Historic Nassau

Start: Rawson Square.

Finish: Prince George Wharf.

Time: 2 hours.

Best Times: Monday through Saturday between 10am and 4pm.

Worst Times: Sunday, when many places are closed and lots of cruise ships are in port.

Begin your tour at:

1. Rawson Square

The center of Nassau, Rawson Square lies directly inland from Prince George Wharf, where many of the big cruise ships dock. Everyone seems to pass through this crossroads, from the prime minister, bankers, and local attorneys to cruise-ship passengers, shoppers from Paradise Island, and Junkanoo bands. On the square is the Churchill Building, used by the prime minister and some government ministries. Look for the statue of Sir Milo Butler, a former shopkeeper who became the first governor of The Bahamas after Britain granted its independence in 1973.

Across Rawson Square is:

2. Parliament Square

A statue of a youthful Queen Victoria dominates the square. To the right of it stand more Bahamian government office buildings, and to the left is the House of Assembly, the New World's oldest governing body in continuous session. 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. Immediately south of Parliament Square, in a Georgian-inspired building between Parliament Street and Bank Lane, is the Supreme Court. The bewigged and begowned judges here, looking very British, interpret Bahamian law and dispense high-authority justice.

3. Take A Break

If you'd like to relax, try Café Matisse, Bank Lane and Bay Street, behind Parliament Square (tel. 242/356-7012). The house specialty is pizza topped with fresh local seafood. Lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 3pm.

The Supreme Court building stands next to the:

4. Nassau Public Library and Museum

This 1797 building was once the Nassau Gaol (jail); it became the public library in 1873. Chances are you will have seen greater libraries, but what's amusing here is the small prison cells lined with books. Another item of interest is the library's collection of historic prints and old documents dating from colonial days. It's open to visitors Monday through Thursday from 10am to 8pm, Friday from 10am to 5pm, and Saturday from 10am to 4pm.

Across from the library on Shirley Street is the former site of the:

5. Royal Victoria Hotel

The hotel that once occupied this site was the haunt of Confederate spies, royalty, smugglers of all sorts, and ladies and gentlemen. The American journalist Horace Greeley pronounced it "the largest and most commodious hotel ever built in the Tropics," and many agreed with him. 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 successor, 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, the site accommodates one of Nassau's showcase parking lots. Incidentally, 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. At the end of it stands the:

6. Nassau General Post Office

If you're a collector, you may want to purchase colorful Bahamian stamps, which might be valuable in future years. You can also mail letters and packages here.

Walk east (right) on East Hill Street. Turn left onto East Street, then right onto Shirley Street, and head straight on Elizabeth Avenue. This will take you to the landmark:

7. Queen's Staircase

This stairway, built in 1793 by slaves who cut the 66 steps out of sandstone cliffs, leads to Bennet's Hill.

These stairs provide access from Old Nassau's center to:

8. Fort Fincastle

Lord Dunmore built this fort in 1793. Designed in the shape of a paddle-wheel steamer, it was a place from which to look out for marauders who never came. It was eventually converted into a lighthouse because it occupied the highest point on the island. The tower rises more than 60m (197 ft.) 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, and then bear right. When you come to East Hill Street (again), go left because you will have returned to the post office.

Continue your westward trek along East Hill Street, which is the foothill of:

9. Prospect Ridge

This was the old dividing line between Nassau's rich and poor. The rich (usually white) people lived along the waterfront, often in beautiful mansions. Bahamians of African descent 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.

Near the end of East Hill Street, you come to:

10. Gregory Arch

This tunnel was cut through the hill in 1850. After it opened, working-class black Bahamians were happy to not have to go over the steep hill anymore; they could instead go through this arch to return home.

At the intersection with Market Street, turn right. On your right, you'll see:

11. St. Andrew's (Presbyterian) Kirk

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 on your left:

12. Government House

This house is the official residence of the archipelago's governor-general, 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 early 19th century. Poised on its front steps is a rather jaunty statue of Christopher Columbus.

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

13. Graycliff

A Georgian-style hotel and restaurant, this stomping ground of the rich and famous was constructed by Capt. John Howard Graysmith in the 1720s. In the 1920s, it achieved notoriety when it was run by Polly Leach, a pal of gangster Al Capone. Later, under royal ownership, it attracted such famous guests as Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Upon leaving Graycliff, you'll see, embedded in a hill, a plaque that commemorates the spot where Nassau's oldest church once stood.

On the corner of West Hill and West streets is Villa Doyle, the former home of William Henry Doyle, chief justice of the Bahamian Supreme Court in the late 1800s.

Opposite Villa Doyle stands:

14. St. Francis Roman Catholic Church

Constructed between 1885 and 1886, it was the country's first Catholic church. New York's archdiocese 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 American Embassy. At the corner of Queen Street and Marlborough rises the:

15. British Colonial Hilton

Built in 1923, the nation's most famous hotel 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's murder in 1943, still unsolved, was called "the crime of the century." This historic location was the site of Fort Nassau, as well as the set for several James Bond thrillers. In 1999, it became a Hilton hotel.

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

16. Vendue House

One of Nassau's oldest buildings, Vendue House was once called the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and was the site of many slave auctions. It is now a museum.

Not far from Vendue House on George Street is:

17. Christ Church Cathedral

Dating from 1837, this Gothic Episcopal cathedral is the venue of many important state ceremonies, including the opening of the Supreme Court, during which a procession of bewigged, robed judges emerges, followed by barristers, and accompanied by music from the police band.

Continue north on George Street to the Bay Street intersection, where you'll find the:

18. Straw Market

The market -- largely destroyed by a fire in fall 2001, and still not rebuilt -- is now housed within a tentlike temporary structure that opens onto Bay Street (at George St., about 2 blocks from its original premises). It has long been a favorite of cruise-ship passengers. You'll find not only straw products, but also all sorts of souvenirs and gift items. Bahamian women at the market weave traditional baskets and braid visitors' hair with beads. Hours are daily from 7am to around 8pm, though each vendor (there are around 200 of them) sets his or her own hours.

Continue north toward the water until you reach:

19. Woodes Rogers Walk

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

The walk leads to:

20. Prince George Wharf

The wharf was constructed in the 1920s, the heyday of American Prohibition, to provide harbor space for hundreds of bootlegging craft defying the American blockade against liquor. Queen Elizabeth II's yacht, the HMS Britannia, has been a frequent visitor. Cruise ships also dock here.

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.