Kingston

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Few Caribbean islands can offer up the diversity of our island country - where there's so much more than "rum, sun & raggae" - especially in the often overlooked capital city of Kingston, the heartbeat of Jamaica and the second largest English-speaking city south of Miami, Florida. Kingston overlooks what is the seventh largest natural harbour in the world. Like a fan, the city spreads north from the harbour as far as the foothills of the famous Blue Mountains - impressive peaks that form a glorious backdrop to the whole.

What better way to combine business with leisure than to take in all that Kingston has to offer? With an eye on satisfying the most demanding visitor, this cosmopolitan city extends excellence in upscale high-rise accommodations, fine international dining, pulsating nightlife, business and financial services, shopping and culture. Just like any major metropolitan city, we have our share of street vendors, beggars and unappealing, less desirable areas, but north of the harbour and uptown, "New Kingston" sparkles!

Most people think of Kingston as being divided into two parts. It's not unlike a vibrant modern American city in that there's a downtown sector -- stretching north from the waterfront to the busy traffic junction at Cross Roads -- and also an uptown sector, which extends to the smart suburbs located at the base of the mountains. It will probably take you at least half a day to check out the downtown sights -- maybe a bit more to encompass all the must-dos in the uptown area.

DOWNTOWN KINGSTON - a great place to sample the essential atmosphere of this noisy and vigorous metropolis. Finding your way about on foot is pretty easy, since Kingston uses the grid system. If you get tired, flag down a taxi (fix the price beforehand) as rates are fairly reasonable and it's more straightforward than trying to tackle the chaos of the city's bus system.

The waterfront is a pleasant place to begin your tour of the area. Mixing alongside industrial-looking ships and warehouses, you get fishermen and pelicans, vendors flogging root snacks, and people dozing under the shade of a palm tree.

Ocean Boulevard is the waterfront's breezy main strip, and its focal point is the emotionally charged "Negro Aroused" statue depicting a crouched man breaking free from bondage. This is a replica of the original (now in the National Gallery) by Edna Manley, wife of former prime minister Norman Manley and mother of another former prime minister, Michael. The highlight of the waterfront walk is the National Gallery, a repository of Jamaican art, with important works by John Dunkley, Carl Abrahams, David Pottinger and Barrington Watson. (see recommended tours for more information).

The Crafts Market at the western end of Ocean Boulevard (open daily except Sunday) houses myriad little stores where you can pick up jewellery, T-shirts, carvings and richly embroidered baskets, though don't expect to be able to barter prices down. The area just north of the grassy waterfront forms the historic city centre, though many grand 18th century buildings were flattened in an earthquake in 1907. In colonial days, King Street was the main thoroughfare, and despite the earthquake, it still retains a number of beautiful old buildings with columned verandahs and decorative carvings. Half way up is the Parade, a large square used as a parade ground by British troops in the 18th century as well the site for grisly public floggings and hangings. The centre of the parade is the shady, statue-filled area, William Grant Park. Today, following a massive facelift in the 1980s, the Parade is one of the most vibrant spots in town -- music blares from ghetto blasters, traffic screeches, vendors hawk their baubles and queues for taxis and buses spill onto the road.

North of the park is the elegant sky-blue wedding cake building of the Ward Theatre, a magnet for thespians since the 18th century and home to the annual panto as well as seasonal spectacles; feel free to nose around the inside.

To the west, stretching three blocks from the Parade, is the crowded, colourful and cacophonous Jubilee Market (Mon-Fri) -- also known as Solas Market. It inspired a famous Jamaican folksong: "Come we go down a Solas Market; come we go buy banana." Further west are the ghetto areas known as the yards, where hard hitting wall murals act as territorial markers. The region is a no go for tourists - even Jamaicans from neighbouring areas think twice before entering the opposition's turf.

Duke Street & Around
Kingston has many handsome old churches, but one of the most impressive is the octagonal St Andrew Scots Kirk, built in the Georgian manner by a group of prominent Scottish merchants, and surrounded by a gallery supported by Corinthian pillars. Upon completion, it was dubbed the "handsomest building in Kingston."

Headquarters House & Gordon House
Two blocks west of East Street is Headquarters House (Mon-Fri 8.30am-4.30pm; free), a trim little townhouse once known as Hibbert House, but now home to the National Heritage Trust, which has its offices in the former bedrooms. You can explore the rest of the building; the debating chamber is on the ground floor, still furnished with original furniture and impressive portraits of Jamaican heroes, and the basement has some offbeat relics and a mish-mash of art collectables.

Gordon House is where Jamaica's parliament resides. The House of Representatives meets here most Tuesdays at 2pm, and the Senate sits in chamber on Fridays at 11am. Entrance to the public galleries, for a glimpse of how Jamaica conducts business, is free.

Other downtown sites:
Walk along North Street and you reach the imposing domed Holy Trinity Cathedral, the island's centre of Catholicism. Gleaner Building, at the junction of North and East streets, is home to Jamaica's premier newspapers, the Daily and Sunday Gleaner.

UPTOWN KINGSTON - the district north of Cross Roads - is where the
commercial sprawl of hotels, banks, embassies and offices meets the
residential areas of Hope, Mona, and Beverly Hills.

