The Caribbean is known for its brilliant colors and vibrant culture. Travelers to Dominican Republic will find this to be especially true amid the lively streets of Santo Domingo, where the country’s urban center is ripe with the smells and sounds of Latin America.
But visitors who venture to Zona Colonial—one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods—will find a tiny enclave filled with traditional European-style architecture, well-kept parks, cobblestone streets and artistic nods to great adventurers.
A mighty bronze statue of Christopher Columbus sits at the center of Parque Colon, and nearby Calle Las Damas is the oldest paved road in the New World. These historic sites, paired with incredible architecture unlike anywhere in Santo Domingo, are just part of what make Zona Colonial a popular destination for travelers looking to escape the hustle of the city, as well as those who want to experience the nation’s capital as it used to be.
Zona Colonial is approximately five square kilometers located on the western side of the Ozama River. It includes several important buildings including the Catedral Primada de America and Alcazar de Colon.
In a diverse city with streets that vary from colonial cobblestone to well-worn dirt paths, the bustling square of Columbus Park proves iconic, with an energy that unifies old world Santo Domingo with contemporary Dominican Republic.
Once known as Plaza Mayor, the square was renamed after its towering sculpture of Christopher Columbus in the late 1800s. The historic park is a popular gathering place for travelers looking to people watch and locals looking for a bit of relaxation come mid-afternoon. Columbus Park’s close proximity to landmarks like the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor, the Municipal Palace and the old commercial district known as Calle del Conde, make it the perfect place to kick off a day in the city’s old Colonial Zone.
Columbus Park is located on the west side of Rio Ozama between Calle Isabel La Catolica and Calle Arzobispo Merino, across the street from Catedral Primada de America.
Address: Calle Isabel La Católica, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
This UNESCO World Heritage site located in Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone, is the oldest Viceroy residency in all of the Americas. Once the home of the famous Columbus family, the symmetrical structure was built by the famous explorers son is 1515.
This historic site, which is now home to the Museo Alcazar de Diego Colon, was once an architectural constellation of fifty rooms, gardens and courtyards. While this once impressive palace is today approximately half the size, the artifacts, tapestries and documents on display in the museum showcase a rich and colorful history that grants travelers a deeper understanding of the culture and stories of Santo Domingo, as well as one of the world’s most well-known explorers.
The museum — the most popular in Santo Domingo — is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Travelers looking to get in touch with Dominica Republic’s deep European roots will find the Museum of the Royal Houses a must-see stop in Santo Domingo. This 16th-century building was once home to the administrative offices of the Spanish colonies.
Two distinct structures—the South and North buildings—were designed to house the first court of the New World, the offices of political leaders and the workspace of the comptroller. Visitors can wander the grounds and explore the labyrinth of rooms, which include displays on early legislation, the office of the chief judge, historical ceramics, military function and old world family life.
Museum of the Royal Houses is located in the city’s Zona Colonial district. Self-guided and audio tours are available.
Address: Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
The Palace of Fine Arts, located in the heart of Santo Domingo, was designed by Francisco Manuel Batista and built to showcase the culture and traditions of the Dominican Republic during the reign of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. It is home to vast galleries as well as a 614-seat theater for productions and presentations.
Travelers who venture to the stunning white neoclassical structure with its impressive dome and imposing columns can check out a performance of the symphony orchestra, National Folkloric Ballet, or simply tour the building and learn about the incredible history of arts education that's taken place here since the 1950s.
It's easy to visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes as part of a Santo Domingo city tour by comfortable coach, on foot or by bike.
Palacio de Bellas Artes is located between Calle Aristides Fiallo Cabral and Avenida Independencia on Avenida Maximo Gomez, a few blocks from the Ministry of Education.
