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Things to Do in Papeete

No one comes to French Polynesia looking for big city buzz, but there are at least a day’s worth of distractions to be had in its compact capital Papeete, on the island of Tahiti.

Any exploration of the city starts at the waterfront, where locals and tourists promenade at an island pace, day or night. Stalls selling fresh fruit and French pastries typify the mix of cultures here. Two relatively new squares, Vaiete and To'ata, are part of the authorities’ efforts to improve seaside facilities. 

From the waterfront, take any of the streets leading inland. You’ll inevitably end up at the Marché de Papeete, and your wanderings are also likely to take you past the charming yellow cathedral and the wide verandas of the Mairie (city hall). The Musée de la Perle is one of the best indoor attractions in Papeete.

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Marché de Pape'ete (Pape'ete Market)
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The sights, sounds and smells of authentic Polynesian life are on offer at Papeete’s main market, also known as the Marche de Papeete. This is the commercial and social hub of Tahiti’s laid-back capital and the oldest surviving institution on the island, now housed in a large, open-sided modern building.

Vendors come from all over the island to sell traditional handicrafts, particularly baskets, hats and other woven goods, as well as brilliantly colored sarongs and other garments. If you can’t find a reasonably-priced souvenir here you’re just not trying. Naturally there is also a large range of tropical fruits and vegetables, with snack bars selling fresh cooked fish and other dishes.

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Robert Wan Pearl Museum (Musee de la Perle Robert Wan)

One of Papeete’s few museums, the Musée de la Perle (or Black Pearl Museum) celebrates all aspects of pearl culture. In the days before large-scale cultivation, these ocean jewels were charged with mystical significance, associated with religious rites and coveted as status symbols. The museum, established by local entrepreneur Robert Wan, looks at the pearl in art, history and literature, and shows how they get from the sea to the display case.

The real star here is the black pearl. While a little more abundant than in the days when Mary, Queen of Scots adorned herself with a priceless necklace of the dark sea bounty, this Tahitian specialty is still a sought-after rarity.

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