Centuries ago, uptown was mostly rural, save the odd sugar estate or
livestock farm. But Kingston's wealthy merchants soon bought up the land -- seeing in it a chance to escape the noise and bustle of the waterfront area. The process continues, and you will be able to spot newer, more fashionable residential quarters as far north as the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

New Kingston
The heart of uptown - a pulsating urban centrepiece dominated by
high rise financial buildings bounded by Trafalgar Road, Half Way Tree Road and Old Hope Road. It is likely that your hotel will be located here - and it's a good area too, for restaurants and bars (see Dining & Drinking section). You can also easily walk to all the most interesting sights from here.

Half Way Tree
This busy quarter about a mile west of New Kingston used to be a tiny
village, dominated by the parish church of St Andrew (always open; free). It's one of the oldest churches on the island, a tranquil,17th century redbrick building with delicate stained glass, and marble wall tablets commemorating Jamaican civil servants and English soldiers. Half Way Tree's central plaza (now a busy shopping area), was where farmers would rest as they travelled towards the city's main markets. The eponymous cotton tree under which they rested has long since gone - but a clock tower now stands in its place, erected in the early 19th century as a memorial to the British King, Edward V11.

Carry on walking east of Half Way Tree, and you hit Devon House on Hope Road (Tues-Sat 9.30am-5pm; J$110 including guided tour). This impressive edifice was built in 1881 by Jamaica's first black millionaire- it has fine landscaped grounds where you can stop for a snack or a drink - and the tour of the house is well worth considering (see Recommended Tours section).

Half a mile up Hope Road brings you to Jamaica House (closed to visitors),used as the Prime Minister's office, and King's House - the official home of the governor-general. (Mon-Fri by appointment; free; +1 876 927 6424). You can get a tour of the staterooms in this impressively restored 19th century house; more interestingly - the governess occasionally holds afternoon teas, as part of the island's successful 'Meet the People' programme. Contact the Jamaican Tourist Board on +1 876 929 9200 for more information, or reservations).

Hope Road is also home to the much-vaunted Bob Marley Museum (56 Hope
Rd, Mon-Tues, & Thurs-Fri 9.30am-5pm, Wed-Sat 12.30pm-5pm; J$180 - see
Recommended Tours for more detail). It then forks up towards the Hope
Botanical Gardens (daily 9am-5pm; free) and Coconut Park (Sat & Sun 10-6pm; J$30) - the latter, a haven for kids, with great rides and a small zoo housing lions, mongoose and monkeys.

If you have wheels, consider driving into the Blue Mountains from here - or at least going up onto Skyline Drive - a road noted for its stunning views over the city and across the harbour to Port Royal. You can get there by following Barbican Road to its northernmost edges - then join Jack's Hill Road and then onto Skyline Drive.

History of Kingston

If there was a prize handed out for tenacity among the world's cities, Kingston would be up there with the winners. A real survivor, this hardy metropolis has risen like a phoenix from fires, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.

Kingston survives in spite of its grossly exaggerated reputation as a dangerous city of tenuously reined-in chaos. Because of that reputation, most tourists stick to the holiday destinations of the north coast. Ironically, though you will undoubtedly see something of the rough edges of this town, the hustlers who plague the tourist centres of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay are relatively sparse in Kingston.

Kingston was founded at the end of the 17th century as a refuge for survivors of a devastating earthquake that had hit Jamaica, and that all but destroyed Port Royal, a large town on the opposite side of the harbor. Before the earthquake, the Kingston area housed little more than a few pig farmers and fishing shacks. Earthquake survivors set up homesteads, and very shortly plans were drawn up for a new town to be laid out beside the water and to be named in honour of the British king, William of Orange.

By the early 18th century, Kingston's natural harbour enabled the city to flourish as an important seaport. The traders who grew fat on the profits built fine town houses throughout the city, and freed slaves and immigrant workers flooded in, hoping to share in the city's boom. Some hundred years later, when Kingston finally received recognition as the island's capital, the rich had gravitated towards uptown Kingston and the northern outskirts, and the poorer population huddled in shantytowns on the edges of the old town.

Calamities plagued the city's early years, changing the look of the city: a massive hurricane in 1784, an enormous fire in 1843, a cholera epidemic in 1850, fire again in 1862, and the devastating earthquake of 1907 that destroyed nearly all the buildings south of Parade. The largely destitute population of the downtown area helped swell the Rastafarian movement during the 1920s and '30s. Major riots during the Depression '30s gave rise to the development of trade unions and political parties set up to represent the workers and the dispossessed. But improvements in housing and working conditions were slow in coming. Not until the 1960s did this vibrant city see any tangible change. The much needed facelift given to the old downtown area, together with the expansion and redevelopment of the waterfront area, coincided with Kingston's growing international fame as a centre of reggae music. Shops and offices emerged during this facelift (casualties of which included the once famous Myrtle Bank Hotel and Knutsford Racetrack--now New Kingston--and Victoria Market, where vendors had plied their goods every Sunday for over 100 years), as well as wide boulevards and multi-story buildings. But for the people of West Kingston, this development was seen as primarily superficial - and the 1970s and 1980s proved tense times politically.

Today, Kingston is something of a divided city. The wealthy largely live in the smart suburbs to the north, travelling in to work in the relatively sanitised zone of New Kingston, and rarely venturing downtown. But there are hopes that the city's politicians are beginning to address the problems of the ghettos, gangs and party factions. This comes coupled with proposals for tourist development, with the return of cruise ships being the priority.

 

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