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Let’s play a word association game. When someone says “Jamaica,” what do you think of first? Usain Bolt? Bob Marley? Maybe you think of dreads and all-inclusive resorts. I know some people even think of a certain illegal substance when they hear about my favorite country. Either way, I bet you don’t think of Kingston.
You’re missing out if this is all you know about Jamaica. The 4,244-square-mile island is filled with mountains, forests and beautiful beaches. And don’t get me started on the food.
But my favorite part of Jamaica––Kingston, specifically––is the rich culture.
Unfortunately, so many of my friends who visit the island seem to experience a white-washed, tourist-only version of the country. They stay at all-inclusive resorts and only interact with locals on carefully guided tours or when talking to the employees at their hotels.
As I mentioned before, there’s nothing wrong with a beach vacation. But staying in Kingston gives you an advantage, as you’re able to chat with locals and get a behind-the-scenes look at how the country really is.AL
Don’t get me wrong––there’s nothing wrong with a beach vacation. But instead of heading straight to Montego Bay or Negril the next time you’re planning a summer weekend away, why not stay in the nation’s capital?
Kingston has a population of nearly 700,000 people. The city is home to my grandparents, countless aunts and uncles, and many cousins. My mother moved to the U.S. at nine years old, but she’s never forgotten where she came from. When I was younger, I didn’t fully grasp the privilege of being half-Jamaican. Now that I’m an adult, I look at my mother’s home country and see a bit of home for me, too.
But back to Kingston. If you’re heading to this capital city, you’ll need to know where to stay, what to do and what to eat.
Where to Stay
I’m a bit lucky. Any time that I go to Jamaica, I stay with relatives and completely immerse myself in their culture. But if you don’t know anyone locally, don’t let that discourage you from visiting Kingston. Once you land at Norman Manley International Airport, it’ll be time to drop off your bags at your hotel.
My personal favorite hotel is The Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. The hotel averages $255 a night, but it’s well worth it––from the spacious suites to the huge pool area, it’s a perfect hotel for a family looking for a weekend away. You’re also staying in the heart of Kingston, which is a huge plus.
If you’re looking for a name you’re familiar with, Marriott has hotels in Kingston. But remember that we’re going for a local’s experience here, so the less corporate, the better. You can also try Airbnb if you don’t want to pay full price. The interesting thing about Airbnb is that many of their offerings allow you to stay in a private room at a local’s home.
If you’ve had Jamaican food outside of Jamaica, you probably have an idea of just how good it is. I still haven’t found an American restaurant that measures up to the real deal, though. When in Kingston, make it a must to visit Port Royal. It’s a small village with huge flavor. The neighborhood is famous for its Escovitch fish, a fried delicacy served with peppers and onions. If you’re used to Westernized meals, you may be in for a surprise, as the fish is usually served with the head still intact. Just try not to make eye contact.
There are so many delicacies worth trying that it’s hard to pick just a few. Jerk chicken is likely the most famous dish in Jamaica, and it’s often served with festival, a sweet Caribbean dumpling, and fried plantains. But don’t miss out on breakfast while in Kingston: Ackee fruit and saltfish is Jamaica’s national dish, and it is one of the most flavorful dishes in the world. You have to try it for yourself.
My mantra while in Kingston: The smaller the restaurant, the better the food (actually, this is probably a worldwide mantra). Some of the best food in the city comes from unassuming hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Devon House is also a popular local attraction (and my mother’s favorite part of her hometown). Along with rich historical tours, the landmark is known for its ridiculously good ice cream.
Experiencing Local Culture
As I mentioned before, there’s nothing wrong with a beach vacation. But staying in Kingston gives you an advantage, as you’re able to chat with locals and get a behind-the-scenes look at how the country really is.
The Bob Marley Museum is a must. You can tour the iconic musician’s former home and even take a look at his former guitars. If you’re an outdoorsy person, take a trip to the Blue Mountains and go on a hike.
Regardless of how your itinerary pans out, I hope you enjoy your authentic trip to one of my favorite cities.
Also check out Quito, Ecuador for more local travel tips.