One of the most well-developed of all the Caribbean and Atlantic Islands, Barbados retains the refined elegance and cultural customs of its British roots (think cricket and high tea) infused with a colorful West Indian vibe. Barbados gained independence from Britain in 1966, but many of the relics from its colonial past still stand. In Bridgetown, the clean and safe capital, impressive colonial buildings and the historic garrison are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Around the island are sprawling sugar plantations and historic museums, along with endless tropical beauty. Pretty pink and white coral-sand beaches, pale turquoise seas, and a dramatic east coast sculpted by pounding surf are some of the island’s major attractions. The warm ocean waters can be turbulent, but the island offers a few sheltered beaches for swimming and snorkeling, as well as great surfing and some popular dive sites. On land, exploring caverns, jungle-clad gullies, and the island’s beautiful botanical gardens are popular things to do.
1. Crane Beach
Crane Beach, with its beautiful, pink coral sand, was once a boat landing where cargo was unloaded and lifted by a crane perched atop the cliff. Today, it’s one of the most famous beaches in Barbados. Cruise ship visitors, tourists, and locals alike come here to frolic in the rolling surf, sunbathe on the soft sands, and peek at the luxury hotel overlooking the beach. Once called the Crane Beach Hotel, it is the oldest hotel in Barbados and is now known simply as The Crane. Public access to the beach requires a descent down many stairs, while the hotel has its own elevator to sand level.
If you are staying near the capital, Bridgetown, you can sun and swim along the beautiful shores of Carlisle Bay, where the many sunken wrecks and maritime relics make popular shallow water dive sites.
Address: Crane Bay, Saint Philip
The quaint village of Bathsheba is the central point for the tourist attractions on the Atlantic east coast. The Andromeda Tropical Botanic Gardens and Flower Forest are nearby. At Bathsheba Beach, also known as the Soup Bowl, large rock formations (the remnants from an ancient coral reef carved by the surf) stand like gigantic mushrooms in the sea. This beach is great for photographs and surfing, but strong undercurrents can make swimming here dangerous. If you want to escape the tourist crowds and base yourself along this picturesque stretch of coast, The Atlantis Hotel and Sea-U Guest House overlook the rocky beach.
Location: Saint Joseph
3. Parliament Buildings, Bridgetown
Bordered by National Heroes Square, the parliament buildings (also known as the “public buildings”) are two spectacular neo-Gothic-style structures now designated as UNESCO protected properties. Both buildings were constructed of coral limestone between 1870 and 1874. The building on the east side houses the Senate and House of Assembly and features beautiful stained-glass windows depicting British monarchs. The newly refurbished west-side building, with the clock tower, houses the National Heroes Gallery and Museum of Parliament, where you can learn about the island’s history from the early days of settlement to Independence. Museum entry includes a tour of the parliament buildings.
Address: Trafalgar Street, Bridgetown
4. Hunte’s Gardens
Crafted by Anthony Hunte, an avid horticulturist, Hunte’s Gardens encompass ten stunning acres of tropical plants on the lush slopes of Saint Joseph Parish. Paths lead deep into a gully, where terraced greenery erupts on many different levels. Palms, papyrus, orchids, and crotons are just some of the species flourishing here, and Mr. Hunte is an enthusiastic and convivial host. Green thumbs and plant lovers can relax on strategically placed benches and marvel at the gardens while classical music wafts through the air.
Address: Hwy 3A, Coffee Gully, Saint Joseph
5. Andromeda Botanic Gardens
Specializing in tropical plants from all over the world, the Andromeda Botanic Gardens are renowned not only for their collection, but also for their scenic location on a hillside overlooking the Atlantic. Of note are the breadfruit trees descended from those collected by Captain Bligh, of mutiny fame, as well as the rare species of succulents and palms. Also interesting are the large bearded fig trees, which once covered the island in vast forests, possibly prompting passing Portuguese sailors to name the island “Barbados” meaning the “the bearded ones.” The garden is also a superb place for bird watching.
Address: Highway 3, Bathsheba
6. Gun Hill Signal Station
Built in 1818 and used to signal the approach of enemy ships as well as the safe arrival of cargo ships, the Gun Hill Signal Station offers breathtaking vistas across the entire island. The station lies on the highland of St. George. On the lower part of the hill is a lion sculpture carved by a British soldier from a single boulder in the 19th century.
