Santo Domingo Travel Guide

Santo Domingo Travel Guide

Proud representative of the Caribbean and bustling capital of the Dominican Republic, where the oldest European settlement in the Americas was founded, Santo Domingo holds more than just historic intrigue. Lucky owner of gorgeous white-sand beaches and colonial-era cobblestone streets, lined with charismatic vendors and elderly dominoes players, this city is fast modernizing, with upscale resorts and a booming, internationally-inspired gastronomic scene. While Machismo culture dies hard and Catholicism remains dominant, the Dominican Republic wins out as the Caribbean’s most LGBT-friendly nation, a place where attitudes towards sexuality are loosening, albeit slowly. When the sun sets, the rainbow flag flies, particularly in the heritage Zona Colonial where fashionable young crowds merge to gossip about the night’s gay festivities. As well as the annual Gay Pride Parade, it’s the twice-annual Draguéalo Parties that you’ll want to watch out for – a true spectacle! For more insight into what to do in Santo Domingo, read our Santo Domingo gay travel guide…

The best hotels in Santo Domingo

Positively crammed with accommodation offerings is the city’s colonial zone, where a mix of heritage architecture and modern design makes for a highly photogenic backdrop of any trip. To start our Santo Domingo travel guide, it’s five stars all the way at Casas del XVI, a boutique design hotel based in the historic 16th century settlement of Colonial City. Its luxurious suites come replete with Spanish tiled floors and palm-shaded courtyards, as well as your very own mayordomos (butler) to ensure you’ll want for nothing. Expect original heirloom art and furniture accented with work from local contemporary artists.

The nearby Casa Sanchez Hotel enchants with its vintage vibes and array of original features, including gorgeous mosaic tiling that starts in the bedrooms and runs through to the terrace restaurant. Additional amenities include a lobby cocktail bar, hot tub, large gym and a pool area where you can enjoy a made-to-order breakfast. The Luca Hotel is another offering within the heart of the colonial district, a modern villa with zen décor, geologic rock art and its own rooftop Jacuzzi. Contemporary yet with colonial references, this spacious hotel also whips up its own fusion cuisine at the on-site restaurant. A home away from home is the Hotel Villa Colonial, where friendly staff, charming rooms and a beautiful pool-side patio await. Beautifully designed and well-located, this property also offers some of the best value for money in Santo Domingo.

Inland a little, within the exclusive Piantini District is the JW Marriott Hotel Santo Domingo. Uber fashionable, with an LGBT-friendly atmosphere and all the perks you’d expect from the Marriott name, a stay here is guaranteed to satisfy. While its elegant suites, rooftop infinity pool, fitness centre and lavish surroundings are sure to keep you occupied, there is also the ground floor BlueMall and nearby gay scene (a short taxi ride away) to explore.

Casas del XVI Boutique Hotel

Casas del XVI Boutique Hotel

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Recommended hotels in Santo Domingo
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Things to do in Santo Domingo

The ultimate spot to savour an ice-cold esquimalito (or popsicle) away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre is certainly the Parque Los Tres Ojos, a park within easy reach of Santo Domingo by car or so-called gua gua (bus). As well as featuring beautiful limestone caves that lead deep underground into bat territory, the grounds are also home to three jaw-dropping, cave-side lakes (with an additional fourth lake accessible via boat). As well as learning about how these lakes were formed, many guided tours combine the park with a trip to Faro a Colón, a surprising lighthouse tribute to Christopher Columbus.

Artsy people looking for peace and quiet should track down the tiny Quinta Dominica Art Gallery set in a 16th-century colonial setting yet hosting artworks as contemporary as they come. As well as offering an ever-changing rotation of art, this gallery of contrasts also has a charming courtyard out the back, perfect for reading in the shade. Another hip spot for browsing art exhibits, eating and socialising has to be La Fábrica Contemporánea. Well known as an ‘ambassador of diversity’, this queer-safe space hosts regular LGBT events you won’t want to miss.

