Nassau Walking Tour

Rawson Square - Prince George Whaft

Tour takes approximately 2 hours
Best Times Monday through Saturday 10am and 4pm.
Many places closed on Sunday

Prince George Plaza  

Walking Tour of Nassau

The center of Nassau, Rawson Square lies directly inland from Prince George Wharf, where many of the big cruise ships dock. It is the crossroads of the city, and everyone seems to pass through here, from the prime minister of The Bahamas to bankers and local attorneys, to cruise-ship passengers, to shoppers from Paradise Island, to Junkanoo bands. On the square is the Churchill Building, where the controversial prime minister Lynden Pindling conducted his affairs for 25 years before his ouster in 1992. The current prime minister and some other government ministries use the building today. Look for the statue of Sir Milo Butler, a former shopkeeper who became the first governor of The Bahamas after Britain granted independence in 1973.

Across Rawson Square is Parliament Square
Dominated by a statue of a youthful Queen Victoria. To the right of the statue stand more Bahamian government office buildings, and to the left is the House of Assembly, the oldest governing body in continuous session in the New World. In the building behind the statue, the Senate meets; this is a less influential body than the House of Assembly. Some of these Georgian-style buildings date from the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The Supreme Court building stands next to the Nassau Public Library and Museum (actually opening onto Bank Lane), a 1797 building that was once the Nassau Gaol (jail). If you want to pop in here for a look you can do so Monday through Thursday from 10am to 8pm, Friday from 10am to 5pm, and Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Chances are you will have seen greater libraries in your day. What's amusing is that the small prison cells are now lined with books. Another item of interest is the library's collection of historic prints and old documents dating from colonial days. It became the public library in 1873.

Across from the library on Shirley Street is the former site of the Royal Victoria Hotel. In its day, the hotel was the haunt of Confederate spies, royalty, smugglers of all sorts, and ladies and gentlemen. Horace Greeley pronounced it "the largest and most commodious hotel ever built in the tropics," and many agreed with this American journalist. The hotel experienced its heyday during the American Civil War. At the Blockade Runners' Ball, some 300 guests reportedly consumed 350 magnums of champagne. Former guests have included two British prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and his replacement, Winston Churchill. Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, also stayed here once. The hotel closed in 1971. After it was destroyed by fire, it was demolished and razed to the ground. Today, on its former site sits one of Nassau's showcase parking lots. Ironically, the parking lot seems to be such a source of pride to the city that it is unlikely the Royal Victoria will ever be rebuilt, at least in that spot.

After imagining the former splendor of the Royal Victoria, head south along Parliament Street.

TAKE A BREAK--If you'd like to relax, try Cafe Matisse, Bank Lane and Bay Street, behind Parliament Square (tel. 242/356-7012). Although this cafe is also a full-fledged restaurant, it's an ideal place to stop for a drink, especially during happy hour, Monday to Saturday from 5 to 7pm, when drink prices are reduced. The house specialty is pizza topped with frutti di mare or fresh local seafood.

At the end of Parliament Street stands:

The Nassau General Post Office. If you're a collector, you may want to purchase Bahamian stamps, which can be valuable. You can also mail letters and packages.

Armed with your colorful purchases, walk east on East Hill Street and turn left onto East Street, then right onto Shirley Street, and head straight on Elizabeth Avenue. This will take you to the landmark:

Queen's Staircase, leading to Bennet's Hill. In 1793, slaves cut these 66 steps out of sandstone cliffs. They provided access from the center of Old Nassau to:

Fort Fincastle, built in 1793 by Lord Dunmore, who had a penchant for constructing unnecessary forts at great expense. Designed in the shape of a paddle-wheel steamer, the fort was a place to look out for marauders who never came. It was eventually converted into a lighthouse, as it occupied the highest point on the island. The tower is more than 200 feet above the sea, providing a panoramic view of Nassau and its harbor.

A small footpath leads down from the fort to Sands Road. Once you reach it, head west (left) until you approach East Street again, then bear right. When you come to East Hill Street (again), go left, as you will have returned to the post office. Continue your westward trek along East Hill Street, which is the foothill of:

Prospect Ridge. This was the old dividing line between Nassau's rich and poor. The rich people (nearly always white) lived along the waterfront, often in beautiful mansions. One estate belonged to Lord Beaverbrook, the British newspaper magnate. The African Bahamians went "over the hill" to work in these rich homes during the day, but returned to Prospect Ridge to their own homes (most often shanties) at night. They lived in places like seedy Grant's Town, originally settled in the 1820s by freed slaves. Near the end of East Hill Street, you come to:

Gregory Arch. This tunnel was cut through the hill in 1850; after it opened, working class African Bahamians didn't have to go "over the hill"--and steep it was--but could go through the arch to return to their villages.

