Belize City limits reach out to Mile 8 on the Western Highway and Mile 14 on the Northern Highway, at the Haulover Bridge that spans the mouth of the old Belize River where it disgorges into the Caribbean Sea. The city proper is split into two areas: North side Belize City, bounded by the Haulover Creek and ending in the east at the Fort George area, and Belize City South side, extending to the outskirts of the city to the Western Highway (now also known as the George Price Highway.
The Belize City north side is considered the safest and most prosperous area of this population center. Good hotels, a casino and the Museum of Belize – featured in our Top Ten Things To In Belize – are located in that zone as are the cruise ship and marine terminals. The southside has a couple of tourist attractions, namely historic St. John’s Cathedral and the House of Culture.
Four bridges starting from the west and going east, the new Chetumal Street Bridge opened in 2016 but as of this writing with unpaved road access (unofficially called the Dean Barrow Bridge), the BelCan (Belize-Canada), BelChina (Belize-China) and the original Belize City Swing bridge (the only functioning manually operated bridge in the world) join both sides of Belize City. Belize City’s coordinates are 17°15′ North longitude and 88°45′ West latitude. This city is the largest population center in the country with well over eighty thousand inhabitants sprawling over the delta formed by the Haulover Creek which branches off the Belize River. Belize City itself is no longer the nation’s capital, but remains the commercial capital and home to the largest sea port and airport in the country and location of the Belize Tourism Village where cruise ships dock. The city offers the visitor an eclectic combination of rustic, old-fashioned, run-down Caribbean charm and bustling modernity.
As a seaport the city built itself from the East inwards so most of the older colonial structures are near the coast. Efforts are underway to preserve several of these buildings such as the Supreme Court, Government House formerly the home of the British governor, and the oldest Anglican church in Central America St. John’s Cathedral. These impressive structures have survived hurricanes and other challenges such as city fires.
Driving in Belize City is an adventure on to itself as the streets were designed by the British colonizers for bicycles and mule and carts. Belize City unfortunately is emblematic of the crumbling infrastructure that peeps out from most of what is the Belize welcome mat. Potholes that can swallow small cars, poor or no drainage, missing or unreadable street signs and crime that has cops and paramilitary riding around on ATV’s chasing gangs is a common and accepted everyday part of city life. Starting in 2014 about 50% of the city streets were torn up and redone as concrete streets. Regretfully the streets were not widened, and lack of drainage means more floods when heavy rain showers come down.
The country’s most popular tourist resort town, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, is located in the Belize District as is the famous Mayan ruin of Altun Ha, the Belize Zoo and well-known wildlife sanctuaries. The Phillip Goldson International Airport is located ten miles from downtown in the neighboring village of Ladyville and several international airlines provide daily flights. The country’s largest municipal airport and water taxi connections to all major cayes are located downtown . Bus transportation is available hourly and half hourly during peak times to all districts.
Origins Of Belize City
The city itself originated as a logging camp and export center for mahogany in the 1600’s. After the Maya who were the original inhabitants, came British and Scottish Pirates who used the area’s many creeks and mangrove swamps as natural hiding out areas and a base from which to loot passing Spanish ships laden with treasure. Naturally, because it is the country’s largest urban area, one finds all cultural types and mixtures in the city – Creole, Garifuna, Latino, Chinese, Lebanese, Hindu and the original East Indian descendants and Maya.
One traveler had this to say as a first impression: “Belize is an amazing place. You cross the border into the first town Corozal and you see Creoles, Chinese, Latinos and Caucasians all speaking at least two languages, one usually Creole. I could pick up phrases and words here and there but it is far enough from standard English to be an entirely distinct language. Verb conjugations are non-existent, everything is abbreviated and accented very heavily and vernacular expressions are standard. “They even use words that we would consider diminutive in every day speech, like addressing each other as “boy”. And when they want to be polite and they want something from you, you are called “boss”. “Baad” means good, and “haaht” means “hard”. They abbreviate “And then I said.” to “An nen I seh”.
