Santo Domingo, the bustling capital of the Dominican Republic (DR), is a surprising place of firsts. It was one of the first places that Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies, it was the first European seat of power in the western hemisphere and it has the first and oldest university in the New World. The city, the largest in the Caribbean, is rightfully proud of its heritage and culture.
Santo Domingo was settled informally in 1493 and then by royal decree in 1496. It quickly became the seat of Spanish colonial rule in the New World. Great explorers including Ponce de Leon, Diego Velazquez, Vasco de Balboa and Hernando Cortes all embarked on their expeditions from Santo Domingo. Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego was the Viceroy and Admiral of the Spanish colonies based in Santo Domingo from 1509. In 1586, the English privateer Sir Francis Drake captured the city and held it for ransom.
Due to the island’s popularity as a resort destination, flights are frequent, and the airports are serviced by many airlines. There are seven airports in the DR but, if you’re visiting the capital, you’ll probably fly into La Isabela International Airport, which is around 30 minutes from the city centre. Local taxis, as well as rideshares, are available. In addition, Santo Domingo has one of the most advanced public transport systems in the Caribbean with an underground and elevated rapid transit metro system. Once you’ve arrived in town, the colonial zone is the easiest area of the city to walk.
Here’s a Pro-tip: The currency is Dominican Pesos and there is slightly more than 75 DOP to one pound. It is best to exchange currency at the airport where you will find the best rates or use the many cash machines located throughout the city.
Santo Domingo has so much to offer its visitors. Here are some of my favourites:
- Alcazar de Colon – is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest viceregal building in the Americas. It houses exhibits of medieval and Renaissance artwork and many other historic collections including; the palace, staterooms, gardens and courtyards.
- Plaza de España – Located just outside the Alcazar de Colon, this beautiful open space and plaza, surrounded by traditional colonial houses, is a beautiful place to view architecture.
- Museum of the Royal Houses – If you want to learn more about the Dominican Republic, its history and colonial past then these old houses are a great place to visit. There are many artefacts and antique weapons contained in the museum as well as the offices of government and the Royal Court.
- The National Pantheon – This was originally a Jesuit church but was renovated in 1956 by Javier Barroso, a Spanish architect. It is now the resting place for prominent personalities in the DR.
- Calle Conde – this is a picturesque shopping area that sits on ten continuous blocks of the colonial district. It is full of boutiques, art galleries, cafes and coffee shops.
- The 3 Eyes National Park –this scenic landscape has three crystal clear lakes that are located within limestone caves. The site is only ten minutes from the city but seems a world away in nature.
I can see clearly with 3 eyes!
- National Botanical Gardens – these beautiful gardens offer a lovely area for walking in beautiful surroundings. The collection is quite varied. The Botanical Gardens are planted with exotic species, tropical palms, orchids and even an authentic Japanese garden.
- Playa Boca Chica Beach – this is less than a half hour drive from the city and is a huge and beautiful expanse. It’s a perfect spot for swimming and snorkelling.
- Juan Dolio Beach – this is 6 miles (10km) of white sand, crystal clear waters and great restaurants. It’s just under an hour away from the city but the trip is so worth it. It’s less busy than other beaches and thus a real treat.
- Chocolate Producers – Did you know that the Dominican Republic is the number one export nation worldwide for organic cacao? This means there are lots of tasty chocolate tours.
- Performing Arts – Santo Domingo is committed to cultural pursuits with symphonies, ballets and a wonderful national theatre amongst other performing arts. Catching a performance in such a beautiful location is a treat!
Food is tasty, clean and affordable in Santo Domingo. Here are three recommendations where you can find excellent options:
Who put salad in my shrimp!
- Food Truck Village – Located in the centre of the city, this popular spot is perfect for a night in the town. Join local residents as you explore the different cuisines on offer including Cuban, Middle Eastern and even Asian.
- Sicily’s – This unassuming, small restaurant, serves up incredible empanadas. Offering over a dozen varieties including ingredients like potato and pork, broccoli and cheese, it is sure to tantalize your taste buds.
- Buche Perico – This beautiful venue is in a hidden courtyard and serves excellent local recipes. The restaurant offers a modern twist on Dominican cuisine with tasty cocktails.
Santo Domingo has a wide variety of nightspots for any taste and budget. Here are some of the best and most unusual places to visit:
- La Alpargateria – This cute bar is also a shoe store! Its historic courtyard houses quirky décor and a great atmosphere. You can select creative cocktails and the venue often offers live music.
- Parada 77 – This is the best place in town to dance the night away. It’s packed with residents dancing to salsa, bachata and merengue all night long. You’re sure to have a great time.
- Vertygo 101 – This upscale venue at the top of the Marriott Hotel is a glamorous rooftop bar. It’s the perfect luxurious spot with glass floors and wonderful panoramic views.
Calle Conde is a great spot for a glass of wine!
There are good international hotels in Santo Domingo but I love its excellent boutique hotels in historic and beautiful buildings. These are some of my favourites:
- Casas del XVI Boutique Hotel – This wonderful boutique hotel is a collection of old houses dating back to the 16th Century that have been combined into a hotel by a clever and innovative designer. Its interiors are bright and stylish, and the pool area is the perfect serene spot to spend your afternoon.
The beginnings of wonderful chocolate!
- Hodelpa Nicolás de Ovando – This hotel is a romantic spot. It was transformed into a luxury hotel in 2003 after it was previously the residence of the first governor of the Americas. It has a beautiful décor, amazing service and a rich history.
- Fixie Lofts – This central aparthotel offers unique accommodation with all the comforts of home in a stylish package! This 1500s villa has been lovingly restored into the perfect minimalist retreat, featuring beautiful courtyards, a shady plunge pool and beautiful garden.
Santo Domingo is a city of firsts and, after just one visit, it will be one of the first cities in your heart! Enjoy a visit to this surprising and comfortable city.