If you’ve arrived in Jamaica expecting frozen margaritas on tap, waves lapping at your feet, and an all-inclusive indulgent holiday then Kingston probably isn’t your main port of call. After all, Kingston doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. From the infamous ghettos of Trenchtown to the drugs, crime and gang violence of Spanish Town, Kingston’s claims to fame aren’t exactly a positive rollcall for the average tourist. But, having visited Jamaica’s ‘gritty’ capital city on a few occasions I’m firmly of the opinion that it’s an often misunderstood destination. Yes, Kingston has its fair share of violence, but what big capital city doesn’t? Take the normal precautions you’d apply elsewhere and Kingston is a fantastic place to spend a few days getting to know the ‘real’ Jamaica, its fantastic food and music scene and the big man himself, Bob Marley.
Kingston Top Tips
Kingston’s International Airport, Norman Manley International, is located on the opposite side of Kingston Harbour to downtown and the 20km drive shouldn’t take much longer than 30 minutes. There are a few options to get from the airport to downtown. The first option is the public Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) bus. The number 98 bus stops at the airport and drops you off in central Kingston at the Arcade. Click here for the current 98 timetable. From there it should be relatively easy to grab a taxi to your accommodation. If a hot, stuffy bus isn’t your scene then private, red plate, taxis are usually available outside the arrivals terminal (so long as large flight has just landed). Make sure that the taxi is an actual red plate taxi or you risk getting scammed. If you want the safest taxi option then that would be to pre-order a Jamaica Union of Travellers Association (JUTA) taxi – just be aware that you pay a significant premium for the tourist board endorsed JUTA service. There are also a multitude of other transfer service providers (simply google “Norman Manley airport ground transportation” and a whole host pop up).
As I mentioned in my opening, Kingston is often regarded as a dangerous and violent city; and in fairness, this isn’t without reason. But there’s no reason why you can’t spend an enjoyable few days in the city experiencing the warm smiles and great hospitality you’ll experience elsewhere on the island. The key is to be sensible and safe in your choices. For example, avoid walking around in the more notorious neighbourhoods (particularly Spanish Town and to a slightly lesser extent, Trenchtown) and avoid walking out on your own during the hours of darkness. If you’ve hired a car then always make sure that it’s securely locked and don’t leave anything on display in the windows. Ideally, make sure that it’s in a car park with security. Avoid wearing flashy jewellery on public display and ideally leave it back in the hotel safe. To be fair to Kingston, I’d probably offer similar advice to many big cities around the world. Apply basic common sense and you won’t have any problems – I’ve visited a few times and have fortunately never had a single problem (and that’s coming from a guy who walked across the border form the US to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico – the kidnap/murder capital of the world at the time – completely oblivious to the risk!). If you want more information then check out the latest Foreign Office’s Travel Advice here.
In terms of getting around you have a few options. The easiest and safest is undoubtedly a JUTA taxi (it’s worth the extra cost). I typically start my trips to Kingston by pre-arranging a JUTA pick-up from the airport through my hotel. If I like the driver (I haven’t had an unfriendly JUTA driver to date) I ask for his card and his availability for the rest of the week. You can then arrange individual journeys or entire day trips through that same driver. The taxis aren’t metered though so make sure you barter hard and secure a price you’re happy with before you set off. If you’re feeling more adventurous or a more seasoned traveller and want to use public transport then JUTC bus services are really your only option.
If you’re planning on visiting a number of the sights I talk about below or want to go on an organised tour then the good news is that Kingston has a number of private tour operators (in addition to JUTA, who do offer tours as well). Check out Jamaica Cultural Enterprises as a starting point or check out Viator’s Kingston options for a broader wealth of options.
Bob Marley House and Museum: I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m not a reggae aficionado or a hardcore Bob Marley fan. Sure, I’ll happily bob and sing along to some of his best known hits, but if you start grilling me on the intrinsic political messages embedded within his back catalog then you’ll like be met with blank stares. Thus, when I arrived at Bob Marley’s former home for my guided tour I felt slightly out of place. The rest of the group I had joined were clearly lifelong fans. When the highly animated (and hilarious) guide started asking the group to name their favourite albums and songs, and the group were singing famous song lines to each other, I slowly slinked into a darkened corner of the room to avoid potential embarrassment. But, despite my lack of Marley knowledge, visiting the museum was one of the highlights of my visit to Kingston. Much of my enthusiasm for the tour emanates from how impressive the guides were. They really brought the Bob Marley story to life. If you plan to visit (how could you not, really) then tour tickets (you have to be with a guide) can be purchased upon arrival or in advance from the museum website. The site also has a small outdoor café where you can buy refreshments before your tour starts.
Blue Mountains: Jamaica’s Blue Mountain range is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and hike, camp, get pampered and just generally relax. Sitting to the North of Kingston the area is easily accessible for a day trip to visit the famous Blue Mountain Coffee Plantation, and to take in some of the views over Kingston. However, It’s also well worth considering spending the night in one of the lodges or campsites dotted across the range (Irish Town is a bit of an accommodation hub) and take a night-hike up Blue Mountain Peak for sunrise (there are plenty of local tour operators that offer this). If you’re looking for a relaxing place to lunch then make sure to check out Strawberry Hill Luxury Resort which provides fantastic views and food.
