The island of Hispaniola shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic with its bleached white sands, waving palm trees and turquoise waters represents everybody’s image of tropical perfection. However, there is so much more to this corner of the world than sunshine, rum cocktails and Caribbean beats and the Dominican Republic’s capital of Santo Domingo is a fine example of this.
This is a city packed with incredible history. It was to be the first base in the Americas for the conquering Spaniards in medieval times and as a result can rank a long list of firsts such as the oldest cathedral of the New World, the first university and the first Spanish fort.
The entire Zona Colonial is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of grand old buildings, palaces, forts and convents, the most ancient over 500 years old. Many of these colonial leftovers have now been converted into museums for you to explore such as the Palace of Inquisition and the former palace of Diego Columbus – Christopher Columbus’ son.
Woven in among the history of Spanish dominance and wealth are tales of pirates and slavery while for those interested in the original history of a people that thrived long before the Spaniards ever arrived there are also indigenous treasures to be explored.
While the rich legacy of the Spaniards represents the capital’s most treasured jewels Santo Domingo is also the most modern metropolis of the Caribbean and a world where ancient and new blend seamlessly to create a destination for all.
Liberally sprinkled with cafes and restaurants Santo Domingo is also something of a foodies delight with some incredible seafood while the presence of top-notch coffee means a treat for connoisseurs there too. Once the sun sets tables and chairs spill out under the stars on ancient cobble-stoned streets or in the modern areas of the city and the night air comes alive to the beats of salsa. Santo Domingo can in reality be anything you want it to be. If you want to party until dawn that is possible here but so too is finding an elegant and atmospheric bar to see out the evening with one of those famous rum cocktails to hand.
A Morning in Santo Domingo
Part or all of your morning can be taken up with uncovering the many historical treasures of the Colonial Zone and indeed there is enough here to keep you busy for weeks. Gazing at the exteriors of the buildings alone will take up plenty of time while much of what you see will tempt you to greater exploration with their interior museums or highlights. As a result you can’t hope to fit everything in but no matter where you choose to give the bulk of your time there are some essential inclusions.
If you want to save your legs you can hop on-board the Chu Chu Colonial – a little train which ferries visitors around a vast number of historical highlights during its 45 minute circuit.
For those who want to break up their morning a visit to the wonderful National Botanic Gardens can be included after coffee and is an ideal place for tranquility lovers, anyone interested in native flora and bird watchers.
The Colonial Zone
Calles las Damas
Stretching for about 1km, a stroll along this historic street allows you to take in many of the Colonial City’s major attractions in one go. Lined along its length with many beautiful old buildings, the street itself is actually one of the city’s many firsts.
In 1509 the son of Christopher Columbus – Admiral and Viceroy Diego Columbus– took up his role as Governor of the Indies with his wife Maria de Toledo, a member of the Spanish royal family. This grand couple formed the base of a new high society in the Americas and Calles las Damas – the first paved street of the New World dating from 1502 – became the fashionable street of the wealthy.
Plaza de España and the Alcazar de Colon
Marking the northern extremity of the Calle las Damas is the Plaza de España which is a buzz of activity after dark. Surrounded by many houses of the colonial era, the square is dominated by the grand Alcazar de Colon.
This was the palace of Diego Colon and for several decades his private residence following its completion in 1514. Built from coral rocks by the efforts of 1,500 indigenous people, this
centuries-old building represents the very earliest vice-regal home of the Americas. The palace’s design was dictated to some degree by its need to be heavily fortified as was necessary during such unsettled times so its bulky appearance is rather more utilitarian than fancy and decorative.
In its heyday the mansion complex of gardens and courtyards had no less than 50 rooms among which the greatest powers of the Spanish Empire such as Cortes and Balboa would gather to discuss the next plans to add more of the Americas to their rapidly expanding empire.
In 1577 Diego returned to Spain although the palace continued to be occupied by various family members. In 1586 the English sea captain and privateer Sir Francis Drake led an attack on the palace during which time many of its treasures disappeared. By the middle of the 18th century the once grand building was left crumbling and abandoned and wasn’t restored to former glories until the 20th century.
Today the palace has been turned into a museum where 22 rooms have been richly decorated and furnished just as they would have been not only in Diego’s time but also during the centuries which followed. Among the many precious items here are a notable collection of medieval art works.
