Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic. It is also the largest city in the Caribbean, and has a population of 3 million people. Santo Domingo is the oldest continuously inhabited European city in the Americas, and was once home to Columbus’ family. It’s a city full of history and mystery, with beauty around every corner. All the being said, tourists hardly visit the capital compared to Punta Cana and Puerto Plata. If you want a taste for some of the places that make the Dominican Republic special, Santo Domingo is not a city to be missed. When I lived there for a summer, these were the five things to do in Santo Domingo that I enjoyed the most (not arranged in any particular order).
Contemplate the Mystery of Columbus at Faro a Colon (Or Columbus Lighthouse)
The Dominican government began construction on this massive, cross-shaped monolith in 1986. El Faro was completed six years later on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first journey to the Caribbean. The memorial houses a museum with artifacts from all over the region, and what is said to be Columbus’ remains. There is some debate about this, however, as DNA tests have proven that Columbus is housed in the Seville Cathedral of Spain. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic did not allow its own holdings to be tested.
When I visited, I marveled at the stark building. I have read that its cross shape is in reference to the coming of the Christian religion to the New World. The bulky, grey mass of the monument wasn’t cheerful in aesthetic or in its meaning… at least not to me. The Caribbean (and many other regions of the world) are still recovering from the colonialism that this symbolizes. Even so, I don’t think this is a place to be missed. History, even regretful history, is something that we should never forget. And there is no arguing that Columbus played a major role in shaping the world we live in today, for better or worse. There is no where else like this in the world.
Walk El Malecon
The Malecon is a stretch of Santo Domingo that runs along the water. If you enjoy the ocean, this is about as close to a beach that you will get in the city. Rocky cliffs are otherwise the norm in this area. There are some shops and food to be had here, as well as some more of the city’s monuments.
The Malecon is a public space, and its somewhere just as enjoyed by local residents as visitors. With large swaths of grass areas and small places to eat, it was full of families and weekend festivities when I went. It’s one of those unique things to do in Santo Domingo that is the perfect place to mingle with city residents.
Ponder the Past in La Zona Colonial
La Zona Colonial is a part of Santo Domingo that has a very high concentration of historic buildings, and which is honored on a global scale as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you can visit Christopher Columbus’s son’s home, as well as colonial forts and churches, and museums full of antiquities. Santo Domingo was the first major bastion of European influence in the “New World” and that is still preserved in this beautiful part of the city.
There is really something very enchanting about La Zona Colonial. It encompasses so much Dominican, Caribbean, and European history in one small area. Colonial buildings, carefully preserved and protected, are nestled between traditional Caribbean architecture. The colorful store and home-fronts are sometimes interrupted by the result of garrish Western architectural fads, and tragic evidence of past conflicts in the region (such as the US occupation of the Dominican Republic).
Enjoy Nature at Los Tres Ojos
Being that I am both a nature and national park lover, Tres Ojos was by far, my favorite place in the city and I visited it multiple times. Here you climb down into an interconnected system of three lakes which I would describe as cenotes or sinkholes, although I am not sure that that is technically correct. Most are accessible on foot, but one you can pay a little extra to see the final after a short boat ride. It’s worth the fee just for the ride, in my opinion, but the view after is pretty unbelievable as well.
The Dominican Republic has some of the most beautiful caves that I have ever seen, and I was lucky enough to explore a few of them. Even so, Tres Ojos was probably one of the most captivating of all of them. The expanse of the park, with its twisting trails through the forest and subterranean world was a great place to mingle with other travelers, or find little spots to contemplate the beauty. The sparkling blue water, ringed by capes of green, or made utterly clear by encapsulating stone was unforgettable. If you see nothing else in Santo Domingo, Tres Ojos is the place to go. You would never expect somewhere so beautiful to be in the middle of a thriving city.
Eat and Drink Amazing Things
The capital is home to some extremely amazing food. So, exploring its restaurants is one of the best things to do in Santo Domingo. In La Zona Colonial, you can get anything from traditional Dominican dishes to global flavors. Artful chefs who put their own unique spin on all sorts of culinary delights also call this part of the city home. I’ve never heard of the Dominican Republic being known for its assortment of perfect restaurants, but it should be. Santo Domingo might just be one of the best places in the Caribbean for foodies (up for debate!).
Some Notes on Safety
Santo Domingo isn’t without its dangers, and I think (like any big city) travelers would be well advised to be wary and careful. Theft and violent assault can be common in some areas, and travelers are always a target for scammers no matter where you go. That being said, I never had a bad experience here. Not even when a bus dropped me and my friends off in a bad neighborhood, and not when a friend of mine got dropped off at the wrong building by a taxi when she came to visit. The worst I got was a taxi driver who thought he could charge me more than standard fare. Even so, here are some tips to keep in mind (which could honestly be applied to any city, but nonetheless).
Hide Your Valuables (Especially Your iPhone)
iPhones were in demand among thieves when I was living in Santo Domingo due to the extremely high price of these phones on the island. However, flashing any valuables is something I would suggest avoiding. It just gets the wrong sort of people interested in you.
Avoid Problem Areas
There are some parts of the city that even local people prefer to avoid. Stay in touristy and highly developed, vibrant areas, and you should be safe. These things change over time, so be sure to do a bit of research before you start your trip. Worst come to worst, hotel staff should be able to help you figure out where to stay away from. And trust your instincts, if something feels off, just turn around, flag down a cab, or call an Uber.
Expect to Get Attention
The Dominican Republic is a musical, romantic place. People are not afraid to let you know if they find you attractive. Sometimes the attention is more than just a fascination with foreign visitors, however. The Dominican Republic has a notably large sex tourism industry. Again, not something I had an issue with. These sex workers did harass a friend of mine, though, so it happens.
The Roads Are Crazy
The Dominican Republic is known for being one of the most deadly places in the world to drive. Be aware that driving there is nothing like the US or Europe. The infrastructure is present (traffic lights, stop signs, and nice roads), but people don’t follow rules that they find inconvenient. This is especially bad at night. Even if you are on foot, don’t expect cars to stop for you. Don’t trust that everyone will stop at lights or signs.
If you want to find out about more off-the-beaten path destinations in the Dominican Republic, be sure to look through our guide to the country!