Belize City is more of a town than a city—few of the ramshackle buildings here are taller than a palm tree, and the official population within the city limits is barely over 50,000, though the metro population is near 90,000. Not far beyond the city center, streets give way to two-lane country roads where animals outnumber people. Any dining room downtown could leave the impression that everybody knows everybody else in this town, and certainly among the elite who can afford to dine out, that's probably true. On a map Belize City appears to be an ideal base for exploring the central part of the country—it's two hours or less by car to San Ignacio, Corozal Town, Dangriga, and even less to Altun Ha, Belmopan, and the Belize Zoo. Although you can sometimes spot manatees and porpoises in the harbor, and birding around the city is surprisingly good, this is not the wild rain forest visitors come to see. There are good restaurants, including the best Chinese and Indian food in the country, a vibrant arts community, nice residential areas, a number of pleasant hotels... Belize City offers the most varied shopping in the country, and it's the only place to find sizeable supermarkets, department stores, and the Belizean version of big box stores. There is always some little treasure to be discovered in the wide range of shops. All in all, it's far more interesting than any modern mall. Belize City also has an easygoing sociability. People meet on the street, talk, joke, laugh, and debate. In the shops, the locals also tend to be friendly, polite, and helpful. If you haven't spent time in Belize City, you simply won't understand Belize. Belize City is the commercial, social, sports, and cultural hub zof the country. It's even the political hub, despite the fact that the capital, Belmopan, is an hour west. The current prime minister, Dean Barrow, a lawyer who came to power in 2008, former prime ministers including Said Musa, many of the other ministers, and nearly all of the country's movers and shakers live in or near Belize City. One longtime Belize resident says that despite its problems she enjoys making day trips to the city and always encourages visitors to spend some time there: "Being a landlubber, I enjoy the boats, seabirds, and smell of the salt air, and of course the Swing Bridge, watching the fishermen on fishing boats sell their fish, and seeing what fish and sea creatures are for sale in the market. When I first came here I was amazed at the fish and meat stalls, at how they were out in the open, and weren't refrigerated like back home. I think it's good for tourists to see that there are other ways of living than what they are used to. Isn't that the point of traveling?"
Belize City is defined by the water around it. The main part of the city is at the end of a small peninsula, jutting out into the Caribbean Sea. Haulover Creek, an extension of the Belize River, running roughly west to east, divides the city into the North Side and the South Side. The North Side is, to generalize, more affluent than the South Side. The venerable Swing Bridge connects the two sides, although in modern times other bridges over Haulover Creek, especially the Belcan Bridge northwest of the city center, carry more traffic. At the mouth of the river, just beyond Swing Bridge, is the Belize Harbor (or Harbour, as it's written locally, in the English style). Coming from the north, follow the Goldson Highway through several roundabouts (traffic circles) to Freetown Road and Barracks Road to reach the center. Alternatively, you can swing west on Princess Margaret Drive to Barracks Road, along the seafront. From the west, the Western Highway becomes Cemetery Road, which leads you to the center via the South Side and Orange Street.
Though most restaurants here cater to locals, their number and quality rival those of tourist magnet San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. The city has inexpensive dives serving "dollah chicken" (fried chicken, a local favorite, though it no longer costs just a Belize dollar), Chinese joints of 1950s vintage specializing in chow mein, and lunch spots for downtown office workers seeking Creole dishes such as cow-foot soup and rice and beans. Belize City also has upmarket restaurants serving the city's affluent elite. Only a couple of these are "dressy" (by Belize standards, this means a nice collared shirt for men and perhaps a long tropical dress for women), and reservations are rarely necessary.
A few restaurants around the Tourism Village target cruise-ship passengers, typically for lunch and drinks, but the one thing you won't find here are chain restaurants.
Often packed with locals, Nerie's is the vox populi of dining in Belize City. The many traditional dishes on the menu include fry jacks for breakfast and cow-foot soup for lunch. Stew chicken with rice and beans and a soft drink will set you back only about BZ$11.
Owned and managed by the Bowen (Belikin beer) family, Riverside Tavern is one of the city's most popular and agreeable restaurants, with dependably good food, friendly service, and safe parking. The signature hamburgers, which come in several sizes from 6 oz. to enormous, are arguably the best in Belize. The Riverside has steak and prime rib dishes, from cattle from the Bowen farm at Gallon Jug. Sit inside in air-conditioned comfort, at tables set around a huge bar, or on the outside covered patio overlooking Haulover Creek. This is one of the few restaurants in Belize with a dress code—shorts aren't allowed at night. The fenced, guarded parking lot right in front of the restaurant makes it easy and safe to park for free.
Belize City has the country's largest hotels, though size is relative in Belize. The Radisson, Princess, and Biltmore Plaza each have 75 or more rooms and strive, not always successfully, for an international standard. The city also has its share of small inns and B&Bs with character, such as the Great House, D'Nest Inn, and Villa Boscardi. Although easy on the pocketbook, the city's
budget hotels frequently have thin, inexpensive mattresses and scratchy sheets, and amenities such as room phones may be scarce. In Belize City safety is an issue, especially at the cheaper hotels, so be sure to check that doors and windows securely lock and that the entrance is well lighted. In the downtown areas, don't walk around after dark, even in groups; always take a taxi.
