10 Things to do in Santo Domingo
For part of our time in the Dominican Republic, we situated ourselves in the heart of the old Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is an area filled with beautiful cobbled streets, lined with endless amounts of art, all leading to ancient buildings steeped in history.
If you are looking for a beach holiday then there are definitely better areas in the Dominican Republic to base yourself. However, we found we needed a few days to properly see everything and take in the amazing history of the area.
It seemed that a lot of people visiting the Dominican Republic stayed in Punta Cana. This meant that by about 10-11 o’clock tour buses started arriving with people visiting for the day. Even with the tour groups, we didn’t find it too overcrowded and loved the atmosphere.
Here’s some of our favourite things to enjoy and explore when visiting the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo.
Alcázar de Colón
In Plaza de España sits the impressive Alcázar de Colón. It was previously the home of Diego Columbus (son of Christopher Columbus) and his wife María de Toledo. Over the years the gothic style building has undergone several reconstructions and is now a museum displaying 16th century furniture, weapons, musical instruments, and art.
the Ozama Fortress is the oldest military building of the New World. Constructed in the 16th century to defend the city from invasions, the fortress boasts hidden tunnels and dungeons used to house prisoners. Facing out to the river-side, the original cannons stand ready to protect the city from pirates and invaders. The oldest part of the building is the tall, medieval tower at the centre of the fortress (Torre de Homenaje). Inside, you can climb the spiral staircases to be met with views out over the River Omaze. You’ll find the fortress on one of the prettiest streets in Zona Colonia: Calle las Damas.
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Catedral Primada de las Americas
Located in the Parque Colón is the first cathedral built in the Americas. Dating back to the 16th century, construction began with the arrival of the first bishop, Alejandro Geraldini. It was also the place where Christopher Columbus’ remains were found in the 19th century.
The Cathedral is hard to miss as it is right in the heart of Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonia. It boasts a mix of incredible gothic, romanesque and baroque-style architecture both inside and out. It is still used to this day for religious and official ceremonies and you can tour the inside of the building.
Monasterio de San Francisco
If you wander outside of the centre of Zona Colonial you’ll find the walled ruins of the San Francisco Monestary, the first monastary established in the Americas. Originally built from wood, throughout the years the monastery has been through various states of repair due to earthquakes, it’s use in battles and being ransacked and set on fire by Sir Francis Drake. During it’s repairs it was re-built in stone. The monastery was then used as an asylum until the 20th century but its ruins are still used for social events to this day.
Wander the streets
One of the best things about the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo is the beautiful streets. Pretty much everywhere you walk you’ll find cobbled pathways lined with pretty buildings and houses. Calle Las Damas (Street of the ladies) is thought of as one of the prettiest streets in the area and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thought to be the first paved street in the Americas, it is lined with historic buildings, including Fortaleza Ozama.
You’ll likely come across the lively square of Parque Colón, located in the heart of Zona Colonial. It houses the Catedral Primada de las Americas and at its centre is the statue of Christopher Columbus.
It is a busy square at all times of the day but, in the evenings, it is definitely the place to be. Marvel at the street performers who draw in the crowds with their dancing. Or, take a seat at one of the restaurants and listen to the musicians adding to the beat of the bustling surroundings.
Three Eyes National Park
A short journey from Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo is the breathtaking Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes) National Park. It is a natural reserve with an open air cave system that houses three crystal clear turquoise lakes/lagoons. It was definitely one of the top things we did during our time in Santo Domingo and we would highly recommend a trip here if you have time! Read our dedicated Three Eyes National Park blog below for more!
The lakes were formed thousands of years ago due to tectonic movements causing part of the cave ceiling to collapse. The depressions then filled with water to create the separate oval pools, giving each one a different mineral composition and unique turqouise colours earning them their name of ‘the eyes.’
Museo de las Casas Reales
At the end of Calle Las Damas, leading into Plaza de España, you’ll discover The Museum of Royal Houses. In the 16th century it was used as the Spanish Governor’s Royal Court and was made up of the treasury, governor’s palace and the courts of law.
The building is now a museum dedicated to the history of the Dominican Republic. Inside you can wander through the rooms and court-yard to discover the voyages of Christopher Columbus and treasured artifacts from the colonial period, including weaponary and replicas of the ships used by Columbus during his voyages.
Convento de Los Dominicos
Something we stumbled across whilst walking around was the Convent of the Dominican Order. We were instantly drawn to the beautiful orange and white baroque-style front. The convent was the first Catholic structure of the New World and was also the first university in the Americas, set up by the friars that lived there who began teaching classes.
Due to the tropical climate, the Caribbean is an ideal place for growing cacao trees and a lot of the islands we visited had large plantations dedicated to producing high quality cacao.
The Dominican Republic was no exception and we tasted some amazing chocolate during our time there! Kah-Kow is part museum, part chocolate factory where you can learn the history and process of chocolate making. You can also do some chocolate tasting at the end of the tour (the best bit) as well as make your own chocolate if you include this in your ticket.
If you aren’t up for the tour then they have a lovely small café where you can taste some of the yummy Dominican chocolate.
Catedral Castrense de Santa Bárbara
Another lovely building we stumbled upon whilst wandering around was the Church of Santa Barbara. A 16th Century church, it has a beautiful Spanish colonial-style with arches and two uneven towers standing either side.