The Dominican Republic has long been a popular vacation spot, and this year more than ever, tourists are flocking to this island nation in the Caribbean.
In February 2023 alone, over 600 thousand tourists arrived by air, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
While the beaches are obviously the draw here (as they should be), there are places inland worth a look at as well.
One such place is the vibrant and historic capital city of Santo Domingo.
Here’s Why You Really Shouldn’t Miss Out On Exploring This Gem:
Just A Capital City?
Founded in 1496 by Christopher Columbus’s younger brother, Bartholomew, Santo Domingo is the oldest continuously inhabited European city in all of the Americas. Here you will find the largest metropolitan city in the whole Caribbean and a colonial city that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A 2010 American Capital of Culture, Santo Domingo should be more than just your point of entry to this country. There are many reasons you should spend a couple of nights here before or after heading to the beaches, from history, nightlife, culture, food and drinks, and rooftop pools.
Reaching the beach areas from Santo Domingo is easy by car, and public buses are cheap and comfortable as well. Santo Domingo has UBER, so getting around the city shouldn’t be an issue, and there are areas to stick to and areas that are not suggested for tourists.
Note: Santo Domingo is a huge sprawling metropolis, and new areas are sprouting up over time. This article will focus on the main tourist draw of the Zona Colonial.
Where To Stay
The best place to stay in Santo Domingo for tourists is the Zona Colonial or Colonial Zone. This is where you will feel the safest, be within an easy walk to many of the main sites, and be able to pop back to your accommodation for an afternoon cool down before heading back out for some fantastic nightlife.
Santo Domingo gets hot, as one might expect, and wandering the cobblestone streets all day will defiantly wear you down if visiting in the warmer months, so don’t overdo it. Luckily, there are many accommodation options with pools, perfect for an afternoon cool down.
Zona Colonial is not all that large, but luckily there are numerous rentals and boutique hotels here. Be careful when choosing where to stay, as some properties list themselves as being just outside the Colonial Quarter, and a few of these areas are not places to walk around at night.
Note: I am not saying they are ‘dangerous’ per se, but that they might not make the average traveler feel as comfortable as a more central location.
If possible, stay IN the Colonial Zone, not ‘nearby’. The best tip for this is to read the reviews before booking, specifically look for mentions of “safe, walking, night,” etc. Tales from actual travelers will give you a much better picture of the area than the property description in most cases.
There are other areas of this large city that some travelers prefer to stay, such as Zona Universitaria, Gazcue, or the Malecon area, but honestly, if you are here to see the Zona Colonial, it’s best to stay here and save travel time.
There are also some urban beach areas here you might choose, but it’s likely that you will be heading to one of the more famous beach areas, so it’s better to wait for those.
What To See and Do
The best way to experience the colonial quarter of Santo Domingo is simply to wander and take it all in. However, unless you are glued to a guidebook, it’s best to join one of the city’s many walking tours. With a guide, you can hear the history and get a feel for the real heartbeat of this area.
Depending on when you visit, you will likely see A LOT of tour groups, most of the coming from cruise ships. Luckily they don’t seem to stay long and congest the streets, and shouldn’t interrupt your sightseeing too much.
There is also a small tourist train that put-puts its way around some of the streets with a recorded audio description of the sights. This is a cheap and fun way to see a bit without breaking a sweat.
TIP- take this little train to scout out nice photo spots that you can circle back for golden hour.
The many restaurants and bars in the colonial zone leave you spoiled for choice here, and there is something for everyone’s budget and tastes. Ranging from rooftops, historic buildings, and newer developments, you can find Dominican food and anything else you might want. One personal favorite for a killer view is Sugarcane La Casa Del Ron, where you can sip and overlook the first church in the Americas.
For beer lovers, there are also a few very cool breweries scattered in colorful old houses in the Zona Colonial. So, be sure to seek those out if you are here to sample some of the Dominican Republic’s craft beers. For some great gram-worthy pics, La Cacata Brewing is a vibrant little place serving awesome ales.
If you can tear yourself away from the food and drinks, there are many cultural things to see and do here as well.
Parks such as Independence and Columbus are worth a visit, as are the many museums and historic sites to explore.
Museum of the Royal Houses, Museo del Larimar, the Amber World Museum, and Alcazar de Colon are all popular options.
Santo Domingo also has the Caribbean’s first urban cable car, and while its main purpose is to make the daily lives of residents easier, tourists are welcome to enjoy it as well.
Take the clean and efficient subway or an Uber to reach the station and enjoy a birds of view of the real Santo Domingo, far from the glitzy tourist shop-lined streets of the Zona Colonial.
It’s a shame how many people miss out on Santo Domingo when coming to the Dominican Republic, and it’s even more of a shame that people come to Santo Domingo and miss out on one of its best-kept secrets.
Literally IN the city lies a small but stunning cave system that you can visit for next to nothing, and while you cannot swim in the blue waters, the views rival any cenote that you might find in Mexico.
The Tres Ojos (Three Eyes) National Park is a must-see when visiting Santo Domingo and makes an easy stop on the way to the airport if you can arrange with your driver to wait about 30 minutes for you. The cost for entry is about $2, and you climb down and experience the pools and caves surrounding you.
While not very large, this place is fantastic, and you feel a million miles from the highway that actually runs right next to the park.
To reach the most photogenic spot, bring a couple of extra dollars with you. I won’t spoil the surprise, but let’s just say there are ropes and a floating raft involved.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com