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
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).
The lion's share of the city's hotels are situated around the small uptown district of New Kingston. Here, you are close to major places of interest as well as bars, restaurants, theaters and clubs. Bear in mind that most of these establishments cater to the business rather than the tourist sector; nonetheless, they range from comfortable and convenient to lavish.
If you seek peace and solitude but need to be close by, there are a handful of excellent options in the foothills of the Blue Mountains just north of Kingston. They are generally peaceful places, offering superb vistas of the city, ideal if you want to combine business with tropical tranquility or a day's hiking in the country.
Depending upon priorities and pocketbooks, you may want to explore the Guesthouses, which are scattered throughout the city and suburban areas. These more intimate accommodations allow you to get a feel for Jamaica's essence and culture, and at substantial savings. Check out Alhambra Inn , Sutton Place and more.
Knutsford Boulevard runs through the center of New Kingston and is home to the city's two high rise hotels, Hilton Kingston Jamaica and Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus. The 17-story Jamaica Pegasus is big and impressively contemporary. The Hilton, our other skyscraper hotel, offers upscale accommodations and amenities to match, geared predominantly towards the business traveler. There is a fabulous swimming pool, small gym, casino and nightclub. Both hotels are 20 minutes from Kingston's International Airport and are well-positioned for sightseeing, dining and shopping.
Courtleigh Hotel & Suites is one of those impressive little jewels: once you've been a guest, nothing else will do. It's a pocket of the good life in the heart of the financial district. If you're after a more relaxed meal, don't miss Mingles Pub, a place to see and be seen.
To sooth your soul, the Terra Nova Hotel provides peaceful olde-world ambiance in a splendid colonial mansion, famed for its personal service and fine cuisine. Rooms are luxuriously and imaginatively appointed; public rooms are elegant and comfortable.
Two moderately priced hotels worthy of mention are Altamont Court Hotel and Christar Villas, both in the center of New Kingston and close to sightseeing, restaurants, businesses and shops. Altamont Court Hotel is attractive, well furnished and comfortable. A popular alternative for those who prefer the self-catering option, Christar Villas offers a host of features in one and two bedroom apartments—just a stone's throw from the Bob Marley Museum.
And then, we come to the crème de la crème. Strawberry Hill is a superb mountaintop resort located 3100 ft above sea level in the picturesque Blue Mountains. The property is owned by Island Records guru, Chris Blackwell, and is where Bob Marley convalesced after being shot in 1976. Consequently, it is a magnet for the international glitterati set. Though set outside Kingston's city limits, and one mile north of Irish Town, you can see the lights of the city twinkling in the distance, and its fabulous facilities are well worth the detour. Strawberry Hill also hosts a calendar of year round special events, from concerts to parties to art exhibitions. Many Jamaicans make the drive out to Strawberry Hill restaurant just to sample the modern Jamaican cuisine—reservations are advisable.
There is plenty to enlighten the visitor to Jamaica, with museums uncovering and revealing the island's history in a comprehensive and entertaining way. You can easily get a feel of Jamaica's rich heritage—her history, her flora and fauna, and of course her culture both musical and artistic—in just two or three days of leisurely sightseeing. Close to Kingston, Port Royal and the elegant Devon House take you back several generations; the lush Hope Botanical Gardens display the island's rich varieties of nature, and a trip to the renowned Bob Marley Museum and Tuff Gong Recording Studios will bring you right up to date with her musical culture.
The old naval base of Port Royal is now a somewhat down-at-the-heels, funky fishing village. It lies across the harbor on the tip of the Palisadoes, Kingston's narrow sandy spit, which is also the site of the Norman Manley International Airport. You can get there by road or via a 25-minute boat ride from Victoria Pier. Sir Henry Morgan's restaurant in Morgan's Harbour Hotel, an upscale resort favored by both locals and tourists on the grounds of the old naval dockyard, rates as a perfect lunch spot during your visit.
