14 Top-Rated Attractions & Places to Visit in the US Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands are among the top tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Located in the Lesser Antilles, between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, this American territory includes about 50 islands and cays, the largest of which are St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. After a turbulent history, with many occupations, the islands reflect their Danish influence most prominently with some beautiful examples of Neoclassical Danish architecture. Natural beauty is another asset. Lush mountains, tropical forests, curving beaches, and rocky coves are sprinkled throughout all the islands, and the crystal clear waters and steady winds lure sailors and boaters, who like to anchor in the sheltered bays.
Each island exudes its own character. St. Thomas is the most visited of the islands and the gateway to the archipelago. Its main town, Charlotte Amalie, is the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands and a major cruise ship port, with plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. St. Croix, the largest of the three, is less tourism-driven than its sister islands. Top attractions here are the historic district of its largest town, Christiansted, as well as the sugar plantations, gardens, and coastal scenery on the Heritage Trail. St. Croix is also home to beautiful Buck Island Reef, the nation's first underwater monument.
Eco-travelers will find an oasis on St. John, where two-thirds of the island is designated as the Virgin Islands National Park. Hiking, diving, snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking, are popular things to do here.
1 Virgin Islands National Park, St. John
A Caribbean jewel, Virgin Islands National park attracts more than one million visitors each year, making it the single largest tourist attraction in the entire archipelago. Laurence Rockefeller donated 5,000 acres of land to establish the National Park in 1956. Today, the park covers two-thirds of the emerald island of St. John and includes hiking trails, protected bays, stunning beaches, underwater sea gardens, petroglyphs, and the ruins of historic sugar mills. The Reef Bay Guided Hike, one of St. John's most popular walking trails, is a great way to explore some of these attractions.
Nature lovers delight in the park's ecological diversity. More than 800 species of plants and 30 species of tropical birds are found within its borders. In addition to many coconut palms, sea grape, and bay rum trees, the park is home to the native night-blooming cereus, which attracts bats and moths with its vanilla scent. Other wildlife includes green iguanas, geckos, hawksbill turtles, and a diversity of marine life. Not surprisingly, the park's waters are excellent for swimming, diving, and snorkeling. Highlights include Watermelon Cay, Maho Bay, Caneel Bay, and Cinnamon Bay.
2 Trunk Bay Beach & Underwater Snorkel Trail, St. John
Nestled in the Virgin Islands National Park, Trunk Bay's long and arching curve of creamy sand and turquoise water is the most photographed beach on St. John. Fringed by sea grapes and coconut palms, this is one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. The Trunk Bay Underwater Snorkeling Trail lies just offshore from the spit of land jutting out into the bay. In the crystal clear waters here, you can spot up to 30 different species of fish. Underwater signposts label key features of the coral reef.
Address: 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John
3 Buck Island Reef National Monument, St. Croix
Beautiful Buck Island and its surrounding sea gardens are one of the most visited attractions on St. Croix. Lying 1.5 miles off the northeast coast of St. Croix, in the center of a vast marine sanctuary, Buck Island Reef was guaranteed protection when U.S. President John F. Kennedy named it the first U.S. underwater national monument in 1961. The reef here features elkhorn coral grottoes and is one of the best dive sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Along the marked trail, snorkelers and divers may spot many tropical fish such as blue tang and barracuda. Wreck dives are found off the north coast. Buck Island also offers protected beaches, picnic sites, and cooking grills as well as a hiking trail through a forest of giant tamarinds to the island's scenic ridge.
4 Magens Bay, St. Thomas
Fringed by green hills and coconut palms, Magens Bay has been named one of the world's most beautiful beaches by many travel publications. The sea is calm along the horseshoe-shaped bay and excellent for snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and other water sports. Also in the Magens Bay watershed, the Tropical Discovery Hike, leads participants through a 75-acre preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. This unique area includes diverse habitats, ranging from dry forest hilltops to mangrove wetlands with numerous native and migratory bird species. The two miles of well-maintained trail wind downhill under tree canopies to beautiful Magens Bay beach where hikers can cool off with a swim.
5 Cruz Bay, St. John
Set in a yacht-filled harbor backed by steep hills, Cruz Bay is the "downtown" of St. John. Until the 1970s, Cruz Bay was a quiet customs port without much activity. Today, the small town of around 3,000 people has evolved into a hip center, acquiring the nickname "Love City." Many options for shopping and dining are found among the pastel-colored houses dotting the hills on the outskirts of the village, and the town is a launching point for excursions to Virgin Islands National Park.
A worthwhile attraction in town is the Elaine Ione Sprauve Library & Museum housed in a restored plantation great house. The museum exhibits the history of St. John through displays of photographs, newspaper articles, and native Indian and colonial artifacts. Galleries display the work of local artists. Nearby lies beautiful Maho Bay and Hawksnest Beach, a popular snorkeling spot.
