The first thing you'll notice about Nassau is the shopping. On any given day, Bay Street's main thoroughfare throngs with passengers, disgorged from the port's posh cruise ships, who crowd the town's collection of duty-free emporiums and souvenir stores. Shoestring travelers, rejoice: there are several activities in town that let you save your pennies for other adventures.
Check out the Straw Market
Before the Bahamas became tourist central, its main industry was strawcraft. Nassau hosts one of the archipelago's most venerable straw markets, where colorful woven hats, bags, housewares and decorations dangle from every available mooring. Sure, it's a shopping hall -- but the weaving demonstrations, photo opportunities and street music performances are free. The covered space sits along Bay Street and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Read Up in an Old Prison
Visiting The Nassau Public Library is hardly as geeky as it sounds. The unusual octagonal edifice, painted bubblegum pink, features a quirky roofline that makes it appear to be capped off by a dapper straw hat. As cheerfully cartoonish as it now looks, the building was originally built as a jail. These days, the cramped former cells house an idiosyncratic library, reading room and museum. Among the exhibits: old maps, Arawak artifacts, colonial newspapers and star charts. The library is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, until 5 p.m. Fridays and until 4 p.m. Saturdays. It's closed on Sundays and holidays.
Learn the History
The free museum at the Bahamas Historical Society contains a lovingly curated collection of artifacts and documents that encompasses more than half a century of island history, from shipwrecks to world wars to slavery. Of particular interest is the collection concerning the building's previous owners, the International Order of the Daughters of the Empire, who were a small group of expatriate Canadian ladies that served the soldiers of the Boer War. From there, walk five minutes to the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to the Bahamanians lost in World Wars I and II, the manicured grounds of which feature an impressive cenotaph.
Browse Arawak Cay
Another window-shopping and people-watching destination, Nassau's little promontory at Arawak Cay was artificially created from the sand thrown up to the shore when the harbor was thoroughly dredged in the late 1960s. Back then, it was a creaky collection of unofficial food stalls; now, it's a parklike seaside stroll with handicraft kiosks, a Heritage Village, a storytelling porch and street performers. The fish-fry scent in the air is almost irresistible, as is the siren call of made-to-order conch salad. Come on Sunday nights if your goal is to hang out with the locals.
Climb the Water Tower
OK, it's not free -- but if you have two quarters to rub together, the 50-cent entry fee to the Water Tower is worth it. Shooting 126 feet into the sky behind the stone fortifications at tiny Fort Fincastle, the Water Tower was built in 1928. Now, the 50-cent admission price admits visitors up the spiraling stairs to view the best panorama of Nassau. If you'd rather skip the 216 steps, take the elevator.