If you are like my husband and someone who loves seeing “est” then the Dominican Republic and Santo Domingo are the place for you. In addition to being the oldest city in the “new world”, Santo Domingo also has the first church, hospital, fort and paved street in the Western Hemisphere.
The island of Hispaniola, of which the Dominican Republic is the Eastern two-thirds, was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. After two failed settlements on the northern part of the islands, Santo Domingo was established close to its current location. The city and the country changed hands several times over the intervening centuries between the Spanish, British, Haitians, and Americans. Today the remains of Santo Domingo reflect a charming 16th century Spanish colonial city.
The historic Zona Colonial is small and one day is about the right amount of time to see it. It is only 11 square blocks and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We found it easy to navigate and affordable. I would recommend the following walking tour of the city:
Catedral Primada de America (RD$70) – this is the oldest standing Cathedral in the “new world” and sits in the heart of the Zona Colonial in Parque Colon. I would start your day here so you can get a feel for the area and it would be a great place to grab a cup of coffee or breakfast if you haven’t already. There is also a dress code for the Catedral, so if you are dressed for the heat but not inclined to be issued a brown scarf to cover your shoulders and legs you can come here first and then return to your hotel to change for the rest of the day.
Walk through the old city by the Hospital ruins of San Nicolas de Bari and the San Franciscan Monastery. Make a quick stop at the Ron museum for a sample of Pineapple and Coffee rum. And then visit the Museo Alazar de Colon (Columbus House – RD$100 includes an audio guide). This was the residence of Columbus’ son Diego during his time administering the area for the Spanish crown.
Museo de las Casas Reales (RD$100 includes audio guide) is next door and almost overwhelming by its size and amount of objects from Colonization to present day. The quality of the information presented on the audio guide varies between displays and most of the signage is in Spanish. But this is still a great stop for an overview and comprehensive timeline of the country. Make sure to stop and listen to the explanation of Francis Drake and his role in Dominican history.
Pantheon Nacional which is a mausoleum in an old warehouse dedicated to the tombs of the countries heroes.
Before continuing on, as recommended by my friend, we stopped back at Parque Colon for lunch at El Conde. If you get there early enough (we didn’t) have the dish of the day. Regardless, we had a variety of dishes and none of us were disappointed.
After lunch, continue your walk down calle Las Damas (oldest paved street in the Americas) to Fortaleza Ozama (RD$70) the oldest colonial military structure built in 1502.
Casa de Tostado (RD$100 including audio guide) was a fun stop. It is the museum of the family which I don’t always enjoy while traveling. But this one was well done and actually a stop for a local school group.
Finish your walking tour at Puerta del Conde the location of the coup leading to independence from Britain in 1655 and Haiti in 1844.
If you have time or are a night owl, consider a stop at the Colonial Gate 4D cinema where you can watch three short movies for RD$400. You will see the Battle of Santo Domingo detailing the time of the British pirates in the city and then have your choice of two other short films. The theater is open until 1100 pm but closed on Mondays.
If you have time, then I recommend a second day to explore a few sights outside of the historic area. Top of our list:
Los Tres Ojos (RD$100) is near Faro Colon and the Zona Colonial but feels a world away. You walk down into three caves a magnificent underworld filled with lagoons, greenery and stalactites. This is a popular stop for school groups so I would recommend this as your first stop of the day as an attempt to beat them there.
Faro Colon (RD$100) is a short drive across the river which has the remains of Christopher Columbus. This is controversial with Spain and Italy but according to the Dominican Republic his will stated he wanted to be buried there. The building is immense and uniquely designed. I have to agree with Lonely Planet who describes it as a “cross between a Soviet-era apartment block and a Las Vegas-style ancient Mayan ruin.”
Travel tips: Driving in Santo Domingo is crazy and I would not recommend it. But no car is needed for the Zona Colonial and Ubers are available and affordable if you venture farther. The city felt very safe and there are tourist police throughout the city to assist. However, similar to other cities, be careful at the big tourist sights, once you start talking to someone you may have inadvertently “hired” a guide.
Hotels: We stayed in two hotels while in town. 154 H Colonial was beautiful and my preferred of the two options. However, Casa del Sol was also in a great location, clean, simple and friendly. Anywhere in the Zona Colonial is going to have some street noise and in my opinion that is part of the charm.