So you are heading to the Dominican Republic and want to know some cool things to do. Santo Domingo is one of the largest metropolitan cities in the Caribbean. With a population of around 4 million, the city is the cultural, financial, and economic hub of the country. Along with this, Santo Domingo also has the luxury of being the first European city in the new world. The city was founded by the Spanish in 1496 by Christopher Columbus’s brother, Bartolome. The city first sat on the East bank of the Ozama river until it was moved to the West Bank, with the port and harbor of Santo Domingo sitting at the mouth of the river. The first major slave revolt in the Americas started in Santo Domingo and was a hot target for pirates including notable English privateer Sir Francis Drake. After several revolutions, political unrest, and even two invasions, the city of Santo Domingo remains today as a place with a rich culture, stunning colonial-era architecture, and plenty to see and do. Santo Domingo was the first seat of Spanish colonial rule in the Americas and is the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the Americas.
Santo Domingo is divided into two halves, separated by the Ozama River. The western side is very developed economically while the eastern side has historically lagged behind a bit in that regard. As a tourist, you’ll likely be spending most of your time on the western side and along the “Zona Colonial”. The central area is beautiful with palm-lined streets, old houses, and plenty of upscale shopping and dining. Discover the old and the new and see the best of the new world’s first city.
Stroll Through the Colonial Zone
The “Zona Colonial” or simply the Colonial Zone is one of the oldest neighborhoods on the continent. It’s the historic center of the old city and is entirely a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Colonial Zone is the biggest tourist attraction in the city with its cobblestone streets, colonial-era buildings and home, and impressive colorful art scene. The area is at a constant bustle. Locals and tourists mingle on the streets, shops, and open doors allowing a peek into the lives of the people while secret shaded courtyards and alleyways make it feel like you’re taking a look into the past. Shop for souvenirs, or simply head to a cafe and grab a coffee while you sit on the patio and watch the world go by. The colonial zone is big and has a lot of things to check out within it. But if you’re short on time and just want a taste, having a stroll through the city center is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Parque Colón: At the heart of the Colonial Zone is the Parque Colón. Street performers, vendors, locals, tourists, and kids come here to hang out, meet up and just enjoy the vibes. With the statue of Columbus standing right in the middle, the park is a great place to orient yourself with the rest of the city. To the north is the Calle el Conde which is the city’s first main pedestrian street where you’ll find plenty of cafes and restaurants, and on the south side is the beautiful Catedral Primada de América.
Catedral Primada de América: Sitting on the south side of the park, the Catedral Primada de América was completed in 1540 and was the first cathedral built in the Americas. Perhaps what makes the cathedral even more stunning is the fact that the grounds are not ruins. The building is still a fully functioning place of worship and looks much like it did when it was built over 450 years ago. Original features like the grand mahogany doors, silver altar, and painting of the Virgin Mary remain just as they did when it was first built.
Calle El Conde: Running from the Plaza Independencia to the Parque Colon, the Calle El Conde is one of the hottest streets to explore in the Colonial Zone. Just beyond the Ozama River, the street is filled with restored colonial buildings, outdoor dining and restaurants, and a long stretch of pedestrian walking spots with plenty of shade from the sun. It has a distinct European feel with all the warmth of the Caribbean. As you walk closer to Plaza Independencia, the shops start to get more and more upscale and modern with smaller shops and boutiques. Shopping, dining, and nightlife, all in one street.
Learn About One of the Country’s Biggest Exports
For those with a sweet tooth, you’ll be able to step into a chocolatey world like you’re at the Caribbean Willy Wonka factory. Chocolate is big business in the Dominican Republic and the Choco Museum is there to document the history of one of the country’s biggest exports. The Dominican Republic is the number one exporter of organic cocoa. The Choco Museum takes visitors on a tour (in English or Spanish) through the history of cocoa production and its history on the island. Along the way, you can sample some delicious products including pieces of chocolate, chocolate drinks, and even cocoa-based makeup. Learn about the process of growing, drying, and processing, and of course, purchase a few chocolatey samples to take with you when you leave.
Explore the Oldest Fortress in the Americas
Because Santo Domingo is considered “the first city of the new world”, a lot of the historic landmarks and structures are the “oldest”. The Fortaleza Ozama is named after the river it sits on the mouth of. Located just outside the Colonial Zone, the fortress was built in 1502 and was positioned to withstand attacks from invaders and rebellions. With its ten-foot-thick walls, the fortress has withstood longer than several governments ruling it has.
In addition to being a military base, the fortress also housed the Viceroy of Santo Domingo, of which Christopher Columbus was once one. He and his family lived here and during his reign, he was so corrupt that the Spanish royal government saw him unfit to govern and had him jailed in his own fortress. After he was dismissed, Columbus never returned.
