Few travelers—particularly Americans—take the time to visit Kingston, although organized day trips make the city accessible from Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. That’s understandable, as Kingston can be a tough city to love. It’s big and has a bad reputation, with gang-controlled neighborhoods that erupt into violence. However, New Kingston is a vibrant and exciting business district with many places to enjoy. If you yearn to know more about the heart and soul of Jamaica, Kingston is worth a visit. This government and business center is also a cultural capital, home to numerous dance troupes, theaters, and museums. It’s also home to the University of the West Indies, one of the Caribbean’s largest universities. In many ways, Kingston reflects the true Jamaica—a wonderful cultural mix—more than the sunny havens of the North Coast. As one Jamaican put it, “You don’t really know Jamaica until you know Kingston.”
The Blue Mountains are a magnificent backdrop for the city, with fabulous homes in the foothills. Views get grander as roads wind up into one of the island’s least developed yet most beautiful regions.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Originally called Santiago de la Vega (St. James of the Plains), this was the island’s capital when it was ruled by Spain. The town, declared a national monument by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, has a number of historic structures, including the Jamaican People’s Museum of Crafts and Technology (in the Old King’s House stables) and St. James Cathedral, the oldest Anglican cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. Other historic sites include the Old Barracks Building, built in 1791 to house military personnel. Although in disrepair, its facade of brick and native stone is still imposing. The Phillippo Baptist Church honors a local hero, the Reverend James Mursell Phillippo, a missionary who led the fight for the emancipation of Jamaica’s slaves. His grave is in the church’s graveyard. The Iron Bridge at Spanish Town was built in 1801 of prefabricated cast-iron sections imported from England. The bridge is said to be the oldest such bridge in the Western Hemisphere, has recently been restored and carries pedestrians across the Rio Cobre.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF JAMAICA
The artists represented may not be household names, but their paintings are sensitive and moving. You can find works by such Jamaican masters as painter John Dunkley and sculptor Edna Manley, and visitors are introduced to the work of contemporary Jamaican artists through events such as the National Biennial and the National Visual Arts Competition and Exhibition, staged each July and August, respectively. Guided tours (J$3,000 for groups of up to 25) must be booked in advance.
BOB MARLEY MUSEUM
At the height of his career, Bob Marley purchased a house on Kingston’s Hope Road and added a recording studio—painted Rastafarian red, yellow, and green. It now houses this museum, the capital’s best-known tourist site. The guided tour takes you through rooms wallpapered with magazine and newspaper articles that chronicle his rise to stardom. There’s a 20-minute biographical film on Marley’s career. You can also see the bullet holes in the walls from a politically motivated assassination attempt in 1976.
Built in 1881 as the mansion of the island’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel, who made his fortune from gold mining in South America, this National Heritage Site was bought and restored by the Jamaican government in the 1960s. Visit the two-story mansion, furnished with Venetian-crystal chandeliers and period reproductions, on a guided tour. On the grounds, there are restaurants, crafts shops, a bakery, and a wine bar. Probably the biggest draw is the Devon House I-Scream shop, where lines of locals form, especially on Sunday, to get a dip of their favorite ice cream, often rum raisin.