Jamaica is its own ting, man, unlike any other place. Be it the creativity of its arts scene, the mouthwatering cuisine or the culture that birthed reggae music, Jamaica lives up to the hype as one of the most popular Caribbean destinations.
The 14 unique parishes encourage a slower type of travel and this is one of the many reasons why many visitors find themselves coming back over and over again. From the lush greenery of the Blue Lagoon and the stunning beaches to the lively nightlife scene, here are the best places to visit on the third-largest island in the Caribbean.
1. Portland and Blue Mountain
Best place for hiking
The Portland parish has Jamaica’s longest coastline, more than 75 caves and an abundance of tropical vegetation as far as the eye can see, including banana, coconut and breadfruit trees.
The highest of the highlights, rising to more than 2256m (7401ft), is Blue Mountain Peak. You may groan when the alarm goes off but it's worth making the effort to take a predawn hike to its summit for a sunrise view – on a clear day you can see as far as Cuba.
Planning tip: It's best to visit between January and April if hiking will be a fixture of your vacation – the weather is drier and less prone to storms.
2. Blue Lagoon
Best place for a freshwater dip
Captured in the 1990 movie of the same name, the Blue Lagoon is one of Jamaica's most beautiful locations – a 55m-deep (180ft) extinct volcano surrounded by greenery.
You'll get a refreshing rush from where the cool freshwater springs meet the warm seawater. This combination of waters also results in stunning color changes through varying shades of green throughout the day.
3. Reach Falls
Best place to enjoy waterfalls
If you love waterfalls, the eastern part of Port Antonio is a must-see destination on your Jamaica trip – four of them await you here. The best of the bunch is Reach Falls, with its underwater caves, a heart-shaped "jacuzzi" (where smaller waterfalls have carved out a heart-shaped space for sitting and letting the cascade massage your shoulders), mountain views and beautiful vegetation.
Water tumbles over limestone tiers from one hollowed, jade-colored pool into the next. It’s possible to walk, wade and swim your way up to the edge of the falls by an unmarked jungle path someway below the main entrance.
Planning tip: If you want to climb to the top of the falls, bring climbing shoes and hire a guide on-site to ensure you don't miss anything along the way.
4. Frenchman's Cove
Best place to enjoy tropical scenery
Located just east of Drapers near Port Antonio, Frenchman's Cove is where water from the Blue Mountains flows into the Caribbean Sea.
The sea and river combo is magical, made more dramatic with the canopy of tropical greenery and white-sand beach. The area is owned by Frenchman's Cove Resort, which means there are decent amenities like snack bars, alfresco showers and boat tours.
5. Dunn's River Falls and Park
Best place to enjoy a natural wonder
This natural wonder is 55m (180ft) high and 182m (597ft) long. At the base of the falls is a white-sand beach that attracts large groups of people at peak hours, but the crowds don't make the climb up any less exhilarating.
Clamber up great tiers of limestone that step down in a series of beautiful cascades and pools. The water is refreshingly cool, with everything shaded by tall rainforest.
6. Spanish Town
Best place for history buffs
As the oldest continuously inhabited city in Jamaica, Spanish Town is steeped in history, but it’s also got a foot in the here and now as home to a pair of Jamaica’s hottest reggae artists, Koffee and Chronixx.
Spanish Town dates back to 1534 and was the island’s capital until 1872 when that distinction went to Kingston. History enthusiasts will be able to visit Emancipation Square (also known as Parade), which features the town's oldest buildings.
St Jago de la Vega Cathedral is the oldest Anglican cathedral in the Caribbean (built in 1714), and it stands on one of the first Spanish cathedrals in the Americas – the Chapel of the Red Cross, built in 1525.
The Old Iron Bridge is a narrow cast-iron structure erected in 1801 with a cut-stone foundation that dates back to 1675. It is the oldest iron bridge of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
7. Doctor's Cave Beach
Best place to hang with locals
Located in Jamaica’s third-biggest city, Montego Bay, the beloved Doctor’s Cave Beach with its turquoise waters, is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.
The history of this beach and its unique name dates back to 1906 when an English chiropractor – Sir Herbert Barker – claimed the waters had healing properties.
Word spread quickly, and soon the beach was filled with people searching for natural healing. Though there's no proof of his claim, this beautiful beach will certainly leave you feeling restored after a day of relaxation.
Planning tip: There is a cover charge of US$8 per adult (US$4 for kids) but this ensures the beach is kept pristine and you have lots of facilities at hand, including showers, toilets, restaurants and bars, as well as beach chairs and umbrellas to rent.
Best place for beach bums
The chill award goes to Negril. The sunsets and Seven Mile Beach are legendary, as are the cliffs overlooking the sea. This is an antidote for just about anything. Scuba diving and snorkeling along colorful coral reefs top the must-do list, along with horseback rides on the beach.
As much as Negril is about serenity, it’s far from boring. The nightlife can spill well into the daytime and there are cool spots like Rick’s Cafe, with its creative cocktails and cliffside jumping, and Rockhouse Restaurant, which sits on the edge of a cliff.
9. Blue Mountains-John Crow National Park
Best place to enjoy the outdoors
Located in the island's capital, the Blue Mountains-John Crow National Park is over 42,000 hectares (over 100,000 acres) of lush, sprawling rainforest and is home to a host of flora and fauna. The park, which is managed by Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT), stretches across four parishes and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Planning tip: If you're keen to have a longer visit, book one of the on-site cabins and wake up surrounded by the noises of the rainforest.
10. Port Royal
Best place for scuba diving
In the 17th century, Port Royal was all about sex, money and booze and was known as “the wickedest city on earth.” Pirates reigned supreme, including Sir Henry Morgan, Calico Jack and Blackbeard Teach. In 1692 an earthquake toppled sections of Port Royal into the sea.
The remains, located 12m (39ft) below the surface at the mouth of Kingston Harbour, form one of the best-conserved underwater heritage sites – organize a trip through a licensed dive operator.
For those wanting to stay dry, learn about the city’s rich history at Fort Charles, the Maritime Museum, and St Peter’s Church, built in 1725.
11. Trench Town, Kingston
Best place for reggae music fans
In the 1940s, the government’s Central Housing Authority started a public housing project on land called Trench Pen and constructed government yards/tenements, giving the area its name, Trench Town.
It is touted as the birthplace of reggae music: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer had roots here, and greatness sprouted from humble beginnings.
For a step back in time, visit the Trench Town Culture Yard, once home to Marley and community leader Vincent “Tata” Ford, who taught Marley to play the guitar. Marley songs like “No Woman No Cry” and “Natty Dread” tell the story of life there.
The restored buildings house a small museum that shares the history through articles, instruments and furnishings used by Ford, Marley, Tosh and Wailer.
12. Bob Marley Museum, Kingston
Best place to celebrate a legend
One stop that tops almost everyone’s list is the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston. The rooms have been kept as they were when the legendary reggae artist lived there.
Stroll down memory lane looking at his recording studio, favorite clothing, gold and platinum records, and more. It's a popular attraction and booking your tickets in advance is advisable.