Settled by the French following the partition of St Kitts in 1628, the island capital, Basseterre, on the Caribbean coast, is French in name only today. Although boasting some Georgian architecture and a selection of reasonable quality restaurants and bars, it is not a particularly attractive town, of interest mainly for its hustle and bustle – made more frantic by street reggae and soca sound systems – and as the place to catch ferries, buses and taxis. You'll not need more than half a day to fully explore the town before heading on to more interesting island attractions.
With the recent growth in the number of cruise ships visiting the city, a new harbour facility, Port Zante, has been built for the purpose of retailing imported jewellery and overpriced souvenirs to shop-hungry tourists. Whilst lacking local soul, the development has brought much-needed employment to the city, as well as an expansion in facilities; alongside a couple of smart cafés, there's a new tourist office, Internet centre and post office in the adjoining Pelican Mall building. Upstairs in the neighbouring Old Treasury Building is the St Christopher Heritage SocietyMuseum, which holds a decent collection of photographs, documents and colourful paintings from slavery days to independence and carnival (Mon– Sat 9am–4pm; Tel:869/465-5584; EC$5).
The centre of Basseterre, The Circus, reflects the town's British dominion; the roundabout circling the green Berkeley Memorial Clock is allegedly modelled after London's Piccadilly, though the only obvious similarity is the traffic. Traces of British rule also appear in Independence Square, the historical town centre due east, where walkways imitating the spokes of a Union Jack are inlaid with red stones. A maiden-topped fountain at its nexus, a gift from Queen Elizabeth to commemorate St Kitts' independence in 1983, marks the spot that once hosted the Lesser Antilles' largest slave market; slaves were bathed at the small red fountain on the square's south side prior to mounting the stage. The square looks onto the staid 1927 Immaculate Conception Cathedral, its substantial twin-towered facade devoid of the drama associated with Anglican St George's, a few blocks northwest of the Circus. The latter church was built on the site of the former French parish, incinerated by the British in 1706.
Basseterre's most remarkable aspect, however, are its ingenious traditional skirt-and-blouse homes built with stone ground floors topped by wooden levels – the stone prevented flooding, the wood allowed a breeze – and trimmed with dainty gingerbread fretwork. On Fort Street in particular, old sentinel walls have been incorporated into their construction, whilst others were rebuilt using stones from Brimstone Hill Fortress following an 1867 fire that ravaged the town. (Note that if you want to take pictures of private homes, you should get the owner's permission first.)