Dutch settlers came here in the 1630s, about the same time they sailed through the Verrazano Narrows to Manhattan, bringing with them original red-tile roofs, first used on the trade ships as ballast and later incorporated into the architecture of Willemstad. Much of the original colonial structures remain, but this historic city is constantly reinventing itself and the government monument foundation is always busy restoring buildings in one urban neighborhood or another. The salty air causes what is called "wall cancer," resulting in the ancient abodes continually crumbling over time. The city is cut in two by Santa Anna Bay. On one side is Punda (the point)—crammed with shops, restaurants, monuments, and markets and a new museum retracing its colorful history. And on the other side is Otrobanda (literally meaning the "other side"), with lots of narrow, winding streets and alleyways (called "steekjes" in Dutch), full of private homes notable for their picturesque gables and Dutch-influenced designs. In recent years the ongoing regeneration of Otrobanda has been apparent, marked by a surge in development of new hotels, restaurants, and shops; the rebirth, concentrated near the waterfront, was spearheaded by the creation of the elaborate Kura Hulanda complex. The old districts of Pietermaai and Scharloo are also being revitalized with restored mansions and new dining, lodging, and entertainment options.
There are three ways to cross the bay: by car over the Juliana Bridge; by foot over the Queen Emma pontoon bridge (locally called "the Swinging Old Lady"); or by free ferry, which runs when the pontoon bridge is swung open for passing ships. All the major hotels outside town offer free shuttle service to town once or twice daily. Shuttles coming from the Otrobanda side leave you at Riffort. From here it's a short walk north to the foot of the pontoon bridge. Shuttles coming from the Punda side leave you near the main entrance to Ft. Amsterdam.