Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour, Curaçao

 Netherlands
N12 6 6.984 W68 54 7.992
Date of Inscription: 1997
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(v)
Property : 86 ha
Buffer zone: 87 ha
Ref: 819
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The people of the Netherlands established a trading settlement at a fine natural harbour on the Caribbean island of Curaçao in 1634. The town developed continuously over the following centuries. The modern town consists of several distinct historic districts whose architecture reflects not only European urban-planning concepts but also styles from the Netherlands and from the Spanish and Portuguese colonial towns with which Willemstad engaged in trade.

The Historic Area of Willemstad is an example of a colonial trading and administrative settlement. It was established by the Dutch on the island of Curaçao, situated in the southern Caribbean, near the tip of South America. Starting with the construction of Fort Amsterdam in 1634 on the eastern bank of Sint Anna Bay, the town developed continuously over the following centuries.

The modern town, the capital of the island nation of Curaçao, consists of several distinct historic districts, reflecting different eras of colonial town planning and development. Punda, the oldest part of the city, was built in the 17th century on the eastern side of Sint Anna Bay, adjacent to Fort Amsterdam and is the only part of the city that had a defence system consisting of walls and ramparts. The other three historic urban districts (Pietermaai, Otrobanda and Scharloo) date from the 18th century. Water Fort and Rif Fort, also included in the inscribed property, were built in the late 1820s as part of a more extensive series of fortifications. In the midst of the historic area is a natural deep-water harbour. The entire property encompasses 86 ha and is surrounded by a 87 ha buffer zone.

The architecture of Willemstad has been influenced not only by Dutch colonial concepts but also by the tropical climate and architectural styles from towns throughout the Caribbean region, with which the settlement engaged in trade. Early residences constructed in Punda followed Dutch urban design. In the 18th century, local materials and craftsmanship as well as new architectural elements, such as galleries, began to appear. As the city expanded beyond Punda, the architectural style of the residences evolved. For example, the development of Otrobanda was not restricted by ramparts and houses were built on spacious lots and resembled plantation houses surrounded by galleries. Moreover, the social and cultural differences from Afro-American, Iberian and Caribbean inhabitants have contributed to enriching the building traditions as well as the city’s cultural life. The result is a European architectural style with regional adaptations in a rich array of Caribbean colours. The colourful buildings of Willemstad are a local tradition dating from 1817, when the previous style of white lime finish on a building exterior was prohibited, apparently to protect eyesight from the glare. Predominant colours are red, blue, yellow ochre and various shades of green.

Willemstad is an exceptionally well preserved example of a Dutch colonial trading settlement. Due to the interchange of cultures, it shares a common cultural history with other counterpart cities in the Caribbean region, which is a very particular aspect of the property. The unique setting in a natural harbour qualifies the Historic Area of Willemstad as a rare example of a historic port town laid out in a setting of natural waters.

Criterion (ii): The Historic Area of Willemstad is a colonial ensemble in the Caribbean, which illustrates the organic growth of a multicultural community over three centuries. It also represents a remarkable historic port town in the Caribbean in the period of Dutch expansion with significant town planning and architectural qualities.

Criterion (iv): The four historic urban districts of Historic Willemstad show the subsequent stages of historical development over the course of centuries of the city. The city can be easily read and used as a textbook for its historical and cultural development.

Criterion (v): The historical urban fabric and the historical architecture are based on examples of European traditions that are transferred to the New World. Influences of the Americas and Africa and cultural elements of the region transformed the European elements into a typical Caribbean development.

Suggested bases:

Willemstad is the capital and largest city of Curaçao. The city center and the waterfront is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Willemstad is mostly a destination for cruise ship tourists who usually spend one, max. two days there. Prices in bars, restaurants and shops tend to be very high and the originality and quality of products sold is often questionable – especially in the main tourist district Punda. But by comparing prices and using happy hours (usually 1h per bar, sometimes between 4pm and 8pm) costs can be reduced considerably. Cocaine and cannabis is offered to tourists pretty openly… [read more]

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5 comments

  • Willemstad is delightfully walkable, with cobbled lanes, restaurants, shops and gabled houses that were painted white until 1817 when the Governor ordered them repainted in a palette of crayon colors to combat the glare from the sun. The oldest district, called Punda, is charming with a pastel-pretty waterfront and the big Curacao sign near the information booth where you can snag gratis maps of the city.

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  • Visit the Kura Hulanda Museum where you can descend into the hold of a slave ship. The museum examines the transatlantic slave trade that once made Curacao a wealthy island.

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  • Kura Hulanda is a truly first-class, if deeply disturbing, slavery museum. It was really worth seeing. And the Pontoon Bridge known as “the Swinging Old Lady” is a must-experience.

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  • The charms of Willemstad, with its rainbow palette of gabled buildings accented with louvered shutters and white gingerbread trim, never lose their appeal. The winding cobblestone streets and alleyways of this 17th century city, located on Santa Anna Bay, are crowded with art galleries, restaurants, shops and little plazas shaded by acacia trees.

    Enjoy a scoop of Lover’s, a super creamy island made ice cream or a slice of Dutch Apple Cake at the cafes while watching the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge swing open and close letting walkers cross between Punda and Otrabanda districts of the city.

    Stroll to the Floating Market, a Curacao tradition where boats from Venezuela, 38 miles away, tie up in early morning along the quay, displaying their wares of brilliantly colored fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers, mounds of glistening fish and such Caribbean specialties as tamarind candies and sugar cane. Take in the smells — and if you’re hungry, the tastes — of the foods cooked by vendors along the docks. Pause in Jo Jo Correa, a lovely plaza just across the street where artisans sell their wares.

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  • The Queen Emma Bridge, called the “swinging old lady” by locals, is a pontoon bridge originally built in 1888 and restored in 2005/2006. I am told that it is free to cross NOW but originally there was a fee of 1/2 a cent to walk across the bridge if you were wearing shoes, but if you had no shoes on there was no fee (people caught on very quickly). As I was walking across the wooden bridge (with my shoes on) I could feel a slight bobbing motion and the slight sway of the bridge as it floats over the water. If you are crossing when it is windy, or the water is rough, it’s as if you are drunk, and I can well imagine this because even in calm waters I found it difficult to walk in a straight line.

    The long bridge opens and moves to the side about 30 times per day to allow for ships to enter the harbour. When the bridge is open, free ferries called “ponchi” are in operation to accommodate people who wish to cross from side to side.

    It is worth mentioning that even though St. Anna Bay looks narrow, it is very deep. It’s misleading when you are standing on the Queen Emma Bridge, and you look inland towards the 56 meters high Queen Juliana Bridge. But if you follow it further it opens up into a vast and deep shipping port area with container ships and dry docks.

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