The capital of the Dominican Republic is the oldest colonial city in the Americas and worth much more than a day trip. Here are the top sights and attractions in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Welcome to Santo Domingo: the First European City in the Americas
Founded in 1496 by Spanish colonists, Santo Domingo is officially the oldest European settlement in the Americas.
The Spaniards established the first colony on the western bank of the Ozama River, where you can find some of the first European constructions. In the 16th century, the city started growing on the other side of the river, and many more colonies sprang up.
Today, Santo Domingo is the largest city and economic heart of the country. Home to around three million people, you’ll find the Dominican Republic’s (“DR”) busiest airport and largest industries here. It is the country’s financial and academic center.
Many people visit the city on a day trip from the DR’s resort areas, but the unique attractions in Santo Domingo warrant more.
When traveling to the DR, plan a few extra days and enjoy the top places to visit in Santo Domingo. You won’t regret it.
The Best Attractions in Santo Domingo
The capital of the DR is highly spread-out, and it’s hard to make sense of the city’s layout. Most Santo Domingo tourist attractions are located inside the Zona Colonial, but there are also a lot of sights outside of the city’s historic core.
As such, it’s best to base yourself in the Colonial Zone as a first-time visitor and explore Santo Domingo from there.
On this basis, here are the best places to visit in Santo Domingo, DR.
Stroll Around the Colonial Zone
The Colonial Zone (Ciudad Colonial/Zona Colonial) is the first European city in the Americas and home to a wide variety of stunning historic architecture.
The area has many colonial plazas and picturesque streets such as Calle las Damas and El Conde. As such, strolling around the Zona Colonial and soaking in the charm is one of the top things to do in Santo Domingo.
Get lost inside the grid of small streets and have some coffee from one of the vendors while admiring the historic mansions, cute cafés, and colorful shops.
Aside from tourism, the area is also popular among filmmakers. In this context, Francis Ford Coppola chose this neighborhood to film the Cuba scenes of The Godfather Part II.
See the Oldest European Church, Fortresses, and Hospital in the Americas
Inside the Colonial Zone, you’ll find the Catedral Primada de las Americas. Completed in 1541, it’s officially the oldest church in the Americas.
The area also has the Alcázar de Colon, Diego Columbus’ fortress, and the Fortaleza Ozama, the first European military construction in the Americas.
Finally, the city’s ruins include the first hospital in the Americas.
All of these constructions are well worth a visit, even without the “first in the Americas” label.
Discover the Best Museums in Santo Domingo
There are many fascinating museums in Santo Domingo, but the best is undoubtedly the Museo de las Casas Reales (Royal Houses). Situated in a stunning colonial building, the museum explains the history of the DR as well as Spanish colonization in the New World.
If you have time, the Amber Museum and the Museo Memorial de la Resistencia are worth a visit as well.
Visit the Columbus Lighthouse
Today, the legacy of Christopher Columbus is a lot more controversial than in 1991, when the humongous Faro a Colón (Colombus Lighthouse) was built.
Located on the eastern bank of the Ozama river on a hill, the gigantic 680 feet (210 m) long cross-shaped building cost over 50 million dollars. It supposedly houses Columbus’ remains, but Spain disputes that claim. Aside from that, it hosts several permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Many people don’t like it due to its brutalist (ugly?) architecture, but it is nonetheless among the top attractions in Santo Domingo.
Head to the Three Eyes National Park
If you are looking for the perfect Santo Domingo day trip, check out Three Eyes (Tres Ojos) National Park.
Located just 20 minutes east of the Colonial Zone, the park has a microclimate and offers three stunning lakes – as well as lots of exotic flora and fauna.
Walk Along the Malecón
Santo Domingo has its own version of Havana’s Malecón. It’s less crowded and less vibrant than its Cuban equivalent, but still among the top things to see in Santo Domingo.
Located a few blocks from the Zona Colonial, you’ll find several restaurants, landmarks, and hotels here.
Check Out the Upscale Piantini Neighborhood
Finally, if you want to get a more complete picture of the Dominican capital, don’t miss Piantini.
It’s one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country and home to some of the city’s largest malls, luxury hotels, and designer stores. There are also lots of upscale restaurants here.
Where to Stay in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
For first-time visitors, the Zona Colonial is the place to be. You’ll find most of the primary attractions in Santo Domingo here, and the zone is walkable.
In the Colonial Zone, there are lots of historic hotels but also budget-friendly Airbnbs.
Alternatively, the zone around the Malecón is home to some international resorts with beautiful views over the Caribbean.
Finally, if you’re traveling on business or staying longer, Piantini is a high-end neighborhood and home to the city’s best malls, hotels, and business centers.
Top Attractions in Santo Domingo: Know Before You Go
To have the best possible experience in the Dominican capital, here are some things to know before traveling to Santo Domingo.
How to Get to Santo Domingo
Las Americas is the largest airport in the country and has direct flights to most North and South American hubs. There are also connections to European cities.
If you want to get from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo, Expreso Bávaro offers cheap and convenient bus routes from several resorts as well as Punta Cana Airport.
They leave four times a day in either direction and cost 400 pesos (~7 USD). Be aware that you can only buy the tickets at the bus station one hour before departure.
Getting around in Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo has a metro system, but it doesn’t cover the Colonial Zone.
Aside from that, small buses go everywhere, but they are challenging to navigate as there aren’t many fixed schedules and routes.
The easiest and safest option to get around is Uber, but avoid the rush hours as traffic can create gridlocks all around the city.
The DR is a Spanish-speaking country. While you won’t have trouble communicating in English in resorts and touristy restaurants, you’ll need some Spanish if you venture out of the main tourist zones.
Safety in Santo Domingo
The city can feel a bit gritty, and some areas are not safe for tourists. Nevertheless, the Zona Colonial, Piantini, and Gazcue are generally safe.
During the day, you shouldn’t have any trouble here. Use common sense – such as not flashing your valuables – and always stay alert.
In that same vein, don’t walk around at night – period. Call an Uber if you’re going somewhere after dark. By adhering to these precautions, your Santo Domingo visit should remain trouble-free.