by Alexa Rodríguez
Most Americans looking for a memorable Caribbean getaway find themselves surrounded by ads or Instagram posts of the picturesque beaches of Punta Cana or La Romana in the Dominican Republic– also lovingly known as “the D.R.” But I’m here to tell you that there is much more to explore in this tropical country beyond the all-inclusive resorts and tourist hotspots. If you’re looking to experience authentic Dominican culture, tour historic sites, and taste incredible food while still being in close proximity to the crystal-clear blue water the Caribbean is known for, consider traveling to the Dominican Republic’s capital of Santo Domingo.
Santo Domingo’s international airport (SDQ) has flights coming in from Richmond (RIC), Washington, D.C. (IAD), and Baltimore (BWI), making it a convenient and affordable travel destination for travelers based in Central Virginia. It is the largest city in the Dominican Republic and is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas. The city’s Zona Colonial, or Colonial Zone, was even declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. A bustling city of over 4.5 million people filled with history and culture, as well as plenty of scenic views, it is no wonder Santo Domingo is one of my favorite Caribbean destinations.
I’ve been traveling to Santo Domingo since I was only months old, and I have visited the city over 20 times since for work, family, and tourism. Here are my top 7 places to visit in Santo Domingo:
- Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone)
As a lover of history, my absolute favorite part of the city is its Zona Colonial. There you can visit the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the first and oldest in America founded in 1504, tour the Museo De Las Casas Reales, a chocolate tour with Kahkow Experience, sip on Dominican rum in Sugarcane La Casa Del Ron, stop by Casa de los Dulces for authentic Dominican sweets, or pop into one of the many restaurants and bars in the location. (Pro tip: Zona Colonial also has many souvenir shops and street art vendors on Calle el Conde, so it is a great location to purchase some gifts for loved ones back home.) As you walk through the streets of the area, please be aware of your surroundings and belongings, particularly your phone and wallet. Like with other tourist hotspots, these can be spaces for petty theft so you try to protect yourself by avoiding common scams/tricks like these.
- Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana (Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance)
For those who are already familiar with the Dominican Republic’s infamous Dictator Rafael Trujillo who held power in the D.R. from 1930- 1961, or those who are interested in learning about this history, you should definitely make a stop at the Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience describes the museum as an institution that “collects, organizes, preserves, researches, distributes, and displays the tangible and intangible heritage of the struggles of several generations of Dominicans related to the dictatorship of Rafael L. Trujillo.”
- Parque Mirador Sur
Looking to take a stroll in the park and catch beautiful views of the city? The Parque Mirador Sur is one of my favorite places to walk and people-watch. Early in the morning, it is filled with Dominican locals exercising along its main walkway and you can find a local coconut vendor and sip on fresh coconut water right out of the shell!
- Malecón (Seafront boulevard)
Take a stroll down Santo Domingo’s boardwalk, el Malecón, and you’ll pass by bars, restaurants and hotels where you can stop by for a quick drink. You can also enjoy the beautiful view of the Caribbean Sea while also looking out for the Santo Domingo Obelisk (Obelisco de Santo Domingo), the Eugenio María de Hosto Park, San José Fort, and the statue of Antonio de Montesinos, a 16th century friar who publicly denounced the enslavement and harsh treatment of the Indigenous peoples of the island.
- Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes National Park)
Located slightly outside of the Zona Colonial, Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes National Park) is a nature reserve and 50-yard, open-air, limestone cave with three lakes, or metaphorical “ojos” (eyes). It has breathtaking views for those seeking a break from the city and visitors can explore the caves by foot or boat.
- Jardín Botánico Nacional (National Botanical Garden)
Interested in another escape from the bustling city center? Hit up the Jardín Botánico Nacional (National Botanical Garden), a stunning nature preserve filled with native flowers and trees, including hundreds of species of orchids, which is also a great place for birdwatching. You can take a trolley tour through the area and stop by the Japanese garden for a picnic.
- Beaches in Boca Chica
You came all the way to the Caribbean so of course you’re looking for some fun in the sun. Make sure to take a day trip to the white sandy beaches of Boca Chica! The serene water of the Caribbean Sea mixed with the swanky beach clubs and restaurants playing bachata and merengue makes it the best of both worlds, peaceful and fun! Be sure to plan ahead and speak with your hotel about arranging transport since the beach town is located forty minutes east of Santo Domingo.
- As I stated before, it is important to pay attention and take precautions to keep yourself and your valuables safe as you travel. I highly recommend reviewing these tips ahead of your trip: 23 Things to Know Before Traveling to the Dominican Republic For the First Time from Dominican Abroad and Travel Tips, Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism.
- Since Santo Domingo is actually quite large and spread out, Ubers can be a great way to get around the city.
- The sun in the Caribbean is *no joke,* so make sure to pack plenty of sunscreen and stay hydrated. You may also want to bring insect repellent for the mosquitos.
- Finally, relax and have a good time!
Five Dominican words you won’t find in your travel books:
vaina: Essentially this means “thing” or “stuff” but can be used in other ways like to express frustration or irritation like in “¡Qué vaina!” (What the heck!)
¡Qué chulo!: This expression means something is cute or cool. It is usually used as a compliment. If you like someone’s dress you can say, “¡Mira qué vestido tan chulo!
chin: This means a little bit. So if someone is offering you food, and you only want a small portion you say, “Sólo un chin, por favor.”
hartura: When you’ve had too much to eat, you say, “Me di una hartura!” (I ate too much!).
guagua: If you need to catch a bus and are looking for the stop, be sure to ask for the parada de guagua (bus stop).
For more words to study for your trip, see the following links:
- Dominicanismos: 38 Dominican Slang Words for Your Next Caribbean Getaway
- Dominican Slang | Gringo’s Guide to ‘Tiguere’ Spanish