Those with a day to burn in Santo Domingo should consider leaving the city entirely and travel to Catalina Island. This is a day trip with it all; boat excursions, epic snorkelling spots and shore-side cocktails. This sun-baked island boasts pure white sand, colourful reed and towering palm trees. Other prime beach spots for a day out, or even a short vacation within your vacation, are Juan Dolio and Guayacanes. Perfect for chillaxing and exploring, just past the more crowded Boca Chica beach just 45 minutes from Santo Domingo, these beaches offer crystal clear water, rentable recliners with umbrellas and tasty eatery options all along the front.

Photo: Kevin Wolf

Photo: Kevin Wolf

Photo: Asael Pena

Photo: Asael Pena

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Recommended experiences in Santo Domingo
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What to see in Santo Domingo

The Zona Colonial is Santo Domingo’s primary tourist attraction, and for good reason. All eleven blocks enclosed within historic walls ooze with character and charm. Many of the buildings have been restored according to UNESCO World Heritage standards, and a steady tourist police presence makes this one of the safest areas to explore on foot. As well as many of Santo Domingo’s finest restaurants and hotels, you’ll also not want to miss the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest church in the Americas and Fortaleza Ozama, a 16th-century Spanish castle perched alongside the Ozama River.

Also within the citadel’s walls, yet worthy of its own paragraph, is the Monasterio de San Francisco, a series of ruins spread between Calla Duarte and Calle Hostos. Since becoming the first Franciscan monastery of the New World in the 16th century, this unique has borne witness to a number of disasters, including the fire famously started by Sir Francis Drake and few earthquakes, before housing a mental asylum in the mid 20th century. On a brighter note, the site now hosts a fantastic concert every Sunday from 5pm to 10 pm, featuring performances from merengue, jazz and various other genres.

Monasterio of San Francisco | Photo: Dan Moore

Monasterio of San Francisco | Photo: Dan Moore

The Plaza de España is among the many Santo Domingo points of interest bursting with cultural history, considered a great stop off point on the way to UNESCO World Heritage Site Alcazar de Colon. While the plaza itself drips with antique heritage and various ambient restaurants with pretty surroundings, the Alcazar de Colon is the unmistakable epicentre, the site of the oldest “viceregal edifice” in America (or, in other words, where the city’s imperial governors once governed). A museum and site of national importance, featuring a palace, garden and courtyard, visitors will also find a grand collection of medieval and Renaissance artwork here, alongside numerous historic collections relating to the 16th century Spanish colonial period.

From human culture to natural wonders, our next stop takes us to the National Botanical Garden, where efforts to preserve Santo Domingo’s indigenous plants have created a stunning tropical wilderness for visitors to feast their eyes upon. One of the top Santo Domingo things to do, expect myriad exotic and aquatic plants, orchids and tropical palms, as well as a Japanese garden. Travel back in time at The Amber World Museum where you’ll find some fine examples of fossilized resin, capturing a unique view of insects, leaves and flowers from eras past. Even if you have little interest in museums, for a tiny entrance fee you can explore the visually striking exhibits and back-lit fossils (some of which feature in the building’s design) before stopping by the museum shop which sells real amber and larimar jewellery.

Catedral Primada de America | Photo: Dan Moore

Catedral Primada de America | Photo: Dan Moore

Plaza España | Photo: Dan Moore

Plaza España | Photo: Dan Moore

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Don’t miss Pat’e Palo, the restaurant was originally established by a Dutch pirate to be the first tavern in the Americas

Where to eat in Santo Domingo

You’ll need more than one visit to Santo Domingo to experience the best of its scrumptious culinary scene. That said, don’t miss Pat’e Palo. The restaurant was originally established by a Dutch pirate to be the first tavern in the Americas. Today it’s European cuisine at its finest. The outdoor patio has spectacular views of the Alcazar.

Meson D’Bari is another favourite option both with tourists and Dominican intellectuals, artists, and celebrities. This is one of the best spots to sample traditional Dominican cuisine while listening to live merengue music. For an eclectic dining experience, head to El Meson de la Cava. While the food is good, it’s the restaurant’s one-of-a-kind location inside a cave that proves truly memorable.