At the intersection with Market Street, turn right. On your right rises:

St. Andrew's Kirk (Presbyterian). Called simply the "Kirk," the church dates from 1810 but has seen many changes over the years. In 1864 it was enlarged, and a bell tower was added along with other architectural features. This church had the first non-Anglican parishioners in The Bahamas.

On a steep hill, rising to the west of Market Street, you see:

Government House, on your left, the official residence of the governor-general of the archipelago--the queen's representative to The Bahamas. The post today is largely ceremonial, as an elected prime minister does the actual governing. This pink-and-white neoclassical mansion dates from the dawn of the 19th century. Poised on its front steps is a rather jaunty statue of Christopher Columbus. Sir James Carmichael Smyth, who became ruling governor in 1829, presented the statue to The Bahamas. Visitors aren't invited to call on the governor-general, but they can sign a guest book in a tiny guardhouse near the exit gate.

Opposite the road from Government House on West Hill Street rises:

Graycliff. A Georgian-style hotel and restaurant from the 1720s, this stamping ground of the rich and famous was constructed by Capt. John Howard Graysmith in the 1720s. In the 1920s, it achieved fame--or perhaps notoriety--when it was run by Polly Leach, a pal of gangster Al Capone. Later, Lord and Lady Dudley purchased it, erased the old memories, and furnished it with grand flair and taste. It attracted such famous guests as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Winston Churchill.

Upon leaving Graycliff, you will see a plaque embedded in a hill. The plaque claims that this site is the spot where the oldest church in Nassau once stood.

On the corner of West Hill Street and West Street is Villa Doyle, former home of William Henry Doyle, chief justice of the Bahamian Supreme Court in the 1860s and 1870s.

Opposite it stands:

. St. Francis Roman Catholic Church. Constructed between 1885 and 1886, it was the first Catholic church in The Bahamas. The Archdiocese of New York raised the funds to construct it.

Continue along West Street until you reach Marlborough. Walk the short block that leads to Queen Street and turn right, passing the front of the American embassy. At the corner of Queen Street and Marlborough rises:

The British Colonial (now a Hilton), dating from 1923. The most famous hotel in the Bahamas, the Colonial was once run by Sir Harry Oakes, who was at the time the most powerful man on the islands and a friend of the Duke of Windsor. Oakes' murder in 1943, still unsolved, was called "the crime of the century." An older hotel once occupied this spot, but it burned in 1922. The set for many James Bond thrillers, this historic location was also the site of Fort Nassau and an older hotel that burned in 1922. In the summer of 1999, it became a Hilton.

One part of the hotel fronts George Street where you'll find:

Vendue House, one of the oldest buildings in Nassau. It was once called the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and was the site of many slave auctions. It is now a museum. (Fire Damaged)

Christ Church Cathedral is not far from Vendue House on George Street. Dating from 1837, this Gothic Episcopal cathedral is the venue of many important state ceremonies, including the opening of the Supreme Court: a procession of bewigged, robed judges followed by barristers, accompanied by music from the police band.

If you turn left onto Duke Street and proceed along Market Street, you reach:

The Straw Market, opening onto Bay Street. A favorite of cruise-ship passengers, this market offers not only straw products, but all sorts of souvenirs and gifts. Bahamian women will weave you a basket or braid your hair with beads if you want. Temporary location downtown at Woodes Rogers Walk and British Colonial.

Next, take the narrow little Market Range, leading to:

Woodes Rogers Walk, named for a former governor of the colony who was thrown into debtors' prison in London before coming back to Nassau as royal governor. Head east along this walk for a panoramic view of the harbor, with its colorful mail and sponge boats. Markets here sell vegetables, fish, and lots of conch. The walk leads to:

Prince George Wharf, where the cruise ships dock. It was constructed in the 1920s, the heyday of American Prohibition, to provide more harbor space for the hundreds of bootlegging craft that defied the American blockade against liquor. It was named for the Duke of Kent (Prince George) in honor of his visit here in 1928. Its most aristocratic vessel is the yacht of Queen Elizabeth II, the HMS Britannia, which has been a frequent visitor over the years, most notably in 1985 when the queen attended a meeting of the Commonwealth leaders.

End walking tour here.

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