explore Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Explore Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Explore Santo Domingo the capital of the Dominican Republic and the oldest European city in the Americas. The old city is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Santo Domingo is the capital city of the Dominican Republic, and it prides itself in being the first European city in the New World. Founded by Christopher Columbus’s brother Bartolome Colombus in 1496, it is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas and was the first seat of the Spanish colonial empire in the New World. For this reason, the city of Santo Domingo has a really rich historic and cultural heritage that makes any visit extremely worthwhile. Nowadays, it remains one of the most populous cities in the Central America-Caribbean area, and the main economic and commercial center of this region.

The city is divided into two parts by the Ozama River. The western side is very developed economically, while the eastern part, known as “Santo Domingo Este,” has historically lagged behind.

The most important tourist destination of the city is the Zona Colonial or Colonial Zone, on the western bank of the river and facing the Caribbean Sea. To the west of the Zona Colonial lies Gazcue, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, filled with old Victorian houses and tree-lined streets. The city’s waterfront George Washington Avenue, knows as “El Malecon,” borders the Caribbean Sea and attracts many tourists because of its hotels, casinos, palm-lined boulevards and monuments. Surrounding the Gazcue area you will find the Palacio Nacional (seat of the Dominican government), the National Theater, the Museums in the Plaza de la Cultura, and the Palace of Fine Arts.

In the central part of western Santo Domingo lies the economic and commercial heart of the city, in an area known as the “Poligono Central” and delimited by the 27 de Febrero, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Maximo Gomez avenues. This high-income area remains rather unexplored by tourists, despite offering most of the best dining and shopping available in the city. Many of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods surround the city’s two main parks, the Parque Mirador Sur in the South and the Jardin Botanico in the North.

In the less developed Oriental Santo Domingo you will find other major monuments and tourist spots, such as Columbus’s Lighthouse, where the explorer’s remains are buried, the open caves of the Parque Nacional Los Tres Ojos, and the National Aquarium.

This all makes of Santo Domingo a cosmopolitan, vibrant and bustling city with very distinct neighborhoods and ambiances, all worth a visit, and providing the most diverse cultural experiences.

Santo Domingo enjoys a tropical climate. The island is prone to hurricanes especially during June 1 to November 30, but fortunately they receive many warnings beforehand to prepare their people and tourist of any harm. Santo Domingo is a great city to visit during any season, because the city’s ideal tropical weather runs all year long!

Santo Domingo is the headquarters of economic activity in Dominican Republic. The city catches the attention of many international firms. Many of these firms have their headquarters in the city due to its great location and prosperous economy.

You can arrive at

  • Las Americas International Airport (Located: Greater Santo Domingo). It is located approximately 15 minutes from the greater metropolitan area and around 30 minutes from the city`s center. The airport offers several transportation options, including all major American car rental firms.
  • La Isabela International Airport (Located: Greater Santo Domingo).
  • Punta Cana International Airport (Located: Punta Cana / Higüey City)
  • La Romana International Airport (Located: La Romana City)
  • Cibao International Airport (Located: Santiago de los Caballeros City
  • Gregorio Luperón International Airport (Located: Puerto Plata City)
  • El Catey International Airport (Located: Sanchez City)
  • María Montez International Airport (Located: Barahona City)

Despite boasting a rich cultural, architectural and artistic heritage, Santo Domingo has not been exploited for all its tourist potential. You’re pretty much on your own to discover this fascinating city. Make the most of your time there.

Colonial Zone. Santo Domingo was the first major European settlement in the New World. Christopher Columbus walked these streets! Check out the many examples of 15th and 16th century architecture in the Colonial Zone. Don’t miss the Ozama Fort, the Alcazar de Colon and the Cathedral, all built in Columbus’ lifetime. You can also check beautiful churches and convents, such as the Iglesia Regina Angelorum and the Convento de los Dominicos. Don’t miss the Panteon Nacional, where the national heroes are buried, located in the Calle Las Damas, the New World’s first (European) street! Also, walk up the Calle del Conde, a very old pedestrian shop-lined street that used to be the commercial heart of the city. This street leads to the Puerta de la Independencia, where the Dominican Republic proclaimed its independence from Haiti, and the Parque Independencia, where the country’s founding fathers’ remains are kept. On Sunday evenings, check out the Ruinas de San Francisco for live bands playing Merengue, Bachata, Salsa and Son, in a wonderful weekly show where both locals and tourists dance, drink and enjoy themselves. This would be an unforgettable experience! Also check out La Atarazana street after dark for a variety of romantic outdoor cafes with a spectacular view of the Alcazar and bay area. One such brasserie, Pat E Palo, has operated uninterrupted since 1505. Check out the house where Ponce DeLeon lived before he embarked upon his quest for the fountain of youth and ended up discovering Florida.

