Most of Nassau can be explored on foot, beginning at Rawson Square in the center, where Bahamian fishers unload a variety of produce and seafood -- crates of mangoes, oranges, tomatoes, and limes, plus lots of crimson-lipped conch. To experience this slice of Bahamian life, go any morning Monday through Saturday before noon.
The best way to see some of Nassau's major public buildings is to take our walking tour, which will give you not only an overview of the historic highlights, but also an overall feel for the city. After that, concentrate on specific sights you'd like to take in; Ardastra Gardens and Coral Island Bahamas are notable options.
Fifteen Miles of Great Scenery for a Buck -- In Nassau, local tourism officials are promoting a bus route, the no. 10, that takes you on a road trip that covers 15 scenic miles along West Bay Street, passing historic forts, ocean vistas, well-to-do neighborhoods, secluded coves, and strands of golden-sand beaches. The cost is only $1 per ride, a super bargain compared to the other means of transport used by visitors -- chauffeured limos, horse-and-carriage rides, loaded bus tours, rented cars, or even motor bikes.
To Market, to Market at Potter's Cay -- One of the liveliest places in Nassau during the day is Potter's Cay, a native market that thrives beneath the Paradise Island Bridge. From the Out Islands, fishing boats and heavily laden sloops arrive early in the morning to unload the day's catch. Spiny lobster is the most expensive seafood, but grouper reigns supreme along with fresh crab, jack, and mackerel.
If grouper is king, then "sweet, sexy conch," as the locals say, is queen. Vendors make the freshest conch salad right on the spot; if you haven't eaten the delicacy before, this is the place to try it.
What we don't like to see are fishmongers chopping up sea turtles, a highly endangered species. However, the vendors are not of the politically correct sort, and they're more interested in catering to the Bahamians' lifelong love of turtle flesh than they are in preserving the species for future generations.
Not just fish is sold here. Sloops from the Out Islands also bring in cartons of freshly harvested vegetables, including the fiery hot peppers so beloved by locals, along with an array of luscious exotic fruits. Tip: Many of these vendors have a wicked sense of humor and will offer you a taste of tamarind, claiming it's the "sweetest taste on God's earth." Invariably, tricked visitors spit it out: The taste is horrendously offensive.
You can also see mail boats leaving and coming to this quay. Watching their frenetic departure or arrival is one of the island's more amusing scenes.
The Secret Garden -- The Retreat, Village Road (tel. 242/393-1317; www.bnt.bs), on the southern outskirts of downtown Nassau, is the home of The Bahamas National Trust. A clapboard-sided green-and-white building, it was originally conceived as the homestead of the Langlois family and purchased from them by the National Trust in 1925. Whereas there's nothing of particular interest inside the house (it contains mostly workaday offices), its gardens are worth a visit. They comprise 4.4 hectares (11 acres) of the most unspoiled greens on New Providence and contain about 200 species of exotic palm trees. The grounds, which are for the most part flat, can be navigated with a map available on-site. A gift shop sells books and memorabilia approved by and associated with the National Trust. Visit Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm; admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children 5 to 12 and students up to 18.
Meet the Bahamians -- The People-to-People Program, established by the Ministry of Tourism, provides an opportunity for visitors to learn more about the culture of The Bahamas by interacting with the Bahamians themselves. The program matches visitors, often entire families, with more than 1,500 Bahamian volunteers of similar ages and interests for a day or evening activity, which could include boating, fishing, shopping at the local outdoor market, enjoying a back-street tour, or, more often, visiting them in their home for a traditional meal of peas 'n' rice, fried fish, and guava duff. These encounters have resulted in lasting friendships between visitors and locals. Philip Archer, a program volunteer for more than 20 years, has received hundreds of invitations to visit families from different countries. Celebrating its 34th anniversary in 2011, the People-to-People Program has expanded beyond Nassau to Abaco, Bimini, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama Island, and San Salvador. To participate in the program in Nassau/Paradise Island and the Out Islands, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To participate in the program on Grand Bahama Island, e-mail email@example.com; www.bahamas.com/bahamas/people-people.
Going Over the Hill -- Few visitors make the trip anymore, but it used to be a tradition to go over the hill to Nassau's most colorful area. "Over-the-Hill" is the actual name of this poor residential district, where descendants of former slaves built rainbow-hued houses, leaving the most desirable lands around the harbor to the rich folk. This, not the historic core of Nassau around Rawson Square, is truly the heart of Bahamian-African culture. The thump of the Junkanoo-Goombay drum can be heard here day and night. The area never sleeps, or so it is said -- and certainly not on Sunday morning, when you can drive by the churches and hear hell and damnation promised loudly to all sinners and backsliders.
This fascinating part of Nassau begins .5km ( 1/3 mile) south of Blue Hill Road, which starts at the exclusive Graycliff Hotel. But once you're "Over-the-Hill," you're a long way from the hotel's vintage wine and Cuban cigars. Some people -- usually savvy store owners from abroad -- come here to buy local handicrafts from individual vendors. The area can be explored on foot (during the day only), but many visitors prefer to drive. Note: This area is well worth a visit, but keep your eyes open; most of Nassau's criminal incidents happen in this part of town.
Junkanoo Festivals -- No Bahamian celebration is as raucous as Junkanoo. Its special rituals originated during the colonial days of slavery, when African-born newcomers could legally drink and enjoy themselves only on certain strictly predetermined days of the year. In how it's celebrated, the Junkanoo festival closely resembles Carnival in Rio and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Its major difference lies in the costumes and the timing (the major Junkanoo celebrations occur the day after Christmas, a legacy of the English celebration of Boxing Day on Dec 26, and on New Year's Day). A more touristy 2-month event, the Junkanoo Summer Festival (tel. 242/302-2007; www.bahamas.com), takes place in June and July every year.
In the old days, Junkanoo costumes were crafted from crepe paper, often in primary colors, stretched over wire frames. (One sinister offshoot of the celebrations was that Junkanoo costumes and masks were used to conceal the identity of anyone seeking vengeance on a white person, or on another slave.) Today, locals have more money to spend on costumes and festivals than they did in the past. The finest costumes can cost up to $15,000 and are sometimes sponsored by local bazaars, lotteries, church groups, and charity auctions. Everyday folks from all walks of Bahamian life join in, often with homemade costumes that are sensuous or humorous.
The best time and place to observe Junkanoo is New Year's Day in Nassau, when throngs of cavorting, music-making, and costumed figures prance through the streets. Find yourself a good viewing position on Bay Street. Less elaborate celebrations take place in major towns on the other islands, including Freeport on Grand Bahama Island.
You can learn more about Junkanoo at the Educulture Museum at Ivern House, 31 W. St. at Delancey (tel. 242/328-DRUM ; www.educulturebahamas.com). The owner, Arlene Nash Ferguson, who has been joining in Junkanoo parades from the age of 4, is an expert on Bahamian culture and tradition and a font of information. She's one of the most gracious hosts in Nassau. This admission-free attraction can be visited Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. The small museum is installed in the owner's childhood home. On display is the history of Junkanoo, with some of its more flamboyant costumes. This is a favorite with kids, too, since there's a room where they're given such instruments as drums and cowbells and told to create their own Junkanoo sounds.
Afternoon Tea with the Governor -- The British tradition of afternoon tea is still observed on the last Friday of each month, from January to August, at the hilltop mansion of the governor-general in Nassau. You can spend a memorable afternoon here, enjoying musical numbers and sampling some local treats. For an invitation to tea, call the People-to-People Unit of the Ministry of Tourism at tel. 242/323-1853.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.