Downtown Kingston Heritage Walking Tour
National Heroes Park, Kingston, Kingston Parish, Jamaica
The heartbeat of Jamaica, Kingston sits at the crossroads of the Caribbean, North and Latin America, and is the largest English-speaking city south of Florida. Founded in 1692 as a refuge for Port Royal residents shaken by the massive earthquake, Kingston has had a long, tumultuous past. In 1872, the city became the capital of Jamaica and has since then been the cultural, economic and social centre of the island. Walking along Kingston’s streets, you will see and learn much about Jamaica, its history and culture. Nowhere in the capital is this truer than on the busy streets of Downtown Kingston, lined with many of the island’s most historic buildings and monuments. As well as having a wealth of historic sights, Downtown Kingston is also a bustling business district with busy roadways and crowded sidewalks. Walking along its streets you may witness the vibrancy, brashness and unpredictability of our urban lifestyle. In order to ensure you don’t miss any of the important sights, it’s best to have a local guide accompany you on your walking tour.
Start: National Heroes’ Park
Finish: National Gallery/African-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica (ACIJ)
Distance: 2-2.5 km (1.2-1.5 miles)
Tips: Although easily manageable, this is a relatively long walking tour. Please feel free to create a driving tour of downtown Kingston, visiting the sights we have mentioned in the comfort of a motor vehicle.
The tour begins at the southern end of National Heroes' Park.
1. NATIONAL HEROES’ PARK
This 74-acre park was established on the former site of the Kingston Race Course and initially called the George VI Memorial Park, in honour of the late King of England. After Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962, the park was redesigned and its name was changed to National Heroes' Park. It now serves as the resting place of three of Jamaica’s national heroes: Marcus Garvey, Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Washington Manley. It also holds several sculptures commemorating the lives of Jamaica’s national heroes, and a cemetery, where such Jamaican luminaries as past Prime Ministers Michael Manley and Sir Donald Sangster are buried.
The Jamaica War Memorial or Cenotaph, erected in tribute to those soldiers who died during World War I and II, is also located in National Heroes' Park. There is a Cenotaph, in each parish capital, but this is the largest one in the island, weighing 1.5 tons. Members of the island’s Defence Force maintain a constant vigil at the Cenotaph and the changing of the guard is an event to watch! A ceremonial changing of the guard, complete with music by the Jamaica Military Band, takes place on the first Sunday of every month at 9:00am. Additionally, every morning ceremonial guards are on duty for one hour, starting at 8:00am. During this hour they perform a series of drills to the delight of the viewing public.
Directions: As you leave the park, walk southward along East Street. At the intersection with North Street (the former northeastern boundary of the city) stand the offices of the Gleaner Company.
2. THE GLEANER COMPANY
The Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s premier daily newspaper since September 1834, is a veritable steward of the island’s history, chronicling her daily events for over 160 years. Tours of the plant may be arranged by calling the Gleaner Company in advance.
Directions: Continue, turning westerly along North Street, until you arrive at the intersection with Duke Street. Turn south along Duke Street (at the Moravian church) and stop at the Jewish Synagogue on the left.
3. THE “JEWISH SYNAGOGUE”
This redundancy in the name is characteristic of the local penchant for emphasis in speech. Home to the United Congregation of Israelites, this magnificent white structure is a true testament to the contribution of the Jews to Jamaica’s growth and development. The Jewish community is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in Jamaica. Jews were among the island’s first colonial settlers, arriving shortly after Columbus discovered the island in the 15th century. The first synagogue was built in Port Royal in approximately 1646, but was destroyed during the earthquake of 1692. Over time, more Jewish immigrants came to Jamaica, settling in many towns islandwide, erecting synagogues and consecrating cemeteries. Today, however, the Kingston Synagogue is the only one on the island. The present building was erected in 1912 to replace an earlier building dating from 1881.
Directions: Fifty metres southward, on the other side of Duke Street, is the enduring symbol of Jamaica’s democracy – the George William Gordon House.
4. GEORGE WILLIAM GORDON HOUSE
Affectionately called Gordon House, this building has been the seat of Jamaica’s parliament since its construction in 1960, when it supplanted its southward neighbour, the Headquarters House. The building is named in honour of one of Jamaica’s National Heroes, George William Gordon, a member of the House of Assembly in the mid-1800s who spoke out against the unfair treatment of blacks by members of the white society and colonial government. Gordon was tried and sentenced to death in the aftermath of the 1865 rebellion. He was accused of being in collusion with the leader of that insurrection, Paul Bogle (another national hero).