Museum of the Royal Houses
The next colonial treasure you arrive at walking south down Calle las Damas is the Museum of the Royal Houses. Essentially one building, this 16th century Elizabethan Gothic and Renaissance Plateresque-style structure is another which incorporates elements of military fortification.
During the earliest days of Spanish colonization the Court of Justice (Royal Audience) and the Palace of the Governors were located here.
The museum full of colonial artifacts is spread over two floors with the collections distinctly themed so you can choose those which interest you the most. Exhibitions include that of the ever-popular stories of piracy and smuggling, a weapons room and the history of discovery and conquest.
Either on your way in or out of the museum be sure to check out the 18th century Sun Clock which tells the time by casting shadows.
The National Pantheon
Dating from the early 1700s and one of the later colonial additions, this building was originally constructed as a church but has known various uses over the centuries which have included that of theater and tobacco warehouse.
Restored in the 1950s, this building, which is beautiful both outside and in, has since served as a mausoleum housing tombs and memorials to several notable Dominicans.
The Ozama Fortress
Also known simply as the Santo Domingo Fortress, this national treasure is by no means the only fort in the city but it is certainly its most famous. Dating from 1502 and joining the list of Santo Domingo’s many firsts, this majestic fortification was built before any others in the Americas and has enormous historical significance.
Standing on the coast at the river mouth, Ozama’s original purpose was as a virtually impenetrable defense against not only foreign pretenders for Latin dominion such as Britain and France but also to guard against pirate raids.
Over the centuries the fort has known a variety of owners which have included the British, the French and the Haitians and although the core of the castle is medieval many additions, alterations and extensions have also taken place over the years.
While principally a military base, Ozama also served as the residence of the colony’s viceroys for a time, the most famous of which was Christopher Columbus. However, the fort was also to serve as his prison for several weeks after news of his cruel and tyrannical rule reached the ears of the Spanish royal court after which he was arrested, imprisoned and subsequently removed from office.
Entry into the fort is by way of the 18th century Carlos III Gate and arguably the most impressive of the fort’s structures is the Tower of Homage which can be climbed for some lovely panoramic city and Caribbean views.
Morning Coffee in Santo Domingo
Quite where you decide to pause for a coffee break during your explorations amid the magnificent palaces, churches and mansions of the colonial era is entirely up to you. However, a natural break falls between exploring the Calles las Damas-centered highlights and those around Columbus Park.
Located halfway between Independence Park and Columbus Park is the gorgeous and tranquil Affogato Cafe. A little removed from the main tourist sights, this color-splashed space is a favorite with the locals and sometimes all but empty which makes it a peaceful place to get both your coffee fix and your breath back. The decor of honey-tone wood and vibrant mismatched cushions on sofas and chairs is lovely while the coffee is considered top-notch. The Affogato is also a wonderful place to grab a snack or coffee accompaniment too to keep you going until lunch with the focus on authentic and natural and with everything among their selection of incredible pastry treats handmade.
Cafe at Hotel Conde Penalba
If you can’t bear to tear yourself away from the views of the grand colonial for even one second head to the umbrella-shaded terrace of the Cafe at Hotel Conde Penalba. Here you are placed directly across from the very first cathedral of the New World while the hotel itself is actually housed inside an old colonial building. In such a prime spot you can’t hope to have this gem to yourself and you may even have to wait a short while for an outside table but being able to surround yourself with the grandeur and wealth of a long gone era make it completely worth it.
If you chose to take your coffee break at the Hotel Conde Penalba you will already have arrived in the beautiful tree-filled space known as Parque Colon or Columbus Park whose center is marked with a grand statue of Christopher Columbus dating from the 1800s. This park is surrounded by some of the Zona Colonial’s most significant historical landmarks which include the cathedral, the town hall and the Dominican Convent.
Basilica Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor
There are thousands of Catholic churches in the Americas and Caribbean and a fair few in Santo Domingo alone but none of them are as ancient as this lovely building which sits at the southern end of the Parque Colon. Variously titled the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and Primada de America Cathedral along with its official name, this beautiful Gothic/Baroque church has stood in this very spot for more than 500 years and was eventually completed in 1540, many years after its original foundations were laid.
