I’ll be honest, my first impressions of Barbados were rather bleak. 

Compared to other Caribbean islands like St. Lucia and Dominica that set my heart on fire with their rugged terrain and wild mountains, Barbados is extremely flat. So much so that the entire west coast is essentially 21-miles of perfect beach, an endless stretch of white sand and jewel toned waters that open their arms wide for tourists with local beer flowing readily and umbrellas and beach chairs to rent a plenty. 

For most, this is the very definition of paradise. For me, it’s emblematic of a soulless place that caters to mass tourism, high rise resort after high rise resort creating a golden wall between visitors and anything that resembles authentic. I can be a harsh critic, I know. But I’m not the type of traveler who can be content in a hermetically sealed bubble of beach for very long. 

My sour impression continued for the first few days of my visit, let down by the list of “must-see” experiences my travel guide directed me towards. 

Everyone says the the Oistins Fish Fry is the place to be on Friday night. This is true. Every tourist on the island throngs to the small community, descending on the handful of food vendors in mass. Sure, there are plenty of locals too, but the chaotic and cramped crowd is hardly a welcoming place to strike up a conversation and get to know someone new. Granted, it doesn’t help that I don’t eat seafood. I’m also not drinking right now, that leaves out the rum. 

I was equally disappointed with Carlisle Bay. I swam out to see turtles and encountered a mess of tourists, screaming and flailing about in the water, splashing so hard it came as a surprise that I did indeed see one turtle – who was being lured by a local guide with food. It felt cruel to me for all these people to be here.

But over the course of five days my eyes adjusted to the harsh glare of the white sand. I began to see more deeply. I came to like the experience of being in Barbados more and more until it slowly grew on me and more positive impressions shoved out the old. 

One thing that’s great about Barbados is that it’s a very safe country with a strong middle class. I toured all around the island and saw no beggars. Not a single man cat called me in the street or on the beach – the same can’t be said about many other places in the region I’ve traveled to. 

In the late afternoon the cruise ship passengers leave the island and as they depart locals come out and reclaim the beach as their own. Mothers bring their small babies to crawl through the sand. Groups of older children play soccer, unescorted. Young men work out, running sprints. Old men sit around the beach bars and chit chat over bottles of Carib. 

Once I came to see that the people of Barbados (they call themselves Bajans) enjoy the beauty of their country just as much as tourists do, my stance on the destination softened. You don’t always see this in different places and I take it as a sign of prosperity. 

Read on for my top five favorite experiences in Barbados (in no particular order, really).

1.The Right Beach 

After a few days in Barbados you come to learn that those white sand beaches of the West Coast aren’t just an endless strip of fun and sun. There’s a certain social hierarchy to each of them and picking the right beach for your travel type will have a big impact on your experience. Here’s the breakdown: 

St. James – Caribbean Elite 

Rihanna has a mansion right on the beach here. So does Simon Cowell. You get the idea. This is where the elite flock and the result is that it’s a Beverly Hills meets the Caribbean type vibe. According to many taxi drivers I met, Rihanna is so down to earth she just goes to the beach with the rest of earthlings. 

While I didn’t stay in Barbados long enough to see if that was the case and frolic in the waves with RiRi, I did stay long enough to get the flavor of this part of the island and it’s undeniably glamorous, but not exactly 

Carlisle Bay — Cruise Ship Passengers 

One of our taxi drivers told us that Browne’s Beach, located on Carlisle Bay, was his favorite on the island. I’m not sure why. This section of the coast, starting at the edge of Bridgetown and running for a few miles south is cruise ship excursion central. If you go here during the day expect that 99% of the other people on the beach will be fresh off a boat, testing their sea legs on dry land and downing unlimited beers or pina coladas, a perk of their bright wrist bands that give them a full days access to all beach amenities.  

Carlisle Bay is also where the turtles live. Again, keep your expectations on turtle spotting low. This is not Turtle Town in Hawaii. 

St. Lawrence Gap — Independent, Mid-Range Travelers 

St. Lawrence Gap is a stretch that looks especially bleak at first with its wide stretch of sidewalks and conglomeration of restaurants that post their drink specials boldly on menus outside. There’s a Sharkey’s and an Irish Pub. It looks like a scene straight out of any tropical all-inclusive budget destination designed for maximum drinking. 

Aperances aside, St. Lawrence Gap is not that bad. The party never got out of control. We dined at a few restaurants and there was a healthy mix of locals and visitors in each, puncturing the hole in my hypothesis that this is the Cancun of Barbados. 

The beaches here were also perfect for my family’s travel style. It’s too far south for cruise ship passengers and too low end for the elites. Instead, it draws a crowd of locals and European travelers. 

Our favorite stretch was Rainbow Beach. It has a restaurant on one end and small cliffs on the other. There’s umbrellas to rent for $5 USD a day and a clean public bathroom. Two small beach shacks serve every drink you could possibly want from coffee to that daiquiri and snacks. 