Directions: Beside Gordon House is Headquarters House.
5. HEADQUARTERS HOUSE
Formerly Hibbert House, this wonderfully maintained building is a fitting home to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT). Hibbert House was one of several stately Jamaican homes built in the mid-to-late 18th century, a time of great wealth for some Kingston residents. Local lore states that at that time Thomas Hibbert, a wealthy merchant, took a bet with a group of friends to see who could construct the most beautiful home in Kingston and so win the admiration and affection of a young lady. Thomas Hibbert built the house using the Georgian architectural style, popular in England in the 18th century. Although Hibbert House was then, as it is now, an extremely attractive building, it is not known who won the wager.
In 1756, Thomas Hibbert became the Speaker of the House of Assembly, and so, for a time, the meetings of House of Assembly and the Legislative Council were held there. In 1814, the War Office of the West Indies regiment bought the house, making it the headquarters and residence of the British Royal Army General, who was stationed in Kingston. The house later served as the offices of the Colonial Secretary and as the permanent seat of the Jamaica Legislature from 1872 to 1960, when it was replaced by Gordon House.
Directions: After leaving Headquarters House, head south once more along Duke Street and turn right at the first intersection onto Sutton Street, which leads you to Parade, Kingston’s bustling town centre and the heart of the city.
The name "Parade" is a throwback to the city’s early days, when the British "Redcoats" displayed their military might on a weekly basis by ‘parading’ and marching in this area. Currently the city’s transportation hub, Parade boasts several points of interest.
7. THE WARD THEATRE
“On this site has stood a public theatre since 1777”. This inscription on a marble tablet at the base of this massive building on the northern side of the square says it all. The focal point of all things cultural in Jamaica for well over 200 years, the Ward is home to our beloved National Pantomime, which opens on December 26 annually, rain or shine, and usually runs into March or April of the new year.
8. THE MANLEY STATUE
At the northern entrance to the park, facing Upper King Street, the statue of Norman Manley looks paternally on as Jamaicans go about their daily affairs. The statue was erected in tribute to one of the nation’s founding fathers, Norman Washington Manley, who was also the founder of the People’s National Party (PNP), the father of perhaps our most-renowned Prime Minister (Michael Manley) and husband to the "Mother of Jamaican Art", Edna Manley.
9. COKE METHODIST CHURCH
Standing on the site of the first Methodist church in Jamaica, this impressive red brick edifice has presided over the intersection of East Parade and East Queen Street since the early 19th century. It is named after Dr Thomas Coke, founder of the Methodist Missions in the West Indies.
10. ST WILLIAM GRANT PARK
This oasis in the teeming city is named in honour of one of Jamaica’s premier labour leaders of the 1930s. It was once used as a military parade ground. At the eastern entrance to the Park is the statue of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Strangely, the statue faces inwards, away from the street associated with Her Majesty (East Queen Street). It is said that during the great earthquake of 1907, the statue, which had previously faced outwards, turned completely around on its base!
11. KINGSTON PARISH CHURCH
Rebuilt in 1909, the Kingston Parish Church, otherwise called the Church of St Thomas the Apostle, dominates the southern side of the square. In the churchyard, you’ll find graves that date back to 1699. Inside, the walls are lined with plaques and tiles chronicling the luminaries of Jamaica’s history, including the story of one John Wolmer, a goldsmith who bequeathed his wealth to the founding of a “free school in the parish in which (he) should happen to die.” Wolmer died in 1729, and the school bearing his name – the oldest British institution of secondary education outside the UK – was established on the lands adjacent to the church. The Wolmer’s Schools (Boys’ School, Girls’ School and Preparatory School) today stand at the northern end of National Heroes’ Circle, proudly maintaining his legacy almost 275 years later.
12. THE BUSTAMANTE STATUE
At the entrance of the park, the statue of one of our most colourful political figures, Sir Alexander Bustamante, faces south. This firebrand labour leader and founder of the Jamaica Labour Party rose to become the fledgling nation’s first Prime Minister in 1962. The statue depicts Sir Alexander in a typically militant mood, baring his chest and daring police to “shoot me!” at a tense labour rally in the city in the 1930s.
Directions: After you have explored Parade’s captivating sights, return to the Parish Church. Turn south at the corner of the Parish Church onto King Street.
13. KING STREET
As its name suggests, this street is Kingston’s main thoroughfare and is the busiest street in the city’s central business district. Walking along King Street provides you with a generous helping of Jamaica’s eclectic urban life.