As the Caribbean sun reflects off its lovely golden-hued facade it almost seems to glow
while the interior is home to a treasure trove of religious artifacts, ancient woodwork, art and a fine high altar of silver. Most of what you see here is as old as the church itself such as the imposing mahogany doors, the tombs of the colonial era bishops and the 1523 painted panel of the Virgin.
The Palacio Consistorial – The Town Hall
At the opposite end of the park to the cathedral can be found the all-white building which when it was originally built in the early 1500s served as a town hall. Today it functions as an arts and cultural center and can be explored both outside and in.
The beautiful ornate clock tower which sits at its corner point was added at the beginning of the 20th century.
Church and Convent of the Dominicos
Another of the historical zone’s buildings which dates from the very earliest days of the Spanish colony, this church and convent began functioning as a teaching establishment in the 16th century and thus in 1538 became the first university of the New World.
Subjected to earthquakes, cyclones and a raid by Sir Francis Drake, the convent and university have seen their fair share of damage and various repairs and reconstructions have been needed over the centuries giving it a variety of architectural styles.
The St. Nicholas of Bari Hospital
The third Spanish Governor of the Indies – Nicholas de Ovando – was not a man known for his gentle or kind rule but it was nevertheless under his orders that the very first hospital of the colony was built. Erected in 1503 as part church and part place to administer to the sick, the hospital continued to receive patients until the 1700s after which it was abandoned and slowly decayed and crumbled into the evocative ruins you can see today.
Making a detour to this atmospheric place is certainly worth it but you might decide to save it for the evening when it is beautifully lit and even more stirring to the senses under the cloak of darkness.
An Alternative to Explore After Morning Coffee – The National Botanic Gardens
Exceptionally beautiful and profoundly peaceful, the Botanic Gardens instantly plunge you into the world of tropical flora and fauna. With much of the 400 acres here given over to untouched nature reserve, it is easy to forget as you stroll amid these lush surrounds alive with vibrant color and birdsong that a bustling city is just outside.
Founded in the 1970s, this large park – the largest botanical gardens in the Caribbean – will introduce you to all kinds of native Dominican plants and trees, set out according to environment and the eco-systems they support. Stroll the areas of tropical palms and ferns, explore the medicinal plants gardens and marvel at the hundreds of types of orchids displayed which are both delicate and exquisitely beautiful.
The gardens also have a non-native Japanese garden filled with water features and bridges, an enormous flower clock with 5m long hands and a large arboretum filled with 1,500 tree species. If you want to save your legs there is a small train which takes visitors on a tour around part of the ponds and aquatic plants area.
So well-maintained and balanced are these gardens that they have become the habitat for many birds and these are in turn so diverse in their species representation that the park is frequently visited by bird-watchers. As you wander the beautiful trails you will no doubt see many of these brightly-colored and interesting natives and you will certainly hear them. The gardens are always filled with the sounds of birdsong while the raucous chattering of parakeets is impossible to miss.
Lunch in Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo has an incredible array of restaurants serving everything from traditional Caribbean dishes bursting with exotic flavors to every kind of international cuisine you can imagine including Mexican, Italian and Asian.
Like most island nations the Dominican Republic is known for its plentiful and super-fresh seafood and the capital has more restaurants specializing in this than you could get through in months.
While almost anywhere you wander in the city will place you amid cafes and restaurants there are some particular hotspots such as the ocean-front Malecon and the Parque Colon in the historic zone. There are also of course many beaches in the area which can be easily reached with a short taxi ride if Caribbean views as you dine are your idea of the perfect lunch.
If you are the kind of person who likes to try out the local delicacies when you travel you might like to sample the classic and delicious mofongo while you are in town. The base here is fried, pickled and mashed plantains but after that the varieties might include bacon, chicken or shrimp. It won’t be hard to track down this national dish but a lovely spot to sample it is El Conuco. A cheerful riot of bright Caribbean colors, this Dominican restaurant not only serves mofongo but plenty of other local cuisine besides. The menu is huge and includes all kinds of meat, poultry and seafood as well as some more unusual offerings such as goat.
Another choice for lunchtime feasting on local cuisine and specialties is Villar Hermanos which sits just outside the western extremity of Zona Colonial. Take your pick from the cafeteria, dining room or the lovely large outdoor terrace covered by the shade of trees. There is a lunchtime buffet here with an amazing choice which means you can sample the whole range of Dominican culinary delights at the same time if you so choose.
