Best Things to Do on Jamaica

The island that created reggae music, grows flavorful Blue Mountain coffee and distills some pretty potent rum has plenty of fun and festive activities on tap for visitors—and some fascinating history, too.

Jamaica
When it comes to Jamaica, it’s not a question of where to go or what to do. It’s how much time you have.Shutterstock

Jamaica is known for its sultry reggae rhythms, sensual sunsets, strong rum and spicy cuisine—all of which can be enjoyed at one of its many all-inclusive resorts without ever leaving the property. But there are so many other things to do in Jamaica beyond fun-in-the-sun days and nights in a lively (albeit guarded and gated) resort. There are waterfalls to photograph (and even climb), rivers to raft, cliffs to jump off of and zip-lines and bobsled runs to ride.

Jamaica's history is revealed in its Great Houses (haunted or not) and its culinary chops are celebrated in the spicy bite of its jerk seasoning and the unique flavors of local favorites such as bammies, ackee and saltfish, and callaloo. Jamaica is also home to a dozen championship golf courses, so if fairways and greens are a favorite spot to chill, that's possible, too. Read on for the best things to do in Jamaica.

Find a Favorite Beach and Relax

Negril beach
There’s a very good reason that visitors are drawn to Negril’s beaches time and time again.Shutterstock

Some visitors to Jamaica aren't choosy about where they stay and play—any beach is a good beach, right? But repeaters to Jamaica often return time and again to their favorite strand of white or golden sand, be it lively, resort-lined Seven Mile Beach in Negril, the umbrella-studded curve of Doctor's Cave in Montego Bay, the bohemian bliss of Treasure Beach on the South Coast or the dreamy tranquility of Frenchman's Cove in Port Antonio.

Visitors can’t see them all in one visit, but with a little pre-trip research Jamaica-bound vacationers can get a feel for the vibe and activities that best suit their style and book their stay accordingly.

Tour a Great House

For travelers whose interests run more toward history than adventure, Jamaica has its share of legends and lore. These can be best experienced at one of the island’s Great Houses, homes of once-wealthy land owners and merchants that date to the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the best-known is Rose Hall Great House in Montego Bay, built in 1770 on the hills of a sugar estate, where the legend of Annie Palmer (aka the White Witch) is brought to life on day and nighttime tours (the latter centered around its allegedly haunting).

Another option in Montego Bay is Greenwood Great House, once owned by Hersey Barrett, the uncle of British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It dates to 1800, is chock full of antiques and is open daily for tours.

Try a New Water Sport

It's hard to visit the Caribbean without wanting to get in the water and play. Luckily, Jamaica offers an array of water sports ranging from wet and wild (banana boating, anyone?) to serene and sublime (regular snorkeling, of course, but also power snorkeling with a personal propeller). Most resorts in Negril, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and the South Coast have water-sports centers on property offering a chance to snorkel, windsurf, stand-up paddle board, Jet Ski, sail a Hobie Cat, water tube or even parasail.

Scuba diving is popular here, too, with both reef and wreck dives available. Or combine land and sea with a horseback ride in Ocho Rios or Montego Bay that ends with a horseback swim.

Jump Off a Cliff in Negril

Better yet, just watch others do it, because this one comes with a warning: Cliff jumping in Negril is dangerous and people have been hurt and even killed doing it. And yet it remains a popular activity for visitors to this party-centric resort town. Located at the far west end of Seven Mile Beach, Negril’s famous cliffs tower about 35 feet above the turquoise surf below.

Almost every day, often spurred on by friends and liquid courage from Rick’s Café overlooking the jump area, dozens of brave/foolish souls make the leap. When deciding whether to try it or not, err on the side of caution if you’ve never jumped from a great height before. There’s no shame in watching and living to sip another Red Stripe.

Golf on World-Famous Courses

Jamaica is home to a dozen golf courses, many conveniently located at some of its top resorts (especially in and around Montego Bay), so golfers can take a break from the beach and sharpen their skills on fairways and greens designed by some the best in the business: Half Moon Golf Club by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., White Witch at Rose Hall by Robert Von Hagge and Rick Barril, and Tryall Club by Ralph Plummer.

Climb Dunn's River Falls

Dunn’s River Falls
Even if you just want to take some photos from a safe distance, you simply cannot skip a chance to visit Dunn’s River Falls.Shutterstock

A popular adventure that isn’t right for everyone—it definitely requires good balance—climbing famous Dunn’s River Falls near Ocho Rios offers a chance to experience the beauty of Jamaica’s gently rushing cascades and refreshing pools while posing for amazing photo-ops. It helps to be young and fit and wearing the right shoes (water sandals with rubber-grip soles) is a must because the rocks are slippery. Those who want to climb but have doubts can hire an experienced guide to lead the way.

But there’s nothing wrong with simply visiting and enjoying the rush of water from dry land, including the stairs that run alongside the falls. At less-touristy YS Falls on the south coast, where seven waterfalls flow one onto the other, visitors can’t climb the cascades but wading and swimming in the pools is allowed and the same precautions apply.

Experience the Thrill of Zip-line or Bobsled Ride

Zip-lining is extremely popular in Jamaica, which each week sends thousands of resort guests and cruise ship passengers soaring over its lush hills and rainforests—and even above a waterfall. There are spots to zip-line all around the island, with some favorites being Jamaica Zipline Adventure Tours in Montego Bay (which has the island’s longest zip-line, 1,600-foot Big Timba), the Zipline Canopy Tour at YS Falls on the South Coast (to glide 40 feet above the seven-tier waterfall) and Mystic Mountain near Ocho Rios (which has six lines). At the last one visitors can also try the Rainforest Bobsled Jamaica, a 3,300-foot, gravity-driven ride on high-tech sleds.

Go Rafting on the Martha Brae River

To commune with Jamaica’s lush natural landscape more sedately, travelers can book a leisurely and romantic rafting excursion on the Martha Brae River near Falmouth. These aren’t modern rubber rafts, but rather traditional bamboo floats powered by one of 85 licensed raft captains with a pole who propel seated passengers along a three-mile stretch of this tranquil waterway overgrown with lush vegetation. It’s sort of like traveling back in time.

Dine at a Jerk Joint

Chances are good the resorts many visitors book will have jerk chicken on the menu—or even an actual jerk shack on the beach—but to truly feel the love for Jamaica’s favorite street food one needs to explore. Jerk seasoning (a mix of chili peppers, thyme spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves ad allspice) is rubbed on chicken or pork and left to marinate before being grilled. The result is best tasted at top spots such as Scotchies (which has a several locations on the north coast, including one in Drax Hall near Ocho Rios) or Three Dives Jerk Center in Negril.

Enjoy Rum, Reggae and Sunsets

Sometimes the simplest things in life—good rum, great music and a fabulous sunset—make the best memories, and there's plenty of all three to enjoy in Jamaica. If you love the fiery orange-and-magenta colors of dusk, book a beach resort in west-facing Negril or the along the South Coast.

There will be plenty of reggae rhythms accompanying the nightly sunset happy hour, when local rums such as Appleton and Meyer’s Dark flow freely into tasty yet potent punches, tiki-inspired umbrella drinks and frosty daiquiris.