The capital of Barbados and the largest city on the island, Bridgetown is a small but vibrant city that surrounds a port filled with yachts, catamarans and fishing boats. Locally known as ‘Town’, it was established by English settlers in 1628 and named after a bridge left behind by previous Amerindian settlers in the area. Its strategic position as the first port of call on the trans-Atlantic crossing from Britain saw it develop into a thriving trade hub, and its old town is awash with colonial-era buildings now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bridgetown was one of the earliest established towns with a fortified port in the Caribbean and played a crucial role in the development of the British colonies. By the 17th century, it was a thriving sugar trading post and hub of the slave trade and the large warehouses built along the waterfront testify to the wealth of the merchant classes.
The nearby garrison housed the Caribbean headquarters of the British Army and Navy. It began with the construction of Saint-Ann's Fort in 1705 and gradually expanded to become the largest garrison in the British Colonies, encompassing barracks, a parade ground, a naval magazine and commissariat. Many of the building were constructed using London brick, which doubled as ballast on the journey over.
Today, it is the home of the Barbados Defence Force and Coast Guard, while the Garrison Savannah is popular with runners, rugby players, skateboarders and kite fliers. The Savannah has also been a venue for horse racing since 1845 when regimental officers raced against wealthy plantation owners and still plays host to the Barbados Turf Club which holds regular race meetings.
The garrison and its associated buildings leached down into the town where you’ll find some prime examples of British colonial architecture. On National Heroes Square, the neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings lord over the triangular junction, while the Georgian Saint-Mary’s Anglican Church and the Barbados Mutual Life Building give a taste of the varying architectural styles employed here during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Bridgetown is also home to one of the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere, built in the 1650s, while next door, the Nidhe Israel Museum traces the history and importance of Jewish people on the island.
Just outside the town, the George Washington House and Museum, is an old Georgian plantation house where a young George Washington spent two months in 1751. It was the only place outside continental North America that he ever visited. You can tour the house and get an insight into life in Barbados in the mid-18th century and see tunnels originally built for drainage but subsequently used as escape routes for garrison troops in the case of attack.
Bridgetown also has good shopping, with a range of shops along Broad St and pedestrian-only Swan St, many with duty-free options. Alternatively, head for Cheapside Market for a more local vibe and a vast array of fish, fruit, vegetables, spices, leather goods and crafts. It’s a great place to meet the local people and get a taste of everyday Bajan life.
A key part of life here is rum of course, and Mount Gay Distillery, established in 1703, is the world’s oldest commercial rum distillery. The Mount Gay Visitor Experience reveals the secrets behind the production of Barbados’ most celebrated spirit and you can join a guided tour that looks at the history of rum production in Barbados, the origins of the brand, and the craftsmanship and techniques behind Mount Gay distillation, aging and blending.