An Afternoon in Santo Domingo
While the Dominican Republic’s capital of Santo Domingo has more than enough to keep you busy throughout the day the island also has some wonderful attractions outside of the city and which are easily accessed. These include such delights as Isla Catarina with it catamaran sailing and snorkeling, a cave complex full of ancient petroglyphs called the Caves of Wonder (Cuevas de las Maravillas) and the jaw-droppingly beautiful Los Tres Ojos which were discovered in 1916.
Los Tres Ojos – The 3 Eyes National Park
Idyllically Caribbean with palm-fringed white sands, turquoise waters, karst mountains carved by wind and rain and lush jungle, the Dominican Republic is not short of the naturally stunning. However, just 12kms from Santo Domingo can be found a natural phenomenon so exceptionally lovely it gives a whole new meaning to the words dazzling and beautiful.
Surrounded by lush tropical rainforest filled with giant ferns are a series of connected and decidedly magical underground and partially underground lakes whose vibrant green and blue crystal-clear waters are guaranteed to take your breath away.
These secret lagoons were once, long ago, caves. The soft limestone rock which formed their roofs gradually crumbled over time as rain and moisture seeped in and eventually collapsed creating a sinkhole. These bowls then filled with water and, being continuously renewed by underground rivers, present a water clarity and purity which is astonishing. Adding significantly to the magical element is the fact that gaps in the partially-collapsed roofs allow sunlight to filter in. These throw shafts of light onto the water setting off sparkles and adding an even greater intensity to the turquoise and aquamarine hues of the lagoons.
Although the ‘eyes’ of the title states ‘3‘ there are in fact four lakes here with the last – Zaramagullones – discovered after the others and only accessible by raft. It is also the only one of the lagoon collection completely open to the sky.
Although you can explore each of the main three caves on foot by yourself perhaps the best way to truly experience this amazing phenomenon and get a different perspective is to take a boat tour and as all the lakes are connected – including the fourth – traveling in this way allows you to cover all there is to see. Besides their sheer loveliness, the collection of lakes are also rich in life with both turtles and fish living in the waters and bats colonizing the caves.
As you drift silently in this Mother Nature-crafted wonderland full of stalagmites and stalactites you will learn exactly how the caves were formed as well as discovering something of the ancient pre-colonial peoples who used the caves for ritual and spiritual purposes. In places, you can see rock drawings left by the indigenous Hispaniolans known as the Taino people.
So fantastical is this amazing place it has been used over and again as a film location for such screen giants as Tarzan and Jurassic Park III and as soon as you arrive you will instantly understand why.
An Alternative Afternoon in Town – Rum Tours and Tasting
If you prefer to stay in Santo Domingo one great way to spend an afternoon is with a tour around a rum establishment and factory. In global terms this Caribbean island is small but nevertheless is known for producing some of the best rum in the world and also has a long history thought to date back to the 1600s. Today the three leading rum brands are Brugal, Barceló and Bermudez.
In the Dominican Republic rum isn’t simply a drink but an essential element in the culture of its people and a factory tour allows you to understand something of this deeply ingrained aspect as well as seeing some of the processes involved first hand.
The Barcelo distillery has set up its Historic Center right here in Santo Domingo, opening its doors to visitors who want an immersive experience, to peek behind the scenes and watch how sugar cane becomes rum. Tours here also include sampling a selection of rums and cocktails.
Santo Domingo also has a rum museum if you want to keep the rum theme in your afternoon. One of the area’s newest museum offerings, the Museum of Rum and Sugar Cane is housed inside a beautiful building dating from the 1500s within the old city zone. During your explorations here you can explore not only the history of rum throughout the Caribbean along with its connection to slavery through a range of interesting exhibits made up of artifacts and old photos but also see how the building you are in was painstakingly restored.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Santo Domingo
Once you’ve finished exploring the Santo Domingo cultural and historical riches for the day you can turn your thoughts to tracking down the ideal place to relax with a rum cocktail to hand or a seafood feast spread before you.
Wonderful bars and restaurants and excellent cuisine is plentiful in this Dominican capital – the hardest thing you will have to do is choose just one venue from the many.
