Tourist attractions: what to do in Antigua and Barbuda
One of the more beach-heavy destinations the Caribbean has to offer, the irresistible duo of Antigua and Barbuda is said to have one stretch of sand for every day of the year! And while no one’s quite sure if the count is accurate, there’s no question that some of the little coves and inlets are among the most beautiful in the world.
They run from the shimmering powder of 17-mile Beach on far-flung Barbuda to the secluded reaches of Rendezvous Bay, with oodles of palm-backed sunbathing spots and snorkelling opportunities along the way.
But these islands are about more than just sea and sand; there’s history and adventure too.
Visitors can check out everything from stingray-packed coral beds to crumbling English fortresses, see where naval frigates would have docked in the 1700s and wonder at colossal cliff faces carved from the rocks.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Antigua and Barbuda:
For more than 250 years, ships of all shapes and sizes have been drifting into the waters of Nelson’s Dockyard, from the old cannon-topped frigates of the colonial British forces in the 1700s to the sparkling white yachts that billow down from Freeman’s Bay today.
The undisputed historical gem of Antigua and Barbuda as a whole, the site is now a listed heritage attraction.
Visitors can see the aged naval capstans lining the water’s edge, see a huge anchor left over from the great English naval warships that came this way, and wander between the ruins of the old Boat House and Sail Loft.
Stingrays at Stingray City
Stingray City does exactly what it says on the tin: offer a glimpse at pods of the great rays as they glide beneath the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Continually rated as one of the top things to do in Antigua, the spot can be found between the low-lying reefs just north out of Willikies town.
Travelers start the day with introductory classes on how to handle the island’s breed of southern ray, before heading out to the shallows and joining them for a snorkelling session.
It’s the perfect experience for anyone eager to get up-close-and-personal with the region’s curious marine life.
Shirley Heights Lookout
Looming nearly 500 feet above the crashing waves of English Harbour is where visitors will find the ridges of iconic Shirley Heights – the island’s most talked about lookout point.
Winding paths along the scrub-dressed hills outside of town are what take travelers here, and the humble entry fee is included in the price of tickets to Nelson’s Dockyard.
The views really are all they are cracked up to be too, with the deep-blue of the Caribbean giving way to the rugged silhouette of Montserrat mountain on Guadeloupe to the south-west, and the inland undulations of Antigua glowing in shades of emerald.
Oh, and the famous green flash sunsets are another bonus!
Betty’s Hope: an historic plantation
Founded way back in the 1650s, after the first English settlers discovered the fertile soils of Antigua were perfect for raising sugarcane crops, the historic plantation known as Betty’s Hope now stands as a reminder of the long history of slave ownership on the islands.
Today, the site has been restored to show some of the original windmills that were used to crush the crop and extract the juice, while other excavations have unearthed the on-site rum distillery and slave quarters.
An on-site visitor’s center showcases a collection of original tools used in the production process too.
Antigua and Barbuda are hailed as two of the great sailing meccas of the Caribbean region.
Blown over by the reliable trade winds that once brought Spanish caravels and English naval fleets here from across the Atlantic, the archipelago is a fine choice for the budding mariner.
There are countless charter opportunities too, with everything from short one-day rentals to lengthy holidays on 30-footers on the menu.
In April, the famous Oyster Regatta and Classic Yacht Regatta bring in huge crowds of sailors, so you can pretty much rest assured you’ll never be too alone on the swells!
Clambering out of the crashing rollers of the Atlantic, where the billowing trade winds meet the rugged east coast of Antigua, Devil’s Bridge is a breathtaking and eye-opening geological wonder.
Eroded by the continuous onslaught of the waves, it’s famed for its craggy appearance and the way the swells break dramatically, erupting like geysers against the rocks and blowholes along Indian Town Point.
The spot is also steeped in a haunting history, and locals (especially the older ones) know it as the place where escaped slaves would go to commit suicide!
Hidden away from the roads and towns of Antigua by a dash of green sand dunes and vine-dressed hills, Rendezvous Bay is certainly not the easiest beach on the island to get to.
But therein lies its beauty.
Almost always empty and secluded, the spot can only be reached after a 30-minute hike from the outskirts of Falmouth town.
And boy is it worth it! Empty sands abut a sea of sky-blue, cacti loom on the hillsides and the salty breezes form the backing track.
There are some tour operators who offer organised walks to Rendezvous Bay – perfect if you fancy a bit of company along the route.
