Free Things To Do in Santo Domingo
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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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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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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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