Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone is full of examples of 15th- and 16th-century architecture. // © 2014 Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism
Feature image (above): The Cathedral of Santa Maria was completed in 1540 and is the oldest cathedral in the Americas. // © 2014 Thinkstock
The beautiful beaches, scenic vistas, natural beauty and world-class resorts of the Caribbean islands comprise their primary appeal for tourists. Add a dash of Caribbean cuisine and music, and you have the ingredients of a perfect vacation.
What’s missing on many islands is easy access to local culture and history. One Caribbean destination where it’s easy to add a cultural component to any vacation is the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo, often described as the oldest city in the New World.
Here are five opportunities for travelers to experience the culture and history of Santo Domingo.
Walking Tour of the Colonial Zone
Any visit to Santo Domingo should start with a walking tour along the cobblestone streets of the city’s compact Colonial Zone. This historic district is studded with architectural treasures from the 15th and 16th centuries and was given status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. Columbus was an early visitor, and his influence will be noted throughout the district. Standout sights include the Columbus Palace, the Catedral Santa Maria, which is the first Cathedral in the New World and the Ozama Fort.
The Colonial Zone is in the midst of an impressive renovation that will accentuate the district’s historic ambience by hiding electric cables underground. This work is being done on a block-by-block basis and doesn’t disrupt a tour of the district.
Santo Domingo’s Museums
Santo Domingo has a selection of fine museums focusing on varied aspects of culture.
Art lovers should head over to the Plaza de Cultura and the Museum of Modern Art. While the museum hosts temporary exhibits throughout the year, first-time visitors to the museum should concentrate on the galleries containing the permanent exhibits, where they’ll see an overview of the country’s most celebrated artists of the 20th century.
The Museum of Dominican Man portrays the country’s cultural and ethnic heritage through the chronicle of its people, beginning with the Taino Indians who were severely brutalized by the Spanish conquistadores. The museum also highlights the country’s African slave heritage. A light touch is provided in the permanent exhibit on the Dominican Republic’s Carnival traditions.
Overnight in a Historic Hotel
One of the best ways to soak up the caught-in-time ambience of Santo Domingo is to stay overnight in one of the historic buildings that have been converted into hotels. This also makes it easy to enjoy an evening stroll through the Colonial Zone, which has a whole different atmosphere after the sun goes down.
One of the best of these historic hotels is the 500-year-old Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 104-room hotel comprises three stone houses dating from the early 16th century, festooned with decorative ironwork and hacienda shutters. The hotel is located on Las Damas, one of the first paved streets in the New World. For the maximum experience, book your clients into one of the hotel’s 45 colonial-style rooms.
Dine in a Historic Restaurant
Another way to experience Santo Domingo’s culture is to dine in one of the upscale restaurants in the Colonial Zone, where many eateries are housed in renovated historic homes.
Meson D’Bari is located in a restored building in the colonial area. The restaurant serves traditional Dominican and Creole dishes, including stewed shredded crab, shrimp a la criolla and loganiza (Dominican sausage). Music lovers should drop in during a weekend night, when live merengue is featured.
La Bricola occupies a restored 17th century house. The restaurant features Italian cuisine, and diners have the option of taking a meal al fresco in an open courtyard, under a covered terrace or in one of the interior dining rooms.
Hostal Nicolas de Ovando hotel also provides a fine dining experience at its La Residence terrace restaurant. Guests will have a choice of international dishes, with an accent on French fare, as well as Caribbean cuisine. Consider taking a pre-prandial cocktail in the hotel’s Cibao Bar, where guests can choose from a variety of aged rums from 12 different Caribbean countries.
Experience Local Color and Culture
While a traveler wanders around Santo Domingo exploring the city’s high culture, they’ll find themselves effortlessly brushing up against the Dominican Republic’s lively and welcoming local culture.
For a glimpse of street-level life, drop into one of Santo Domingo’s numerous colmados. These are tiny mom-and-pop grocery stores with a difference — they also serve simple meals at a lunch counter. The food is working-class fare. Merengue music is more often than not blasting out of speakers and the door will ding as one neighborhood character after another drops in. A colmados is a great place to knock back an ice cold Presidente beer and soak up some local color.
Other places to observe the day-to-day life of the city include Santo Domingo’s expansive boardwalk malecon; the tree-shaded park in front of the Catedral Santa Maria; and the Mercado Modelo, a local market overflowing with fresh produce, souvenirs and food stands serving hearty local cuisine.