Port Royal was founded in 1650 and soon became the hub of British naval and military power in the West Indies. It grew faster than any town founded by the English in the New World, and it became the most economically important English port in the Americas. But it's just as famous for its more grisly face as a haven for cunning pirates like the infamous Henry Morgan, and as a hive of gambling and drinking dens and brothels--the whole site protected by six forts and 145 guns. Port Royal soon earned a reputation as "the wickedest city in the world" and the massive earthquake of 1692, which saw whole streets sliding into the sea, was thought by some to be a case of divine retribution. Local merchants rebuilt their city, only to see it destroyed by fire a short 11 years later, in 1703.
This second devastation knocked the debauched city to its knees and from then on the area operated solely as a naval base. Horatio Nelson, later an admiral and the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, served as a post-captain from 1779-1780 and was in charge of Fort Charles, the key battery in the island's fortifications. This fort was the only one of the port's six to withstand the earthquake.
A tour around atmospheric Fort Charles inlcudes plenty of old cannons, though nothing like the hundred or so guns that once made it the most heavily defended fort in the Caribbean. Best of all, you get a stunning view of the Kingston mountain range from its castellated ramparts. There is a small Maritime Museum in the fort with model ships, canoes used by the island's indigenous tribe, the Arawak, and a mock-up of Nelson's quarters. Just beyond the fort is the topsy-turvy shape of Giddy House, once the Royal Artillery store, first built in 1888 but damaged in the 1907 earthquake which accounts for its bizarre 45-degree tilt.
Take to the waters in a glass-bottomed boat. Trips out to the sunken city as well as scuba diving expeditions can be had from Morgan's Harbour Marina. At present, you need a permit to dive the protected treasure, though the club will have further details on this.
If you feel like cooling off after tramping around fortifications, then the Rockfort Mineral Baths are close at hand (three miles east of downtown Kingston). More than just a public swimming bath, this oasis offers a series of small mineral spas fitted with Jacuzzis with the water pumped in from a local spring. The site of the baths is of some interest, too. This was where the 17th century British Fort Rock was located, first strengthened against a threatened invasion from the French in 1694.
Back in Kingston, you might like to poke your nose into The National Gallery, home to a collection of paintings and sculptures by the celebrated Jamaican School (see Entertainment section for further details).
Devon House, an easy walk from your hotel in New Kingston, is a former "Great House" set in gardens of palms and flowering trees. This huge house with its louvered windows and palm-patterned wallpaper was built in 1881 for George Stiebel, Jamaica's first millionaire. The house was restored in the 1960s and, with its fine antiques and paintings, now offers interesting insight into the style of merchant houses of the 19th century—complete with a private gambling den in the attic!
The grounds of Devon House are particularly attractive and often used as a backdrop for wedding photographs. You can stop for lunch in the old stables where there are two excellent restaurants (see Dining & Drinking).
About ten blocks east of Devon House is the Bob Marley Museum. This much-revered spot on Kingston's "must-do" list is where the King of Reggae used to live. There are exhibits about his childhood and family, with his simple bedroom kept intact. Marley died tragically of brain cancer in his 30s, having survived an assassination attempt—the bullet holes in the walls have been left as a reminder.
The old recording studios have been turned into an auditorium where your tour ends with an interesting film about Marley's later years. There is an Ethiopian restaurant in the garden, the Queen of Sheba, where you can get a good lunch including some of Marley's favorite vegetarian dishes.
You can get a free tour of the Tuff Gong Recording Studios, but ring first to see if a visit is convenient. If you're in the mood for even more things Marley-related, then it is worth traveling out of town a bit and seeing where his old recording studios have taken new root. Marley's son, Ziggy, runs the studios; you get a conducted tour, and there is a good souvenir shop selling tapes and Marley memorabilia.
Hope Botanical Gardens is a 200-acre site containing the Caribbean's largest collection of flora and fauna, though there was quite a lot of destruction following Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. The gardens took shape back in the 19th century, starting life as an experimental crop station on the site of the old Hope estate. Highlights of a visit include the orchid house, sago palms from the antediluvian era, a maze, and first-rate aviary. There is also a small play park for children complete with a petting zoo.
