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5 ways to celebrate Willemstad's World Heritage anniversary

Lebawit Girma, Lonely Planet


This year, on December 4, 2017, Curaçao's rainbow-colored capital will mark 20 years since it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But Willemstad isn’t waiting until then to celebrate, and neither should you. 

From street art neighborhood revivals to walking tours and a weekly night market, it’s an exciting time to explore this Caribbean city's splendid architecture and evolving colonial neighborhoods.

Curaçao's crown jewel
It's hard to imagine today, glancing at the red, blue, green, and pastel yellow colors dancing on the blue surface that wraps the inner city, but Willemstad's UNESCO status was no overnight feat. Turning the city’s dilapidated buildings into the attractive space it is now, after centuries of heavy sea commerce, colonialism, and social upheaval, is the result of decades of teamwork, and passion for heritage.

After building Fort Amsterdam in 1634, the Dutch traded on Punda’s waterfront while living on the upper floors of their warehouses. Thriving commerce and a lack of space conspired to stretch the city into neighboring Otrobanda in the 18th century, where the working class resided, and later Pietermaai, and Scharloo.

In the early 20th century, Shell’s oil refinery opened and workers poured in from the Windward Caribbean islands. The packed inner city was already in disrepair. Stichting MonumentenzorgCuraçao’s oldest running Monuments Foundation, was formed and began restoration work, but it was too great for a single body. In addition, on May 30, 1969, several buildings in the heart of Punda and Otrobanda went up in flames during the major oil worker revolt.

Willemstad’s neglected state finally attracted help in the 1980s, thanks to a combination of government funds from Holland and private projects. Massive building restoration took place, and more organizations formed to help with funding and oversight. It took ten years to restore nearly 200 buildings, and a Monuments Plan was put in place in 1990. The idea then came to apply for the World Heritage designation. The Kingdom of Netherlands submitted the application – Curaçao was then under Dutch rule  and it was approved on December 4, 1997.

Twenty years in, Willemstad remains firm on the UNESCO list, with a whopping 750 protected buildings across four distinct colonial districts. Here’s how to celebrate now and enjoy one of the Caribbean’s most well-preserved heritage cities. 

Read the full article, originally published July 2017, on Lonely Planet.