Belize City, Central America
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.