With its pristine beaches, rich history, and vibrant marine life, the list of things to do in the British Virgin Islands is both diverse and enticing for travelers. Each island is fringed by sandy shores and coral reefs, the waters teeming with tropical fish.
Away from Road Town, the capital of Tortola, you’ll find quiet little villages snoozing under the tropical sun, upscale marinas crammed with gleaming yachts, and the beat of reggae wafting from the occasional beach bar.
In between, there are stretches of bush fragranced with wild herbs, as well as forest and mountains, with much of the landscape a designated national park.
Despite this serene setting, there are plenty of things to do in the BVI, whether you choose to explore the turquoise depths of the underwater world, kick back in a cool beach bar, or hike up to viewpoints to see how many surrounding islands you can count.
Swim & Sunbathe at Cane Garden Bay
This blissful curve of white sand is one of the best beaches on Tortola. Shaded by coconut palms, the sea floor slopes gently into warm shallows. Forested mountains form a backdrop to the beach, while gleaming yachts bob in the sparkling water.
Cane Garden Bay is a sheltered spot, protected from the wind, so it’s the ideal place to try stand-up paddle boarding. You can also snorkel over coral reefs, especially on either side of the beach, or take to the water in a sea kayak.
There are several bars along the beach serving Caribbean cocktails, and you can even buy a picnic in one of the local stores, as this is where people from the yachts come ashore to buy provisions.
Wander Around Road Town
The colorful little capital of the BVI has plenty to see if you decide to spend a day here. The J.R. O’Neal Botanical Gardens are a lush oasis near the center of the town, with different areas representing the various habitats of the islands.
Discover a darker side of the Caribbean at the Prison Museum, an eerie place that housed criminals from the mid-19th century to as recently as 2007 in tiny, uncomfortable cells. What’s chilling is that capital punishment still existed here until the 1970s, with death by hanging.
Try a Painkiller
One of the essential things to do in the BVI is to try the local specialty drink, which blends Pusser’s Rum (which is bottled on the islands) with pineapple juice, coconut cream, and orange juice, and finished off with grated nutmeg.
The best place to try this is at the Pusser’s Road Town Pub, a historic pub with interiors that hark back to the Victorian age, the walls festooned with nautical memorabilia.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, stop for lunch. Curried chicken, jerk pork, and seafood chowder all feature on the menu.
Clamber Through The Baths at Virgin Gorda
The Baths, on the shore of the sleepy island of Virgin Gorda, is one of the best adventures you’ll have in the BVI and one of the best places to swim in the world.
As you approach by boat, you’ll see a series of tumbled granite boulders lining the shore. Swim ashore and start your trek along the shoreline, picking your way from one end to the other.
To do this, you’ll climb over ladders, hang onto ropes, and wade through shallow caves illuminated by shafts of light beaming through gaps in the rock. Splash in shallow lagoons and scramble over the rocks, which are the result of volcanic activity millions of years ago.
There are dozens of photo opportunities, both above and below the water. Every now and then, you’ll want to put your mask and snorkel on and check out the fish teeming in the shallow waters.
Zipline Over the Treetops
Fly high over the treetops on a thrilling zipline. Getting there is half the fun, as you’ll be driven along the steep Ridge Road that traces the spine of the mountains between the east end of the island and the western shore. Expect twists, turns, and dizzying views along the way.
Clip onto the line and zip over the forest canopy, taking in views of Road Town sprawled below, and distant islands scattered across the sapphire sea. You’ll have great views of the USVI from here. There are seven thrilling traverses that take you back down to ground level.
Explore the Island by Jeep
Set off from Road Town in a convoy of safari jeeps on an in-depth tour of Tortola. You’ll drive along the steep, twisty Ridge Road that runs across the mountains, with photo stops and magnificent views of some of the other islands.
You’ll have over an hour to enjoy a swimming stop from a white sand beach and a break for refreshments.
What’s good about this tour is that you see a side to the island that most visitors don’t. You’ll stick to quiet roads that trace the shoreline and even off-road along jungly trails.
Shop & Dine at Soper’s Hole Wharf & Marina
Visiting Soper’s Hole, an upscale marina on the west side of Tortola, is one of the best things to do in the British Virgin Islands. Even if you’re not a yacht owner, this is a delightful spot to visit for shopping, lunch, and a swim.
The marina is named after a 17th-century plantation owner, McCuthbert Soper, but this sheltered spot had been a base for pirates for many years prior to this. The cliffs provided a good lookout for passing merchant ships on which the pirates would prey, and the pirates’ own vessels could be hidden in the natural harbor.
Today, Soper’s Hole is a peaceful place. You’ll find plenty of stylish shops to browse, as well as a small beach and a variety of watersports operators. Many people, though, simply come to sit on the wooden decks with a drink, gazing out at the yachts and catamarans.
