The first European settlement in Belize was begun by shipwrecked English seamen in 1638. Over the next 150 years, more English settlements were established starting at the mouth of the Belize River, and gradually extending inland. This period in Belize’s early modern history was one of piracy, slavery, indiscriminate logging, and sporadic attacks by the native Maya Indians defending their land. Both Spain and Britain lay claim to the land until Britain defeated the Spanish in a military skirmish known locally as the “battle” of St. George’s Cay (1798). The territory was declared a colony of Great Britain in 1840, known as British Honduras, and, thereafter became a Crown colony in 1862. Internal self-government was granted in January 1964. In 1973, the country changed its name to Belize. It threw off the British colonizers in 1981 when it became independent.
For those who want to tour historic Belize City, tour guides are available right outside the tourism village or via your hotel. As this is the heart of the old capital and still the country’s business and commercial center, visitors who want to walk the streets are encouraged to stay on Albert Street (southside of the Swing Bridge) and Queen Street (the continuation of Albert Street but north of the Swing Bridge). Recent challenges posed by the congestion caused by the influx of dozens of artisans and local competition for the tourists’ attention and sales has caused the City of Belize and the Tourism Board to step in to set up regulatory mechanisms to ensure both tourists and locals benefit without hassles.
Near the tourism village is the historic Baron Bliss Lighthouse, named after a famous benefactor whose death is commemorated in a national holiday on March 9th . Outside of the tourism village area, visitors can purchase handmade wood furniture made by the Mennonite community and many kinds of craft items from the National Handicraft Center, (adjacent to the tourism village) as well as from the vendors who congregate near the Belize Commercial Center.
At the foot of the swing Bridge is the Marine Terminal and Museum, where an interesting collection of Belize’s’ marine heritage is on display. Just across the bridge down past the business center is a landmark of the colonial period, the former Government House, now the Belize City House of Culture. It offers classes and seminars in activities like visual and performing arts, music, photography and ceramic art. A permanent exhibit consists of a Silverware and Glass Collection which features a wide variety of authentic silver pieces dating to late 17 th and early 18 th century, including Tureens, Teapots, Crystal Wine Glasses. There is also a Furniture Collection which features English domestic furniture of simple and complex design within the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Government House itself is an exhibit. Built in the early 1800’s, it is a combination of Caribbean Vernacular and English Urban architecture.
Just across from the House of Culture is St. John’s Cathedral where, between 1812 to 1824 several Mosquito Coast kings were crowned. This is the oldest Anglican Church in Central America . It was constructed of red brick brought as ballast from European sailing ships.
Also on the attractive Southern Foreshore, sits the recently renovated Bliss Institute, named, like the Bliss Lighthouse, after an English Baron who visited Belize, fell in love with the country, and willed his $2 million fortune in trust for the Belizean people. For years it housed the Belize Arts Council, library and a museum of Mayan artifacts taken from archeological sites. Its recent renovation sees its role as the primary performance arm of the Museum of Belize instead of the multi-purpose site it has traditionally been.
The government has made the restoration of Belize City , severely damaged by hurricanes in 1961 and 1978, a priority. It was Hurricane Hattie’s destruction in 1961 that led to the eventual relocation of the capital inland to Belmopan by the middle of the 1970’s. The recent spate of major hurricanes in 1998, 2000 and 2001 wrecked damage more to the district’s cayes and rural communities than it did to the city. The city has expanded into its outskirts over the past decade, and a number of suburb-type communities have emerged. The downtown business district houses most of the country’s attorneys, accountants and other professionals. Five major banks (Belize Bank, Atlantic Bank, Scotia Bank, Barclay’s Bank and Heritage Bank) offer a full panoply of local and international banking services.
Several beautiful old colonial mansions on the waterfront have been converted into guest houses. The city has many simple budget hotels, including the Mopan Hotel, located on Regent Street in the business district (the owners are great sources of information about anything Belizean, and go out of their way to assist travelers). The Bakadeer Inn, Grant’s Guest House, Chateau Caribbean Hotel and The Great House are other popular hotels. Expensive luxury hotels such as the Radisson Fort George, The Princess Hotel and Casino and the Belize Biltmore cater to international business travelers as well as tourists.