Like much of this capital city, Faro a Colon, a bold and imposing cross-shaped structure, serves as a tribute to one of the world’s most famous explorers. Built in a style that’s more urban office building than coastal treasure, this mausoleum and museum does have one distinct feature that’s responsible for its namesake. Columbus Lighthouse projects a unique cross-shaped beam with a light so bright it can be seen from the shores of Puerto Rico.
Travelers who venture to this concrete structure can explore a vast collection of Columbian jewelry, an ancient boat from Cuba and what locals say are the remains of Christopher Columbus.
Faro a Colon is located in a park in Santo Domingo between Avenida Mirador del Este and Avenida Faro a Colon.
Address: Between Avenida Mirador del Este and Avenida Faro a Colon., Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Calle de las Damas is one of the Colonial Zone’s most picturesque destinations. The cobblestone street—said to be the first ever in the New World—is lined with classic Spanish-style houses and beautiful European churches that are a nod to the city’s ancient past. Travelers can venture back in time as they wander past Fortaleza Ozama, Calle El Conde and Hoeyl Sofitel—the first solar clock on the continent. While the scenic street is worth checking out, visitors agree that the surrounding shops, quiet restaurants and colonial charm make Calle de las Damas.
Calle de las Damas is the most famous attraction in the Colonial Zone. It’s named for the ladies—including local dignitaries—that took evening strolls along the street each night.
Address: Calle de las Damas, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
This 16th-century fortress located in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo was built by the Spanish and is recognized today as a UNESCO World Heritage site. History buffs can explore La Fortaleza—which is the oldest European-style military building in the Americas—and learn more about how this old-school castle that once guarded the port of Dominica Republic’s capital city. Travelers can explore the grounds of this imposing castle that once served as a prison on their own or with the help of a local guide. A climb to the Torre del Homenaje offers incredible 360-degree views of the city, and a nearby powder house and rows of cannons reflect the fort’s important military history.
The fort is located on Calle de las Damas. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. and on Sunday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is RD $70.
Address: Calle Las Damas, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Recognized as one of the oldest churches in the Americas, Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor is Santo Domingo’s most famous religious structure. Tucked into the old-world streets of the city’s Colonial Zone, Santa Maria was built in the early 1500s and remains an icon of the country’s Catholic community. Its classic Gothic and Baroque features are a nod to the church’s European roots and an extensive collection of woodcarvings and religious artifacts make a visit well worth the trip.
The church is located next to Columbus Park between Calle Arzobispo Merino and Isabel la Catolica.
Address: Calle Isabel La Católica, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Los Tres Ojos—one of Santo Domingo’s most unique attractions—is an open-air limestone cave that’s home to three beautiful lakes. A nearby underground river feeds water to these brilliantly colored ponds that are accessible on foot or by boat. Travelers can explore the blue, green and yellow waters that are rich with indigenous wildlife that were once a source of survival for the first inhabitants of Hispaniola. An impressive network of stalagmites and stalactites surround the lakes, which travelers say makes a visit to Los Tres Ojos feel like stepping into another world.
Los Tres Ojos is located in Mirador del Este Park. It is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Address: Mirador del Este Park, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Plaza de Espana was once a vast open field cultivated by the Taino Indian prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers. It later became the starting point for soldiers as they paraded in regal fashion around the nearby palace of Diego Colon.
Today, this open square in the heart of Santo Domingo is a popular gathering spot for locals and travelers who want to revel in the sunshine while they take in the surrounding culture and street entertainment. Numerous restaurants and cafes offer an opportunity to relax with a cup of coffee, a traditional Dominican meal or a glass of wine, while the open space provides room for concerts and other performances.
The square is most often visited as part of a city tour"”whether its on foot, Segway or bike. The nearby Bateria del Almirante is a perfect spot to check out stunning views of the Ozama River during daylight hours and visitors can also walk to the oldest commercial road in the city from Plaza de Espana.
Travelers can find the plaza by walking north on Isabel la Catolica from Conde. After about three blocks, make a right on the famous Calle las Damas and continue straight ahead to the plaza.