For shopping, visit Arawak for gifts, jewelry, cool swimwear, and clothing, as well as Sunny Caribbee for spices, jerk seasonings, and hot sauces to take home. Head for Pusser’s Landing for lunch in the sunshine with conch chowder, coconut-crusted chicken, rotis, and wraps on the menu.
Snorkel at Devil’s Bay National Park, Virgin Gorda
Virgin Gorda, a short boat ride from Road Town, is one of the best islands for snorkeling and swimming. Devil’s Bay may sound demonic, but is actually a beautiful sweep of white sand at the end of a 15-minute trek through scrubby vegetation and granite boulders.
You’ll want to plunge straight into the waters here—which are some of the clearest in the Caribbean—as soon as you’ve set your towel out on the sand.
You can combine Devil’s Bay with a visit to The Baths, or follow the trail from the southern end of the beach to Stoney Bay, which is more exposed, with foaming swells pummeling the rocks.
Sail to Jost Van Dyke
One of the best things to do in the British Virgin Islands is to go sailing to Jost Van Dyke. This tiny island has two lovely beaches, the dazzling sands of White Bay, which has some great snorkeling just offshore, and the secluded Great Harbour, backed by the island’s only village.
One of the attractions of Jost Van Dyke is the presence of two of the most legendary bars in the Caribbean. In Great Harbour, drop into Foxy’s Bar, run by the crooner Foxy Callwood, who will sing to guests and ply them with Foxy’s Firewater Rum.
If your yacht takes you to White Bay, meanwhile, the Soggy Dollar Bar is a must. It gets its name from the fact that you have to jump in and swim ashore in the absence of a dock. This is the bar that claims to have invented the Painkiller, so it’s only polite to try one, in the name of research.
Another highlight of Jost Van Dyke is a dip in the Bubbly Pool, a natural “jacuzzi” in a rock pool that “fizzes” when waves crash over the rocks beyond. The foaming water rushes in, creating a bubbling effect.
Marvel at the Underwater World at Norman Island
There’s great snorkeling and diving all over the BVI, but Norman Island arguably has the best spots.
The island’s shoreline is indented with several sea caves, historically used by pirates for shelter, and all kinds of legends abound about hidden treasure. In fact, it was Norman Island that allegedly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate novel Treasure Island.
Pirate loot aside, you can expect to see myriad species of tropical fish here, from graceful angelfish to bright trumpetfish, shimmering turquoise and pink parrotfish, lobsters, crabs, and if you’re lucky, octopus.
Look out for grouper, which protect their patch like guard dogs, and blue tang, one of the most colorful fish. The coral is spectacular, too, with three species to identify: elkhorn, brain, and mushroom.
Hike Sage Mountain National Park
At 1,710 feet, Sage Mountain is the highest point in all of the Virgin Islands. A compelling reason to climb to the summit is the stupendous views across the entire archipelago.
Sage Mountain was the first national park in the BVI and is a model of conservation. What used to be farmland has been reforested with endemic trees, including white cedar and two types of mahogany, West Indian and Honduran. One of the 12 trails that crisscross the park is devoted entirely to admiring these stately mahogany trees.
You’ll see different habitats, depending on which route you choose. The mountain forms a ridge which is more humid on one side, where there’s old-growth rainforest. On the other, you’ll find dry tropical forest.
If you want to reach the summit, it’s a two-and-a-half mile trek through the mahogany trees, with the reward of those incredible views.
Taste Rum at Callwood Rum Distillery, Tortola
Sampling the local rum is one of the best things to do in Tortola. The Callwood Rum Distillery, at Cane Garden Bay, is one of the oldest in the Caribbean. Delicious rum is made from pure cane juice using techniques that have been in the same family for 400 years.
The buildings themselves are a fascinating glimpse into the past. Today, they house a small museum, an art gallery, and a gift shop where you can buy Caribbean rum to take home.
Learn About History at Copper Mine National Park, Virgin Gorda
If you’re spending a day on Virgin Gorda, check out Mine Hill on the island’s southeastern tip. Now a national park, this is a disused copper mine that reflects the different eras of the island’s history.
The first people to mine copper here were believed to be the Amerindians, who made tools and jewelry to trade. Centuries later, the Spanish were the first Europeans to mine this granite-strewn area for copper, which is found among quartz and tin, among other minerals.
The English came next, as mineral deposits in Cornwall were running out. Some 130 Cornish miners and their families were brought here to mine Virgin Gorda’s copper, and you can still see the remains of their houses, the mine shafts, chimney, and old cistern.
The mine finally closed in 1862 but was renovated in 1998, again by mining experts from Cornwall. While you’re here, look out for the white-tailed tropicbirds that nest near the engine house. These acrobatic birds dive from great heights to catch squid, their favorite meal.
Are you dreaming of an escape to the island paradise of the BVI? Browse our cruises to the British Virgin Islands and plan your swashbuckling adventure.