Fast, furious and fascinating, KINGSTON is unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. With a population fast approaching one million, the city seethes with life, noise and activity; it's a side of Jamaica that couldn't be more different from the resorts. In addition to being the seat of government and the island's administrative centre, Kingston is Jamaica's cultural heart, the city that spawned Bob Marley, Buju Banton, Beenie Man and countless other reggae stars.
The city's handful of interesting museums, galleries and the botanical gardens can easily fill a couple of days of sightseeing; the island's best clubs, theatres and some great restaurants will take care of the evenings.
Kingston's main sights are divided between Downtown, which stretches north from the waterfront to the busy traffic junction of Cross Roads, and Uptown, spreading up into the ritzy suburbs at the base of the mountains. Downtown is the industrial centre, its factories and all-important port providing most of Kingston's blue-collar employment. On the other end of the scale, Uptown is attractive and has an easy-going feel. Most of Kingston's hotels, restaurants, clubs and shopping centres are here, and it's where you'll spend most of your time. Some of the residential districts are simply beautiful, while the central high-rises suggest a modern city anywhere in North America.
Practically all of the Kingston's violent crime is confined to the ghettos, which are not places for casual sightseeing; by avoiding them, you're no more at risk in Kingston than in any other big city. Take the usual precautions – use cabs after dark, keep jewellery and valuables out of sight – and you're unlikely to run into any problems.
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 Blue Mountains —impressive peaks that form a glorious backdrop to the whole.
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 National Gallery of Jamaica , by Edna Manley, wife of former prime minister and National Hero Norman Manley and mother of another former prime minister, Michael. The highlight of the waterfront is the National Gallery, a repository of Jamaican art, with important works by John Dunkley, Carl Abrahams, David Pottinger and Barrington Watson. (See recommended tours for more information).
The Kingston Crafts Market at the western end of Ocean Boulevard (open daily except Sunday) houses myriad little stores where you can pick up jewelry, T-shirts, carvings and richly embroidered baskets, though don't expect to be able to barter prices down. The area just north of the grassy waterfront forms the historic city center, though many grand 18th century buildings were flattened in an earthquake in 1907. In colonial days, King Street was the main thoroughfare, and despite the earthquake, it still retains a number of beautiful old buildings with columned verandahs and decorative carvings. Half way up is the Parade, a large square used as a parade ground by British troops in the 18th century as well the site for grisly public floggings and hangings. The center of the parade is the shady, statue-filled area, William Grant Park . Today, following a massive facelift in the 1980s, the Parade is one of the most vibrant spots in town—music blares from ghetto blasters, traffic screeches, vendors hawk their baubles and queues for taxis and buses spill onto the road.
North of the park is the elegant sky-blue wedding cake building of the Ward Theatre , a magnet for thespians since the 18th century and home to the annual panto as well as seasonal spectacles; feel free to nose around the inside.
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 St Andrew Scots Kirk , built in the Georgian manner by a group of prominent Scottish merchants, and surrounded by a gallery supported by Corinthian pillars. Upon completion, it was dubbed the handsomest building in Kingston.
Headquarters House & Gordon House
Two blocks west of East Street is Headquarters House , a trim little townhouse once known as Hibbert House, but now home to the National Heritage Trust, which has its offices in the former bedrooms. You can explore the rest of the building; the debating chamber is on the ground floor, still furnished with original furniture and impressive portraits of Jamaican heroes, and the basement has some offbeat relics and a mish-mash of art collections.
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 Holy Trinity Cathedral , the island's center of Catholicism. Gleaner Building, at the junction of North and East streets, is home to Jamaica's premier newspapers, the Daily and Sunday Gleaner.
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 parish church of St Andrew (always open; free). It's one of the oldest churches on the island, a tranquil,17th century redbrick building with delicate stained glass, and marble wall tablets commemorating Jamaican civil servants and English soldiers. Half Way Tree's central plaza (now a busy shopping area), was where farmers would rest as they traveled towards the city's main markets. The eponymous cotton tree under which they rested has long since gone—but a clock tower now stands in its place, erected in the early 19th century as a memorial to the British King, Edward VII.
Carry on walking east of Half Way Tree, and you hit Devon House on Hope Road. This impressive edifice was built in 1881 by Jamaica's first black millionaire- it has fine landscaped grounds where you can stop for a snack or a drink - and the tour of the house is well worth considering (see Recommended Tours section).
Half a mile up Hope Road brings you to Jamaica House (closed to visitors),used as the Prime Minister's office, and King's House —the official home of the governor-general. You can get a tour of the staterooms in this impressively restored 19th century house; more interestingly - the governess occasionally holds afternoon teas, as part of the island's successful 'Meet the People' program. Contact the Jamaican Tourist Board on +1 876 929 9200 for more information, or reservations.
Hope Road is also home to the much-vaunted Bob Marley Museum . It then forks up towards the Hope Botanical Gardens and Coconut Park—the latter, a haven for kids, with great rides and a small zoo housing lions, mongoose and monkeys.
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 Port Royal . You can get there by following Barbican Road to its northernmost edges—then join Jack's Hill Road and then onto Skyline Drive.
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 cafe 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' Cafe (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.
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.