The Ultimate Walking Guide to Nassau, The Bahamas
Welcome to Nassau, the colorful, bustling capital city of The Bahamas. With a population of nearly 300,000, it is by far the largest city in the nation of remote islands and cays. The city, situated on the island of New Providence, serves as the primary seat of government and commerce and is home to just over 70 percent of the country’s population. The Bahamas’ major international airport is located on the island, as is the primary cruise ship port, meaning that most visitors will pass through Nassau at some point or another. In addition to transiting through Nassau, many tourists flock to the famous Atlantis Bahamas resort on Paradise Island - a behemoth, sprawling complex complete with marina, aquarium, casino, snorkeling pools, shopping centers, and multiple restaurants.
If you do visit, make an effort to get off the beaten track and get to know the real Nassau. Sure, you’ll find glitz and shopping galore at Atlantis or downtown near the cruise ship docks but you won’t find the soul of Nassau. For that, journey beyond the hordes of tourists and trinket shops to find the art, history, and culinary delights that make the city shine.
When To Visit:
Hurricanes blow through the Bahamas each year, so it’s wise to travel outside hurricane season. Winter and spring, from December through May, are great times to visit the islands. Just be aware that things can be busy in December around the holidays, and again in March during spring break.
How To Get There:
If you fly into The Bahamas, chances are your route will take you through Nassau even if you plan to continue on to other, smaller out islands. Alternatively, visitors can arrive via boat, whether on a commercial cruise ship or a private vessel. However you plan to arrive, spend a night or two in Nassau to ensure you have time to fully immerse yourself.
Where To Stay:
As always, Airbnb can be a wonderful option when visiting a new place. However, like many places, The Bahamas struggles with absentee owners purchasing properties as investments. Whenever possible, look for Airbnbs where the owner lives on-site, or nearby, to avoid supporting foreign landlords and local displacement.
The Ultimate Walking Guide to Nassau
Start your day with brunch at Syrah Cellar Cafe. Ask for a table on the patio beneath the leafy branches of the majestic old tree. With music playing and twinkle lights overhead, you’d never know you’re just feet away from a busy main street. For something light, fuel up on mix and match mezze, or opt for the hogfish fish and chips for something heartier.
After you’ve finished brunch, head to the Harbour Bay Shopping Plaza where you’ll find Bahama Hand Prints, a six decades-old screen printing shop responsible for captivating patterns inspired by the islands. Founded in 1966 by two women, Helen Astarita and Berta Sand, the shop’s approach to printing fabrics hasn’t changed much. Nextdoor to the retail space, you can watch the screenprinting process, while upstairs, tailors sew the fabric into designs. Ask for a tour of the shop for a more in-depth look at their art.
In the retail space, you’ll find flowy coverups, lightweight button-downs, aprons, totes, napkins, and more, all printed with the cheerful outlines of sea turtles, pineapples, boats, sea grape leaves, starfish, and palm fronds. The space is tasteful and joyful, with splashes of color everywhere you turn. Select a treasure or two to bring home before you continue on your way.
Meander through lovely neighborhoods before you arrive at The Retreat Garden National Park, an oasis in the bustling city. This 11-acre national park was once a privately-owned estate. Arthur and Margaret Langlois purchased the property in 1925, later discovering 11 unique species of palms on the property. This discovery ignited their passion for palms and led them to develop one of the largest private collections of palm species in the world.
Today, the property is a national park managed by the Bahamas National Trust. A $10 entrance fee grants you access to the park and supports its management. Plan to spend at least two hours exploring the grounds; you’ll find dozens of palm species, unusual sinkholes, rich birdlife, dainty orchids and air plants, and more as you wander beneath the dense green canopy of tropical plants.
Continue your journey around the city as you make your way to the Queen’s Staircase. This epic set of stairs, also known as “The 66 Steps,” was carved out of solid limestone by slaves in the late 1700s. The steps provide direct access from Nassau to Fort Fincastle and were later named in honor of Queen Elizabeth.
Today, you can follow the steps as they descend into a cavernous rock promenade, draped with greenery and palms. A man-made waterfall tinkles in the background. Enter from the bottom or the top, or both. Before you go, pause a moment to recognize the suffering of those who were forced to hew so many tons of rock by hand.
At the top of the stairs, take a loop around Fort Fincastle, a limestone fort shaped like a paddle-wheel steamer ship. Built in 1793 by Lord Dunmore, the fort was intended to defend Nassau from pirates. Today, you can check out some of the seven large cannons that were installed in the fort for protection and take in expansive views of the city.
Leave the fort behind as you make your way towards downtown Nassau. Head for the Nassau Public Library and Parliament Square. You’ll know you’ve made it when you spot palm-lined paths and cheerful pink buildings with dark green shutters. The public library was originally constructed as a jail in 1797 and converted to a library in 1879. Make a lap around the grounds before heading next door to Café Matisse.
After a long day of walking, it’s time for drinks and dinner. You’ll find Café Matisse’s bright blue awning tucked up against a sunny yellow facade. Step across the threshold and you’ll be instantly transported. The decor is a chic mix of mid-century modern and coastal, while the ambiance resembles that of the most charming of European cafes. If the weather is good, request a table on the back patio where greenery canopies the tables while twinkle lights, lanterns, and candelabras illuminate the space.
As you sit, you’ll receive a platter of assorted bread, as well as some fresh bruschetta. Ask for a glass of crisp and fruity white sangria. Order the terrina al parmigiano or the barbabietole e agrumi to start. For your main dish, it’s impossible to make the wrong choice - each dish is an exquisite composition of flavors. Try the spaghetti alle vongole if you’re in the mood for seafood or the margherita pizza for a delightful vegetarian main. Take your time with your meal, savoring the flavors and the serenity of the café.
After dinner, head back to your accommodations for the evening. If you’re in need of a cab, you can usually find one down by the cruise ship docks.
Responsible Travel in Nassau, The Bahamas
Where To Stay:
As mentioned above, Airbnb can be a great option when visiting a new destination, particularly if all hotels are foreign-owned. However, like many places, The Bahamas struggles with absentee owners purchasing properties as investments. Look for Airbnbs where the owner lives on-site or nearby to ensure your dollars are supporting local families.
Local History & Culture:
An important component of responsible travel is investigating and understanding the complex histories of the places we visit. The Bahamas’ history is long, rich, and complicated, with indigenous tribes, European invaders, pirates, slaves, and others each playing a role in the evolution of the island nation.
Before you visit The Bahamas, spend some time reading about the country’s past. It is estimated that Arawak people from what is now Cuba arrived in The Bahamas around 300 to 400 AD. Their descendents, the Lucayan people, flourished from 900 AD until 1492 when Colombus arrived; disease, enslavement, and mistreatment completely decimated the population of more than 40,000 people in just 25 years. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, “wrecking” and piracy flourished.
By the late 1700s, the English had clamped down on piracy and American colonists loyal to the British crown arrived in the islands, bringing their slaves with them. In the 1800s, The Bahamas became embroiled conflict over the slave trade; Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and many free blacks settled in the islands while the United States continued to trade in human life. The conflict continued until emancipation in the United States. It wasn’t until July 10, 1973 that The Bahamas became a fully self-governing member of the Commonwealth.
The Bahamas is home to many delicate and endangered ecosystems, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, coastal forests, and more. As a visitor, it is important to do your part not to harm these natural treasures. In Nassau, practice smart water conservation, dispose of your litter properly, and avoid using single-use plastics. When shopping for souvenirs, avoid buying any animals products, including shells.
In the remote islands, practice Leave No Trace to ensure your presence does not harm the environment. If you plan to fish, be sure you obtain the appropriate licenses and read up on size, species, and seasonal limits. If you travel with your dog, be prepared to pack out all waste and avoid the cays that are home to unique species, like the Bahamian rock iguana or the hutia. If you’re boating, use provided mooring balls whenever possible or anchor on sand to avoid damaging the fragile seagrass or coral. By traveling responsibly, we can all do our part to ensure that The Bahamas flourish for many decades to come.