Address: Gun Hill, St. George
7. Welchman Hall Gully
Formed when the roof of a series of caves collapsed, Welchman Hall Gully and the surrounding cliffs hint at the pristine landscape and plant diversity that must have greeted the island’s first settlers. The Barbados National Trust now protects the gully, which is home to more than 200 species of tropical plants, including wild ginger and bamboo. Stairs lead to a scenic overlook, and if you’re lucky, you might glimpse families of green monkeys frolicking in the ravine.
Address: Welchman Hall, Saint Thomas
8. Harrison’s Cave Tour
Harrison’s Cave, a crystallized limestone cavern, features streams, waterfalls, cascades, and deep pools. After an educational film, you can tour a one-and-a-half-kilometer route via electric tram, with a stop to walk to a waterfall plunging to a deep pool below. Lights illuminate the impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and cascading waters. Near the cave, a visitor center displays Arawak Indian artifacts.
Address: Welchman Hall, Saint Thomas
9. Flower Forest
Offering beautiful vistas, in the hills of central Barbados, the Flower Forest encompasses 53 acres of peaceful forests and tropical flora on the grounds of a former sugar plantation. Garden lovers can stroll along a circuit of well-marked trails through lush foliage, with many spots to sit and relax. The beautiful palms, gingers, and many colorful orchids are highlights. After touring the grounds, you can purchase snacks at the small café.
Address: Richmond Plantation, Saint Thomas
10. St. Nicholas Abbey
St. Nicholas Abbey, with its three gables shaped like wishbones in the Jacobean style, was once the heart of a giant sugar cane plantation and a small refinery. Today it is one of only three known remaining buildings of this style in the Western Hemisphere. The pretty gardens are well kept and encompass the rustic ruins of the farm buildings and old windmill. Built in the mid-1600s to plans imported from Britain, the abbey includes a few inappropriate features for a tropical island, such as upstairs fireplaces. The tour of the ground floor explains a fine collection of furniture, many made from mahogany and cane. A few of the pieces have been in the house since 1810. At the end of the tour, the owners share a family holiday film from the 1930s showing the sea voyage to Barbados from England, and life on the former plantation.
Address: Cherry Tree Hill, Hwy. 1, Saint Peter
11. Sunbury Plantation Tour
Lavishly decorated with Victorian antiques, 17th-century Sunbury Plantation offers a fascinating glimpse of Barbados history. The first teak and mahogany trees on the island were planted here in 1799, and many are still standing. In addition to the collection of antique furniture, some of which is crafted from mahogany, the guided tours cover all aspects of domestic life on a plantation. The estate also features a collection of horse drawn carriages. After the tour, guests can indulge in a Caribbean buffet and stroll around the pleasant gardens.
Address: 6 Cross Road, Saint Philip
12. Diving and Snorkeling in Folkestone Marine Park
Off Holetown, where the first European colonists to Barbados landed in 1627, an artificial reef was formed in 1976 by deliberately sinking a fire-gutted 109-meter freighter ship. The Stavronikita now rests upright in 36 meters of water, with corals growing on its masts and fish swimming through its hull. Only experienced divers should attempt the descent to the ship. Snorkelers can take the underwater trail around the inshore reef found in the park’s Recreational Zone, about half a kilometer offshore. Boats are available for rent in Holetown, and you will also find a reef interpretation center and museum of marine life here.
Location: Holetown, St. James Parish
13. Farley Hill National Park
Once the grounds of a rich plantation house, Farley Hill National Park is now a picturesque hilltop garden nestled in a forest of mahogany trees. This lush 17-acre park is also a popular venue for picnics and weddings. The house was reduced to a shell of stone walls by fire and the elements, and the ruins now frame the flowers and palms. You can admire beautiful views of the ocean and rolling palm-covered hills from the top of the hill behind the house.
Address: St. Peters
14. Barbados Wildlife Reserve
At the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, opposite Farley Hill, you can walk among the animals. Shady paths thread through a mahogany forest populated by deer, agoutis, tortoises, iguanas, and a raucous collection of tropical birds. Wild green monkeys, imported from Africa by early settlers, are also often seen at dawn and dusk, and plant lovers will enjoy the park’s vibrant display of orchids. The entrance fee includes a visit to nearby Grenade Hall Signal Station.
Address: Farley Hill, Barbados (planetware)