The best things to see and do in Paramaribo

14/01/2020 10:05

Written by Philip Briggs

If you're visiting Suriname, Paramaribo will likely be your point of entry. But don't think of it as just a place to pass through – this safe, charming and fascinating city is rich in both history and character, renowned for its gorgeous Dutch-Creole architecture and colourful vibe.  

Paramaribo, Suriname, Independence Square R.A.R. de Bruijn Holding BV, Shutterstock Paramaribo's Independence Square is the centrepoint of the city © R.A.R. de Bruijn Holding BV, Shutterstock

Paramaribo’s main attraction is the old inner city, which is liberally scattered with pre-20th-century architectural gems, including Fort Zeelandia, the magnificent wooden Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, and dozens of old colonial homesteads. For those with limited time, it is worth dedicating at least half a day to Fort Zeelandia (which also houses the Suriname Museum) and its immediate environs, although a full day is required to explore the old city centre more thoroughly.

Further afield, popular goals for day excursions, all easily visited using public transport or on foot or by bicycle, include Paramaribo Zoo, Weg-na-Zee and the Neotropical Butterfly Park at Lelydorp, as well as several sites around nearby Commewijne. Also worth highlighting are the popular dolphin sunset cruises that explore the waters around the confluence of the Suriname and Commewijne rivers. Whatever your time constraints, these are the capital's highlights.

Fort Zeelandia

The oldest building in Paramaribo, Fort Zeelandia stands sentinel on the west bank of the Suriname River in the heart of the old city centre opposite Independence Square and the Palm Garden. Set on a shingle reef that stands 5m above the river at low tide, the fort started life in 1640 as a simple stockade built to protect a small French trading centre, and it was greatly expanded in the 1650s after the site was captured by Baron Willoughby. In 1667, Fort Willoughby was itself captured by the Dutch commander Abraham Crijnssen, who renamed the fort after his home country of Zeeland. 

The fort took its modern shape under the direction of Crijnssen, who built the outer walls and five bastions using red bricks and tiles imported as ballast by mercantile ships from Europe. Fort Zeelandia changed hands several times over subsequent decades, but its military importance diminished after 1747, following the completion of Fort Nieuw Amsterdam further downstream, and the two landward bastions were demolished. A second storey was added in 1784, and the fort still served as a garrison for most of the 19th century.

Fort Zeelandia Suriname by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Fort Zeelandia opened as the Suriname Museum in 1972, with excellent collections of pre-Columbian and Amerindian artefacts © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

Between 1872 and 1967, the inner fort was used as a prison. Following extensive restoration work, it opened as the Suriname Museum in 1972. However, in the wake of the 1980 Sergeants’ Coup, the fort was seconded to the military and was used as Dési Bouterse’s headquarters, under whose tenancy it witnessed the notorious ‘Decembermoorden’ (December Murders) of 1982. The fort was vacated by Bouterse and his soldiers in the late 1980s, and reopened as the country’s pre-eminent museum in 1995.

Allow at least 1 hour, or better 2, to explore the museum thoroughly. Ground-floor displays include a replica of a 19th-century apothecary, a section on the early days of the fort, and a collection of Marron artefacts demonstrating the pervasive influence of their African origins. The undoubted highlights, however, are the superb first-floor collections of pre-Columbian and Amerindian artefacts accessed from Bastion Middelburg.

These displays include a unique pre-Columbian ceremonial stone mask unearthed near Albina in 2000, a collection of four intact pre-Columbian stone axes dredged from various sites along the Suriname and Marowijne rivers, several rainbow-coloured feather headdresses, as well as ceremonial drums, neatly sculpted jars, clay figurines, and stone arrowheads and other tools.

Also on the upper floor, the Bastion Veere National Monument, unveiled in 2009, incorporates a plaque commemorating the 15 victims of the 1982 ‘Decembermoorden’ and there are several bullet holes dating back to the day of the executions.

Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral 

Paramaribo’s most distinctive architectural landmark – and the city’s one genuine architectural ‘must see’ – is the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul, which has stood opposite the old Pastorie since the 1880s. Reputedly the largest wooden building in the western hemisphere, the cruciform cathedral has a capacity of 15,500m3 and can hold around 900 people, while its neo-Gothic twin spires, standing 44m high, are visible from several vantage points on surrounding streets.

Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral Paramaribo Suriname by Ariadne Van ZandbergenThis is reputedly the largest wooden building in the western hemisphere © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

The outside of the building is painted pastel yellow and grey, but the unpainted cedar interior exploits the natural grains and patterns of the wood to impressive effect, and is also embellished with carved capitals, gates and doors.

The west tower contains three 19th-century bells called Alphonsus, Rosa and Johannes, the largest of which weighs 375kg, and all three of which toll on Sundays and church holidays. Also dating to the late 19th century, the German-made pipe organ originally comprised 1,550 pipes, many of which have been stolen over the years.

Independence Square

Known as Government or Orange Square prior to 1975, Independence Square is a large grassy rectangle formerly used as a parade ground but now best known as the sometime site of the city’s regular Sunday morning songbird competitions.

Landmarks on the open square include the forest of flagpoles at its eastern end, the so-called Wilhelmina Boom (‘tree’) planted in 1898 when its namesake ascended to the Dutch throne, and statues of two late politicians: Prime Minister Johan Pengel and the Hindu leader Jagernath Lachmon (the latter officially recognised as the world’s longest-serving parliamentarian when he died in 2001, having first been elected in 1949). 

Presidential Palace Paramaribo Suriname by Marcel Bakker, ShutterstockThe Presidential Palace is the most striking building on the square © Marcel Bakker, Shutterstock

The most important building on the square is the Presidential Palace (formerly the Governor’s Palace), a massive three-storey structure with a tiled slate roof, whitewashed exterior and wide ground-floor veranda hemmed in by more than a dozen Corinthian arches.

The oldest part of the mansion was constructed in 1685 as the residence of Governor van Sommelsdijck, but it was greatly expanded under Governor-General Karel Cheusses in 1730, and has since undergone several further renovations. Although the palace is closed to visitors, its imposing façade – adorned with the coat of arms of the 18th-century Geoctrooieerde Sociëteit van Suriname – can be seen clearly from Independence Square.

Keizer Straat Mosque

An oft-vaunted example of Suriname’s dedication to religious tolerance is the fact that the capital’s only extant synagogue and its largest mosque stand adjacent to each other on Keizer Straat.

Keizer Straat Mosque Paramaribo Suriname by Ariadne Van Zandbergen The Keizer Straat Mosque in Paramaribo is the largest building of its type in the Caribbean ©  Ariadne Van Zandbergen 

The headquarters of the Surinaamse Islamitische Vereeniging (Surinamese Islamic Society), the current Keizer Straat Mosque, was inaugurated on 27 July 1984, and is a modern, rectangular, two-storey building with numerous arches along the sides and an additional four-storey minaret on each of its four corners.

Reputedly the largest mosque in the Caribbean, its construction necessitated the demolition of a more modest but characterful wooden mosque, with two domed minarets, built in 1932.

Neveh Shalom Synagogue

Continue along Malebatrum Straat to the T-junction with Keizer Straat, and a right turn will bring you to the Neveh Shalom (‘Oasis of Peace’) Synagogue at 82 Keizer Straat. This large plot was bought by Sephardic Jews of Portuguese origin in 1716, and the first synagogue was built here in 1717–23 to replace its predecessor further upriver at Jodensavanne.

In 1735, the plot was sold to the Ashkenazic (German Jewish) community, who built the current synagogue – a magnificent wooden construction along clean neoclassical lines – in the 1830s. Since 1999, the small Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, numbering around 500 people in total, have both used Neveh Shalom as their primary place of worship. The synagogue contains several centuries-old Torahs, and the Holy Ark, dais and benches are all beautifully crafted from wood.

Neveh Shalom Synagogue Paramaribo Suriname by rar_de_bruijn_holding, ShutterstockThis was the first synagogue to be built in the city © rar_de_bruijn_holding, Shutterstock

A unique feature of the building is its sandy floor, which commemorates not only the Hebrews’ 40-year desert sojourn after their exodus from Egypt, but also the grim days of the Spanish Inquisition, when many Sephardic Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity continued to hold Judaic services in cellars where the floors were covered in sand to muffle the prayers.

