Santo Domingo: Travel Guide

santo domingo travel guide

 After multiple tries, and failures, to settle in the New World, Columbus’s crew finally perfected the recipe with Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Still today, Santo Domingo is a lively metropolis where the old and the new meld. A stroll through these historic cobblestone streets will thrill the senses with merengue music, sea salt breezes, and colorful life.


The historic buildings of Santo Domingo might be the highlight of the town, but this thriving city has more to offer. From age old cave paintings to delicious street food and park culture, Santo Domingo is a city to enjoy.


Brief Colonial History


fuerte san jose monumento fray antonio montesino santo domingo dominican republic
Fuerte de San Jose and Monumento a Fray Antonio Montesino.

Originally founded on the eastern side of the river as Nueva La Isabela by Christopher Columbus’s brother, Bartolomé, in 1496, it was soon moved to the western bank by his replacement, Nicolás de Ovando. Upon taking command of the city, he began the monumental stone construction that remains to this day. This work was continued by Columbus’s son Diego when he took over in 1509. During their rule Santo Domingo was a satellite capital of Spanish possessions in the Americas. It was from here that the conquistadors set out to colonize the rest of the Americas.


In 1562 an earthquake destroyed much of the Santo Domingo and then in 1586 Sir Francis Drake captured, looted and burned it down. The town was rebuilt each time but the city failed to regain its strategic relevance. The next century saw Santo Domingo subject to a succession of attacks and occupations by the French, British, and Haitians. In a short time from 1801 – 1809 Santo Domingo was occupied six times ending in Spanish control. By the time all of this was over the city was economically devastated. Haiti again dominated from 1822 to 1843, at which time the Dominican Republic gained its independence.


What to Do


Zona Colonial


cathedral santa maria menor santo domingo dominican republic
Cathedral of Santa María la Menor

At the heart of Santo Domingo is the Zona Colonial, the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas and home to first cathedral, university, and hospital in the New World. This is Santo Domingo’s #1 attraction and it is easy to see why. A walk down Calle las Damas, the oldest paved street, and you will see the homes of some of the most infamous conquistadors in the Americas. You can stroll through the grounds of Fortazela Ozama, a fortress built over 500 years ago to protect this important harbor. The time worn Cathedral once held the remains of Columbus himself and the Alcazar de Colon was once the home of his son Diego.


All of the important monuments within the Zona Colonial can easily be seen in just one day, but for a thorough exploration of its history and tours inside the museums and buildings will take two or three days. You can follow my self-made walking tour to experience all that the Zona Colonial has to offer and get a little more information on each of the individual buildings.


Museums


Alcázar de Colón santo domingo dominican republic
Alcázar de Colón was once the home of Diego Colon, son of Chirtopher Colombus.

Within the Zona Colonial are a number of museums that feature the history of the Santo Domingo, the life of some of its more notable inhabitants, and the history of rum production in the Dominican Republic. Some of the more prominent of these museums are the Museum in Alcazar de Colon and the Museo de las Casas Reales.


Sugar Mill Ruins


ingenio boca de nigua sugar mill ruin santo domingo dominican republic
Ingenio Boca de Nigua

West of Santo Domingo are the ruins of four 16th century sugar mill plantations. Casa Grande de Palave and Engombe, the two closest, both have ruins of the plantation house, with Engombe also having ruins of the church, warehouse, and mill. Ingenio Boca de Nigua might be the most impressive of the four. It has the ruins of many buildings within the processing compound, including the mill and processing building. Nearby you will also find Ingenio Diego Caballero, more ruinous than Boca de Nigua but its untamed landscape will give you a better feeling of the harsh conditions of the environment. You will need your own wheals to reach any of these off-the-beaten-path locations.


Cuevas del Pomier


cuevas del pomier santo domingo dominican republic
Pictographs in Cuevas del Pomier

The Anthropological Reserve of Cuevas del Pomier is located west of Santo Domingo and is a must see for history lovers. A tour through the caves will take centuries back in time before the Spanish settlers ever set foot in the Dominican Republic. Offered as a guided tour only, a very knowledgeable guide will tell you the history of the Tainos, the native American tribe that once ruled this area, and take you through the caves to see many pictographs painted by these ancient people. Tours are only offered in Spanish and take about an hour.


