Kingston beat

For many visitors to Jamaica, the capital Kingston, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, is just the gateway to the country’s beach resorts. But, as Tanya Batson-Savage explains, Kingston’s bustling cosmopolitan scene and dynamic cultural offerings make it an essential destination. Here’s her list of must-sees and must-dos, from art to music to cuisine

Looking down from the foothills of the Blue Mountains, past New Kingston to the city’s downtown and harbour. Photo by Matthew HenryThe Ward Theatre on North Parade is a longtime landmark of downtown Kingston. Photo by Pymca/Uig/Getty ImagesArtist Taj Francis works on a Paint Jamaica mural. Photo by Matthew HenryTaking in a performance at Redbones the Blues Café. Photo by Marcus GoldingThe courtyard at Devon House, famous for its ice cream. Photo by Pymca/Uig/Getty Images

Discover Kingston, Jamaica

Get down with downtown

Downtown Kingston is one of the neighbourhoods visitors are often urged to avoid. Yet there are more than a few hints that the historic heart of Kingston may be headed for an upturn. When in the midst of the paradoxically laidback bustle of Kingston, it’s sometimes easy to forget this is a seaside city with a sprawling harbour and fabulous breezes to cool down the often high temperatures. Along with access to a great view of the Caribbean Sea, downtown Kingston is also the umbilical cord of the city’s cultural infrastructure. Almost buried among the crumbling façades of brick buildings from a forgotten era are museums and galleries just a hop, skip, and robot taxi ride away from each other.

If you’re looking for a shot of java, maybe a little ackee and saltfish, plus a touch of jewellery to get your morning going, F&B Downtown is a great place to start. The unique, trendy venue combines a restaurant and jewellery store. F&B serves up friendly staff, great atmosphere, and a combination of local cuisine, sandwiches, and Italian fare.

Resting at the western end of Harbour Street is Studio 174. At its core, this is an attempt at cultural regeneration through the visual arts, offering art and other classes to the young members of the surrounding inner city. Studio 174 has also built a steady stream of exhibitions from new and emerging artists yet to find a space in the mainstream.

More than a century old, the Institute of Jamaica is the grand dame of Jamaican history and culture. The unassuming brick of her headquarters doesn’t offer much of architectural interest, but the IOJ’s East Street locale presents a smorgasbord of opportunities to dive into Jamaica’s history and art. Explore exhibitions on the island’s natural history, delve into Rastafari, African, and Jamaican culture through the museums division, and get more than a feel for our rhythms in the Jamaican Music Museum.

Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey is the island’s first multimedia museum, with hours and hours of footage on the civil rights leader from whose genius Bob Marley borrowed the line “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” Not far away, on the north side of Parade, rests the (almost) newly minted Símon Bolívar Centre, commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of the Venezuelan liberator’s visit to Jamaica.

The crown jewel and the must-see space of Jamaican art is the National Gallery, sitting on the edge of Kingston Harbour. Even while several of Jamaica’s commercial art spaces have fallen prey to the recession and closed their doors, the island’s visual art scene remains vibrant and buzzing with energy — much of it surrounding the NGJ. Its permanent galleries allow you to step into Jamaican art from the Taínos through to the present, and feature works by most masters of Jamaican art, while the rotating exhibitions often exhibit contemporary works. Every month the NGJ creates a blend of the arts with their Last Sundays events, combining art, live music, literature, theatre, and dance.

 

Feel the beat

There are numerous ways to engage with reggae music across Kingston, but my favourite is the History of the Music tour, because it gives you a chance to dive deep into the belly of the city’s culture and history. The HM tour starts at National Heroes Park, drawing the link between the music and the rest of the island’s history. Often overlooked, the park hosts the remains of past prime ministers and cultural icons such as Louise Bennett, as well as a space of tribute with monuments built to our national heroes. The tour also allows you to visit historic record stores and pressing plants, and culminates with a session at the Alpha Boys’ School. More adventurous patrons can also opt to visit the inspiring Paint Jamaica murals by some of the island’s most energetic young artists, and have lunch at rustic Life Yard, where the food is ital (vegetarian) and delicious. Many of the ingredients are actually grown right in the back.

It’s impossible to talk about reggae without mentioning Marley, so of course the Bob Marley Museum makes this list. Whether you come to see it for the legend of Marley or to relive the atmosphere of Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, the museum at 56 Hope Road, former home of the reggae legend and the place where the infamous attempted assassination took place, is not to be missed.

