If you love history, taking a quick stroll over to The Queen’s Staircase from the cruise port won’t disappoint. This free attraction is a must-see location if you’re visiting Nassau, Bahamas on a cruise.
Although lots of Caribbean cruise itineraries make a stop at Nassau, it always makes me sad to hear that many cruisers don’t even get off the ship in this port.
I get it—if you’ve already wandered through the downtown shopping district, just steps from the cruise port, you might think that all that Nassau has to offer is jewelry stores and souvenir shops, many with employees positioned on the sidewalk to lure tourists in with rum cake samples and offers of free trinkets.
But there’s so much more to do, from relaxing on Nassau’s beautiful beaches to exploring fascinating historical sites and museums.
The Queen’s Staircase, also known as the 66 Steps, is a lush oasis in downtown Nassau, barely a mile from the cruise port. Even on the hottest day, its canopy of tropical greenery and cascading waterfalls provides a cool escape from the sunny city streets.
But this peaceful spot has a dark history going back centuries.
The mysterious history of The Queen’s Staircase
When I first started researching the history of the Queen’s Staircase, I found a lot of conflicting information around how, why, and even when it was built. I love nothing more than a research project, but after days of reading every historical text I could access, I was left with more questions than answers.
The most commonly shared story of what is now known as the Queen’s Staircase is that it was built by 600 enslaved people under the direction of Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of the Bahamas, between 1793 and 1794. Dunmore supposedly wanted easy access to and from the newly-built Fort Fincastle atop Bennet’s Hill.
This is the story you’ll likely read about in the guidebooks and the one that most tour guides will tell. However, some sources say that the area was excavated over a longer period—fourteen to sixteen years. Thousands of enslaved people were forced to work on the project, and many lost their lives in the process.
The steps themselves weren’t fully completed until later, and perhaps had nothing to do with access to Fort Fincastle. Instead, they may have been completed to make it easier for residents to access Mason’s Addition, a new housing development that was planned and built on the hill in the early 1800s.
The steps weren’t called “The Queen’s Staircase” until sometime in the 19th century. This was in honor of Queen Victoria, who oversaw the abolition of slavery in the British Colonies at the beginning of her reign.
Some will tell you that the number of stairs signifies Queen Victoria’s 65 years on the throne, plus “one for the crown”, but this story is absolutely not true. Victoria’s reign ended upon her death in 1901, after reigning for 63 years and seven months. The steps were constructed well before the end of her reign (and if you believe that they were built in 1793-94, decades before her birth in 1819).
Climbing The Queen’s Staircase
We visited The Queen’s Staircase in June 2021, just after the Bahamian government lifted its rules about vaccinated foreign travelers needing a COVID test to enter the country, and just before cruise ships were scheduled to make their return to Nassau.
I love Nassau so much that this was the first trip outside of the US that we took post-lockdown, even though cruising hadn’t yet begun in the area!
Because we were staying on the island and not just walking from the cruise port, we had a rental car and had to find a spot to park it, which of course addled my brain because I’m so used to navigating on foot from the port.
Since I’m too cheap to pay for an international plan for my phone, I used a free app called HERE WeGo and downloaded the Bahamas map for offline use. The app worked great for driving around, but it kept directing us to the wrong location for the Queen’s Staircase from our parking spot.
After about fifteen frustrating minutes of walking around in circles, my daughter turned to me and said, “Really Mom? We’re walking all over the place just to find a STAIRCASE? Like, aren’t there better things to do in Nassau than wander around in the heat looking for some stupid stairs?”
Thankfully I spotted the Bahamas Historical Society Museum, which I wanted to visit anyway. After cooling off inside and exploring the exhibits, we got directions and were on our way.
How to get to The Queen’s Staircase from Nassau cruise port
If you’re leaving from the cruise port, the Queen’s Staircase is about a 15 to 18-minute walk. Depending on whether you’d like to arrive at the top of the stairs and walk down or start at the bottom and walk up, there are two ways you can go.
I prefer starting at the bottom because it’s a prettier approach. But, if you want to walk the steps and you know you’ll have an easier time walking down them, start from the top. (The steps aren’t any steeper than a standard staircase, and there are two landings where you can pause to rest. If you can climb three regular flights of stairs, you’ll be fine walking up the Queen’s Staircase.)
If you’re only planning on viewing the steps and not climbing up or down, definitely go through the lower entrance with its cool, shady grotto and waterfalls.
To get to the top of the stairs, after exiting the port, walk south on East Street then take a left onto Prison Lane and left again onto Greenwich Street.
Or, to begin your visit at the bottom of the stairs, take Bay Street to Elisabeth Avenue toward Princess Margaret Hospital, then take a right onto Sands Road.
Why do people visit The Queen’s Staircase?
The Queen’s Staircase is the most-visited landmark on New Providence Island. Even my daughter, who complained about searching for “a stupid set of stairs” agreed that it was a breathtaking spot.
But more important than the fact that it’s a beautiful and free attraction to visit in Nassau, the staircase is an important site in the Bahamas’ cultural history and the terrible legacy of slavery in the West Indies.
The Queen’s Staircase isn’t just a set of stone stairs constructed between two sheer cliff walls. The entire gorge that the stairs rise from was chiseled out of solid calciferous sandstone by slaves with hand tools. Oral history says that the builders weren’t allowed pickaxes because of the fear that the enslaved people would use them as weapons to mount an insurrection.
