Whether you approach it by air or by land, Kingston – sitting between the world’s seventh-largest natural harbor and the wall of Blue Mountains – simultaneously impresses you with its setting and overwhelms you with its sheer size, its noise and its traffic. This is the island’s cultural and economic heart, where the political deals are made, where the island’s musicians come to follow in the footsteps of the greats, and where you can be exposed to miserable squalor and great luxury within footsteps of each other. A visit to the capital is essential if you wish to understand the complexity of Jamaica’s reality and its multifaceted character.
Kingston’s been plagued with a negative reputation for decades due to its high crime rate, and while it’s not entirely unwarranted – there are certainly areas you’ll wish to avoid – with some street smarts, a little luck and an open mind, the visitor is richly rewarded by a firm acquaintance with a city as unbridled and unique to the island as it is to the Caribbean and indeed the world.
Kingston divides neatly into two halves, Uptown and Downtown, and never the twain shall meet. Downtown is the home of many historic buildings, the law courts, banks and factories, Jamaica’s greatest art museum and chaotic street markets, centered around Parade (William Grant Park). Its rather shabby streets, busy with higglers, shop assistants and besuited lawyers, reverberate with pounding music – anything from Bounty Killer to Shania Twain – and end by an attractive waterfront park, with the homeless camping out under the palm trees. To the west of Parade lie the notorious ‘garrisons’ – ghettos such as Trench Town and Tivoli Gardens, with an appalling murder rate but the best street parties – where many houses don’t have running water and the streets are particularly ‘fragrant’ after the rain.
Less than 6km (yet a world) away, Uptown holds the city’s hotels, restaurants, and clubs, largely confined to the pocket of New Kingston, with its cluster of tall buildings around Emancipation Park. If you have a light complexion, you are much more likely to blend in here than Downtown. In addition to two of the city’s most essential sights, the Bob Marley Museum and Devon House, the capital’s diplomatic and commercial status assures Uptown a definite cosmopolitan suaveness – not to mention a certain amount of security, though gated communities with guard dogs abound. Further out, in the foothills, are Kingston’s most exclusive neighborhoods and lodgings, with expansive views over the capital.
Uptown and Downtown rarely mix; there are many Kingstonians who never see both halves of their own city, but if you wish to experience Jamaica to its fullest, you should.
You wanted ‘real’ Jamaica? This is it.