Renowned for clear, warm waters gently lapping soft white sands, Barbados is the stuff of Caribbean daydreams. Indeed, the beaches are some of the finest in the Eastern Caribbean, with sand so gleaming white you'll definitely need shades. But there’s more to do on this culturally rich island than lounging in the sun.
With first-class adventure sports, historic hikes and dramatic caves to explore – along with legendary rum distilleries that produce the fuel for boisterous nightlife and fun-filled festivals – there’s never a dull moment in Barbados. Here are some of the best things to do to fill the days in one of the most fascinating destinations in the Caribbean.
1. Go horseback riding along the Atlantic coast
One of the best vantage points for admiring the rugged wilderness on the Atlantic coast of Barbados is from the back of a horse. Horse riding is possible on beaches all around Barbados, with guided trips for riders of all abilities.
A top pick for tropical equestrians is Bath Beach, where you’ll find golden sands backed by farmland strewn with boulders, clear running streams and tracts of forest inhabited by cheeky monkeys. While the scenery is memorable, the highlight of a ride here is heading into the calm waters to cool off with your mount while the waves crash into the reef and the sweet smell of the sea hangs in the air.
Planning tip: The romantically inclined can take an evening ride to watch the Atlantic waters shimmering under the moonlight. For strong, healthy horses and wonderfully enthusiastic guides, try Ocean Echo Stables in St John parish.
2. Sail the Platinum Coast
Barbados’ western shores aren’t called the Platinum Coast for nothing. The area extending north from Payne’s Bay past Holetown boasts some of the most enchanting stretches of sand on the island, not to mention the extravagant villas of the rich and famous.
Visitors can get to know this flashy part of the country on sailing trips from the island's lively capital, Bridgetown, with stops to snorkel with turtles or explore reefs and shipwrecks. Many sailing excursions include cocktails and gourmet snacks for those that want an A-list-style party. The Calabaza offers small group tours and serves a powerful rum punch.
3. Let loose at Crop Over Festival
To see Barbados really cut loose, plan a trip in early August to experience the climax of the island’s most important cultural event, the Crop Over Festival.
Tracing its origins to celebrations by enslaved Africans to mark the end of the sugarcane harvest, this two-century-old festival has grown into a three-month marathon of concerts, performances, and parties, backed by a booming calypso and soca soundtrack.
The main event is the Grand Kadooment, a massive parade with 15,000 brightly costumed musicians and dancers following trucks laden with speakers through the streets of Bridgetown. Mobile bars keep festivalgoers well-lubricated until the early hours. Keep an eye out for Barbados’ biggest star, Rihanna, a frequent attendee of the annual bacchanal.
Planning tip: Visitors are welcome to join in the celebrations, but you'll need to register with one of the dozen-or-so participating bands to purchase a matching costume and book a spot in the parade.
4. Feast on seafood at Oistins Fish Fry
Barbados’ biggest weekly bash takes place in Oistins every Friday night, when half the island descends on this small village on the southwest coast for the legendary fish fry. The winning formula is a simple one: fresh fish, cold beer and top tunes; it's the island's favorite feast.
Dozens of little kiosks serve up everything from grilled fish (flying fish, tuna and swordfish) and shellfish to chicken and pork chops. Whatever you order, don’t forget the macaroni pie! Wash it all down with a cold beverage or cocktail as local musicians get the crowd moving. Competing sound systems ensure the party carries on long after the plates are cleared away.
5. Snorkel in Carlisle Bay Marine Reserve
With five shipwrecks in shallow waters, a plethora of reef and predatory fish and a multitude of turtles, the Carlisle Bay Marine Reserve, just offshore from Bridgetown, is a fantastic destination for snorkeling. Check out the coral-encrusted hull of the Berwyn, a 70ft-long French tugboat that sunk in 1919. Today, the wreck is covered in vibrant coral that attracts a phenomenal array of colorful fish.
Most of the top snorkeling sites are close to shore and can be reached via a relaxing swim. If you’re having trouble dislodging yourself from your sun-lounger, many of the beach clubs lining the bay offer free boat transport out to the reefs.
Planning tip: Snorkeling gear can be rented from water sports shacks along the beach, but quality varies, so you may be better off bringing your own.