Directions: Walk past the shops, vendors’ stalls, fast-food restaurants and banks. Between Tower and Barry Streets, you will see a two-storey building, fronted by a small park. This is Jamaica’s Supreme Court.
14. THE SUPREME COURT
The focal point of the island’s judicial system, the Supreme Court is a symbol of Jamaica’s quest for justice, freedom and equality for all its citizens. The mural on the outside wall is a true example of the freedom of expression afforded to all Jamaicans under our constitution.
Directions: Turn left by the Supreme Court onto Tower Street. Cross over five (5) intersections until you return to East Street. The elegant red brick building facing you is the Institute of Jamaica.
15. THE INSTITUTE OF JAMAICA/NATIONAL LIBRARY OF JAMAICA
Established in 1879, the Institute boasts Jamaica’s oldest museum. Its exhibitions offer unparalleled insights into our colourful past, culture, and flora and fauna. The Institute’s Natural History Museum has an interactive, kid-friendly display of Jamaica’s rare plants and animals. In between the Discovery room and the gallery, look out for the Shark’s Papers, framed and hanging on the wall. These documents are part of an interesting tale. In 1799, the British Navy seized a ship on the grounds of illegal trading. The ship’s captain claimed he was innocent, but during the trial a British merchant ship arrived at Port Royal with documents that proved the captain’s guilt. The British crew had recovered the papers from inside a shark that they had caught while at sea. Apparently, the captain had thrown the incriminating papers overboard when he was being captured.
As well as the National History Museum, the Institute houses a herbarium, which is the largest in the English-speaking Caribbean, and thought to be one of the finest in the world. Below the herbarium, you’ll find the Zoology department, boasting an extensive catalogue of spiders and insects. The Institute also has a Science Library with over 10,000 scientific publications, including a collection of 18th-century science journals.
Adjoining the Institute is The National Library of Jamaica, which houses one of the most important collections of books, documents and prints in the West Indies. In the microfilm section, you may peruse Jamaican newspapers and other documents from the 18th century.
Directions: After you have spent some time at the Institute, continue southward along East Street, crossing Water Lane, Harbour Street and Port Royal Street. Take note of the Air Jamaica and Scotia Bank buildings on your right. At the intersection of East Street and Nethersole Place, make a right to the Bank of Jamaica.
16. BANK OF JAMAICA
Downtown’s tallest building, the Central Bank, houses the National Coin and Currency Museum, which has an interesting exhibit of Jamaican tokens, coins and paper money, collected over the passage of time. The museum also displays a gold artefact belonging to the Taino Indians (Jamaica’s first inhabitants), and the remnants of a 17th-century well, recovered from beneath the surface of Kingston Harbour in Port Royal’s sunken city. In 1692, a massive earthquake sent two thirds of Port Royal into the Caribbean Sea. Over the years, marine archaeologists have discovered thousands of valuable artefacts and ancient structures submerged in the harbour.
Directions: Beside the Bank of Jamaica building, the Jamaican Coat of Arms adorns the Jamaica Conference Centre, a fully modern facility serving as the headquarters of the International Seabed Authority. Passing the Conference Centre, continue south to Ocean Boulevard, a scenic roadway fronting Kingston Harbour, the seventh largest natural harbour in the world. Make a right on Ocean Boulevard and walk in a westerly direction. At the seaward end of the intersection with King Street, you will see an interesting statue, called “Negro Aroused.”
17. "NEGRO AROUSED" STATUE
An enlargement of the wooden original that sits proudly inside the National Gallery, this bronze sculpture by Edna Manley is a monument to the workers involved in the 1938 labour riots.
Directions: Continue walking west along Ocean Boulevard and turn after King Street onto Orange Street. There you will find the foremost repository of Jamaican Art – the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica (ACIJ).
18. NATIONAL GALLERY OF JAMAICA
The gallery’s breathtaking collection takes you on a magical journey through the development of Jamaican art, from its birth in the 1920s to the present. The works of Carl Abrahams, Cecil Baugh, John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Mallica "Kapo" Reynolds, Barrington Watson and other giants of Jamaican art are carefully displayed here. Spend some time exploring the gallery’s fascinating rooms.
Directions: The entrance to the ACIJ lies on the north side of the National Gallery building.
19. THE AFRICAN CARIBBEAN INSTITUTE OF JAMAICA
Founded in 1972, the African Caribbean Institute is a part of the Institute of Jamaica. The ACIJ started with the goal to “deepen the awareness of the contribution of African cultural retention”. In addition to a research centre, the ACIJ also has a museum of Jamaica’s African heritage, and offers artefacts and audiovisual displays for your perusal.