Instead, they used hammers and chisels to chip away at the solid rock, creating a massive gorge three stories deep.
According to Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People by Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, in 1789 the Bahamian Assembly demanded that all free people of color needed to register with the government. These free people were then provided with tools and forced to do manual labor on the roads for two shillings a day (about $25 in today’s money), under threat of fines or corporal punishment if they refused.
Perhaps some of these people, many of whom were either born free or promised their freedom by the government, were among those forced to excavate the gorge and sculpt its waterfalls by hand under the blazing sun?
Are slaves buried at The Queen’s Staircase?
No one still living knows for certain if enslaved people were buried at The Queen’s Staircase, but legend says that many of their bodies are entombed within its sandstone walls.
I didn’t hear about this legend until I was back home and saw several sources mention that slaves were allegedly buried inside a sealed tunnel at the base of the staircase. Intrigued, I scrolled through all of the photos I had taken and found what they were referencing.
On the wall beside the staircase, I had noticed what looked to be a cement frame bordering a smooth cement surface. From its size and position, I remember assuming that perhaps there had been a historical plaque mounted there that had fallen off or had been removed. So of course I didn’t take a picture.
But I did get an angled view of the supposed tunnel entrance from the staircase landing (I circled it in pink):
But was there actually a tunnel there at all? What purpose did it serve? And how likely are people buried inside it? I had so many questions.
Down another researching rabbit hole I went, not surprised to again come up with few answers. I read of a rumor that Lord Dunmore had ordered construction of the tunnel to provide him a sneaky way to escape from Fort Fincastle if it was under attack. But, this theory makes zero sense to me—the governor was notorious for spending the Crown’s money on his building schemes, including a luxurious mansion where he’d no doubt be hanging out if the island were attacked.
Regardless of why the tunnel was originally dug, oral history passed down on the island says that slaves who had died during the excavation of the gorge surrounding the Queen’s Staircase were buried inside the tunnel, and it was later sealed off. These stories also say that there isn’t any evidence of burial sites for these people elsewhere on the island—not even in a mass grave.
Why are the famous 66 Steps now just 65?
Although the Queen’s Staircase is often referred to as “The 66 Steps”, you’ll notice if you count them that there are only sixty-five steps! This is because the pathway leading to the steps has been paved, covering the riser of the first step.
Touring the Queen’s Staircase
If you’d prefer to have a guided tour of the Queen’s Staircase, there are several ways to do it. Many of your cruise line’s shore excursions will include a stop at this location with a local guide.
Or, save some money off the overpriced ship’s excursions and book through a trusted tour company. I like to use GetYourGuide or Viator to easily find better prices on excursions when I cruise (and the tour groups are usually smaller, too).
All of these Nassau tours include a guided visit to the 66 Steps:
- Cultural Walking Tour of Downtown Nassau
- Half-Day Cultural Bike Tour of Downtown Nassau
- Nassau Sightseeing and Snorkeling Tour
- Dilly Dally Walking Tour of Nassau
- ATV Island Tour
Read more: Best Nassau Shore Excursions
Beware of the fake tour guides
There are so-called “volunteer guides” that hang out by the staircase, and if you don’t arrive with your own tour group, one of them will approach you and start a presentation about the area—whether you want to hear it or not.
These are not official guides at all! They’re people who try to hustle tourists for tips by telling you a brief history of the staircase.
We were roped into one of these presentations, and it was completely my fault. Although I’m usually good at fending off hawkers and roaming tour operators with a polite but firm “No, thank you,” I had speed-walked ahead of my family to make sure I got some good photos before they wandered into the frame.
Out from under the shady trees popped a tall man, who ambled over to me. “Whoa!” he said, raising his arms. “Why are you walking so fast? Don’t you know we’re on island time here in the Bahamas?”
Thinking he was just a friendly local encouraging me to slow down and enjoy myself, I laughed and explained that I was just trying to take some pictures before everyone caught up with me.
“Ohhhhh,” he said, smiling. “Well, welcome to the Queen’s Staircase. I’m one of the volunteer guides here.”
Before I could even respond, he launched into a five-minute, rapid-fire report of some version of the staircase’s history. None of us was really sure what he told us because of the combination of his heavy Bahamian accent and the speed at which he delivered his memorized presentation.
Once he finished, he slowed his speech and carefully explained that he did work for tips, of course.
Getting to Fort Fincastle and the Water Tower from the Queen’s Staircase
You can easily reach two of Nassau’s other popular tourist attractions by climbing the Queen’s Staircase.
Fort Fincastle, one of Governor Dunmore’s notorious “forts that never fired” is located just a minute’s walk from the top of the staircase. Just turn right and head up the hill, following the signs.
The fort offers daily tours, and the adjacent straw market features crafts and souvenirs from independent local vendors.
The Water Tower, built in 1928 to hold drinking water for the island, will be to your left as you exit the top of the staircase. You can’t miss it—at 126 feet tall (38 m), it’s an imposing structure! Inside is a 216-step staircase to a platform with the best views of the island.
The Water Tower is undergoing renovations, so it’s not currently open to the public.
Have you ever visited the Queen’s Staircase in Nassau? Or are you planning to see The 66 Steps on your next Bahamas cruise? Let me know in the comments below!
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