Santo Domingo Travel Guide

Santo Domingo Travel Guide

Casey Siemasko

The bustling capital city of the Dominican Republic—and the oldest European settlement in the Americas—Santo Domingo is a must-visit on any Caribbean vacation.

Wander down cobbled streets as you take in the beauty of some of the first buildings in the Americas. Join old men in plastic chairs on the sidewalk as they play dominoes; obligatory bachata music blaring from a small radio nearby. Or escape the chaos of the city with an easy day trip to nearby white-sand beaches. There’s truly something for everyone in Santo Domingo.

The best hotels in Santo Domingo

Casas del XVI is a boutique design hotel that effortlessly combines old-world charm with modern luxury. The hotel is comprised of individual suites, each uniquely designed and decorated. Expect original heirloom art and furniture accented with work from local contemporary artists. Personal butlers ensure you’ll want for nothing.

Hostal Nicolas de Ovando gets its name for the building in which it resides; the luxury hotel dates back to 1502 when it served as the residence for Governor Nicolas de Ovando. Spacious rooms and an elegant pool keep guests returning time and time again.

If a rooftop pool, private balconies and marble flooring sound like your kind of luxury, then look no farther than the Billini Hotel. The rooms feature modern simplicity with Spanish Colonial finishes, and the service is nothing less than outstanding.

Things to do in Santo Domingo

The Zona Colonial is Santo Domingo’s primary tourist attraction, and for good reason. The eleven blocks within the old walled section of the city are oozing 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.

Many of Santo Domingo’s finest restaurants and hotels are located within the Zona Colonial, so you’ll likely find yourself based here for the majority of your stay. While you see the best the historic area has to offer, don’t miss the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest church in the Americas; Fortaleza Ozama, a 16th-century Spanish castle perched alongside the Ozama River; and the Monasterio de San Francisco, which frequently serves as a backdrop for jazz concerts and other free events.

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.

Malecon | Photo: Dan Moore

Malecon | Photo: Dan Moore

Santo Domingo nightlife

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, though do note that the party doesn’t typically start until midnight or later.

Club Aire is regularly named one of the most beautiful gay clubs in the Caribbean. Dress to impress at this swanky establishment that’s conveniently located in the Colonial Zone.

And 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’s is one of the best places to sip a rum and coke at a live jazz performance. The setting within a Spanish-style plaza is as romantic as could be.

Casas del XVI

Casas del XVI

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.

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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