The city is well placed for alternative day trips, be it a spell by the beach or a hike into the mountains, should you fancy a change from the hustle and bustle of downtown Kingston. Blue Mountains (4 wheel drive recommended):
Head north out of Kingston and you're in the craggy, mist-strewn and leafy peaks of Blue Mountain country. There are several scenic routes you can take, some involving energetic hikes, others half-day tours by car. If time is limited, a quick trip to the little village of Mavis Bank nestling in the Yallahs River valley is recommended. It's just one hour's drive from Kingston and ideal if you want a glimpse of Jamaican country living. Focal point of this single street village is the pretty white painted church and the Hikers Guide Rest Stop, where you can pick up a guide to lead you on local nature walks for around USD 15 per day. The Rest Stop also serves a simple Jamaican lunch. Better still, head for lunch at the Blue Mountain Taverna, followed by a tour of the JABLUM coffee factory, located below the main road into the village.
Blue Mountain coffee is reckoned by some to be the finest in the world, and the coffee factory in Mavis Bank is one of four plants where the beans are processed. An informal tour will show you how the beans are husked, sized and dried, a few historical artifacts, and how to "cup," the noisy process by which experts taste the coffee for quality. It involves lots of sucking, swilling and spitting, a bit in the style of wine tasting—you have been warned!
There are guides who will take you on the walk from Mavis Bank (around 2 hours, reasonable fitness required) to the starting point of the trail to the Blue Mountain Peak which, at 7,402ft, is the highest point on the island. It might sound terribly daunting, but climbing the peak is actually relatively easy, and should take three-five hours up and two-three hours downhill, depending on your fitness levels. The climb is just under seven miles, and magnificent: an opulent trail winding through wild orchids and ferns, coffee groves and banana plantations, with the chance to do some bird-watching too. The doctor bird, the national bird of Jamaica, is thick on the ground. It is a beautiful, swallow-tailed hummingbird recognizable by its loud buzzing call, and found near the many flowering bushes. Regular signposts make the hike easy without a guide, and if you want to extend the hike, there are huts on the peak where you can overnight (albeit uncomfortably) and a campsite with cabins and showers at Portland Gap, about one hour up.
More hiking opportunities are available in the Hellshire Hills, the vast and somewhat arid upland region to the west of Kingston. The area was once home to the Taino Indians and then to runaway slaves. Now it is migrant birds and a handful of the endangered Jamaican iguana who have settled here, the latter growing up to 2 meters in length.
The hills cover 100 square miles and form a loop surrounded on three sides by the Caribbean. Low rainfall and the scrub-covered limestone makes this a seemingly inhospitable place to visit, but if you are into nature and want to see one of the island's genuine wilderness zones, then a day trip here with a guide is highly recommended. Best of all, opt for the one-day "Iguana Project Trip," offered by the Iguana Conservation Group at the University in Mona. The cost includes transfers from Kingston, eight-mile guided hike and lunch.
The eastern edge of the Hellshire hills is marked by lovely sandy beaches and coves, reached via a road that runs south from Portmore to Hellshire Point. There are buses from Parade and Half Way Tree that run to the beaches, roughly every half hour. The beaches are highly popular with Kingstonians, especially on weekends, when the locals set up fish stalls piled high with lobster, and reggae blasts a rhythmic beat. Fort Clarence Beach Park is one of the liveliest, with good amenities: there is a small restaurant and bar, car parking facilities and toilets. Fisherman's Beach has a good social scene with stalls selling jerk, beer and fresh fish to the crowds of city dwellers who throng here on Saturdays and Sundays. You can also hire jet skis and snorkels. The village behind the beach has gaily painted shacks and houses.
A short drive south takes you along a wonderfully unspoilt stretch of coastline towards Two Sisters Cave. Ancient earthquakes created subterranean chambers here where the Taino Indians set up home. In the past, explorers found old weapons and bits of pottery, as well as petroglyphs of faces and figures. You might come across a guide sitting at the entrance to the caverns who will be willing to take you in and show you around for a donation.