Best of all, the attitude here is really down-to-earth. It’s a great place to chat with some locals (or lime as they call it) and get to know what life is really like in Barbados. 

2. Road to Bathsheba 

Yo this drive is not for the faint of heart! Barbados is mostly flat, but that doesn’t include the wild and untamed East Coast. Located on the choppy Atlantic Sea, the roads to the small town of Bathsheba curve through golden sugar cane fields and over mountainous terrain before sharply descending to the shore. 

The reward for braving car sickness? Breathtaking views that include lush foliage, dramatic cliffs and big waves. The waves are so big here that it’s a major spot for professional surfers, called by locals the Soup Bowl.

Bathsheba is beautiful, but apart from wandering the few stores and having a meal with a view there’s not too much to do, so this can easily be a day trip from wherever you’re staying. Unless you are a strong driver, I’d also recommend you hire a guide for the day to explore with a local. Our guide Sylvester’s details are at the bottom of this article. 

3. Barbados Wildlife Reserve

Barbados has a population of wild green monkeys, brought over from Africa 350 years ago.

You can visit the Barbados Wildlife Reserve to see the monkeys and other local species. Including turtles. They do two feedings — at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wheel borrows heaped with fruits are dumped into large troughs and a menagerie of animals enjoy the feast at once. Monkeys stand on the backs of the turtles, digging red grapes out. Some take a handful and scurry to the trees for a feast. Goats come too and chickens, all less picky. 

The reserve looks like a scene from Pan’s Labyrinth. Brick paths shaded by trees and vines over head. You have to watch where you’re going. Sure, some of the cobblestones may be lose but mostly you need to look out for the turtles that slowly mossy on down the path, long after monkeys have finished picking grapes out of the piles. 

4. Golden Square Freedom Park in Bridgetown 

It’s my belief that you shouldn’t go anywhere in the world without taking time to learn about the history. This is especially true in the Caribbean which served as a major crossroads for the transatlantic slave trade.

Barbados was once the “Crown Jewel” of the British Empire and the wealthiest colony in all of North America thanks to sugar exports. It’s the Easternmost island in the Caribbean, making it the logical first stop for British ships coming from Europe and Africa. As such it played a major role in the slave trade, with huge numbers of enslaved Africans arriving to the island to work in the fields or be transported to other colonies in the hemisphere.

There’s an incredible park on the edge of Bridgetown, Golden Square Freedom Park, that pays tribute to this history and all that followed, including several protests and movements for social equality. A particularly moving feature of the park is the Builders of Barbados Wall that includes the surnames of all those who have lived in Barbados during its 600 years of colonial history.

The park was opened in 2021 by Prime Minister Mia Mottley, a formidable woman who is having a huge influence on modernizing Barbados. Actually, a visit around the island feels like a review of this bad ass woman’s portfolio or resume. Since coming into office in 2018, she’s implemented a remarkable number of projects that are highly visible across the country including a Beautify Barbados program to clean up the island, implemented a new digital nomad visa and lead the charge for climate related funding for Caribbean countries with the UN. She’s also brought in an agreement with Hyatt to build a new property on the edge of the capital, expected to revive the city.

I was really inspired to hear about her, though many locals are concerned about the more progressive direction she’s taking the country in (sound familiar?). She landed on Times 100 most influential people list of 2022 and is well worth learning more about.

5. Pronto Food and Drink in St. Lawrence Gap

Don’t let the Italian name food you. This cute restaurant is as local as it gets in St. Lawrence Gap, with good food, a fun playlist and really friendly staff who allowed me to finally punch through that tourist wall and have a real chat with several islanders.

There’s a number of flashy restaurants in Barbados that boast coastal views, sleek linen table clothes and prices to match. There’s also a number of food trucks that will take anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes to deliver your food, a lesson we learned the hard way. But hands-down the best food we had was at Pronto Food and Drink.

The open-air restaurant has down to earth vibes and a pack of cards at every table to help pass the time. The chicken was fresh and of all the macaroni pies we tried (hey, we had to give this national dish a thorough examination), the dish here was also the most flavorful.

Honorable Mentions: 

George Washington House: At age 19, George Washington spent seven weeks in Barbados with his older half-brother who was suffering from tuberculosis. The house where he stayed is now a wonderful museum. Don’t miss out on the 20-minute movie that plays onsite. The docudrama is great for a good laugh. There’s a scene of an actor portraying Washington diving for coral and coming up inspired to start a revolution that left me in literal tears.

Rihanna’s Homes: I mean you have to go see Rihanna in Barbados, she’s the most famous islander (perhaps in the entire Caribbean). You can visit the home she grew up in, a small bungalow on the renamed road “Rihanna Drive” in Bridgetown. You can also drive past the beachfront mansion she owns at One Sandy Lane in St. James. Quite the glow up.

Tour Guide: The right tour guide can make all the difference in Barbados and open your eyes up to a different side of the island. I’d highly recommend our wonderful guide Sylvester. He can be reached on WhatsApp at +1 (246) 268-7203.