Long ago stripped of its status as the country's capital, Belize City remains Belize's business, transportation, and cultural hub. Sooner or later you'll probably have to spend some time here, unless you do all your in-country traveling by air or have a very precisely planned itinerary.
With a population of some 50,000, with 20,000 in the suburbs, Belize City is surrounded on three sides by water, and at high tide it is nearly swamped. It's a strange, dense warren of narrow streets and canals (the latter being little more than open sewers, and pretty pungent in hot weather), modern stores, dilapidated shacks, and quaint wooden mansions, coexisting in a seemingly chaotic jumble.
The city was originally settled by the ancient Mayans, who lived up and down the coast here. By the mid-1600s, pirates were using the current site of Belize City as a hideout and provisioning spot. Soon after, the British arrived and set up a logging base here, fueled by slave labor. Logs were harvested inland and floated down the Belize River for milling and shipping. This logging base soon became a colonial settlement and the seat of Britain's colonial empire on the Central American isthmus. Belize City itself is said to sit on a foundation of wood chips, discarded ship's ballast, and empty rum bottles.
Belize City has historically been beset by tragedy. The entire population abandoned the city and moved to St. George's Caye in 1779 following a Spanish attack. The Baymen, as the British settlers called themselves, returned and resettled the city in 1784. Massive fires razed much of the city in 1804, 1806, and 1856. Deadly hurricanes inflicted heavy damage in 1931 and 1961. Between these events, the residents endured smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera epidemics. Belize City had been declared the capital of British Honduras in 1892, but after Hurricane Hattie struck in 1961, the country's capital was relocated inland to Belmopan.
Today, most people who know it well will encourage you to pass through without a second thought. A common nickname among locals is something that rhymes with “Belize Gritty,” which is sadly fitting. This is an urban area in a developing nation, and the gang violence here has earned Belize one of the highest homicide rates in the world. While tourists are typically spared from this, precautions must be taken to avoid victimization of any kind.
That being said, Belize City remains the urban heart and soul of Belize, and a surprisingly fruitful place for shopping. Belize City is also the best place to see the culture of the country concentrated in one place, whether it’s the local arts community, fishermen pulling in their daily haul, or even just people-watching at hole-in-the-wall restaurants.