If you’ve landed on the idyllic shores of St Thomas, chances are you plan to spend a good chunk of your trip at the beach.
Yet with its storied history, rich culture and wild nature, there’s much more to do on this island than simply eat, beach, sleep and repeat (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that). Here are 15 ways to make the most out of a trip to the beating heart of the US Virgin Islands (USVI): our picks for the best things to do in St Thomas.
Shop on Main Street in Charlotte Amalie
Charlotte Amalie is one of the busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean and its shops, tucked among colorful Danish colonial buildings on Main St, are a top draw. Most visitors head to places like AH Riise, which sells duty-free watches, jewelry, tobacco and liquor, but there are some more unusual spots that are likely better worth your time. Among the best is the Camille Pissarro Gallery, located in the childhood home of the famed Danish-French Impressionist. On display, you’ll see reproductions of his St Thomas scenes alongside works by contemporary USVI artists.
Swim at Magens Bay
Even though it’s one of the few beaches on St Thomas that demands an entry fee, a trip to Magens Bay is worth every penny. No other strip of sand in the USVI lies at the end of such a deep cove, giving Magens an stunning backdrop of emerald-green hills. With lifeguards, picnic tables, changing facilities, water sports and restaurants, this spot has everything a family could need to spend an entire day planted on the pearl-white sands.
Drink and dine in Frenchtown
The island’s “Frenchies” – Huguenots who emigrated to St Thomas from St-Barths during the mid-19th century – first populated this community of brightly painted frame houses on the western side of Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Nowadays, this fishermen’s neighborhood has several good restaurants that overlook the water, including the seafood bistro Oceana. You’ll also find craft beer at Frenchtown Brewing (try the citrusy Hop Alley IPA) and a sprawling wine list at The Twisted Cork.
Take a day trip to Virgin Islands National Park
While St Thomas is heavily developed, two-thirds of neighboring St John is protected within the Virgin Islands National Park, making it a fantastic spot to escape the crowds. Popular half-day hikes in the park’s limits include the Lind Point Trail, which snakes away from the ferry dock in Cruz Bay over to the secluded Honeymoon Beach, and the Reef Bay Trail, which traverses dense woodlands down to ancient petroglyphs and more recent sugar-mill ruins. Smaller nature trails at Cinnamon Bay and Francis Bay are perfect for the little ones.
Explore USVI history at Fort Christian
This striking red-brick fort in Charlotte Amalie dates back to 1672, when it was used as a point of defense for that Dano-Norwegian government that administered the island during the colonial era. Today, it houses a small museum that tackles the complex history of the Virgin Islands, from its earliest Indigenous residents to the slaves brought over from West Africa to work on sugar plantations. Think of it as a vital stop to contextualize your experience, particularly if you sign up in advance for a guided tour.
Listen to calypso music
Calypso music is the soundtrack to life in the Virgin Islands. Many resorts hire bands to play on set nights each week, including Bolongo Bay Beach Resort and the Ritz Carlton’s Coconut Cove. You can also find steel-pan groups performing in Frenchtown or Yacht Haven Grande. The best time to listen to calypso, however, is during the month-long Carnival celebrations (typically in April or May) when artists compete for titles like Calypso Monarch or Best Junior Calypsonian.
Climb the “99 Steps”
Rising from Kongens Gade up past historic homes to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the Charlotte Amalie Harbor, this step-street – or frigang, as the Danes called them – is one of the best free things to do on the island. Bougainvillea and hibiscus spill over wooden railings onto the path, making it an atmospheric walk with plenty of romantic spots for a photo opp. Oh, and if 99 steps sounds like a lot, the actual count is 103.
Kayak the Mangrove Lagoon to Cas Cay
On the southeastern coast of St Thomas, the Cas Cay-Mangrove Lagoon Marine Reserve is an idyllic place for a morning paddle. As you squeeze through narrow mangrove alleyways, you can search for colorful birds such as the green-throated carib or red-billed tropicbird. Virgin Islands Ecotours runs kayaking trips through the Mangrove Lagoon that include snorkeling around a shipwreck and a short hike on the uninhabited Cas Cay. They also rent kayaks or paddleboards for a DIY adventure.
Take a food tour
At first glance, St Thomas can seem overrun with generic restaurants serving pizzas, burgers and Caesar salads. That’s because traditional West Indian cuisine tends to be further back from the seafront and off the beaten path. If you need helping finding local flavors, enlist the help of the guides at St Thomas Food Tours, who will introduce you to everything from rum cakes to conch fritters and callaloo on a 2.5-hour trip around Charlotte Amalie.
Charter a boat to explore further afield
Chartering a boat is one of the most popular activities on St Thomas since it’s the only practical way to explore outer islands and remote reefs. Typical itineraries revolve around either snorkeling (perhaps at Lovango Cay, Buck Island or Little St James) or bar-hopping (perhaps at White Bay on Jost Van Dyke or a floating restaurant like Pizza Pi). Most charters leave from marinas either near Red Hook or Benner Bay on the East End of St Thomas since trips tend to head toward St John or the British Virgin Islands.
Get cultured at Tillett Gardens
Far from the typical tourist circuit in the Anna’s Retreat sector is this colorful artists’ colony, which lures the island’s hippies, thinkers and outsiders for all sorts of creative pursuits. Not only is there a 150-seat theater, but also art galleries with painting classes, quirky coffee shops and live reggae music on the weekends. Nearby, be sure to check out Mango Tango, where the quality of contemporary art on display far exceeds anything you’ll find in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Enjoy less touristy nightlife in Red Hook
If Charlotte Amalie comes alive during the day, it’s Red Hook that keeps the party going well into the night. This small port town in the East End is where island residents go to hang out after the cruise tourists depart for the evening, tossing back rum and cokes at long-running favorites like the tiki-themed Duffy’s Love Shack, which bills itself as “the best parking lot bar in the world.” Other late-night choices include the Tap & Still (for craft beer) and the Island Time Pub (for moonlit harbor views).
Snorkel with sea turtles at Brewers Bay
Tucked away behind the airport – and in front of the University of the Virgin Islands – Brewers Bay has always attracted more locals than tourists. (Perhaps that’s why all the sea turtles and stingrays feel like it’s one of the safest places around for them to swim?) This low-key spot is a great place to tune in to the vibe of island life, grabbing a beer and a pate (fried pastries stuffed with meat) from one of the food trucks after you’ve spent time communing with the sea creatures.
See where the Caribbean and Atlantic meet
There’s a small strip of sand on the wild western tip of St Thomas where the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet. Known as Mermaid’s Chair, it’s one of the USVI’s best-kept secrets. This rare double-sided beach (which is best viewed at low tide) is reached via a 1.3-mile (2km) hike, which begins at The Preserve at Botany Bay, descending from there to some spectacular viewpoints and quiet rocky coves. Good walking shoes are a must.
Take the ferry to Water Island
Located just 15 minutes by ferry from St Thomas, tiny Water Island feels delightfully remote, with few shops or restaurants and just 200 permanent residents who get around in golf carts. Expect great hiking, biking and kayaking, as well as three sandy beaches, the most famous of which, Honeymoon Beach, bursts to life at lunchtime when it swells with thirsty day-trippers. The Virgin Islands Campground, an eco-resort here with self-contained wood and canvas cottages, is one of the few glamping experiences in the Caribbean and a great reason to spend the night.