With its powder-soft white sands and warm waters, Boca Chica is the ultimate beach resort and at less than half an hour from Santo Domingo, it makes a popular escape from the capital. The main attraction of Boca Chica is its calm, shallow swimming waters, but nearby Catalina Lake is also a hotspot for water sports including water-skiing, wakeboarding and jet skiing, and the coastal lagoon is fringed by a colorful coral reef ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Boca Chica is also renowned for its nightlife, especially during the summer months when the waterfront bars and nightclubs blast music into the early hours, and the party often spills over onto the beach. Alternatively, take a trip to the nearby Matica Island, where the mangrove forests harbor an impressive variety of birdlife, or explore the coast by kayak or on horseback.
The city of Santo Domingo is one of the oldest in the Caribbean, however the National Palace isn’t a colonial-era structure. Instead it harkens to a different, more recent period of the Dominican Republics history. The National Palace was built in the 1940s during the reign of the DR’s famously brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. The National Palace is still in use as the seat of the DR’s government and the offices of the president, so it is not generally open to the public. However, visitors can explore the outside and take photos of the building’s impressive architecture.
The National Palace is a feature of modern Santo Domingo, and so is not found within the Colonial Zone where most visitors spend their time. However, it’s only a 10-minute drive west of the Colonial Zone, and easily reached by taxi.
Santiago De Los Caballeros is the tobacco capital of the Dominica Republic, home to the country’s cigar barons, so it’s no surprise that one of the city’s greatest museums was built by the tobacco fortunes of the León Jimenez family. Centro León has one of the best collections of Dominican art and culture housed in a stunning building with Caribbean sunlight streaming from the crystal dome, and three permanent exhibitions describing the island’s biodiversity, the history of the native Taino people, and Dominican culture, including a beautiful collection of Dominican art and photography. There are also galleries with temporary exhibits and a sculpture garden and aviary outside.
More than just art exhibits, Centro León is a popular gathering spot for locals who come for events like the Friday night mixers with live music and drinks and snacks from the café. Check the calendar online to see what’s happening.
Address: Av 27 de Febrero 146, Santiago De Los Caballeros 51053, Dominican Republic
Hours: Open Tues-Sun 10am-7pm
Admission: Around $3, more for guided tours in English
Founded in 1976, the National Botanical Garden in Santo Domingo was named after a Dominican botanist who published a guide to the plant life of Hispaniola. The calming paths of this quiet and contemplative garden are ideal for escaping the city streets, and athletic travelers agree the garden’s five miles of well-kept tread are perfect for early morning runs, too.
The botanical garden’s tram winds visitors through multiple ecosystems, tropical foliage and a broad range of displays that showcase Dominican Republic’s diverse flora. Travelers agree the impressive Japanese garden is an essential stop on any visit to the National Botanical Garden, and the lush lawns also prove ideal for afternoon picnics.
The National Botanical Garden is located on a square mile of land north of Avenida de Los Proceres. It is open daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Address: Avenida República de Argentina, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
The city of Santo Domingo is one of Dominican Republic’s most diverse and colorful urban destinations. The upper-middle class sector known as Gazcue is no exception. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, travelers will find stunning Spanish-colonial architecture, tiled walkways, local restaurants and unique shops in this out-of-the-way part of town.
Once an enclave for the rich and elite, Gazcue has shifted over the years to become a haven for upper-middle class and working class Dominicans. Visitors can still find the old historic homes and stately houses that once defined this borough on a walk through the streets of Gazcue. A stroll through the European-style buildings showcases offers up some of the best scenery outside of the country’s epic beaches and the laid-back vibe offers a stark contrast to the electric energy found in the rest of Santo Domingo.
Gazcue is a neighborhood in Santo Domingo that’s bordered by Avenida 30 de Marzo to the east, Avenida Maximo Gomez to the west and Avenida Francia to the north.