Papeete is the multifaceted capital of French Polynesia, located in Tahiti Island. There, you can shop for tropical treasures like black pearls, take in the carnival-like atmosphere of the waterfront, indulge in local treats from the food trucks in the center square and bask in both French and Polynesian charms. The people-watching is superb, and so are the opportunities for adventure. You can scuba dive, snorkel, swim, windsurf, sail, kiteboard and more on the coast, and go hiking, climbing and canyoning on ecotours in the areas surrounding the urban expanse.
The best way to see Papeete is on foot, and you should start your walking tour at the Centre Vaima, the city’s first shopping mall. The chic shops are a mecca for the city’s European residents, and the streets are lined with designer names and world-class restaurants.
Across the four-lane boulevard is the Quay, the wooden boardwalk that welcomes cruising yachts from across the globe from April to September. Just off the bay is the small island of Motu Uta, once a natural paradise but now the home of Papeete’s shipping industry. Nearby is the industrial area of Fare Ute, and the French naval base sits close to the reef on the other side. In the mornings, you can watch boats pull up alongside the filled-in reef, where they unload massive batches of dried coconut meat.
Keep going west along the Quay until you reach the Parc Bougainville. The shady park got its name from the French explorer who discovered the island, and two naval cannons surround his statue. One was from the Seeadler, the infamous German raider run aground in the Cook Islands during the First World War. The other cannon came from the Zélée, a French naval ship.
Off the avenue Bruat is the Place Jacques Chirac, a semicircular park named after the former French president. Relax in the shade of the park, then keep heading west along the waterfront until you reach the large beige church on the boulevard’s mountain side.
The church is the Eglise Evangélique, French Polynesian’s largest Protestant church. Check out the impressive steeple, then stroll down six more blocks to the west to pass stately old colonial homes and reach the Place Toata, a park built on the island’s landfill that has become a favorite place for office workers and families to gather. Stroll around the lovely green space, take in the harbor views and grab a snack from the inexpensive food trucks. Come back in the evenings to attend an outdoor concert in the amphitheater, and visit in July to watch the national dance competition fill the park.
Next, explore the governmental center of the Place Tarahoi. Once royal property and the French headquarters during the mid-19th century, the place is lined with government buildings, including the Papeete Town Hall and the Territorial Assembly.
The oldest Catholic church on the island sits nearby. Inside the Cathédrale de L’Immaculée Conception is an impressive series of paintings detailing the crucifixion, and the quiet, cool and comforting place is a great place to contemplate.
The Municipal Market springs up each morning just down the street from the church. A large tin pavilion provides shade, and locals provide a multitude of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, including bananas, breadfruit, nono fruit, taporo, mape, pineapple, passion fruit and papaya.