If like many Americans you haven’t yet visited Barbados—either during a Caribbean cruise or a resort stay—the time is right to get to know this historic, elegant, and culinary-focused island. Tied to Great Britain for almost 400 years and yet given its name by 16th century Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos because its shaggy fig trees resembled the facial hair of bearded men (los barbados), the island is known for its love of all things rum and its unique geology and location. Formed by layers of coral and limestone that emerged from the sea and merged over hundreds of thousands of years, Barbados occupies a unique position as a Caribbean outlier and features a dramatic eastern coastline pounded by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Long a favorite tropical playground of the British (it was colonized on behalf of King James in 1625), Barbados declared its independence as a commonwealth state in 1966 and on Nov. 30, 2021, transitioned from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. Rich in history and deeply entwined with both sugar and slavery, it dominated the 17th century Caribbean sugar cane industry, and hence, the rum trade; by 1846, Barbados was home to 491 active sugar plantations and 506 windmills. In the 21st century, this island of approximately 300,000 residents still reveres its rum, but also revels in its distinction as the birthplace of musical superstar Rihanna.
Authenticity is a Barbados calling card and whether you opt to stay at one of the island’s beachfront resorts or visit on a cruise that departs from or calls on the capital, Bridgetown, this, food-and-rum loving, 166-square-mile island offers experiences worth savoring. Note: most tours are listed in U.S. dollars, but restaurant menus are priced in local currency (with an exchange rate of 2 to 1 against the U.S. dollar).
Here are the best ways to discover the island’s Bajan heart and soul.
Visit during Crop Over or the Food and Rum Festival
The largest celebration in Barbados is the annual Crop Over Festival, which begins in June but culminates in early August with Carnival-like revelry to mark the end of the sugar cane crop season. This uniquely Barbadian festival, which owes its roots to the 17th and 18th centuries when sugar cane dominated the island’s colonial economy, features concerts, calypso competitions, and revelry at Foreday Morning Jam—all capped off by the Grand Kadooment when costumed bands and masqueraders parade through the streets and party late into the night with music, food and fireworks.
If four days of nonstop eating and sipping rum cocktails is more your style, the annual Barbados Food & Rum Festival takes place in late October, bringing together the island’s top chefs and mixologists, along with international culinary stars. The 2022 festival was held after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus and showcased 32 local culinary talents—among them Javon Cummins, Damian Leach, Trevon Stoute, and Rhea Gilkes—and featured Food Network chefs Marc Murphy, Anne Burrell, David Rose, and Huda Mu’min and Top Chef finalist Eric Adjepong.
Events included Oistins Under the Stars (a celebration of this fishing village’s lively weekly fish fry), Chef Classics (cooking demos by the invited international chefs), a St. Lawrence Gap Street Party, a boozy Rise and Rum sunrise beach party, Journey of Food (intimate chef-hosted dinners at the island’s top restaurants), and the Liquid Gold Feast (a tented bacchanal featuring small plates from 17 island chefs and free-flowing rum and other spirits with live entertainment).
Take a food-focused walking tour in Bridgetown
It’s easy to explore Bridgetown on your own, even from the nearby cruise port, but it helps to have a food-loving Bajan pointing out the top sights and leading you to some of the city’s best local bites. That’s the formula at Lickrish Food Tours, which offers the Original Bajan Walking Food Tour ($80 per person), a three-hour midday meander through the streets of Bridgetown with stops to try a wide range of traditional favorites, including deep-fried fishcakes (at the Hot Legendary Fishcakes cart on Tudor Street), grilled cassava, pickled cucumber salad, cornmeal coucou with mahi mahi (or flying fish in season), savory and sweet treats at Crumbz Bakery, and delicious ice cream made with coconut milk at the Agapey Chocolate Factory.
You’ll walk about 1.5 miles in the heat—but it won’t be quite enough to burn all the calories you’ll consume.
Enjoy a rum tasting and lunch at Mount Gay Rum Visitor’s Centre
It all started back in 1703 when John Sober (ironic, right?) inherited a small distillery on the slopes of Mount Gilboa in St. Lucy parish—but it was the hiring of 4th generation Barbadian Sir John Gay Alleyne to run the distillery that ushered in commercial success and the name Mount Gay.
Today, the brand’s signature barrel-aged rums—Eclipse, Black Barrel, and XO—are in the hands of its first female master blender, Trudiann Branker, and you can sample them at the original distillery or, more conveniently, at the Visitor’s Centre just outside of Bridgetown, where the Signature Rum Tasting is $25 per person and the Rum Tasting and Lunch is $70 per person. The latter, with flavorful dishes created by Chef Gregory Austin served buffet-style on an open-air covered patio with ocean views, is a delicious and relaxing option.
Tip: Save room for dessert!
Attend a Friday night fish fry at Oistins
Even if your travel dates don’t correspond with the Food and Rum Festival, plan to be on Barbados on a Friday night and you can enjoy the lively vibe and great food at the weekly Oistins fish fry. This fishing village goes all out as locals and visitors mingle amid a maze of food stands selling heaping portions of fried and grilled fish with sides such as breadfruit, macaroni salad, and peas and rice. Order a local Banks beer or a rum punch and soak in the celebration.
