Santo Domingo isn't the tropical paradise most travellers come to the Caribbean in search of, but at the core of the rather bewildering sprawl the old Spanish colonial capital – the very first European city of the New World – lies magically intact along the western bank of the Río Ozama. This was the domain of Christopher Columbus: founded by his brother Bartolomé, ruled by him for a time and claimed a decade later by his son Diego.
Far more than just history makes Santo Domingo an integral part of any trip to the Dominican Republic; it is the modern face of the country, and has a nonstop liveliness not seen in many other places.
Most visitors make a beeline for the Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo's large, substantially intact colonial district, home to dozens of wonderful old buildings. Many never bother to venture outside of this expansive, historic neighbourhood, and while it deserves the most attention you should also make the effort to check out at least a few other diversions throughout the city, especially around the barrios of the Gazcue and Malecón.
Founded in 1498 by Bartholomew Columbus (Christopher Columbus´ brother), Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic's capital, has the distinction of being the oldest colonial city in the Americas. In the present days, this city, located on the southern coast of the island, bordering the Caribbean Sea, has a population that surpasses 3 million people (about 37 percent of the total population of the country) and a land area of approximately 230 square kilometers. The Río Ozama traverses Santo Domingo from north to south, dividing it into two major areas: the eastern and the western; the eastern portion being the most prosperous and modern of the two.
The city is divided in more than 600 sectors denominated ensanches, sectores or zonas. Among these divisions is Santo Domingo´s famous historic district, which is known by many names, including the Colonial Zone , Zona Colonial, Ciudad Colonial and Colonial City. This historic center, declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994, boasts many fine architectural sites from the age of exploration and colonialism, including many of the first colonial monuments of the New World such as the first Catholic Cathedral . It also includes the first street in the New World, Calle Las Damas, and the the oldest commercial street of Santo Domingo, as well as a multitude of restaurants, shops, bars, and museums. The Colonial Zone is limited to the west by the Río Ozama , extends up to the Parque Independencia , at its eastern limit, and ends at El Malecón, at its southern extreme.
Also known as George Washington avenue, El Malecón is considered to be “the largest discotheque in the world”, and it is there where the famous Dominican Carnival is celebrated during the month of February. As well as the carnival, a yearly festival dedicated to the local typical music, the merengue, takes place here during the last days of July. Like a magnet, this palm-lined waterfront area attracts visitors who want to see and be seen. First-class hotels, such as El Jaragua and V Centenario ; a budget hotel, El Napolitano ; world-class eateries, such as the famous Restaurant Vesuvio ; some casinos, for those who want to tempt lady luck; clubs and outdoor cafes line this charming street.
At a walking distance from el Malecón and the Colonial Zone lies the District of Gazcue, formerly an exclusive residential neighborhood, today is a blend of residential and commercial area where houses of unique architecture, mainly from the 1940s and 1950s, are preserved. Many of these residences have become businesses nowadays. This pleasant cultural area, highly populated by trees, is where the majority of the modern museums concentrate, such as the located ones at Plaza de la Cultura, a complex which includes the Museo de Arte Moderno , the Museo de Historia Natural , Museo de Historia y Geografía and the Museo del Hombre Dominicano . The Plaza de la Cultura also includes the National Theater , where national and international plays, ballets and other theatrical presentations, are regularly shown. This district also hosts various fine dining options, several of which are located in antique renovated houses that preserve the charm of the golden era of this privileged area. The Mediterranean cuisine restaurant Reina de España , and El Conuco , offering Dominican food, are some of the restaurants located in Gazcue.
Adjacent to the Gazcue area, to the west, traversing the Avenida Máximo Gómez, is the Zona Universitaria district. Here, the first university of the Americas and the biggest of Santo Domingo, the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD) can be found.
Up north, taking the Tiradentes street, and crossing the Avenida 27 de Febrero, the sector of Naco (limited by Avenida 27 de Febrero to the south, Avenica Kenney to the north, Avenida Ortega y Gasset to the east and Avenida Lope de Vega to the west) can be reached. Once an exclusive residential sector, today, Naco is one of the major commercial areas of the city. It hosts the first shopping center of the city, Plaza Naco . Likewise, hotels (such as Hotel Plaza ), banks, supermarkets, diverse dining options (such as the prestigious Restaurante Vesuvio II ), as well as commercial establishments of all types abound in this area.