Cost: 300 RD/5.29 USD 
Hours: 8am – 5pm

What to Eat


Santo Domingo is a large sprawling capital city and as such there is a lot of food to be found there. Whether you are looking for fine dining or street food, international cuisine or local favorites, there is a little of everything to be found here.


pork rice beans cafeteria santo domingo dominican republic
Cheap meal of pork with rice and beans at a cafeteria.

If you know me, then you know I like to step outside the touristy areas and restaurants and eat where the locals do. It’s a lot cheaper and it is usually where you can find better local foods and hospitality. While in Santo Domingo, I ate at a few cafeterias outside the colonial zone for lunch, but when it came to dinner I always returned to the same place; Parque Cervantes.


Located just southwest of the Zona Colonial, across the street from the ocean, this small park turns into a local hotspot. Every night, locals come to grab some food and drinks, hangout in the cool night breeze, and listen to music and talk to friends. Here you will find a few street food stalls selling anything from fried or grilled meats to ceviche and, like all parks, a bar to get a nice cold Presidente.


Where to Stay


Like all capital cities, Santo Domingo has a lot to offer when it comes to accommodations and housing can be found at any price point. If you are wanting to step back into history you can rent a room in the Colonial Zone at one of the historic buildings turned hotel, like the Hodelpa Nicolas de Ovando. For budget hotels and hostels you will have to stay outside of the Colonial Zone, but there are some nice cheap hotels still within walking distance. When reserving my hotels, I always use Agoda to find the best rates.


How to Get Around


transport map santo domingo dominican republic
Map of the bus lines in Santo Domingo.
Photo Credit: OnTheWorldMap.com

Walk


The Colonial Zone and boardwalk are walking friendly with walking streets, broad sidewalks, and light traffic, but once you get out of these areas the streets can get very congested with both cars and people. Coupled with this, many of the great things to see around Santo Domingo are just to far outside the city proper to walk to.


Bus


I am usually a huge proponent for taking local buses to places around the city, but with Santo Domingo the city buses are just not super user friendly. Many of the buses do not have their routes clearly marked and there are no posted schedules.


Car Rental


If you plan to see some of the sites that lay just outside of Santo Domingo, or tour some of the harder to reach locations in the country, I would suggest renting a car. A car rental will make it a lot easier to get around the country on your own schedule and there are just so many great things to see that are not easy to get to without one. If you wish to see the sugarcane ruins outside of Santo Domingo, for example, these can only be reached by car.


All major rental car vendors are located at the airport and there are also many local vendors located just outside at the intersection of the airport road and Highway 3. While I was there, I used the local business Larimar. Larimar was great and the owner was very helpful. Their number is +1 829-383-7856 and I recommend using them if you opt for a local business.


Note: There are many reviews and blog post out there with horror stories about driving in the Dominican Republic and stating how bad the drivers and roads are there. Though some of this may be true, it is important to remember that if you drive safely yourself most problems can be avoided. Santo Domingo traffic can be bad, drivers a bit erratic at times, there can be some potholes here and there, but that is something you will find in most capital cities around the world.


How to Get There


pin point map santo domingo dominican republic

From Airport


The international airport, Las Americas International Airport (SDQ), is located about 30 minutes east of Santo Domingo. It is the main international airport in the Dominican Republic and most airlines operate through it. Once you arrive at the airport you will need to find a way to your hotel in Santo Domingo. To get there you can either pre-schedule a shuttle bus or grab a taxi or uber once you arrive. An Uber will cost you about $20.


From Other Cities


There are multiple other international airports in Dominican Republic that serve as gateways to some of its other popular towns. If you arrived in one of them first, you will either need to rent a car to journey to Santo Domingo or take bus. Cross county buses are relatively easy and travel multiple times a day.


What is your favorite thing about Santo Domingo?

Santo Domingo travel guide

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