Look, we get it. When you come to the Bahamas, you’re expecting some serious time in the sun and surf. We’re not going to hold that against you, since the some 700 islands are full of incredible beaches, whether it’s resort-adjacent white sands, day trips to private islands, or snorkeling and diving tours through the cays. But for some real island culture, leave the comfort of your resort and spend a day exploring Nassau, the country’s capital (and thanks to its international airport and cruise ship harbor, the start to most trips to the Bahamas). Located on New Providence Island and adjacent to Paradise Island, Nassau is filled with restaurants, shops, and bars that will give you a glimpse of how locals live, and what a diverse, exciting, and unique place the Bahamas can be.
No offense to the amazing chefs and restaurants in New Providence’s resorts, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing Bahamian flavors like the locals do. For a true taste of the city, try out one of the many food tours, like Tru Bahamian Food Tours, which pair you with a local who takes you around town to sample an assortment of Bahamian cuisine, including peas and rice, fried plantains, rum cake, and switcha, all while learning about the island’s fascinating history. The city has seen a selection of upscale eateries and trendy coffeehouses open too, from Café Martinique to Café Matisse. And of course, there’s nothing like an afternoon visit to Arawak Cay and the local fish fry, where fisherman set up shop after the morning’s catch and you can sample conch fritters and fried snapper, with a side of mac and cheese and coleslaw.
After Bacardi closed their Nassau-based distillery in 2009, the Bahamas left the rum business to the likes of Bermuda, Jamaica, and Barbados. But thanks to the 2013 opening of John Watling’s Distillery, visitors can once again get a boozy taste of the island. Located on the grounds of a historic 1789 estate, the distillery produces top-quality rum and vodka using traditional English methods. Stop by for a tour that takes you behind the scenes of this process, or just have a seat in the tasting room to sample rum flights and rum cocktails. John Watkins isn’t yet sold anywhere else besides the Bahamas, so buying a bottle or two also makes for a unique souvenir.
Downtown Nassau dazzles thanks to the array of pastel buildings painted bright blues, greens, yellows, and pinks, many of which hold the tales of the city’s history. Nassau was first known for its flurry of pirate activity in the late 1600s and throughout the 1700s (which can be relived through a trip to the Pirates of Nassau museum). It saw major economic development after an influx of loyalists from North America came after the Revolutionary War, and officially became a city in the British Empire in 1837. This history is shown in the colonial buildings scattered across the city, from the cotton-candy Balcony House (the oldest building on the island) to the colonnaded government buildings of Parliament Square. You can explore this history more through a visit to the Heritage Museum of the Bahamas or a tour of the many historic forts, like Fort Montagu.
For a glorious mix of old world glamour and luxury, look no further than the historic Graycliff Hotel. Originally built in the 1700s, the hotel still retains many of its original features that have drawn famous visitors (William and Kate, Winston Churchill, and Beyoncé, just to name a few). Even if you’re not staying the night, a walk through the lush, verdant courtyard (complete with mosaic pool and moss-covered statues) make you feel like you’re living in a Rudyard Kipling novel. You can also grab dinner or lunch at the five-star restaurant (the first in the Bahamas) and take advantage of its huge wine collection (one of the biggest—and most expensive— wine cellars in the world) or take a tour of the on-site cigar factory and chocolate factory (and make some of your own sweets).
Bay Street is the commercial heart of Nassau, with shops offering imported luxury items, cigars, rum cakes, Bahamian crafts, and more. Discount shoppers will find plenty of duty-free deals on watches, jewelry, and leather goods, while those looking for some authentic souvenirs can explore the Straw Market; yes, it’s pretty touristy and you’ll have to haggle, but many of the clothes, crafts, and knickknacks here are made by locals. Nassau also has a blossoming art scene, with galleries like Doongalik Studios highlighting artwork for sale by local artists.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Nassau Guide