Emancipation Park: Emancipation Park, for which construction was completed in 2002, is a public space dedicated to the emancipation from slavery following passage of the Emancipation Act in 1834. Beyond the symbolic importance, the space is little more than just a park (albeit a park with a nice jogging trail directly opposite the popular Pegasus Hotel). However, there are two reasons you might want to pay a quick visit to the park. The first is if there are any free consorts taking place in the park’s bandstand (you can check out the Park’s Facebook page to see if there are any whilst you’re in town). The second reason is to get some snaps of the somewhat controversial 11ft. bronze sculpture, “Redemption Song”. As this Guardian article highlights, the sculpture invited some interesting debate on history, race and….length.
Lime Cay: Considering that Jamaica is famed for its pristine waters and golden sand beaches Kingston has a very distinct lack of both; despite it being a coastal capital city. If you aren’t traveling on to the tourist heavy beach resorts of Montego Bay, Negril or Ocho Rios and are keen to get your beach fix then Lime Cay is the local hotspot. Located about two miles offshore of Port Royal, Lime Cay is an uninhabitable island only accessible by boat and has absolutely no facilities. During the week it is pretty much empty, but during the weekends half of Kingston seems to descend on the tiny island to lap up the sunshine and drink a few beers. If you plan to visit then you’ll need to either arrange transportation to Port Royal (which is about 10 minutes past the international airport) or jump on the number 98 JUTC bus from the Parade in downtown Kingston. From there you can pick up a 15 minute boat ride from one of the boat shuttle operators or fisherman in Morgan’s Harbour. Just remember to take all the supplies you’ll need with you as nothing can be purchased on the island itself.
Port Royal: If you’ve ever been to Disneyworld and been on the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ boat ride then you’ll have some idea of what Port Royal used to be like. Once called “the wickedest city on earth”, Port Royal was, in the 17th Century, jam-packed full of infamous pirates (actual, real pirates of the Caribbean), drinking establishments and brothels (in fact, one in every four buildings is said to have been a bar or brothel). Those heady days have long since passed; most notably after an earthquake in 1692 sank most of the town into the sea. Today Port Royal, which sits about 10 miles beyond Norman Manley International Airport, is best visited to see Fort Charles, the Giddy House (a house which partly sank into the ground during the earthquake) and a number of sites synonymous with the town’s role as a Royal Navy HQ. If you want to see the part of Port Royal now submerged in the sea then head out on a local dive tour with a licensed operator like Yardie Divers. As with Lime Cay, you can catch the 98 bus from downtown Kingston to Port Royal. Alternatively, there are many organised tour operators running tours to Port Royal (Such as Jamaica Cultural Enterprises). One final piece of advice is to make sure you stop by Gloria’s for a lunch of curry lobster, rice and peas.
Devon House: If there’s one thing I would say not to miss in downtown Kingston it would be Devon House. This 11-acre heritage site is the home of a Georgian-style mansion that, around 130 years ago, was the home of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel, who made his name in gold mining. Although you can tour the mansion and its visually appealing grounds the real highlight these days, and what brings locals and tourists alike to Devon House, is the abundant array of shops and restaurants that have been built into the surrounding Georgian structures. In this regard there are two obvious highlights. The first is the Devon House Bakery. I can say with complete sincerity that I have never eaten a Jamaican beef patty as good as the one I had from Devon House Bakery; and I say that even though I had to wait in line for twenty minutes for the privilege (it was well worth the wait). Even more impressive is Devon House I-Scream, which has previously been voted as the 4th best place to gorge on ice cream in the world. My personal favourite was the Devon Stout flavour. If you want to get decent photos of the mansion and grounds without purchasing a full guided tour ticket then ask the ticket office for a photography license. I paid roughly USD 5 for the privilege and it enabled me to walk around outside the house in the grounds snapping away to my heart’s content.
Museums and Galleries: Whilst Kingston doesn’t have an abundance of museums and art galleries there are a couple of places you might wish to visit. The first of these is the Trench Town Culture Yard. Trench Town was a famed housing project designed and constructed by the British in the 1930’s and, in addition to being the original home of Bob Marley and the Wailers, is synonymous with the creation and rise of reggae, ska and rocksteady music. Part of the tenement has now been transformed in to the yard museum which focuses on the rise of Bob Marley and the Wailers from gritty beginnings. Word of warning if you decide to visit the Culture Yard; Trench Town is not exactly the safest of neighbourhoods for bumbag-wearing, camera-toting tourists to wander around on their own. As such, my advice is to hire a guide or go on an organised tour. Sticking with the musical theme (hard to avoid in Kingston) you could also take a tour of the Tuff Gong International studio. Outside of musical attractions, Kingston’s best offering is its National Gallery; the largest public art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean.
Food and Music: Jamaican food and music is world renowned and so it would surely be remiss of you not to indulge in a little of both on a trip to the nation’s capital! From a food perspective, in addition to the beef patties and ice cream at Devon House, you should make sure you partake in a little Jamaican Jerk. Two of the best options are Pepperwood Jerk Center and Sweetwood Jerk joint. Be aware that some locals still refer to Pepperwood by its old name, ‘Scotchies’ – this would explain why we drove around for some time in circles before finally coming to that realisation and finding it! If it’s Jamaican music you’re after then Reggae and Dancehall should be at the top of your list. For reggae I would make Redbones Blues Café your first port of call. Other alternatives are Usain Bolt’s Tracks and Records (not live music, but it’s still a cool place to hang out and the food is decent) or Kingston Dub Club. If it’s Dancehall you’re after then my vote goes to The Deck.
Jamaica Union of Travelers Association Website: www.jutatourskingstonjm.com
Jamaica Urban Transit Company Website: http://www.jutc.com/
Grand Port Royal Hotel Website: https://www.grandportroyal.com/
Port Royal Diving Website: https://www.yardieconserve.com/discover-the-port-royal-cays
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