Along with Naco, the nearby district of Piantini belongs to the group of the most exclusive zones in the city. Located between the Avenida Lope de Vega and Avenida Winston Churchill, this sector hosts the most modern shopping centers, as well as diverse entertainment options to suit all tastes. Plaza Central and Unicentro Plaza , two modern shopping centers, are located in this area.
Going down the Avenida Winston Churchill, departing from Piantini, the privileged Bella Vista area, delimited by the Avenida 27 de Febrero to the north and the Avenida Anacaona to the south, can be reached. One of the most extensive green areas in the city, frequented by nature and sports lovers daily, the Mirador Sur Park , is located here. The El Embajador Hotel , a preferred destination by business travelers and the Dominican Fiesta Hotel are in this first-class sector, where impressive houses (including Sammy Sosa´s mansion) and luxurious towers, border the Avenida Anacaona and proliferate in the surroundings.
Santo Domingo has no shortage of dining options. Formal and casual restaurants, as well as international fast-food franchises share space with open-air cafes and eateries serving a wide spectrum of culinary choices.
The Spanish left their influence not only on the architecture of the Colonial Zone, but also on the local palate. The Restaurant Boga Boga is a fashionable place to sample Spanish cuisine at its best. Be sure to try the Entremeses Bora (appetizers) and the selection of Serrano ham, chorizo (Spanish sausage), chicken and ham croquettes, and Manchego cheese. Another original specialty is the Paella de Carne (meat paella). For fresh pastas and other Italian specialties, Ristorante La Briciola , with its several different areas. Visitors could also dine at the ever popular Hard Rock Cafe Santo Domingo When it comes to drinking, your best bet is to make your way to the Colonial Zone area called La Atarazana, a cluster of restored 16th-century buildings now filled with stores, bars and restaurants. Here you can indulge in a wide variety of beverages. At Pat´e Palo the party and the drinks never stop and Il Grappolo Enoteca Bar is a great option for wine devotees
In Gazcue, visitors to this delightful Caribbean city can enjoy a wide variety of cuisine. El Conuco is an unusual, fun-filled place that resembles a Dominican farm, serving up Dominican and other Caribbean dishes. Home-style cuisine is the order of the day, and the servings could feed a small army. Another good choice for the local specialties is the casual Restaurant La Parrilla , facing the Caribbean Sea. Italian restaurants abound in Santo Domingo. Restaurante Fellini is known for its creative contemporary Italian nouvelle cuisine in a high-class setting. For Spanish cuisine, options include the restaurants Reina de España , where the Grilled Seafood is one of the house specialties and Mesón de Castilla , praised for its delicious paellas. And for a taste of the Argentinean Pampa, stop in at Asadero Los Argentinos . For an upscale, exotic dining experience, Palacio de Jade cooks up all the flavors of China.
The Naco area of Santo Domingo offers everything from five star restaurants to quick and easy eateries. One award-winning restaurants that offer native cuisine is the Restaurante Buen Provecho , a modern cafeteria, popular with the breakfast and lunch crowds for its buffet brimming with native delicacies. Restaurante Melí Meló, at Plaza Naco is one example of quality dining in the many shopping centers of the city. Dominicans love their Italian food, and Vesuvio II is an upscale restaurant traditionally favored as a meeting place by Santo Domingo's elite. One recommended option for meat-lovers is the western-style Restaurant David Crockett . For those following a healthier lifestyle, Santo Domingo offers some vegetarian choices. These include Restaurante Vegetariano Lotos the only restaurant a la carte within this category, includes a menu with the largest variety of vegetarian/strict vegetarian dishes. Mexican food is also very popular in Santo Domingo. If you crave this kind of fare you should definitely consider visiting Don Nacho Taquería , famous for their delicious and gigantic burritos.
The exclusive Piantini area hosts many diverse and quality dining options. Over the years, El Chef , with a casual ambiance has won numerous awards. Locals and visitors cherish this place for its abundance of freshly prepared local fare. Best of all, the food is made from the highest quality ingredients and is low in fat. Diverse Chinese food restaurants are available in Santo Domingo, like the casual Fai Chan Oriental and Expreso Jade . And for Mexican food there are also many options, such as the popular Tacos del Sol .