The city has a number of hotspots where you can simply stroll until you find just what you are looking for. The Plaza de España, for example, becomes an especially buzzing place after dark when the restaurants and bars set up terraces directly on the square. The long Malecon with the Caribbean running alongside also has any number of options while there are many beaches just a short taxi ride away for drinking and dining with your feet in the sand.
For most people the idea of relaxing in the Caribbean vibe-filled warmth of a sultry tropical night with a rum cocktail to hand is nothing short of heaven and this in short sums up exactly what Santo Domingo will give you.
If lively merengue beats are your thing that is easy to find as you enjoy sundowner drinks but so too are elegant bars with live classical music performances while no matter whether your preference is for classic cocktails or international beers this city has you covered.
For those looking for some real magic to kick-start their evening head to La Briciola in the heart of the historic colonial zone. Here, in a building as old as the city, you can choose from a range of exquisitely beautiful spaces each of which offer elegance and sophistication in a variety of forms. Also functioning as an upscale Italian restaurant, La Briciola’s open-air courtyard with its stunning lighting and lush greenery is simply enchanting while its lovely terrace is perfect for intimate drinks and dining for two. There is also a piano bar and three other more options depending on your mood and personal preference.
For something a little more informal but also lovely try La Espiral. Largely unknown to tourists, this Zona Colonial bar is a great place to rub shoulders with locals while the small open-air courtyard with its sprinkling of tables is a real delight. There is often live music here and also cultural events, art exhibitions and poetry readings and the drinks on offer range from cocktails to craft beers.
If you chose to head to La Briciola for pre-dinner drinks it is highly unlikely you will want to tear yourself away from this enchanting spot in the old quarter of the city. Luckily La Briciola is primarily a restaurant and from the moment you step through the centuries-old archway of this old colonial building you realize you have arrived somewhere out of the ordinary. Perfect for those with a special occasion to celebrate, this restaurant serves Italian cuisine with some excellent quality steaks and inventive twists on Italian classics.
Meson de la Cava
Another dining option which is decidedly outside of the commonplace is El Meson de la Cava. This is most definitely fine dining but although the food is as good as it gets in the city that isn’t this restaurants main draw. Serving its happy customers since the 1960s, part of El Meson de la Cava is actually set up in a stalactite- and stalagmite-filled cave, worn hollow by the waves of the Caribbean over the millennia and which has an incredible history. Once used by the Taino Indians and later by guerrilla fighters in the 1930s, the cave has also served as a hide-out for pirates while planning their raids on the city during the Spanish Colonial era. A number of old artifacts have been found in the cave and are displayed around the lobby, restaurants and outside areas where there are other dining venue options.
The menu is extensive and diverse, mainly focused around local flavors and traditional dishes along with Spanish and French elements both classic and modern. The fresh seafood catch arrives here daily while steaks, chicken and much more are also options and occasionally an all-you-can-eat buffet is laid on too.
An Evening in Santo Domingo
Evenings in this Caribbean capital can be as lively or as tranquil as you choose. For those who want to immerse themselves in the whole Caribbean party vibe there are plenty of options and in fact trying to avoid music in your evening will be far harder than finding it if this is your aim.
Plaza de España
Arguably the most buzzing after-dark spot for those who want to enjoy something of the Dominican party is the Plaza de España in the old quarter where you’ll be surrounded by beautiful old buildings at the same time.
If you don’t want to park yourself in just one place but choose to soak up the Caribbean atmosphere in general the city has some wonderful places to stroll once the sun sets. The focus of evening rambles is the long 14km ocean-side promenade known as the Malecon although its official name is George Washington Avenue. Lined with top end hotels and casinos along with a multitude of restaurants and bars you can walk until you run out of energy or time. Alternatively, you can take a break along the way if you encounter somewhere which seems like the perfect spot for after-dinner drinks.
Calle El Conde
If you want to combine a walk with a little souvenir shopping the Calle El Conde which cuts through the Colonial Zone is a good bet as vendors often set up here both night and day and there are many shops and boutiques which stay open into the evening hours too.
Something a little different to do in the evenings is to visit the Colonial Gate 4D Cinema which will teach you about the city’s history in an incredibly different way. Through a state-of-the-art medium of short 3D films and a multi-sensory experience which involves motion seats, temperature changes, wind, fog and even sprays of water you can be present as Sir Francis Drake leads his raid on the colonial city in the 16th century.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!