Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados (or B’dos as the locals know it) scores high on vibrancy and buzz, as a city rammed with culture and the energetic pulse of its people. An eclectic fusion of grand, handsome historical sites and monuments, and a brash, modern mishmash of buildings and shopping malls, there are plenty of things to do in Bridgetown, whatever your persuasion.
Bridgetown sees attractive, balconied colonial mansions, the scenic Careenage marina, and one of the oldest parliaments in the Western Hemisphere take centre stage. Close by, the proud spire-topped St Michael's Cathedral and the city’s synagogue characterise the European architectural style of the mid-17th century. To the southeast, Bridgetown’s quaint Garrison area denotes the district where the British Empire stationed its Caribbean HQ from 1780 to 1905.
Today, where the military parade ground once stood, you’ll find the island’s famous racecourse and public park, trimmed by historic buildings in a bold, bright rainbow of hues, including the Barbados Museum. Bridgetown’s other main attractions are clustered on the city’s northern tip, from old-style rum factories (open for tours) to the fine 19th century structure that was once home to two of the island's leading post war politicians, Sir Grantley Adams and his son Tom Adams. As the capital of the British territory until 1966, Bridgetown retains numerous telltale colonial mementos, from driving on the left-hand side of the road and the 4pm ritual of afternoon tea to scores of Anglican churches where it’s obligatory to dress up in your ‘Sunday best’.
As the island’s largest and liveliest city, Bridgetown is full of neon-lit bars and restaurants and bustling shopping areas in a commercial hub that once ranked high amongst the most important of all British possessions in the New World. An easterly location in the Caribbean region positioned it perfectly as a supreme harbour town due to its unrivalled sea-trade links. Named Bridgetown from its original title 'the Indian Bridge Towne’ – a reference to the rustic bridge left by the Amerindians, built over the Careenage River – the capital enjoys a formidable strategic location on the southwest coast of Barbados.
For its rich mix of British, African, Creole, Carib and Amerindian heritage, and impressive colonial structures, Bridgetown achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 2012. Though many of its most beautiful buildings were lost to fires and hurricanes in eras past, this doesn’t diminish the finery of what remains. With the settlement’s skinny cobbled streets, charming alleyways and age-old charm, to stroll the city today offers a window into bygone times during Britain’s Atlantic empire of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
St Ann’s Garrison (known simply as “the garrison” to native Bajans) is arguably the Old Town’s resplendent crowning jewel. It was here, in November 1966, that the ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack and raising of the Barbadian flag marked the nation’s independence from Great Britain amongst numerous remnants of imperial military history, including old cannons and all manner of colonial ordinance. The island is also home to a Commonwealth Cannon, which bears Oliver Cromwell’s coat of arms — the only other munition like it is housed in the Tower of London.
Dating back to the 1870s, the dramatic Victorian-era Neo-Gothic design of the Parliament Buildings provides a stark contrast to the cheery sunshine and palms of a Caribbean city. The House of Assembly’s stained glass windows honour a slew of English monarchs from James I to Queen Victoria. Gaze up to the imposing clock tower to see the ultramarine and golden bands of the Barbadian flag flying majestically in the warm breeze, the distinctive black trident motif high above the city. St Mary’s Church, built in 1825, replaced the original wooden structure of 1641, constructed under the rule of King Charles I. Take the time to browse the elegant Georgian architecture, barrel-vaulted ceiling and fine memorial tablets – this is one of the only churches to withstand the hurricane of 1831.
To fully appreciate the narratives of Bridgetown’s fascinating past be sure to pay a visit to the Barbados Museum, housed in an old military prison that was once part of St. Ann’s Garrison. Umpteen collections delve into the geological formation of the island, the pre-colonial Amerindian cultures, the colonial era and the African and European peoples who helped to shape Barbados’ modern-day character. Keen to snap an evocative photo? Then consider adding the 18th century Chamberlain Draw-bridge to your itinerary - it was painstakingly restored and upgraded a decade ago, having been originally built for merchants. It is next to another of Bridgetown’s much-loved landmarks - the Independence Arch to the west of Heroes Square, near Independence Square.
For many first-time visitors to Bridgetown, the heart of the city is the yacht-filled Careenage, where for over three hundred years people have gathered, traded and scoured the seascape at the port-side - often over a glass or two of toffee-coloured Bajan rum.
Today, this mega-berth marina welcomes gleaming multi-million-dollar cruisers, catamarans and luxury liners from all over the world, as well as local fishing vessels. Evoking the feel of a 19th century British seaside promenade, with its ornate balustrades and elaborate lamplights, this deep-water dock earned its name as the place where merchant ships were careened onto a side to be repaired, scrubbed clean and painted. Boxes of spices, huge crates of nuts and fruit, fabrics and other exotic topical merchandise would be hauled ashore here and stored in the nearby warehouses, which are now ambient waterfront cafes, ritzy boutiques, restaurants and cocktail bars.
Sneak a peak at the latest high-glamour yacht to sail into town from a wooden over-the-water boardwalk that runs the length of the Careenage - it offers an inviting early-evening meander over bobbing boats, as the sky turns to an inky mauve and a yolk-yellow sun goes down.
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About the author: SarahWoodsSarah Woods
Award-winning travel writer, author & broadcaster Sarah Woods has lived, worked and travelled in The Caribbean since 1995. She has visited resort towns, villages and lesser-known islands where she has learned to cook run-down, sampled bush rum, traded coconuts, studied traditional medicine, climbed volcanoes and ridden horses in the sea. Sarah is currently working on a travel documentary about the history of Caribbean cruises.