6. Surf the Soup Bowl
Serving up some of the Caribbean’s most impressive waves, this heavy right-handed barrel breaks in seven feet of water just offshore from Bathsheba, the “biggest” town on Barbados’ sparsely populated Atlantic Coast. Even non-surfers will get a kick out of watching riders take on this powerful wave from the safety of the ruggedly beautiful beach.
There's good news for anyone wanting to hone their skills before taking on the Soup Bowl – the island also has excellent waves for beginners, such as those at Freights Bay. You can also sign up for a lesson at any of the island’s excellent surf schools.
Planning tip: The best months for surfing at Bathsheba are August to March. Many of the best surf schools are on the west coast, but they can arrange trips to the Soup Bowl; try Ride the Tide in Freights Bay.
7. Sample Bridgetown’s rum shops and street food
To get to know some of Bridgetown’s larger-than-life characters and take in some juicy local gossip, pay a visit to the rum shops of Baxter’s Road. Depending on how you define them, there are between 1,000 and 12,000 rum shops in Barbados, and these Bajan takes on the dive bar have been part of the country’s popular culture for generations.
Inside, you won’t find much in the way of music, but jovial conversations are guaranteed. Many rum shops sell homemade snacks, and more treats can be sourced from vendors and little stalls that line the roads nearby.
Try the legendary Pink Star Bar, which stays open all night to serve traditional island favorites such as "liver cutters" (chicken liver pâté sandwiches) and "steppers" (fried chicken feet) to tipsy patrons.
8. Discover the food scene in Speightstown
Way up in the west, past all the glitz and glamour of the Platinum Coast, unassuming Speightstown is a traditional seaside village that’s fast becoming one of Barbados’ culinary stars. With little traffic and an inviting promenade, this fun outpost has a dynamic dining scene that includes gourmet cafés such as Juma’s and the Orange Street Grocers, alongside unpretentious pubs that serve hearty traditional fare such as wharf-fresh flying fish and cou-cou, Barbados’ national dish, made from cornmeal and okra.
It’s a great place for a stroll followed by a bite with views of the stunning Speightstown sunset. Be sure to leave some room for sweet delights from the PRC Bakery, which churns out the island’s most perfect pastries. The coconut slice is the big seller, and the off-menu currant rolls are out of this world.
9. Explore Animal Flower Cave
While the more famous Harrison’s Cave in central Barbados draws the crowds, this seaside grotto in the craggy cliffs of St Lucy in the remote north offers a more relaxed natural experience. The only way down the cliffs is via a set of stairs carved into a surging blowhole.
The first chamber has many shallow pools that contain the urchins that give the cave its name. Then it opens out to the sea through a diamond-shaped hole in the rocks that just begs to be the backdrop for a spectacular silhouetted selfie.
In a second cavern, you’ll find a natural rock pool with calm waters cut off from the world but for the crashing waves below the narrow opening. You can look forward to one of the Caribbean’s most magical swims here.
Planning tip: For a meal break, the cave's restaurant has tables set right up against the edge of the cliffs, offering stunning sea views.
10. Taste history at Mount Gay Rum Distillery
Since the world’s first rum was distilled on Barbadian sugarcane plantations in the 17th century, it’s fitting that the island is home to the world’s oldest operating distillery, Mount Gay Rum. Founded in 1703 in the northern district of St Lucy, the Mount Gay distillery is famed for its blended rums. Visitors can observe the rum-making process up close during a tour of the facility, which covers both the history of the site and modern distilling processes.
Each tour ends with the tastings – including nine rums on the Premium Flight Experience – so eat a filling breakfast before you come (think a bake and saltfish, or fried bread with salted cod). And don’t confuse the distillery with the modern tasting center in Brandons Beach, which is nowhere near as atmospheric.
11. Hike through Welchman Hall Gully
Barbados was once covered with jungle – until the British established an economy based on the cultivation of sugarcane, a crop that devastated the native ecosystem but provided the raw ingredient for the island's famous rum. Today, only small pockets of forest remain.
A good place to get a sense of how the island once looked is Welchman Hall Gully, a nearly mile-long cliffside path (1.2km) through lush vegetation. In addition to a resident troop of green monkeys, the site is said to be the birthplace of Barbados’ best-selling export after Rihanna – the grapefruit. The gully offers a family-friendly excursion, with a smooth paved path for strollers as wandering rabbits and tortoises to keep younger walkers entertained.
Planning tip: Don’t miss the lookout on the way out, which affords one of the island’s most magnificent views. Through towering palms, you’ll see all the way to the Atlantic.