Blog WHS Visits

WHS #741: Willemstad

Curacao holds the WHS where I could finally “finish” the Netherlands: the "Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour". While I already was done with the 9 other Dutch WHS in 2011, Willemstad seemed out of reach. The 10-hour flight to an island fully dedicated to mass tourism had always deterred me. During Covid times however, there are no cruise ships and the total number of monthly visitors is limited to 20,000. So it was exactly the right moment for me!

I stayed overnight for a week in the Pietermaai neighbourhood and explored the other 3 zones of the WHS on foot. I used itineraries that I found on the internet to identify the most interesting structures of Scharloo, Otrobanda and Punda.

I started in Scharloo, a neighborhood of detached 19th century residences. The place to be here is the long Scharlooweg. The stately buildings along this road now house companies and also the Swiss consulate. All are heavily secured and have gates in front. No one walked this street on a Sunday, I only met a stray dog.

The Waaigat separates Scharloo from the Punda district, the oldest part of the city center. As a pedestrian, you can choose from 3 bridges in a row to get to the other side. Especially this part of Willemstad is very reminiscent of Amsterdam. Fortunately, car traffic nowadays uses the also impressive 56 meter high Juliana Bridge.

I almost immediately left Punda to cross another stretch of water: St. Anna Bay. This is where the origins lie of 17th century Willemstad. Fort Amsterdam is a reminder of that time when access to the port had to be well protected against pirates and foreign naval forces. One usually crosses St. Anna Bay via the Queen Emma Bridge, the iconic pontoon bridge. However, when I arrived the bridge had just opened for a large cargo ship. At those times there is a free ferry back and forth. I got on that one and was in the Otrobanda district within a few minutes.

Otrobanda is a residential area with both working-class and upmarket houses from the 18th and 19th century. My walking route through Otrobanda was easier to follow than the one through Scharloo, but here too many buildings have changed hands or have fallen into disrepair. Next to the bright yellow Masonic Lodge - which indeed still stands – there should have been “another very beautiful mansion (white with blue woodwork)” from the beginning of the 18th century. What I found however was a charming ruin (see 2nd photo).

Finally, the Punda district. This consists partly of the government buildings of Curaçao and for the other part of shopping streets mainly aimed at tourists. The administration buildings are nicely painted in yellow. The shopping streets are narrow with properties on top of each other. The Post Museum here is located in the oldest remaining building. Punda was my least favorite neighborhood of the three, the best thing is watching the pontoon bridge open and close from a terrace on the waterfront.

After my first half-day city walk, I was able to do multiple short hops into town and visit also the attractions with limited opening hours such as the Maritime Museum. Willemstad does grow on you. Its historic area is quite large and goes well beyond the row of colourful houses at the Handelskade near the pontoon bridge. Compared to St. George (Bermuda) and Cartagena (Colombia), two similar WHS that I visited during the past year, Willemstad has less focus on fortifications and more on urban colonial architecture made possible by its success as a trading city.

Els - 6 December 2020

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Jay T 7 December 2020

Thanks -- I was curious how the Dutch architecture compared between the sites, so I appreciate the observations.

Els Slots 7 December 2020

Willemstad and Paramaribo are nothing alike in my opinion. Willemstad has that specific Caribbean sea port feel, while Paramaribo has a riverside location but not much of a port. Willemstad also feels more Dutch in its architecture, both in decorations and in the use of brick/stone. Paramaribo's wooden architecture is more geared to use in the tropics.

Jay T 6 December 2020

Glad you had a good trip! I was interested to see your thoughts on Willemstad’s differences from Cartagena and St. George. How would you say it compares to Paramaribo?