Dutch heritage in Willemstad, Curacao, is best expressed in its the rows of pastel-colored, red-roofed town houses. The island's capital city, Willemstad is divided into two parts: Punda (old-world Dutch ambience and great shopping) and Otrobanda ("the other side"—also good shopping, but with a more contemporary flavor).
Punda and Otrobanda each take about a half-day to see, and they're connected by ferry, a land bridge or the Queen Emma pontoon bridge. We suggest taking a guided walking tour of the town to observe the architecture. Ask the tourist office for a list of guides, or check K-Pasa, the entertainment guide.
Most of the tourist sites are in Punda, which is the oldest part of town. Its collection of historic buildings is a big reason why Willemstad and its harbor have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of special note are Wilhelmina Park, Breedestraat (the main shopping street) and the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue.
The temple was built in 1732, making it the oldest in continuous use in the New World. There are several explanations for the white sand on the floor. Some believe that it symbolizes the desert the Israelites crossed during their flight from slavery in Egypt, and others think that it represents the custom of Jews in Spain and Portugal who prayed on sand during the Inquisition so that they would not be heard in the temples. Also at the synagogue is the Jewish Museum, where the history of Curacao's long-standing Jewish community is preserved. Beth Haim Cemetery (first used in 1651) is worth a visit for those interested in the island's Jewish culture. It's just across the harbor to the northwest of Willemstad.
History buffs will enjoy Fort Amsterdam, which was built in the 1700s. It still houses a few government offices. The island's oldest Protestant church is inside the courtyard and dates from 1769. At one time, the church didn't have a roof because it doubled as a water reservoir for the town during rainy season. Look for the lead cannonball embedded in the outside wall. It was deposited there by Captain Bligh, who was aiming at the governor.
The many brightly colored buildings in Otrobanda give this section of the city a fairy-tale feel. There are several bars and restaurants that afford stunning views of the Handelskade (the best-known and most photographed row of Dutch Colonial buildings in the city). The ramparts of the Riffort—built in 1828 to guard the harbor entrance—offer another good spot to take in the views.
A highlight of any visit to Curacao is the Floating Market, on the waterfront in downtown Willemstad. Merchants sail the short distance from Venezuela to sell fresh fish and produce directly from their vessels under an array of colorful awnings—it's a picturesque scene.
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