Dominican resort towns and glistening beaches are popular vacation spots - but is the historical Dominican Republic capital Santo Domingo worth visiting too? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, absolutely! The first colonial city in the whole continent of America, Santo Domingo is brimming with history beyond its white sand beaches and 16th-century fortresses. In its colonial center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the earliest buildings of the New World, and the vibrant life of today’s Santo Domingo truly make the past come to life.
And that’s not all, either! Whether travelers seek adventure, natural paradises, great food, or exciting outings, Santo Domingo has absolutely everything they could ask for.
Historical Santo Domingo, Birthplace Of Colonial America
At the heart of the glittering Caribbean, Dominican Republic was the starting point of the colonial history in the American continent, and Santo Domingo the very first city of the “New World”. Throughout its long history, Santo Domingo has seen Indigenous Taino civilizations, explorers, adventurers, and pirates living and ruling on its grounds; from colonial centuries to Cold War conflicts, the stones in its fortress have seen much history.
Founded in 1496, Santo Domingo is the first and oldest continuously inhabited European city in the Americas. Its colonial center has extraordinarily well-preserved structures from the 1500s like the original fort, the first university on the continent, the first church, the first paved streets, and the first castle. The level of intactness of the historical center of Santo Domingo and its presence in the Santo Domingo of today have led to it being granted the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.
“[...] the Colonial City of Santo Domingo maintains, in essence, the structure, use, and functions that have characterized the first constructions at the time of its foundation, preserving its integrity and authenticity.”
What Is There To See In Santo Domingo?
This very Colonial Zone, Ciudad Colonial, is a central attraction in the city, a place overflowing with charm and history from every cobblestone, from the Calle de las Damas, the first paved street in the Americas, to central Parque Colón. Preserving not only the medieval architecture but its central place in Santo Domingo’s life, it is a prime place to see historical monuments, and museums as well as find places to eat and shop.
Completed in 1507, the Ozama Fortress is considered to be the oldest European military structure in the Americas. Formerly part of the walls that surrounded the original city of Santo Domingo, it was built to resemble a medieval castle.
The lookout post atop the main tower holds a truly stunning view of the Caribbean Sea and the city spreading below. Visitors can walk by the secret tunnels and dungeons where prisoners would be held in the 1500s - Christopher Columbus himself was one of the captives at one point.
Basilica Cathedral Santa María la Menor
Also known as Cathedral Primada de América, Santa María la Menor is the first and oldest cathedral in the New World, constructed from 1504 to 1550 by the order of Pope Julius II.
Its unique Gothic style is sublime, and it houses a treasure trove of paintings, woodcarvings, sculptures, and other colonial pieces. Some of its most breathtaking sights are the mausoleums and tombstones of famous historical figures, notably Simón Bolívar.
Alcazár de Colón
Alcazár de Colón is the first colonial palace built in the Americas, dating back to 1511. The palace was the home of Diego Columbus and was once raided by the infamous British pirate, Sir Francis Drake, in the Battle of Santo Domingo; today, it is Santo Domingo’s most popular museum, with a collection of art and objects from various centuries.
Santo Domingo is a fascinating city and a perfect destination for curious travelers. Other museums that might be worth a visit include the Amber World Museum, where visitors can learn the precious and rare Dominican amber jewelry, the Royal Houses Museum, and the Resistance Memorial Museum, which preserve the history of resistance and fight for freedom in the Dominican Republic throughout the 20th century and the Cold War.
Los Tres Ojos National Park
Los Tres Ojos, or The Three Eyes National Park, is only a few minutes away from the bustling urban center of Santo Domingo and is a perfect haven of Caribbean nature. It gets its name from the three limestone grottos and their glistening underground lakes.
A system of ladders makes it easy for visitors to explore the caves, ancient cave art, and stunning lakes. Swimming is forbidden, but the boat rides through the lakes are well worth the $20 - $30 fees, for one of a kind experience.
Where To Eat And Stay In Santo Domingo?
Ciudad Colonial isn’t only the historical center of Santo Domingo, it is also where the city comes to life today. The colonial center has many lodgings of various prices, and as a place where tourists can easily walk to most attractions, an ideal area to stay in. In this city of firsts, Calle el Conde, the first commercial street in the Americas, continues to be the busiest and most fun street in the city. In the centennial street, visitors can pick and choose between cafés, restaurants, food vendors, and street art.
The cuisine scene in Santo Domingo is a vibrant mixture of various flavor palettes: the Caribbean, Spanish, African, and Taino influences create traditional Dominican flavors, and a continuous fusion with other influences, from Chinese to Mexican creates a diverse food scene that will have something for every taste. When in Santo Domingo, La Bandera Dominicana and Chimichurri Burgers come highly recommended, as well as the delicious Dominican chocolate. A personalized chocolate-making tour and workshop is the perfect marriage of food and fun.
So, is Santo Domingo worth it? For any travelers that look for the right balance between fun, adventure, knowledge, and history, Santo Domingo is a must.