By day, it’s a reasonably nondescript mall, but at night, Pulsate on Trafalgar Road, New Kingston, gets booming. Its main nights are Wednesday (when it goes retro) and Fridays, when you can step back in time for a great dancehall party, usually with guest deejays such as Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, or Lady Saw doing a rare solo performance.

Kingston has a more diverse music scene than you might guess, and Redbones the Blues Café is often the home base for live music and literature. Nestled in the quieter part of New Kingston, the restaurant boasts live reggae, jazz, and rock sessions as well as poetry readings and book launches.

In Kingston, the hills are actually alive with music — at least on Sunday nights, when selector Gebre Selassie (of Rockers Sound System) creates a reggae and dub pilgrimage-worthy experience that has brought many up the winding and aptly named Skyline Drive. Kingston Dub Club remixes the idea of island chill, and makes a great end to a Sunday night — not least for the spectacular view of Kingston by night, its glittering lights spreading towards the darkly glimmering Caribbean Sea in the distance. Here you’ll find a taste of a Jamaican dance hall, but steeped in Rasta livity, as the selector plays roots, rockers, reggae, and, of course, dub. It’s the embodiment of good vibrations.

 

Dine and dance

Historic Devon House, with a combination of museum and garden, provides the perfect opportunity to satisfy your sweet spot and get in touch with a little of the island’s history. It’s best to visit on Saturday, because not only will the famous ice cream offset the day’s heat, but you’ll avoid the Sunday crush, when the snaking lines seem to stretch to forever. You can sit under the massive poinciana tree enjoying your ice cream cone, or grab a patty from the nearby bakery. The tiny shops in the courtyard also give you the chance to snag the stylishly chic handmade jewelry of Reve gallery, more standard craft, or locally made aromatic candles.

While it’s always great to sink your teeth into some spicy jerk chicken or pork, in recent years Kingston has developed a taste for cuisine from around the world. The Market Place serves up a diverse slate of restaurants that is the culinary manifestation of Jamaica’s motto “Out of many, one people.” Located off one of Kingston’s major arteries, the former shopping mall features a cluster of restaurants serving Japanese, Indian, Chinese, and Mediterranean dishes. If you dine in the courtyard, rather than the interior of a restaurant, there is no need to restrict your palate — you can order from multiple restaurants. Buried in the back, and a taste you have to try, is Mi Hungry (not open for dinner). It’s so tiny it could be mistaken for a closet, but Mi Hungry serves up raw-food-only cuisine that could tempt even a diehard pork-eater (and it has). The Rasta-influenced eatery allows you to experience food that is more hardcore than vegan, but loses none of the flavour.

With a legendary reputation — if one somewhat steeped in fiction — for its numerous rum bars, Kingston serves up a rousing nightlife. There’s a growing number of wine bars, from the quaint and intimate The Wine Shop to the more trendy Uncorked and the sleek Regency (at Terra Nova Hotel). If you have a wish to invite lady luck to share your nightlife, you’ll find a growing number of gaming lounges, including Macau, Acropolis, and Odyssey, each with a spirited bar attached. Meanwhile, three Jamaican sports stars are lending their names to prominent sports bars where you can indulge in good bickle (food), catch a game, and enjoy great vibes and even get or gaze at sports memorabilia: check out Cuddyz (owned by Courtney Walsh), Usain Bolt Tracks and Records, and Triple Century (owned by Chris Gayle).

While Kingston has only a few bookstores, if you are looking to get in some local lit, pop into Bookophilia, where you can have a coffee while you read and take a break from the sun. Though there isn’t a regular programme of readings, the shop sometimes hosts literary evenings, so check out their events when you’re in town.

The Blue Mountains, rising above Kingston in a crescendo of hills, offer more than the promise of beautiful flora, fog-laden treks, and some of the world’s best coffee. The twisting road from Papine up to Irish Town and onward also boasts a series of restaurants that make a great option for Sunday or Saturday lunch. At the twin venues Café Blue and Crystal Edge, just beyond Irish Town, although everyone might not know your name, they sure act like it, staff and other guests alike. Crystal Edge serves up great local dishes like curried goat and oxtail that encourage you to have intimate knowledge of the bones, while Café Blue offers pastries and coffee — and watch out for the hummingbirds. Further up the road, and resting by a river, Serendipity offers Jamaican-style cuisine while EITS Café serves up a tasty European-style menu. Both get some of their ingredients fresh from their own gardens.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport from Trinidad, Antigua, St Martin, the Bahamas, New York, Toronto, and Fort Lauderdale