Sunset at Bumpkins
Lost between the rocks and green gardens of Pigeon Point Beach on the far side of the headland from English Harbour, Bumpkins is a fine place to while away an evening with great local food and drink on the south side of Antigua Island.
Serving up a medley of Caribbean seafood ceviche and fiery (and we mean fiery!) jerk chicken straight off the BBQ grill, the joint is a casual affair just meters from the lapping waves.
On Friday nights, an in-house reggae troupe take over, and the sunset views across Deep Bay are simply perfect!
The Carib sands on 17-mile Beach
Forget Negril’s claim to seven miles of silky sands over on Jamaica, the untouched and largely untrodden isle of Barbuda, set between the shimmering Caribbean waters just north of built-up Antigua, is home to a whopping 17 miles of the stuff! It runs along the western edge of the island, backed by patches of sea grasses and sand dunes, and separated from Codrington by the waters of a brackish lagoon.
Almost always deserted and empty, the occasional yacht drifts by and the breezy winds are great for taking the edge off the tropical heat – it’s a perfect choice for budding beachcombers and walkers!
The wildlife of the Frigate Bird Sanctuary
To the north end of aforementioned 17-mile Beach is where travelers will find the Frigate Bird Sanctuary; a vast enclave of lush mangrove and mud swamps, brackish bayous and waterways that hosts perhaps the largest gathering of frigate birds in the world.
That’s right, this small area of land on untrodden Barbuda is the prime spot for seeking out the curious red-throated fliers that bellow and bulge with their weird and wonderful mating displays during December and January.
There are also pelicans and oodles of sea birds there, while the landscapes are gorgeous, marking the far end of the protected Codrington Lagoon National Park.
Valley Church Beach
Of the legendary 365 (people say one for each day of the year) individual beaches on the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, this narrow strip of glowing, talcum-powder sand that abuts the waters of Lignum Vitae Bay is perhaps the single most quintessential.
Necessary viewing for any dedicated beach lover, the spot can be found just south out of Jolly Harbour.
It’s got a backing of rising dunes and black mangroves, and is framed by perfectly-formed hills to the north and south.
And for those who fall in love with Valley Church, there are cabanas and guesthouses on offer just a stone’s throw from the shore!
Colourful islander paintings at the Zemi Art Gallery
Zemi is a welcoming little gallery set between the brick-built houses of Redcliffe Quay in St. John’s.
Showcasing a medley of colourful Caribbean paintings, crafts, trinkets and creations, it’s the perfect place to come to get a feel for the artsy character of the Antigua islanders.
The various works depict the coves and beaches that line the tropical shorelines here, while painted timber bowls (made from the native calabash tree) and sculptures come inlaid with whelk shells, decorated with a kaleidoscope of patterns, or crafted from found materials straight from the sands.
What’s more, the owners are always smiling and love to chat about their local heritage!
Coastline at Fort Barrington
Crowning the tops of the cliffs and rocks just west outside of St. John’s, the historic bulwarks and crenulations of Fort Barrington were first raised by the British in the 1770s.
Their job was to command the water channels running in and out of Deep Bay, to fend of pirate attacks and other colonial powers.
Today, they lie in ruins, but offer a nonetheless haunting glimpse at the deep histories of these two isles.
Travelers can get here easily from the sands of Deep Bay Beach or Yepton, and weave between the rusting cannons to gain sweeping views of the Montserrat volcano across the water!
Shopping in Redcliffe Quay
Perhaps the single coolest and most sophisticated area in all of Antigua and Barbuda, Redcliffe Quay is home to a medley of independent art galleries and trinket shops, souvenir sellers, clothes boutiques and pottery makers.
Aside from the aforementioned Zemi Gallery, there’s the likes of Caribbean Magic Wallet (selling reggae-inspired island wear), Vera Pelle (with an array of bespoke and uber-stylish Italian handbags), and off-beat Rasta Pasta (where a fusion of red, yellow and green imbues everything from the Jamaican-flavoured hats to the Rasta bracelets!).
Gawp at the Pillars of Hercules
Jutting its way out into the waters where English Harbour gives way to Freeman’s Bay, directly below the panoramic lookout points and BBQ eateries of Shirley Heights, this wall of sinewy cliffs is surely one of the most breathtaking rock formations in the Caribbean.
They loom high above some popular snorkelling and sailing spots, looking chiselled and carved with their countless crevices and alcoves.
The evening is one of the best times to come and gaze at them, when the sun casts a deep yellow glow over the stone before setting in the west.