From its history as a pirate town and logging port, Belize City maintains much of its past architecture, narrow streets and rundown appearance. Dirty creeks and canals with mud walls criss-cross much of the city. Visitors may want to consider ahead of time that Belize City is by no means a Caribbean Paradise in terms of Cancun in Mexico or Freeport in the Bahamas. Although the city is perched on a delta that juts out into the magnificent Caribbean Sea – there are no beaches. See Belize City History.
The upside is that this is the busiest metropolitan area of the country. Trendy boutiques, restaurants, bars and nightclubs make for a good social scene and the best, but maybe not the safest, area to party and let your hair down. Most cultural and sports activities take place here including the biggest carnival parade every September during the Independence Day celebrations.
A Walkabout Downtown
First impressions of Belize City for the day visitor can lead to something of a culture shock. Most of the commercial activity is centered around the Swing Bridge in the main downtown area. This old bridge joins North Front Street in the North Side to Albert and Queen Streets on the South Side. North Front Street runs parallel to the Haulover Creek and is intersected by Queen Street. Day visitors, especially those arriving by cruise ship exit the Tourism Village into the eastern end of North Street, then walk west up this street heading to the Swing Bridge. Walking along this area takes you through one of the oldest areas of the city – you will see many poorly maintained colonial era clapboard style buildings mixed in with newer concrete buildings. Belize City, to put it mildly, is a run down city with concrete streets with no drainage, many potholes, seedy areas and nothing much to see. The government has recently launched a program to tidy up the areas tourists are more likely to see, including the area around the Tourism Village.
Street hawkers selling anything from handmade jewelry, wood carvings and tourist knickknacks are very active in this area to the point of being bothersome. Simply telling them “No Thanks” in a firm and polite manner a couple of times will hold you in good stead. During the day, and especially when cruise ships are in port, police officers are very visible and looking out for the well-being of tourists. The city is not for everyone. But is does offer an interesting if gritty look at an old city that today remains the main population center and commercial hub of Belize.
The water taxi terminal, formerly the city’s main fire station, is at the corner of North Front Street and the Swing Bridge. You take a left and stroll over this bridge and unto Albert Street the busy downtown area full of banks, shops , hardware stores and a run down market featuring pawn shops, jewelry shops, music CDs, (but a nice restaurant with cheap and hearty food is upstairs). There is a big supermarket Brodies on Albert Street where you can buy most anything a modern supermarket offers. You can also find a few Belizean owned stores selling electronic gadgets (Venus Store is a good outlet), fast food, juices, ice cream and other sundries.
Walking to the end of Albert Street Street takes you to St. John’s Cathedral on your left. You can continue walking and swing left at the cathedral and you are then on Regent Street and heading back up towards the Swing Bridge. Regent Street has nothing much to offer except for the House Of Culture (formerly the residence of the British Governor, the offices of the Belize Tourist Board, a bank, law firms, and the hardware section of Brodies. For most day visitors this will be the extent of their view of Belize City.
Short commuter flights and water-taxi rides take visitors out to the cayes and atolls. By plane, 15 minutes to Ambergris Caye or 10 minutes to Caye Caulker gets a traveler nearly out to the reef. By boat, 15 minutes transports a day-tripper to Swallow Caye to see the gentle manatees. A snorkel or dive trip to St. George’s Caye — in 1798 the site of a famous battleground, but now the site of vacation homes — is only 20 minutes by boat. Reach Goff’s Caye, right on the reef for snorkeling and manatee watching, in just 30 minutes.
South of Goff’s Caye, the secluded Rendezvous Caye makes a great spot for snorkeling. Lighthouse Reef Atoll, site of the famous Blue Hole, and Turneffe Islands Atoll both sit out beyond the reef, a short trip from Belize City through mostly protected waters. Tour operators provide day and night snorkeling, diving, sea kayaking, sailing, and fishing excursions.