Malecon (George Washington Avenue). This waterfront boulevard is home to several huge hotel/casino complexes and dozens of small restaurants, clubs and cafes. Go there to people watch, take a romantic carriage ride or just have a few beers. It hosts many festivals and concerts throughout the year. Parallel to the Malecon you will find Avenida Independencia, a tree lined street full of shops, bed and breakfasts and affordable restaurants with a nice mix of locals and tourists. For a unique dining experience check out Adrian Tropical, a traditional Dominican restaurant literally built on the water, or San Gil, a more formal eatery occupying the ruins of a colonial fort. The Malecon Center, located on the far end of the Malecon, is a new and still under occupied high-end shopping center/hotel/condo complex with a Botero sculpture out front that reportedly cost US$1 million.

Plaza de la Cultura. This amazing complex is home to the National Theater and five museums, ranging from the dilapidated and mundane, to the crisp, modern Museum of Modern Art, the largest in the Caribbean and home to exhibits by artists from Jamaica, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and of course, the Dominican Republic. If you want a nice beautiful garden to read or talk this is your place also.

Eco-tourism. Find your way to the Parque Mirador Sur, an impressive park overlooking the coast. It gets closed for cars on weekdays between 5 and 8 am and pm, as well as on Sundays, enabling it to get filled with families playing with their children and exercising. Bike rentals are at your disposal. Also, you can visit the Jardin Botanico, a vast, beautiful and lush park situated near one of Santo Domingo’s most exclusive neighborhoods. There you can experience different ecosystems from a rain-forest to a Japanese garden!

Eastern Santo Domingo. Referred to as Santo Domingo Oriental, this separate municipality is not very tourist-friendly. Fortunately, most of its attractions are very close to the Colonial Zone and easy to get to. Check out Los Tres Ojos, or Three Eyes, a series of open-roof caverns and underground lakes for the whole family to explore (with a local this part of Santo Domingo is the most poverty stricken and can be dangerous!!!!). Head over to the Faro a Colon, a huge lighthouse and monument to Christopher Columbus which not only houses his remains but doubles as a museum. Check out the Santo Domingo Aquarium, a small but impressive showcase of the local aquatic life. If you’re looking for some shopping, you can go to the Megacentro, Santo Domingo’s largest shopping mall. It is massive!

Upscale Santo Domingo. If you want to see the cosmopolitan, upscale side of Santo Domingo, head to the Piantini and Naco neighborhoods. Streets like Gustavo Mejía Ricart and major avenues like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill are lined with high end boutiques, shopping plazas, expensive cafes and restaurants offering a huge variety of international cuisines and just about anything money can buy, from cigar shops to Ferrari and Bentley dealerships. The JW Marriott Hotel has recently opened in this area, which is very likely to bring much more tourism into what is the actual “downtown” of Santo Domingo. Don’t miss Blue Mall, an ultra-modern shopping center/office building where you will find everything from Hard Rock Cafe’s to Sophias Bar and Grill along with the most expensive shops in the city from Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, Cartier, Tous & L’Occitane to more casuals like Zara and Adidas. For a (slightly) less expensive option, try Agora Mall nearby. Also just opened is Novocentro which opened in a glass tower which was originally going to be a bank, but turned into a 2 story shopping center featuring a Fine Arts Cinema and some high end restaurants and gelaterias. Further away you can find Bella Vista Mall and Sambil, two other big shopping malls in Santo Domingo. If you’re looking for more open-air plazas lined with smaller boutiques, you should check out Plaza Andalucia. For bowling, you can go to the Plaza Bolera, which has recently gotten a face-lift. If you’re in this area in the early afternoon, you should check out trendy cafes such as La Cuchara de Madera, where you can enjoy delicious deserts such as their dulce de leche “Piramides”, and SUD & La posta for dining and definitely to high-end nightclubs and bars.

Museums

  • Alcázar de Colón – Visit this stunning villa, built in 1510 and retaining period furnishings and other items owned by Governor Diego Colón, first-born son of Christopher Columbus.
  • Naval Museum of the Atarazanas Located across the plaza from the Alcazar de Colon on Calle Atarazana, the oldest street in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Museum of the Casas Reales Another great museum featuring collections depicting life in 16th century Santo Domingo. Located on Calle Las Damas, walking distance from the Alcazar de Colon and the Naval Museum.
  • World of Ambar Museum An impressive collection of amber stones
  • Museum of Duarte A collection of artifacts and writings regarding the Dominican Republic’s founding father, Juan Pablo Duarte. Located on Calle Isabel La Catolica, a few blocks west of the above museums.
  • Museo del Ron Dominicano Interesting museum presenting the history and evolution of rum production in the Dominican Republic. In the after hours it turns into a bar (read below). [24]
  • Museum of Natural History
  • Museum of Dominican Man
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • National Museum of History and Geography