Swing by Rihanna Drive
Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the singer Rihanna was raised in Bridgetown and in 2021 was declared a “national hero” during the presidential inauguration as Barbados became a republic. You’ll see her face and name (and hear her many hit singles) around the island, but a top spot for a photo keepsake is Rihanna Drive, the one-way street where she grew up that was renamed in her honor in 2017.
The house? It’s painted green and peach with the name Sonia Ville above the door and a blue-and-yellow “Rihanna” insignia painted on the curb (a Rihanna fan and not the singer’s family now lives there). Prepare to “shine like a diamond” or grab your umbrella-ella-ella and strike a pose.
Visit the George Washington House and the Synagogue Historic District
Yes, George Washington slept here. Barbados is, in fact, the only place outside the United States visited by George Washington, who in 1751, at age 19, stayed for two months while accompanying his half-brother as he was recuperating from tuberculosis. The place where they resided just outside of Bridgetown, then known as Captain Croftan’s House at Carlisle Bay but now called the George Washington House, is managed by the Barbados National Trust and can be toured.
The Synagogue Historic District in the heart of central Bridgetown, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an entire city block dating back to the mid-17th century and is home to the Nidhe Israel Synagogue (built in 1654) and the Nidhe Israel Museum, which chronicles the story of the Jewish Settlement of Barbados. The area is also home to the historic Jewish Cemetery, the ceremonial Mikvah, and several other heritage buildings.
Indulge in a range of Bajan dining experiences
You may want to go on a diet before you vacation in Barbados, an island known for its robust dining scene and huge “Bajan portions.” Two upscale options not to miss? First, Cocktail Kitchen, Chef Damian Leach’s bar and restaurant in lively St. Lawrence Gap, where the menu includes delicious contemporary Caribbean cuisine such as shrimp and gnocchi, coconut-and-ginger-crusted catch, and roast breadfruit and lobster.
The second must-try is Sea Shed in Mullins Beach, where you should book a table for just before sunset to savor the open-air beachside ambience and allow yourselves time to peruse the lengthy menu offering everything from char-grilled octopus and marinated tuna tacos to green Thai fish curry and coconut fish and chips. There are also a dozen pizzas and several generously sized and delicious salads.
To enjoy Bajan cooking the way locals like it, have lunch at Fisherman’s Pub in Speightstown. At this rustic, family-run seaside eatery open since 1937 and currently owned by nattily dressed Mr. Clement Armstrong, you’ll choose from a selection of options behind a glass counter, which include macaroni pie, sweet potato pie, cornmeal coucou, barbecued chicken, fishcakes, and rice and peas, and enjoy them outside as aquamarine water laps the beach just feet away.
Curious about all those Chefette locations you’re seeing? This only-in-Barbados fast-food chain is worth a stop for a quick and filling grab-and-go roti, available in beef, chicken, potato, and combinations thereof.
Hire a local taxi driver for an island tour
If you’re arriving via cruise ship at the colorful and welcoming Bridgetown cruise terminal, you’ll find a line-up of taxis offering tours of the island. The drivers, who include Carson Moore (aka Skinny Carson), can tailor an itinerary to your interests and serve as a guide/raconteur.
An option for a larger group is to book a custom tour with No. 1 Bajan Bus. The company traverses the island on its colorful, open-air retro-style buses and hand-painted mini-buses, starting at Barbados $75 (U.S. $37.50) per person.
Book a rum shop tour
Rum shops—tiny neighborhood social gathering spots where locals drink rum the Bajan way—are ubiquitous on Barbados (there are thousands of them, many located near a church). Several cruise lines calling on Bridgetown are now offering guided tours that visit several rum shops for an inside look at the island’s rum culture.
Step back in time at St. Nicholas Abbey
A visit to a sugar-cane plantation Great House is a must while on Barbados and a top option is St. Nicholas Abbey, where lush grounds provide a lovely spot for a relaxing stroll and the circa-1658 Great House —one of just three Jacobian-style mansions remaining in the Western Hemisphere—offers insights into the lives of its owners over the past 350 years. Plus, the property is also home to one of the four remaining distilleries on Barbados and tours and tastings (the rum here is distilled using traditional pot-still methods) are available.
Get a geology lesson at Harrison’s Cave
Yes, it’s one of the most touristy things you can do in Barbados, but a guided tram ride ($57 per person) down into the crystalized limestone depths of Harrison’s Cave also provides terrific insight into the geological formation of the island and some fun photo-ops amid the stalagmites and stalactites of the Great Hall.
A Note About Cruising to Barbados: The port in Bridgetown welcomes 800,000 passengers annually and cruise season in Barbados runs from mid-October to late April, with 33 cruise lines calling here. A number of larger and smaller ships—including Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, MSC Seaside, Silver Dawn, Silver Shadow, Regent Seven Seas Navigator, Seabourn Ovation, Oceania Sirena and Oceania Insignia, and the new Ritz-Carlton Evrima—seasonally homeport in Barbados, meaning passengers embark and disembark in Bridgetown, which offers a chance for a pre- or post-cruise resort stay and more time to explore the island. You can check the 2022-2023 port schedule here.