The history of the fort is tumultuous and exchanged hands between countries several times. The fort was so well-built that it continued to be a prison well into the 20th century. By the 1960s it closed and became a monument and national landmark.
Learn a Little about the Country’s Modern History
In 1955, almost half of the Latin American republics were ruled by dictators. While the concept of a military dictatorship was not exactly uncommon in the region, the sheer brutality of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s regime was regarded as far worse than any others in the region. Following years of political unrest in the early 20th century, Trujillo took over power in 1930 and ruled with an iron fist until 1961 when he was then assassinated. Like most despotic dictators, he ruled the country at his whim. Seizing land and giving money and power to those he liked and oppressing those he didn’t. He even renamed Santo Domingo to “Ciudad Trujillo”. Aside from killing 50,000 of his own countrymen, he also had people killed outside the country.
The Trujillo legacy in the country is a touchy subject, but the Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance aims to educate and serve as a reminder about the country’s past without glossing over it. Replicas of torture chambers and displays of famous historic moments under his regime are recreated in gruesome detail.
Enjoy one of the City’s Most Unique Dining Establishments
Not only is Meson de la Cava one of the city’s most unique places to eat, but it’s also one of the best. The Meson de la Cava restaurant is as the name suggests, a restaurant located in a cave. Tucked away in a cave carved out by millions of years of waves and water erosion, the Meson de la Cava is highly regarded for its Dominican and French cuisine by both locals and visitors alike. Previous tenants of the cave include Taino natives, pirates, and a pan-American government organization.
While the entrance to the restaurant is located on the street level, you’ll have to descend a 40-foot staircase to get to the lobby. Take in the views of all the stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the impressive display of valuable belongings from the previous occupants.
When it comes to the food here. Expect stellar service and fresh dishes made from local ingredients and seafood fished out of the Caribbean Sea from the same afternoon. Spanish and French-influenced dishes mingle with Dominican ingredients for an amazing fusion of flavor.
Catch a Game at Estadio Quisqueya
Baseball is big business in the Dominican Republic and the Estadio Quisqueya in Santo Domingo is home to two of the city’s biggest teams; the Tigres del Licey and Leones del Escogido so no matter what there’s always some bustling action going on. Built in 1955 the stadium was modeled after the Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami and was then remodeled and renovated in 2007 to fit more spectators. The stadium sits about 15,000 people and is one of the best spots in the country to witness Dominican baseball at its finest.
Get a Taste of Local Fusion Cuisine
Along the Avenida Juan Pablo Duarte is where you’ll find Santo Domingo’s Chinatown. Unlike a lot of bigger city’s Chinatowns, the one here is less geared towards tourists and is a humbly working and middle-class spot. While there are plenty of Chinese workers in the city along with 2nd generation Chinese-Dominican immigrants, locals have taken a big interest in Chinese food. So much so that Chinese and Dominican fusion has essentially become its thing.
Every Sunday near Mercado Modelo local farmers and grocers sell Chinese food, Chinese fruits, and Chinese vegetables alongside the local produce. The result of which is a fascinating encounter between both cultures. Dominican-style fried Chicken (known as Pica Pollo) is served alongside Chinese-fried rice, plantain slices, and other Chinese comfort food staples. The area is more aimed towards locals so brush up on your Spanish and indulge in a very niche-but-somehow-authentic culinary experience.
Spend a day At Boca Chica or Juan Dolio
You’re spending some time in the Caribbean, you’re going to want to check out the local beaches. While Santo Domingo is located on the coast, you’ll have to head outside the city if you want a beach experience. To the east of the city is the town of Boca Chica and it is about a 30-minute drive from Santo Domingo. While hotels and lavish summer homes were popping up here as early as the 1950s, it was only until the 70s that it became known as a hot beach destination. White sandy beaches, crystalline waters, and hot Caribbean sun make it a perfect escape from the city.
Juan Dolio is a little more local-oriented but just as nice as Boca Chica. Located a bit further away but still, on the coast, Playa Juan Dolio is popular with locals and tourists and offers amenities like parking spaces and a town nearby if you want to pick up some stuff or grab a light lunch. Juan Dolio has the privilege of being “less touristy” so the environment feels a little less spoiled with its notable lack of hotels and plenty of palm trees.
Our Final Word
Kati is much more of a beach and Caribbean person than I, but Santo Domingo is so much more than just beaches. Besides the beaches which are great, history, chocolate and baseball rule the island with some great food. What more could you ask for. When planning that next great couples or family destination, consider the DR and head to Santo Domingo. You will not be dissapointed.