The first things that come to mind when you think about Dominican Republic are endless stretches of white sandy beaches, hammocks hung in-between lush green palm trees and enticing all-inclusive resorts. While all that is undoubtedly tempting, a visit to Santo Domingo, the capital and country’s cultural jewel, can provide equally fascinating experience. This enchanting city unites modern sophistication, old world charm, and Latin charisma which makes it a great weekend destination.
You will find yourself in an extraordinary city-scape of the charming cobblestone streets, colorful centuries-old colonial façades, imposing late medieval historic landmarks, great restaurants and vibrant nightlife. What is there not to like?
Here are my top 3 exciting activities that would make for a perfect weekend getaway in Santo Domingo.
Explore Zona Colonial
Colonial Zone, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is definitely city’s treasures with cobblestone streets, stunning Spanish Colonial architecture, and excellent restaurants.
Meander through the colorful streets and alleys and breathe in the history. Every step in this city tells a story.
There’s something about firsts and Santo Domingo, the oldest colonial city of the Americas, boasts many – the first street, military fortress and cathedral of the Spanish-settled New World.
Stroll along New World’s first street Calle Las Damas (Ladies Street), which, according to the locals, got its name because it was the street where Columbus would walk with his ladies.
Perhaps the most significant site here is The Catedral Primada de America, the oldest existing cathedral in the Americas. Solid limestone walls, gothic and plateresque doors, as well as paintings, old woodwork, and tombstones in the interior have you transported into colonial days.
Also worthwhile is the early 16th century Alcazar De Colón, built by the son of Christopher Columbus. It is the most visited museum in Santo Domingo whose collection exhibits the Caribbean’s most important ensemble of European late medieval and Renaissance works of art.
Another important cultural monument built during the colonial era is Museo de las Casas Reales.
The building was named Las Casas Reales because it housed the Royal Court and it was also used as the residence of the Governors and General Captains of the time. It perfectly showcases colonial architecture as well as highlights the history, life and customs of the inhabitants of the Spanish colony.
It is almost impossible to miss Calle el Conde (El Conde Walkway), which is one of the oldest streets in Santo Domingo and is still among the city’s most popular commercial centers.
This pedestrian street houses a variety of stores that include clothing and textile shops, shoe stores, restaurants and cafes, gift shops and jewelry stores.
The Plaza de la Cultura is museum central. Here visitors will find the Palace of Fine Arts, Museum of Modern Art, and the National Palace to name a few.
The Zona ends at the seafront, called the Malecón, a picturesque seaside promenade.
Indulge in Food
Santo Domingo is a city of many loves, and one of them is the love of food. When Dominicans go out, they go all out and love to eat great food. The city definitely boasts with diverse culinary scene and I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of elegant and upscale restaurants.
The most popular place in the Colonial Zone for visitors and locals alike is La Ataranaza Street. Dotted with cafes, bars and restaurants, this street is perfect for people watching, panoramic views of the bay and Alcazar de Colon which is lit up beautifully at night. Based on my personal experience and many prior recommendations, here are top two restaurants you must not miss during your visit:
Pura Tasca | Calle Emiliano Tejera #51, Zona Colonial
This tapas-style restaurant located in Plaza España with a view to the Columbus Alcazaris is a real paradise for Spanish food lovers.
Start with ordering one from over 15 kinds of outstanding sangrias to pair with your meal. My personal favorite is strawberry-infused sangria!
Everything on the menu sounded appetizing so we ordered several tapas to share. Iberian ham, the shrimp and tuna ceviche with tea spheres and tangerine, salmon tartar and hummus mixed with vegetables were all packed with flavor and left nothing but fireworks in our mouth.
Perhaps the most memorable of all was a deconstructed gazpacho. Its unique presentation demonstrated chef’s creative and innovative approach to cooking. I was particularly surprised by a trio of garnishes that accompanied the dish which, among traditional bacon and croutons, included apple balls for additional sweet and sour tang and crunchy texture!
Pat’e Palo European Brasserie | Calle La Atarazana 25, Zona Colonial
Another popular, albeit more expensive, dining option is Pat’e Palo. This eatery is located in what is said to be the home of the first tavern in the New World with 500-year-old walls. It boasts a European-Caribbean fusion menu with lots of delicious options to choose from.
The avant-garde restaurant even has its own “Rum Experience” menu — pairing fine rums and fine foods. Most noteworthy, perhaps, is the restaurant’s décor: each room has a completely different feel, from a classic library, to a centuries-old dining room, to an exquisitely modern lounge.
Besides the love for good food, Dominicans adore dancing and parting. So it came to no surprise that the capital has a vibrant nightlight with numerous clubs where locals and tourists party till the wee hours of the night.
Now, if you want to get a truthfully authentic cultural experience and taste a slice of old-school Dominican pizzazz you must head to El Sarten (Calle Hostos 153, Zona Colonial), a vintage Latin bar frequented by mature crowd of experienced local dancers. The vibe is absolutely relaxed and unpretencious and the locals come here to unwind with a glass of rhum and dance to live Latin rhythms. The band was just setting up as we came to the bar at 11 p.m.. Then right at midnight we heard the first pulsating Cuban beats and beautiful couples flooded the dancefloor to demonstrate proficiency in their Merengue, Bachata and Salsa moves. It was a real treat to watch them express their love for dancing through the graceful yet passionate body language. And I have a sneaking suspicion there was a secret competition between the couples as to who would showcase more skillful dancing maneuvers. For a moment I thought I was at a concert of Bueno Vista Social Club with professional ballroom dancers in the foreground.
The energy was definitely contagious and left me with nothing but loads of thrilling memories.
- Hotels: there are number of great hotels in Santo Domingo. We stayed at Courtyard Marriott which provides a comfortable accommodation in affordable prices and is just 15-minute taxi ride from a Colonial Zone. However, I would recommend staying in Colonial Zone to be in close vicinity to main attractions and nightlife, and not worry about the ride.
- Transportation: Taxis are cheap (granted you seriously haggle!), but be prepared for a crazy ride as drivers like to speed and driving rules are not always observed.
- Tours: needless to say Dominican Republic has visitors flock here from around the world due to its captivating blend of culture, history, and stunning natural beauty. There are a lot of mesmerizing places to explore. Here is a great resource listing day trip options from Santo Domingo. However, those who have more time at hand and care for some sandy toes and blue waters should venture out to gorgeous tourist magnets like Punta Cana, or Samana. I had a fabulous getaway in the Vista Mare Resort in Samana this Spring and enjoyed sweeping vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and secluded gorgeous beaches, plus had a chance to go whale watching!
Again, the options are endless and they all provide a memorable experience.
Have you visited any of the Caribbean islands? What was the most memorable experience you had? Share your exciting stories in the comments!