Located in Bob Marley's former residence at 56 Hope Road, just north of New Kingston, the house and museum (US$20 adults, US$10 children 4–12) has been turned into a shrine to the man and his music, with rooms full of newspaper clippings and personal effects. One-hour tours run Monday–Saturday; tours start at 9:30 a.m. and the last tour leaves at 4 p.m. Around back, there's a gift shop and a gallery has transient exhibitions. A comfortable, cozy theater is a great place to catch a movie.
Kingston is the heartbeat of Jamaica; it drives the island’s cultural and economic pulse. While Jamaica’s major tourist centers of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril are a surreal world straddling a party paradise inside walled all-inclusive resorts and a meager existence outside, where locals hustle just to get by, Kingston is refreshing for its raw, real character. The capital city is Jamaica’s proud center of business and government and an important transshipment port for Caribbean commerce. The tourist economy, on which the country as a whole is overwhelmingly dependent, takes a back seat in Town, Kingston’s island-wide nickname. This is the Jamaica where the daily hustle to make ends meet gives fodder to an ever-growing cadre of young artists following in the footsteps of reggae legend Bob Marley. As such, Kingston is an essential stop for understanding the cultural richness of this small island. Jamaica’s diverse cultural mosaic is nowhere more boldly revealed than through the country’s art, music, dance, and theater, all of which are concentrated here. Kingston’s vibrant nightlife is a world unto itself with clubs, parties, and stage shows that entertain well into the morning almost any night of the week.
But like any urban setting, Kingston is not without problems, and a negative reputation has plagued the city for decades. Downtown Kingston is at first sight a case study in urban decay. Blocks upon blocks of buildings haven’t seen a paintbrush in years, and many are crumbling and abandoned. The city became known as a breeding ground for political violence in the late 1970s, when neighborhood “dons” were put on the payroll of competing political forces to ensure mass support at election time. Downtown neighborhoods like Allman Town, Arnette Gardens, Rima, Tivoli, Rose Town, and Greenwich Town are still explosive, politicized communities where gunshots are hardly out of the ordinary. Other communities farther out have also gained notoriety, like Riverton City, next to the dump, and Harbour View, at the base of the Palisadoes.
Despite the severity of crime and violence in these areas, Kingston is not to be feared, as even many Jamaican country folk might suggest. With a good dose of common sense and respect, and a feel for the Jamaican runnings, or street smarts, there is little chance of having an altercation of any kind.
St. Andrew parish surrounding Kingston was at one time a rural area dominated by a handful of estates. Since becoming the nation’s capital, however, Kingston has spilled over and engulfed much of the relatively flat land of the parish, its residential neighborhoods creeping ever farther up the sides of the Blue Mountain foothills. At the heart of St. Andrew is the bustling commercial center of Half Way Tree, where shopping plazas butt up against one another, competing for space and customers. There are still unpaved patches of St. Andrew, however, like the expansive Hope Botanical Gardens, the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, and countless well-laid-out properties where it’s easy to imagine the days when the parish was completely rural. Twenty minutes due west of Kingston is Spanish Town, still seemingly sore about losing its preeminence as Jamaica’s capital and business center. Seldom visited by outsiders from Jamaica or abroad, Spanish Town played a central role in the island’s early history as a major population center, first for the Tainos, then for the Spanish, and finally for the British. Each group left its mark, a fact recognized by the United Nations, which has considered the city for World Heritage Site status. The city lies at the heart of St. Catherine, a parish whose moment of glory has sadly passed in a very tangible sense. Neglect and urban blight permeate Spanish Town. Nevertheless, it’s littered with fascinating heritage sites and has a beautiful square, a few notable churches, memorials, and glimpses of bygone glory. It is a convenient stop on most routes out of Kingston to destinations across the island.
Together the parishes surrounding the greater metropolitan area are home to about 43 percent of the island’s 2.8 million residents. Perhaps to a greater extent than in some other developing countries, poverty and wealth share an abrasive coexistence in Jamaica, especially in Kingston. This inevitably leads to widespread begging and insistent windshield-washers at stoplights. Apart from these regular encounters, Kingston is relatively hassle-free compared with other urban centers on the island, where hustlers tend to be more focused on the tourist trade and are visibly aggressive in their search for a dollar. Kingston is one of the few places in Jamaica where visitors with a light complexion can seemingly blend into the normal fabric of society. Kingstonians have other things occupying their attention, and visitors go almost unnoticed.
Hope Botanical Gardens (just below University of Technology on western side of Hope Rd., 6 a.m.–6:30 p.m. daily, free admission, parking US$1.50) was founded in 1873 and is owned by the Ministry of Agriculture. The park is managed by an NGO, Nature Preservation Foundation. It's a great place to hang out in the shade of a bombacacea tree or picnic on the grass. A diverse collecton of flowering and non-flowering exotic and endemic plants isn't as well labeled as it could be.
Kingston's buzzing centerpiece has shops and restaurants in the courtyard of George Stibel's former home, built in 1881
Cherry Gardens Great House was built by Scottish Planter Joseph Gordon, father of national hero George William Gordon, who was born to a quadroon slave in humble quarters next to the main house. George William Gordon went on to become a successful mulatto businessman who agitated for civil rights until he was executed for taking a stand. A drive up through Cherry Gardens gives a glimpse into Uptown, with concrete mansions covering the landscape. Cherry Gardens Great House is a breath of fresh air amongst monstrosities seemingly built with no regard for the surrounding environment.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (McDonald Lane) was founded in Jamaica in 1972. This is the original state church of Ethiopia to which Haile Selassie I belonged. The church has an awkward relationship with Rastafarians in Jamaica; many of them have been baptized as Ethiopian Orthodox, including Bob Marley's children. To this day, the construction remains incomplete with little more than a foundation in place.
Kingston's Hindu Temple (114B hagley Park Road Kingdton ) holds events for all the major Hindu holidays including Ganesh Puja and Diwali. Local Hindus attend in heavy numbers on Sunday mornings.
King's House has been the home of the Governor General since the capital was moved from Spanish Town in 1872. Jamaica's official head of state is appointed by the Queen of England for six-year terms. King's House was formerly the residence of Jamaica's Anglican Bishop. The original building was destroyed in the 1907 earthquake and rebuilt in 1909. The grounds have nice gardens that can be toured. Jamaica House, just south of King's House on the same grounds, is now the location for the Prime Minister's offices and is closed to the public.
Hamlyn Orchids, run by Claude Hamilton, an accredited judge of the American Orchid Society, is the largest commercial grower in Kingston and the number one expert in Jamaica. He has a large nursery (8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily), which can be toured (free) by calling ahead to set up a visit.
At the corner of two figures stand resolute, cast in bronze, their bodies thick and steadfast. A strong black man faces a voluptuous woman, their heads proudly lifted to the sky as if at once acknowledging the rectitude of their long struggle for freedom and silently praying for guidance in a new era. The work, titled Redemption Song, was the winner of a blind competition commissioned to give the newly constructed Emancipation Park a meaningful headpiece. It was controversial for several reasons.
Half Way Tree is the capital of St. Andrew, the parish that envelops Kingston. The bustling commercial area seen today is a far cry from its rural days when it was a popular rest stop for travelers between Kingston and Spanish Town. Several historical sites are wedged between the acres and acres of the concrete, strip mall-covered jungle.