6 Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
The capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Charlotte Amalie (named for a Danish queen) is one of the most popular cruise ports in the Caribbean. Located mid-island on the south shore of St. Thomas, the town is sprinkled with pretty pastel, red-roofed homes against a backdrop of steep green hills. Apart from many restaurants and entertainment options, Charlotte Amalie also offers the largest number of boutiques and jewelry shops in the Caribbean, as well as several pretty beaches for swimming and snorkeling. Coral World Ocean Park is a top attraction here, and other highlights include Blackbeard's Castle; St. Thomas Synagogue; Emancipation Garden; the 99 steps; Government House; Frederick Lutheran Church; and Fort Christian, the island's oldest structure.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on St. Thomas
7 Coral World Ocean Park, St. Thomas
Coral World Ocean Park offers an interactive marine experience on the island of St. Thomas. The park features an underwater observatory, a tropical nature trail, the Marine Gardens Aquarium, and a huge glass-enclosed coral reef tank. Animal lovers can commune with turtles, sea lions, stingrays, and sharks, or hand feed colorful rainbow lorikeets. SNUBA is popular, and the park also offers a Nautilus semi-sub, parasailing, and a Sea Trek helmet dive, where guests walk along the floor of the Caribbean Sea. Wild iguanas also roam the park.
Address: 6450 Estate Smith Bay, Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas
8 Heritage Trail, St. Croix
The St. Croix Heritage Trail is a 72-mile self-guided driving tour of the island's historical and natural attractions. Road signs guide you along the route between Frederiksted and Christiansted, north to Hamm's Bay in the west and to Point Udall, the easternmost point in the United States. The Heritage Trail winds along the scenic coastline through tropical forests, cattle country, and historic seaport towns. This is a great way to independently experience some of St. Croix's most popular attractions, including the Estate Whim Plantation Museum, St. George Village Botanical Garden, and Fort Frederik.
9 Christiansted, St. Croix
St. Croix's largest town, Christiansted, lies on the north coast of the island between steep hills and a reef-protected, shallow harbor. At one point, the bustling port of Christiansted was the capital of the territory under Danish rule, and the attractive, six-block historic district reflects the glory days of Danish prosperity.
Designed using Norway's town of Christiania (now Oslo) as a model, the town features elegant pink and gold Neoclassical buildings and offers a broad range of accommodation, dining, and entertainment. A great start for a walking tour is the Christiansted National Historic Site encompassing five classic colonial buildings, including Fort Christiansvaern, Customs House, and the Steeple Building. Other city highlights include Apothecary Hall, Government House, and the beaches and watersports of Protestant Cay. Several cruise ships dock at Christiansted's harbor each week.
About five miles west of Christiansted, the Salt River Bay National Historic Park marks the only known point where Christopher Columbus landed on U.S. soil. It's now an ecological reserve and a popular place for kayak tours through the mangroves. About 15 miles southwest of Christiansted, the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge is also worth a visit, with a two-mile stretch of dazzling white-sand beach. The refuge protects leatherback sea turtles as well as many species of birds, but check opening times before you go as it is closed during turtle nesting season.
10 Frederik Lutheran Church, St. Thomas
Centuries of history lie within the walls of Frederick Lutheran Church in Charlotte Amalie. This architectural gem was built between 1789 and 1793 in the Georgian style. Restored twice in the 19th century, the church now features Gothic Revival elements such as a gable tower. The entrance to the church features a "welcoming arms" stairway (flaring at the base) typical of West Indian architecture. During the 19th century, the congregations of the church were segregated into West Indian and Danish groups.
Address: Norre Gade, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
11 Blackbeard's Castle, St. Thomas
At the top of the famous 99 steps, Blackbeard's Castle is a five-story masonry tower, and the only one of its kind in the Caribbean. Known during colonial times as Skytsborg, the watchtower was built by the Danish in 1678. Legends claim the tower was a lookout post for the pirate Blackbeard (Edward Teach) in the 18th century. Today, a popular hotel and restaurant are at the site, and you can enjoy beautiful views of St. Thomas Harbor and Charlotte Amalie from here.
Address: 1001 Blackbeard's Hill, Charlotte Amalie 00802, St. Thomas
12 99 Steps, St. Thomas
A relic from the mid-1700s, the 99 steps (actually 103 steps) were built during Danish colonial times out of ship-ballast brick. The 99 steps are one example of many staircases built on the steep hills of Charlotte Amalie. They lead up to Blackbeard's Castle, where you can enjoy wonderful views of the city.
13 Government House, St. Thomas
This three-story, hipped roof white mansion features two floors of cast-iron verandas. Built between 1865 and 1867, Government House was restored in 1994 and presently houses the offices of the territorial governor. The first and second floors of Government House are open to the public for touring, and you can see many paintings by local artists, including St. Thomas native Camille Pissarro.
Address: King St., Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
14 Emancipation Garden, St. Thomas
The Emancipation Garden is the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was read on July 3, 1848, freeing the slaves of St. Thomas. The event took place after officials received word that governor Peter von Scholten had freed the slaves on St. Croix. Today, the park features benches, a gazebo, and plenty of shade, and it's a good place to relax or catch occasional band concerts. The garden is converted into a Carnival Village during the festival in April. In the corner of the park sits a replica of the Philadelphia Liberty Bell.
Address: Between Tolbod Gade and Ft. Christian, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas