Why is Gustavia the Capital of Saint Barthélemy?

Why is Gustavia the Capital of Saint Barthélemy?
Why is Gustavia the Capital of Saint Barthélemy?





You may have heard of an island nation called Saint Barts, nestled in the Caribbean and surrounded by reefs. Formally known as Saint Barthélemy, this small island, which is a territorial collectivity of France, is now known widely for its tourism industries. 

Saint Barthélemy’s capital city is Gustavia – named in honor of King Gustav III of Sweden and formerly known as Le Carénage. Gustavia has largely Swedish influence, even though the entire island of Saint Barthélemy was first claimed by the French in the 1600s. 

In this article, we’ll be breaking down the centuries of history behind Gustavia, Saint Barthélemy and how this city came to be the island’s capital. We’ll also discuss the geography of Gustavia and the different places you should visit while you’re in the great capital city. 

Where is the capital of Saint Barthélemy located?

Saint Barthélemy’s capital Gustavia is located on Oscar harbor of the Western coast of the mere 11-mile island nation. This puts the capital on the side closer to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which are roughly 160 miles west of the island. 

Gustavia is surrounded by the Gustavia Industrial Zone and Terre-Neuve to the north, as well as Petite Saline to the east and the Gouverneur and Plage de Saline beaches to the south.

Gustavia is also quite close to the islands of Saint Martin, Île Coco (uninhabited), Saba, Anguilla, and others. 

Due to its Caribbean environment and coastal location on the island, the capital Gustavia has a tropical savanna climate. Not only is it a coastal city, but it is also a main harbor for the island nation. 

Brief History of Gustavia, Saint Barthélemy

View of Saint Barthelemy island, Caribbean
View of Saint Barthelemy island, Caribbean

Gustavia wasn’t always known by its current name, having been previously referred to as Le Carénage in the days that it served as a safe haven for damaged ships. The name Gustavia isn’t believed to have been used until around December of 1786. At this point, the island was in its Swedish period.

Since Saint Barthélemy and its native Taino Indian people were originally occupied and invaded by French colonists in 1648, Gustavia also came under French rule at that time. Ownership flip-flopped between France and Sweden following this time, first getting sold to Sweden in 1784, then getting returned to France in 1877. 

It wasn’t until hundreds of years later, in 2007, that the island and its capital became a collectivity of France. 

When did Gustavia become the capital of Saint Barthélemy?

Gustavia, Saint Barthelemy skyline and harbor in the West Indies of the Caribbean at dusk.
Gustavia, Saint Barthelemy skyline and harbor in the West Indies of the Caribbean at dusk.

The name Gustavia was first used on the island around the time of Sweden’s rule, since the name is derived from the Swedish King’s name of that time. This occurred approximately between December 1786 and February 1787. The area now referred to as Gustavia was being used as the capital before this, however, as far back as the 17th century.

The concept of a capital city is tied to the European acts of colonization on this volcanic island. So referring to the city now known as Gustavia as the capital city did not occur until Europeans imposed their ownership and rule on the island. 

Why is Gustavia the capital of Saint Barthélemy?

Gustavia is the capital of Saint Barts due to the choice of European colonizers to create a capital city out of the main harbor. 

Situated on the west coast of the island nation, Gustavia is in an ideal location for trade and travel, where ships have been able to easily find their way into port. 

As the capital city, various exports have come from Gustavia, ranging from fish to fruit, salt, and cotton over the years. 

Best Places to Visit in Gustavia

Gustavia – and Saint Barts as a whole – has been a prime spot for tourism since the 20th century, mainly owing to its white sand beaches, warm Caribbean weather, hiking trails, and luxury hotels. 

If you plan to visit this Caribbean island nation, you may consider visiting the following spots during your stay.

  1. Shell Beach – As its name implies, this Gustavia beach is renowned for the amount of beautiful seashells that wash ashore. People visit the popular beach for its Caribbean blue waters, white sand, and relaxed atmosphere. It’s situated in a sheltered cove that sits below Fort Karl. You can see Saba and Statia islands from the beach, as well.
  2. Gustavia Lighthouse – Another must-see landmark in Gustavia is the lighthouse, a historic site located at Fort Gustav, which is a citadel that was constructed in the 1600s. At just 30 feet tall, this is a lighthouse that tourists can easily park and walk to for an interesting look into the history of the island nation. 
  3. Church of Our Lady of the Assumption – History buffs visiting Saint Barts may be interested in stopping at this old church for the afternoon. This early 19th century Catholic church was styled with Spanish influence and now sits across the street from a 20th century funeral chapel. 
  4. Swedish Clock Tower – At this point, the history and culture of Saint Barts are inexorably tied to Sweden. Tourists can get a glimpse of this facet by visiting the Swedish Clock Tower, which replaced the old Protestant Sophia Magdalena church bell tower. It is now an official heritage site in Gustavia, Saint Barts.
  5. Hiking Trails – Because Saint Barts combines views of the Caribbean Sea with a volcanic island setting, the hiking there is nothing short of incredible. Hiking trails such as the Plage Saint-Jean et Morne Lurin (900 ft. elevation gain) and the Excursion à Baie de Saint-Jean (500 ft. elevation gain) are rich with views of the island setting and its wildlife.

In Conclusion

The island nation of Saint Barthélemy – also known as Saint Barts or St Barths – has a history of several centuries of colonial rule. Between France and Sweden, the island has seen many changes, although its capital city Gustavia has always been the main port. 

Now a collectivity of France, the island has a booming tourism industry. If you’re thinking of visiting, consider checking out Gustavia’s hiking trails, beaches, or any one of the many historic sites. 

See Also

Capital Cities 

Hi and welcome to my travel blog! Based in London, I work in investment banking in a quantitative field and although I am not part of the travel industry, I have a ton of passion for travel. My blog is a reference guide for my fellow travelers with the same passion as me. Hopefully the blog is easy to navigate and my aim is to bring the most relevant and interesting information before you begin your journey!