Museo de las Casas Reales
Located on Calle Las Damas, the first European-built street in the continent, Museo de las Casas Reales is a reconstructed early 16th-century building, which in colonial times served as a governmental palace, housing the Chancellery of the Indies among other offices. Now it doubles as an art gallery with exhibitions of contemporary Dominican art. Also on this important street, you can find the Reloj de Sol (sundial) built in 1753 by order of General Francisco de Rubio. Next to that lies the Capilla de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios , built in the early 16th Century as a private chapel for the Dávila family. Another important building, the Alcázar de Colón lies at the end of Calle Las Damas. It was constructed by Diego Colón between 1510 and 1514. For six decades it was the seat of the Spanish crown in the New World. It now houses the interesting Museo Virreinal (Viceregal Museum). Near this castle you can also find Las Atarazanas , a cluster of 16th-century buildings, which served as warehouses and now contain stores, bars and restaurants. Other dining options in the area, for when you finish your tour are Restaurante Bella Cristal and Cafe de las Flores .
Just east of Santo Domingo and a few miles past the airport, you will find the town and beach of Boca Chica . It is crowded with locals on Sundays and holidays because of its proximity to Santo Domingo. The town has three large all-inclusive resorts and a host of small hotels, rooming houses and condos. Just behind the beach is Calle Duarte, where all the off-beach action can be found. Here you will find a string of bars, restaurants, gift shops and discos. The Hotel Hamaca has a casino and a disco open to the public. The activities in the resorts will keep you entertained and safe. But if you go out at night, try not to walk alone in the streets. It's a great scene for singles and party crowds, but it is not recommended for family vacationers. But don't miss the beauty of the Boca Chica beach itself. A few minutes farther east, you come to the tourist town and beach of Juan Dolio . There is a little nightlife, but not on the scale of Boca Chica. The beaches here are quiet and pristine. The surf is calm because a barrier reef about a hundred yards off shore keeps the waves down. Most of the area between the reef and the beach is very shallow, making it ideal for walking out to the reef, and for snorkeling and diving. The Coral Costa Caribe and the Decameron casinos are open to the public. This is a great place for a more relaxed vacation experience. Drive a little farther east to the city of La Romana. The city itself has few attractions other than the beach. However, the largest sugar mill in the world fills the oceanfront area. Just outside of La Romana, you have the famous Casa de Campo resort and the Altos de Chavón artist's village. Casa de Campo has fine golf courses, and many rate the Teeth of the Dog course as the best in the Caribbean. If you get hungry after all this beach-going and resort hopping, all these hotels offer world-class dining options, as well as more casual options.
Monasterio de San Francisco
The city's most important ruins include the Monasterio de San Francisco , the first monastery in the Americas, constructed in the first decade of the 16th century. It was sacked by Francis Drake and finally destroyed by two earthquakes in 1673 and 1751. Nearby, the Iglesia del Convento Dominico has served as the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, but today has been returned to the Dominican Order. Also in the area and worth a visit are the Iglesia de Santa Bárbara , a gothic style church that dates back to 1537, and houses the baptismal font of the Father of the Dominican Republic, Juan Duarte. After all these religious sights, maybe you're in the mood for something a little more lighthearted like the Acuario Nacional de la República Dominicana (National Aquarium) . With 250 different marine species, the aquarium is a great spot for a little lighthearted fun and education for the whole family. After visiting all these museums and churches, there are a good number of restaurants for you to refuel. The Montecristo Cafe is an English style pub serving a variety of both hot and cold snacks, as well as drinks and various theme nights throughout the week. Rossini serves mouth watering Italian dishes in practically no time at all, a good choice if you're in a hurry to get back to the sightseeing.
Guided Tours: Colonial Tour and Travel (+809 688 5285 / http://www.colonialtours.com.do/Englishsanto.htm)
More information about guided tours of Santo Domingo and the Dominican Republic can be found at the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism:
Avenida Mexico 30 de Marzo Santo Domingo http://www.godominicanrepublic.com/