingston's National Gallery. The Jamaican School can be found on the first floor. Here are works by the school's leader, the sculptress Edna Manley, as well as paintings by the self-taught primitive John Dunkley, a Kingston barber who started off by painting his entire shop with colorful organic forms before moving on to canvas. More mystical in feel are the works of sect leader 'Kapo' Reynolds (his figurines made of wood are particularly enchanting), and Albert Artwell, Everald Brown, David Pottinger and Osmond Watson—all of who use Rastafarian symbolism in their paintings. The entrance fee is by contribution—usually USD .75 minimum. It is recommended that you get a guide to show you around. Their services are free, though tipping is a good idea.
Rastafarian art can be seen also at Bolivar Art Gallery, which holds works by many of the leading Jamaican artists. The Grosvenor Gallery shows both permanent and temporary exhibitions by renowned figures, or stop by the Contemporary Art Centre, owned by a local painter, and always showing some interesting exhibits.
Some of the leading hotels are good venues of artistic expression. The Jamaica Pegasus on Knutsford Blvd has a basement gallery housing regular exhibitions of Jamaican art, while the neighboring Hilton Kingston Hotel possesses a great collection of works by Portland artist Ken Abendana Spencer in its lobby.
Time your visit to coincide with one of Kingston's many festivals.
In January, the National Gallery stages its Annual National Exhibition, a showpiece for both new artists and the more established crew.
February is the month for the Bob Marley Birthday Bash, held at the Bob Marley Museum and around the island. Celebrations concentrate on the late musician's birthday on 6th February. His son Ziggy often performs with his band the Melody Makers. February is also the month for the University of the West Indies Carnival. This annual celebration feature steel bands, parades, mas players, soca jump ups and the choosing of a carnival king and queen.
April sees the carnival proper bursting onto the streets of Jamaica. The festivities kick off early in the month, with costume parades and all night parties.
July and August set the scene for the Little Theatre's National Dance Theatre Company's season of dance. Check the local paper, The Daily Gleaner, for details of their performances. August: The Independence Day Street Parade on August 6th wends its way through the streets of central Kingston with costumed parades and Junkanoo.
December is the month for the Devon House Christmas Fair, and the "don't miss" annual pantomime staged at the Ward Theatre (which moves to the Little Theatre in February).
If there was a prize handed out for tenacity among the world's cities, Kingston would be up there with the winners. A real survivor, this hardy metropolis has risen like a phoenix from fires, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.
Kingston survives in spite of its grossly exaggerated reputation as a dangerous city of tenuously reined-in chaos. Because of that reputation, most tourists stick to the holiday destinations of the north coast. Ironically, though you will undoubtedly see something of the rough edges of this town, the hustlers who plague the tourist centers of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay are relatively sparse in Kingston.
Kingston was founded at the end of the 17th century as a refuge for survivors of a devastating earthquake that had hit Jamaica, and that all but destroyed Port Royal, a large town on the opposite side of the harbor. Before the earthquake, the Kingston area housed little more than a few pig farmers and fishing shacks. Earthquake survivors set up homesteads, and very shortly plans were drawn up for a new town to be laid out beside the water and to be named in honor of the British king, William of Orange.
By the early 18th century, Kingston's natural harbour enabled the city to flourish as an important seaport. The traders who grew fat on the profits built fine town houses throughout the city, and freed slaves and immigrant workers flooded in, hoping to share in the city's boom. Some hundred years later, when Kingston finally received recognition as the island's capital, the rich had gravitated towards uptown Kingston and the northern outskirts, and the poorer population huddled in shantytowns on the edges of the old town.
Calamities plagued the city's early years, changing the look of the city: a massive hurricane in 1784, an enormous fire in 1843, a cholera epidemic in 1850, fire again in 1862, and the devastating earthquake of 1907 that destroyed nearly all the buildings south of Parade. The largely destitute population of the downtown area helped swell the Rastafarian movement during the 1920s and '30s. Major riots during the Depression '30s gave rise to the development of trade unions and political parties set up to represent the workers and the dispossessed. But improvements in housing and working conditions were slow in coming. Not until the 1960s did this vibrant city see any tangible change. The much needed facelift given to the old downtown area, together with the expansion and redevelopment of the waterfront area, coincided with Kingston's growing international fame as a center of reggae music. Shops and offices emerged during this facelift (casualties of which included the once famous Myrtle Bank Hotel and Knutsford Racetrack—now New Kingston—and Victoria Market), as well as wide boulevards and multi-story buildings. But for the people of West Kingston, this development was seen as primarily superficial—and the 1970s and 1980s proved tense times politically.
Today, Kingston is something of a divided city. The wealthy largely live in the smart suburbs to the north, traveling in to work in the relatively sanitized zone of New Kingston, and rarely venturing downtown. But there are hopes that the city's politicians are beginning to address the problems of the ghettos, gangs and party factions. This comes coupled with proposals for tourist development, with the return of cruise ships being the priority.