Several of the city's best hotels are in the Fort George area, but there are also good choices in the northern suburbs between downtown and the international airport. The Commercial District on the South Side (south of Swing Bridge) has a number of budget hotels.
Travelers who like to use their vacations to catch up on their nightlife rather than sleep will find Belize City's scene limited at best. Although locals love to party, safety concerns keep visitors away from most nightspots except hotel bars, such as the bar at the Radisson Fort George. After dark, take a taxi, or, if driving, park in a fenced and secured lot, such as at the Riverside Tavern.
Karaoke is a craze among many Belizeans. A hugely popular, locally produced karaoke television show, Karaoke TV, has been running on Channel 5 in Belize City since 2001. Most of the hotel bars have karaoke nights once or twice a week. Even in Belize you'll hear tried-and-true karaoke favorites such as "Crazy" by Patsy Cline and lots of Elvis and vintage Sonny and Cher, and you'll also hear songs like "Bidi Bidi Bam Bam" by Selena and "Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston. Singers may go from country to Motown and hip-hop to funk and R&B to reggae, ska, and Latin soca. Belizean taste in music is nothing if not eclectic. At live music shows and clubs in Belize City you can hear an equally diverse mix of music, although rap in all its variations is as popular in Belize City as in Los Angeles.
One uniquely Belizean style of music is punta rock. It's based on the traditional punta rhythms of the Garífuna, using drums, turtle shells, and rattles. In the late 1970s Pen Cayetano, a Garífuna artist in Dangriga, began writing punta songs, updating the music with an electric guitar, keyboard, and other electronic instruments. (Cayetano now lives in Germany, although he visits Belize regularly.) Punta rock, earthy and sexy, swept Belize and later became popular in other Central American countries, a result of the export of the music by the likes of Andy Palacio, "the ambassador of punta rock," who died unexpectedly at the peak of his career in early 2008.
Belize City has the most varied shopping in the country. Rather than catering to leisure shoppers, most stores in Belize City cater to the local market and those from other parts of the country who need to stock up on supplies at lumberyards, home-building stores, appliance outlets, and supermarkets. Gift shops and handicraft shops are concentrated in the downtown area in and near the Tourism Village.
About a dozen cruise ships per week call on Belize City, and each time the Tourism Village shops open their doors. Wednesday is usually the biggest day of the week for cruise ships in Belize City, often with three to five in port, and Saturday is another popular day. Rarely is there a ship in port on Sunday.
Most stores in the downtown area are open Monday through Saturday from around 8 am to 6 pm. On Sunday, nearly all stores downtown are dark, although some stores in the suburbs are open Sunday afternoon.
The Queen's Square Market, with fruit, vegetable, and other food vendors, just south of the Novelo's bus terminal on West Collet Canal Street, has been renovated and also goes by the name of Michael Finnegan’s Market, after a local politician.
Belizean Handicraft Market Place
Belizean Handicraft Market Place (formerly National Handicraft Center) has Belizean souvenir items, including hand-carved figurines, handmade furniture, pottery, and woven baskets. The prices are about as good as you'll find anywhere in Belize, and the sales clerks are friendly. It faces the small Memorial Park, which commemorates the Battle of St. George's Caye and is just a short stroll from the harbor front, the Tourism Village, and many of the hotels in the Fort George area, including the Radisson, Chateau Caribbean, and The Great House.
Turn a sharp corner on the jungle trail, and suddenly you're face-to-face with a jaguar, the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere. The big cat growls a deep rumbling threat. You jump back, thankful that a strong but inconspicuous fence separates you and the jaguar.Plan for about 2 hours to see the zoo. Along with jaguars you'll see the country's four other wild cats: the puma, margay, ocelot, and jaguarundi. Perhaps the zoo's most famous resident is April, a Baird's tapir that is more than a quarter-century old. This relative of the horse and rhino is known to locals as the mountain cow, and is also Belize's national animal. At the zoo you'll also see jabiru storks, a harpy eagle, scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, crocodiles, and many snakes, including the fer-de-lance.The zoo owes its existence to the dedication and drive of one gutsy woman, Sharon Matola. An American who came to Belize as part of a film crew, Matola stayed on to care for some of the semi-tame animals used in the production. She opened the zoo in 1983, and in 1991 it moved to its present location. She's also an active environmentalist. "The Zoo Lady" and her crusade against the Chalillo Dam is the subject of the 2008 book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight To Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird by Outside magazine writer Bruce Barcott.Besides touring the zoo, you can stay overnight at the Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge and hike or canoe through the 84-acre Tropical Education Center.
Community Baboon Sanctuary
Spanning a 20-mi (32-km) stretch of the Belize River, the reserve was established in 1985 by a group of local farmers. The howler monkeyâ€”an agile bundle of black fur with a disturbing roarâ€”was then zealously hunted throughout Central America and was facing extinction. Today the sanctuary is home, on some 200 private properties, to more than 2,000 black howler monkeys, as well as numerous species of birds and mammals. Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts countrywide, you can see the howler monkeys in a number of other areas, including at Lamanai in northern Belize, along the Macal, Mopan, and Belize rivers in western Belize, near Monkey River and around Punta Gorda in southern Belize. Exploring the Community Baboon Sanctuary is easy, thanks to about 3 mi (5 km) of trails that start near a small museum and visitor center.