World Heritage anniversary

In the early 20th century, Shell’s oil refinery opened and workers poured in from the Windward Caribbean islands. The packed inner city was already in disrepair. Stichting Monumentenzorg, Curaçao’s oldest running Monuments Foundation, was formed and began restoration work, but it was too great for a single body. In addition, on May 30, 1969, several buildings in the heart of Punda and Otrobanda went up in flames during the major oil worker revolt.

Willemstad’s neglected state finally attracted help in the 1980s, thanks to a combination of government funds from Holland and private projects. Massive building restoration took place, and more organizations formed to help with funding and oversight. It took ten years to restore nearly 200 buildings, and a Monuments Plan was put in place in 1990. The idea then came to apply for the World Heritage designation. The Kingdom of Netherlands submitted the application – Curaçao was then under Dutch rule – and it was approved on December 4, 1997.

Twenty years in, Willemstad remains firm on the UNESCO list, with a whopping 750 protected buildings across four distinct colonial districts.

Here’s how to celebrate now and enjoy one of the Caribbean’s most well-preserved heritage cities.

Explore on foot with Dushi Walks CuraçaoA Dutch transplant with Indonesian roots, Shirley Bal’s love for her island home shines as she takes you on a two-hour neighborhood walking tour of Otrobanda or Scharloo with her company Dushi Walks Curaçao. You’ll explore the main avenues, but also go off-the-beaten track into side alleys, along the most local parts of these vibrant colonial districts.

In Otrobanda, you’ll learn about the neighborhood’s architecture and history, meet locals, and hear about the area’s socioeconomic struggles. You’ll walk past colonial buildings in ruins – like Willemstad’s former fashion district – as well as elaborate facades, and enter Curaçao’s oldest Catholic church. Street art is revealed along the way, showcasing artist initiatives to engage communities in preserving their neighborhoods.

In Scharloo, you’ll explore the architecture of elaborate mansions built by Jewish merchants, and tour the new life-sized murals that are reviving the district. You’ll even stop in at a local’s home, and get a personal tour of his 19th century abode.

The icing on the cake: Dushi Walks Curaçao uses over 50% of tour fees to support the local communities visited, and you can see the donations posted on Facebook.


Shop local art on Middenstraat

Beyond architecture, Willemstad’s culture-filled spirit is also reflected in its art. Shopping for locally sourced handicrafts is part of the experience, and the options are becoming more plentiful. Around the bend from the well-known Serena’s Art Factory and Nena Sanchez gallery, is a narrow street – Middenstraat – home to newcomer SilvanyRoss.

The artist cooperative store stocks one-of-a-kind items made by local entrepreneurs, from a set of wooden coasters carved with local phrases, to hand-woven purses, and island-inspired paintings on slabs of wood.