The large neat grounds of Neveh Shalom house a ritual bath dating to 1830, as well as a collection of several hundred 18th-century gravestones relocated from a disused Sephardic cemetery on Kwatta Weg. Services are held at 19.00 on the first and third Friday of the month and at 08.30 on the second and fourth Saturday. Entrance during services is at the back of the building on Wagenweg Straat.

Surinaamsch Rumhuis

Surinaamsch Rumhuis rum Paramaribo Suriname by Ariadne Van Zandbergen

The Surinaamsch Rumhuis has several interesting displays about the history of rum production in the country Paramaribo Suriname © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

This small museum next to the Eco Torarica is operated by Suriname Alcoholic Beverages (SAB), the national rum producer founded in 1966 and responsible for the ubiquitous Black Cat and Borgoe brands, both of which have won several international awards.

The museum has several interesting displays about the history of rum production in Suriname, as well as a collection of old labels, and a tasting room and gift shop selling various SAB products.

Guided tours of the museum are free, or you can just nose around on your own, if you prefer. Also on offer are ‘Grand Tours’ of the factory, ‘Discover the Difference’ tasting sessions and ‘Mixology’ cocktail-making sessions.

‘Grand Tours’ should ideally be booked in advance, and long trousers and closed shoes are advised for safety reasons; but tasting and cocktail making can usually be held without advance notice.

Weg-na-Zee

As indicated by its fabulously prosaic name, Weg-na-Zee (‘Road-to-Sea’) offers the closest direct access to the open ocean from central Paramaribo, though it should be said that its Atlantic shoreline of stark tidal mudflats lapped by murky shallow water is unlikely to attract too many sun-worshippers or bathers. 

Tirat Sthaan Temple Paramaribo Suriname by Ariadne Van Zandbergen In the suburb of Weg-na-Zee, the Tirat Sthaan Rameswarem Temple is one of the country’s largest Hindu shrines Suriname © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

The main attraction of this small suburb, which lies about 15km northwest of the city centre, is the Tirat Sthaan Rameswarem Temple, one of the country’s largest Hindu shrines, built in 1968 and set in green gardens adorned with dozens of colourful statues of deities, some of which stand more than 10m tall.

Visitors are also welcome at the country’s largest Hindu crematorium, which lies about 2km from the temple. Cremations are usually held at 14.00 on weekdays, and ashes are collected by the relatives and scattered over the ocean the next morning.

The Palm Garden 

The only park in central Paramaribo, the 4ha Palmentuin is also, according to local tradition, the site of the original Amerindian village bordering Paremuru Creek (now Sommelsdijck Canal). In the 1680s, Governor van Sommelsdijck developed the site as a fruit and vegetable garden to help feed the troops stationed at the facing Fort Zeelandia.

Palm Garden Paramaribo Suriname by Marcel Bakker, ShutterstockThis 4ha garden makes a pleasant escape from the city © Marcel Bakker, Shutterstock

It is thought that the first of the tall Roystonea oleracea palms that now dominate the garden were planted by him. During the 18th century, the garden was developed as a general service area for the nearby Governor’s Palace, and it incorporated several warehouses, two long rows of cramped slaves’ quarters, as well as a small working garden.

Following the abolition of slavery, it was transformed into a primarily recreational area in the late 19th century, with the southwest section remaining a private extension of the governor’s garden, and the northeast section being set aside as a public park.

Markets

As much a cultural experience as a place to go shopping, the labyrinthine Central Market on the Waterkant spans two storeys and is home to more than 3,000 permanent stalls. The market is divided into several different sections, with meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, Javan and Indian spices and herbs, household items and hardware dominating the ground floor, whereas the first floor is stacked high with clothes, fabrics and the like.

Flower market Paramaribo Suriname by Ariadne Van ZandbergenThe Flower Market is popular with tourists © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

A separate entrance to the west of the main market leads to the fascinating Marron Market, which specialises in traditional remedies and has a very African feel. The other central market often frequented by tourists is the Kleine Water Straat Flower Market in front of the Royal Torarica Hotel, where there are also a couple of craft stalls.


Learn more about Paramaribo in our comprehensive guide: 

Suriname the Bradt Guide by Philip Briggs

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