Best Things To Do in Santo Domingo
Despite its location on the Caribbean Sea, Santo Domingo is far from a beach town. Instead, you should expect to spend some time at historically significant sites like the Catedral Primada de América or the Fortaleza Ozama. Make sure to allot an hour or two for the architecturally significant Columbus Lighthouse. Meanwhile, night owls should check out the city's vibrant nightlife — some say the Malecón's nightclubs and late night entertainment are the best in the Caribbean.
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Partially barricaded by stone walls, accented with baroque architecture and lying on cobblestone streets, Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial marks the area where Columbus settled in the New World. Visitors say it's definitely a must-see, considering the city's best known historic sites are located here. But this UNESCO World Heritage Site also shelters many hotels, bars and restaurants. Best of all, you can explore the area entirely on foot: For all that's crammed inside, there's really only 11 blocks worth of sights.
So where should you start? Perhaps the Catedral Primada de America, which is located near the heart of the zone (look for the statue of Christopher Columbus). From there you can trek a little farther west to Fortaleza Ozama, located along the mouth of the Río Ozama in the southeast quadrant. Next, walk along the Calle Las Damas (the oldest street, a pedestrian-only zone) to the Alcázar de Colón palace and museum.
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Some people refer to this church by its official name, Catedral Santa María La Menor, but it's probably best known as the first cathedral of the Americas. Whatever you call it, visitors agree: This coral-limestone building is magnificent inside and out.
Showcasing elements of Gothic, Baroque and plateresque architectural styles, the Catedral Primada de América still holds Sunday afternoon mass. If you're not interested in services, plan your visit from sometime between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. And remember to bring some Dominican pesos since the cathedral costs RD$60 (or about $1.33 USD) for adults to enter. Kids, though, get in free of charge.
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Once the home of Diego Colón, Christopher Columbus' son, this 16th-century viceregal palace (or residence of the governor/viceroy) was the nucleus of the Spanish court for more than 60 years. Inside, you'll find a museum housing an impressive collection of late medieval and Renaissance art. The house itself is also a work of art, featuring Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance touches.
Recent visitors praise this historic property, insisting that a tour of the Alcázar de Colón is a must for anyone who wants to learn more about the city's rich history. And be sure to pick up some headphones to take advantage of the museum's self-guided audio tours. Even though the headphone line can get a bit long on busier days, most travelers note doing this tour is well worth the wait.
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This picturesque part of Santo Domingo is where the new overshadows the old: Nowhere in sight is the crumbling cobblestone of the Zona Colonial; in its place are shiny waterfront casinos and hotels that sit beside a handful of cafes and nightclubs. Even if your hotel isn't located in this part of town (on George Washington Avenue, southwest of the Zona and parallel to the Avenida Independencia), you should still come down at least once for some sightseeing and gambling, a delicious meal, or a little nighttime merengue and bachata dancing.
Just keep in mind: Though it's by the water, Santo Domingo's Malecon has more of a look-but-don't-touch type of beach. According to some former visitors, the coastline is polluted with all sorts of trash, to the point where a few travelers wonder what the Malecon's appearance says about the country itself. You should also keep your wits about you when moving around at night; this area is prone to pickpockets, according to recent visitors.
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The Fortaleza Ozama is the oldest formal standing fort in the Americas — reason alone to swing by for a visit — but travelers also describe it as a great place to learn a bit of local history while snapping photos of Santo Domingo. Built in 1502, the fort served the military interests of Spain, England, France, Haiti, Gran Colombia, the U.S. and, of course, the Dominican Republic until it was decommissioned and reopened for public use in 1970. Once you've soaked up the landmark's rich history and are ready to take in the view, just climb to the top of the coral rock Torre del Homenaje (or Tower of Homage) that stands in the center.
Prior travelers said the views offer the perfect backdrop for top-notch photographs, although some caution that the lack of consistent maintenance leaves this fort looking dirty and uncared for at times.
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For those looking to take a break from the city's rich history, consider exploring Santo Domingo's tranquil Los Tres Ojos (which translates to "The Three Eyes" in English). This national park — which sits about 5 miles east of the Zona Colonial and is best reached by taxi — houses three limestone caverns, each of which features a lake. (Just keep in mind, though, that swimming is not allowed in any of the lakes.) Once inside the caves, you can either explore by foot or by boat (an additional $0.55 USD fee applies).
However, claustrophobic travelers may want to skip a visit to Los Tres Ojos. Although the caverns are quite spacious upon arrival, the deeper you venture into the caves, the more compact they become. Additionally, if you have mobility issues, traversing the entrance's long staircase may be troublesome.
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There's a chance that you won't be blown away by the beauty of the Columbus Lighthouse. El Faro a Colón, as the locals call it, is built in the shape of a cross, and some former visitors described it as downright ugly.
Still, this is a historically significant attraction that houses the purported remains of Christopher Columbus. Additionally, travelers can also find various exhibits — like a vehicle once used by a former pope — as well as several libraries. (Much of the interior, though, lies unused.)
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During the day, this Zona Colonial ruin isn't much to look at. After all, the Monasterio de San Francisco has been steadily crumbling since a 16th-century demolition squad and a 17th-century earthquake practically decimated it. But your opinion might change when you see how nighttime floodlights illuminate its cracks and crevices. Definitely swing by for a picture or two if you're in the Zona Colonial in the evening.
And if you're into odd history, you may want to make a special visit to this site. Although used mainly as a monestary, after it was rebuilt following a second earthquake in the 18th century, officials decided to convert the space into a mental asylum. Once again, though, Mother Nature intervened (this time in the form of a hurricane), resulting in the mental asylum's closure in the 1930s. To this day, portions of chains used to secure inmates are still visible.
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