Santo Domingo may not be the first place you think of visiting when in Dominican Republic. Beaches and tropical nature are definitely more popular choices for spending days in the Caribbean island. But the capital Santo Domingo has its charm, a long history and even UNESCO Heritage-level attractions. It is well worth a day out or even staying for a couple, to immerse yourself in the local history and perhaps take a break from the beaches.
So, what to visit when in Santo Domingo?
Alcázar de Colón
Right in the middle of Zona Colonial, the colonial area of the city, facing the ocean the ancient palace where the governors of the island ruled from in the spanish dominated years of the Dominican Republic.
Partly rebuilt, it sports a long array of rooms, gardens and courtyards, not to skip the great pictures you can take from outside facing the ocean and the harbour. Inside, costumes, musical instruments, armours and weapons are among the main artefacts you can admire.
It is a central attraction and a starting point for tours of the dominican capital. If you’re looking to know more about the history of the island, look no further than here. It is easy to spend 1-2 hours roaming around the palace without getting bored.
Museo de las Casas Reales
In the list of what to visit in Santo Domingo, the next location is just across the square from the Alcázar de Colón. This museum hosts a collection composed of a few paintings, some statues, weapons, scale models and various artefacts from the colonial period. The building itself is magnificent, with courtyards and gardens inside and patios that the architecture’s students will find interesting.
You can also visit the apothecary and photograph a group of peacocks living mostly free in one of the courtyards. The visit itself can keep you occupied for a couple of hours, which along with the Alcázar, means you can consider staying in the area half a day to proper visit both palaces for a full immersion of history of Dominican Republic.
If both the palaces sound like too much (or boring), I slightly preferred the Museo de las Casas Reales. If you really have to visit only one, pick this.
Plaza de España
A partly green area between the Museo de las Casas Reales and the Alcázar, it is a perfect place to relax a bit while visiting and take pictures of the 2 palaces nearby. Don’t miss the sundial, pompously called Reloj de Sol (the Sun’s Clock), near the Museo.
There’s a good choice of restaurants bordering the side opposite the sea. Don’t expect anything traditional though, they’re geared towards tourists and have good quality but not exactly local cuisine nor local prices. For an unpretentious lunch, they’re perfect. After visiting the palaces it will be probably needed.
The real heart of the city, unsurprisingly called after Columbus. Dominated by the statue of its namesake, it is a small green area in the middle of the colonial area, just a short walk west from the 2 palaces mentioned before. It is a crowded place at every hour of the day and evening, forming a focal point of the city and place where people meet for a chat. It is not unusual to find groups of locals dancing or playing instruments here, freely.
On one side of the park there’s the cathedral of Santo Domingo while on the other a few bars and historical shops. Thus either because of people going to mass or for shopping, there’s always a crowd going and coming here. If you are looking to be in the middle of the action and feel the city, Parque Colon is your place.
Furthermore, you can take a walk from the Parque towards west and south and meet a handful of ancient churches on your route, other than some of the local museums. Using the park as a base to explore the western parts of the dominican capital is a good idea.
Catedral Primada de America
The cathedral of Santo Domingo is also the oldest cathedral in all the Americas, having been built in 1512. It is dedicated to St. Mary of the Incarnation but it is also named “Primary Cathedral” as it is the first one of the New World. The bishop of it is technically the primary bishop of all Americas, a mostly honorary title nowadays.
The church itself is another of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in this list. Medium-sized, it was built in a mix of gothic and baroque styles, with a hint of colonial too. Inside it was renovated with white stone but it retains a certain darkness, as the windows are few and small, in the gothic tradition. Once here were hosted the mortal remains of Christopher Columbus.
It is an oasis of peace and a very ancient-looking church. If you have to visit a church in Dominican Republic, make it this one. A must among the attractions to visit in Santo Domingo.
Monasteiro de San Francisco
Not many tourists come here, considering it “just ruins”. It is indeed a monastery in ruins, with most of the roofs gone but a large part of the walls still intact and a facade in good conditions. Its beauty resides in being calm, isolated and very little frequented. It is often closed but it hosts frequently events like folk dances and shows.
There’s not a great deal to see here and I won’t blame anyone for skipping it but it is an atmospheric place, sort of an abandoned feeling mixed with ancient history. During the evenings it is partly illuminated and if you happen to be there during a show, it’s amazing. It is so close to the other attractions that a short detour is not a problem anyway.
Santo Domingo is worth a visit
I don’t suggest spending a lot of time in the city as most of the attractions don’t require a long visit and are fairly close to each other, making a full day tour of the whole city doable. I don’t either recommend skipping it altogether as many do as it is the core of Dominican Republic, the place with the largest amount of art and history in the Caribbean (together with Havana in Cuba) and a refreshing break from laying under the sun all day on one of the marvellous beaches of the country. If you can, take a day to visit Santo Domingo, you’ll have a different image of the country, a more complete one.
Let me know if you think there’s something else that should be visited when in Santo Domingo in the comments!