The palm-tree-lined Antiguan capital – a colourful, wood-built town with a real ‘take it easy’ vibe – has a proper Caribbean feel to it, with the smell of jerk bbq wafting through the streets and the sound of buskers echoing the great Bob Marley down every back alley. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of your stay here.
You can’t ignore the enormous cruise ships moored in the harbour, and who knows, reading this you may be on one of them. In which case finding the best spots can be a challenge when you’re limited to a few hours. Taxi driver Cassim Greene, practically a local celebrity who warmly greets every Antiguan we pass, encapsulating the genial spirit of the islanders, takes me on a whistlestop tour of his favourite things to see and do in the city for the best local experience.
A walk along the promenade with a rum punch on the water’s edge isn’t the worst way to spend an afternoon in St John’s, but there’s more to it than the turquoise, red and yellow waterfront buildings. “It’s all about the history ‘ere, man,” says Cassim. The century-old quay (not to be confused with Heritage Quay, the parking space for the enormous cruise liners) gives a flavour of what St John’s looked like in the 18th century, with Georgian buildings sympathetically restored in their original style. What was once a trading place for rum, sugar, coffee – and, sadly, slaves – is now a top spot to eat and drink.
“Nothing brings us ’ere Antiguans together like the vegetable market,” says Cassim. “For an authentic local experience this should be the first destination for visitors.” Vendors and shoppers go at the same pace as the rest of the city, taking it easy and treating it more of a social club. Bartering is a part of business here on the island, so you can nab a deal on hot peppers, bananas, coconuts, cucumbers, mangoes, livestock, pineapples and more that are grown on the island. Fridays and Saturdays are the best time to visit the Public Market Complex, a five-minute walk through the city, south of the cruise port.
If you didn’t know by the time you get to St John’s, Antiguans adore cricket, and there’s no better place to get a flavour of this than by visiting the island’s cricket grounds. The Recreation Ground, a 10-minute walk from the quay, is like a museum of the West Indies glory days. It was the ground where they famously “blackwashed” England in 1986, and when Brian Lara set the record for highest individual Test innings, scoring 400 not out in 2004 against England. “Good times, man. Good times,” says Cassim, standing with his hands on his hips looking around the ground with a glaze of nostalgia in his eyes. When you visit you have to use your imagination. After the construction of the Sir Vivian Richards ground, which replaced it as the national stadium, The Rec, as it’s known by locals, is now run-down and more of a relic than a sports field, but fascinating all the same.
Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Ground
For an entirely different cricket experience, take a 15-minute taxi journey east to the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium, named after arguably the best batsman of all time. Even if you’re not a huge cricket fan, it’s impossible not to be inspired by the murals of the island’s knights in the lobby and the statue of Sir Viv outside the stadium. The four “sirs” are hailed like Maradona is in Argentina. “They were the founding fathers of the sport we love,” says Cassim. “They inspired a generation, role models to all of us. And now they continue to give back to the community.” The modern stands, with rum and jerk chicken stalls, feels worlds apart from the Rec, a must-visit whether you’re a cricket fanatic or not.
“We love a gamble on the island, and this place is our favourite,” says Cassim. It’s unassuming from the outside, housed in a pink and blue rectangular concrete building, with a red neon sign that only illuminates a few of the letters. Don’t come expecting the bright lights of Vegas. This is an entirely different kind of casino, but one, according to Cassim, that brings locals from all over the island. Inside it’s dark and air-conditioned. There are more than 350 slot machines and around 50 different gambling tables, including Cassim’s favourite game, Caribbean Stud.
Saint John’s Cathedral
Saint John’s Cathedral, the capital’s most impressive architectural feat, is the religious heart of the Christian island. Its striking baroque design, dominated by 70ft twin towers, is reminiscent of Cuban churches. Inside feels like being onboard a galleon with its carved mahogany features. Two churches were destroyed on the site of the cathedral. The first was built of wood as early as 1681; while the second was constructed using English brick in about 1720. The present cathedral opened in 1847, and the panoramic views from the highest point of the city makes the visit well worth it.
“Nowhere in the city does it quite like Hemingway’s,” says Cassim, talking about his favourite restaurant in St Johns. Sitting out on the breezy veranda sipping a local Wadadli beer, I can see what he means. He recommends the bulljoy – a fricassee of saltfish. There’s also the likes of Caribbean seafood chowder, spicy crab cakes and Antiguan lobster flambé on the menu that’s celebrated for being a local affair.
“Pizzas in paradise” is the slogan of this laid-back restaurant, which serves an unusual combination of pizza and sushi. In the Rum Warehouse on Redcliffe Quay, this is a favourite for locals, including Cassim, who swing by for lunch. “What can I say, man – it’s the best pizza on the island,” he says.
Journey back in time with a trip along the coastline to Fort James. If you’ve arrived on a cruise, you may already have spotted the intimidating cannons pointing out at sea that still sit at the fort. Much of the original fort, used to defend the island against French invasion, is still intact and provides stunning views over the ocean and across to the capital. Finish your trip off at Fort James beach for a stretch of sand that’s synonymous with the Caribbean.
“You haven’t seen St John’s until you’ve been to carni,” says Cassim. “It’s a special, special time. Even now I’m much older than I used to be.” Islanders flock from all over Antigua to the the capital’s streets for the biggest party of the year. The celebration of the emancipation of slavery is held annually from the end of July to the first Tuesday in August. The sound of steel pans fill the colourful streets as the party goes on into the early hours. “There’s also a lot of ganja and rum,” Cassim jokes with the same hint of nostalgia from when we were at The Rec.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.