History lovers and foodies alike shouldn’t miss Tequia Experience’s four-course walking food tour of Santo Domingo. The private tour takes guests to the best restaurants in the Colonial Zone while providing fascinating facts and details about the oldest section of the city. Alternatively, try a Chocolate Tour to discover the fascinating world of chocolate. Industry experts guide you through the process of turning cocoa beans into delicious chocolate. Along the way taste hot cocoa, have lunch, and get a chance to make your own chocolate bar.

Pat'e Palo | Photo: Pat'e Palo

Pat'e Palo | Photo: Pat'e Palo

Photo: Dirk Sebregts

Photo: Dirk Sebregts

Shopping in Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is known for the precious stones amber and larimar, the latter of which is an aquamarine stone found only in the Dominican Republic. If you’re keen to pick up a souvenir with these stones, the best places to browse high-quality products are the Amber and Larimar Museums. Beware the street hawkers who typically sell low-quality stones at high-quality prices.

For a unique shoe shopping experience, La Alpargateria is a must-visit. This hip boutique sells handmade custom-tailored espadrilles using a variety of vibrant textiles. Stop by on your first day to design your new kicks and then pick them up just a few days later. An on-site coffee shop and patio make it a lovely place to relax after your shopping spree.

End the day at Casa Alfarera, a ceramics studio and experimental ceramics workshop by the talented Ysabela Molini. Many of the pieces feature local products and are inspired by the architecture and culture of Santo Domingo.

Photo: Dan Moore

Photo: Dan Moore

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While merengue and bachata are what the Dominican Republic is primarily known for, it would be amiss not to mention the country’s lively jazz scene.

Santo Domingo nightlife

As for Mr Hudson’s Santo Domingo gay scene guide, whether it’s sipping beer all afternoon in the park or dancing merengue until the wee hours of the morning, Dominicans certainly know how to party. There are numerous stylish clubs throughout the city, however, in typical Dominican style, the party won’t truly begin until midnight or later. As far as organized parties go, El Cocoró del Futuro will take some beating. Relatively new to the gay scene, this LGBT-focused organisation is already making waves for its impressive one-off events, the details of which are announced on Facebook.

While merengue and bachata are what the Dominican Republic is primarily known for, it would be amiss not to mention the country’s lively jazz scene. Annual jazz festivals and summer concerts aside, Lulú Tasting Bar is one of the best places to enjoy live jazz performances, on the indoor patio or under the stars in the Zona Colonial. Close to everything you’ll need for a perfect romantic night out, Lulu’s also serves delicious cocktails and a tasting tapas menu. At La Espiral, a popular gay bar also in the same zone, there’s more live music to be had, this time with laid-back, reggae leanings. As well as the stellar mix of tunes, the moreish food will bring you back time and time again! The nearby La Posta Bar, part food hall and part karaoke bar, is perfectly positioned for you to enjoy happy hour sundowners and free live music in thronging surroundings. Go on Thursdays to get in on the local, post-work drinking and feeding frenzy.

After midnight, any Cinderellas will miss out on the action happening over at the JW Marriott Hotel’s rooftop joint, Vertygo 101 Bar & Lounge. This ultra-cool hangout for a young and stylish gay crowd boasts unmatched nighttime views, modish glass flooring and some of the best cocktails in town. If you trust anything in our Santo Domingo gay nightlife guide, trust this; your last stop of the night should be G Lounge. This colonial zone hotspot is known among a diverse crowd as one of the hottest male strip shows in the city, popular for its go-go boys, drag stars and strong – yet affordable – drinks. Settle in among the packed crowd for a fabulous late-night show, you won’t regret it.

Lulú's Jazz Night | Photo: Dan Moore

Lulú's Jazz Night | Photo: Dan Moore

Escape to the beach

Santo Domingo is a mere three and a half hour drive to the popular beach resorts in both Punta Cana and Puerto Plata. If you do decide to drive to the coast, keep in mind that Dominican drivers follow their own set of rules and guidelines. Full car rental insurance is a must. If you’ve only got a day for a beach escape, try Juan Dolio Beach. It’s just past the more famous Boca Chica Beach and only around 45 minutes from Santo Domingo.

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