Parks

There are many parks around the city of Santo Domingo. One of the most popular parks is called Los Miradores, which are located on various sections of the city. These parks are very cozy for a picnic, to bike ride, a quick jog, or a long walk to enjoy nature and relax with friends. They’re a quite huge and can be a bit unsafe if wandered during the night, because it lacks street lights. Although Santo Domingo is surrounded by beautiful parks it does lack recreational facilities accessible to the public. Some of the parks that can be found:

  • Mirador Norte Park, lies in the north of the city, close to Villa Mella
  • Enriquillo Park
  • Mirador Sur Park, located in the southwest section of the city
  • Independencia Park, located in Zona Colonial
  • Colón Park, located in Zona Colonial
  • Las Praderas Metropolitan Park
  • The Malecón, cityfront coastal park
  • Rafael Ma. Moscoso National Botanical Garden
  • Dominican Republic National Zoo
  • Parque Nuñez de Caceres

Two of the top festivities of the year occur in Santo Domingo. The annual Merengue Festival in the summer and Carnival in the spring. Each of these is held on the city’s main seaside main road, El Malecon, but tend to spill over into hotel ballrooms, beaches, patios and even parking lots. This is a great way to emerge oneself into the Dominican culture, as well as meet new interesting people from the city. The Merengue Festival takes place between July 26th  and 31st . The festival is a celebration of Dominican Republic’s main dance, merengue. They invite the top merengue bands to perform free concerts to the crowd. The festival begins with a parade, but later becomes a concert. There are art exhibitions, food fairs, and games that occur at the same time. The main activity that is done during the festival is dancing merengue, so be prepared to be spun uncontrollable when you decide to dance with a local. The other amazing festival is The Carnival, which takes place during the entire month of February, but reaches its peak on February 27, the Dominican Independence Day. The Carnival also takes place in El Malecon, where masks, which symbolizes spiritual spirits; elaborate costumes, and intriguing dances parade down the streets while entertaining and sometimes scaring the crowd.

The Colonial Zone offers plenty of shopping opportunities, especially if you are looking for Ambar and Larimar, the traditional stones of the DR. Don’t forget to haggle, as all the shop owners adjust their prices for this purpose. You will also find a ton of Haitian art for sale everywhere at great prices. If that’s your thing, great, just remember it’s not Dominican. The main boulevard in the Colonial Zone is El Conde, a pedestrian boulevard lined with all kinds of shops and eateries mostly aimed at the locales. Have fun shopping and people watching here.

If you are feeling adventurous, have a cab take you to the Mercado Modelo nearby. This indoor labyrinth of shops can be overwhelming for a new tourist but, don’t worry, it is safe. Then again, you might feel safer asking the cab driver to escort you through the maze of shops and kiosks offering every imaginable kind of souvenir, jewelry, stone, artwork, etc.

If you want to experience American-style shopping there are plenty of options but here are the four most popular: Agora Mall, Blue Mall, Galerias 360 and Sambil, for those of you willing to venture into Santo Domingo Oriental, MegaCentro. Remember: no haggling at the malls. While MegaCentro is farther away than the others, it is the second largest mall in the Caribbean (after Plaza Las Americas in Puerto Rico) and is a destination in and of itself. This place is HUGE!

Santo Domingo offers a variety of cuisines from around the world from Chinese, Italian and Mediterranean to Brazilian. You can also find the main fast food franchises like McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, among others.

At some point in history Dominicans became quite fond of fried chicken and chinese food, combining both cuisines into fast food establishments known as “pica pollos”. These are usually take-out joints run by first or second generation chinese immigrants, serving up heaping portions of fried rice, plantain slices and tasty (and greasy) fried chicken, along with the usual variety of chinese comfort food. Very inexpensive. Visit Santo Domingo’s China Town, near the Mercado Modelo and not far from the Colonial Zone (Duarte Avenue), a very busy zone where working class people do a lot of their shopping. If you feel adventurous enough to enter this usually chaotic but very picturesque part of the town it would an experience to remember. Keep in mind, pick-pockets love the crowded streets, watch your belongings closely.

Santo Domingo has an amazing variety of night life options. Unfortunately, most bars and clubs must close at 1AM from Sunday to Thursday and at 2AM on Friday and Saturday. This is a regulation imposed since 2006 intended to curtail the escalating crime in the city. Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to start partying at 8PM on the weekends. Happily, the regulation is suspended on holidays and the last two weeks of December for Christmas partying. Usually the clubs located inside major hotels are exempt from this rule, although they aren’t usually much fun.

Whatever you do, don’t leave Santo Domingo without visiting La Guacara Taina, the only nightclub in the world inside a huge natural cave. Descend several hundred feet into a fantasy world of lights and sound. You have to see this place to believe it. Located (under) the Mirador Sur park mentioned above.

Official tourism websites of Santo Domingo

For more information please visit the official government website: 

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