The second city of the Dominican Republic, where many past presidents were born, is reached by the Autopista Duarte, the four-lane highway from Puerto Plata that follows a centuries-old trade route that is still dotted with sugar mills, some of which are being renovated by the Office of Cultural Patrimony and the Brugal Rum company. This industrial center still feels charming, provincial, and a little genteel—it has a slower pace and less crime than the capital. The families of sugar barons, who have been making their fortunes from rum for centuries, cigar kings, and bankers dominate the city; there is a hierarchy of moneyed families in this city, and they make their presence and influence felt. The women of Santiago are said to be among the fairest and best looking in the country, and the men are true caballeros (gentlemen), often donning Panama hats. Santiago's full name—Santiago de los Caballeros—comes from the fact that it was founded by a group of 30 Spanish noblemen.
Generations of Italian and Cuban immigrants, including the famous cigar-making Fuentes, have become successful in everything from the restaurant business to cigar manufacturing, adding flavor to the ethnic mix. Like Santo Domingo, Santiago is a city of real Dominicans—entire generations—not just the transplants who live in hotel housing in resort areas like Punta Cana, which never had an identity before it was developed.
Santiago is still relatively new to the tourist scene, but already has several thriving restaurants and hotels. It's definitely worth setting aside some time to explore the city. Some colonial-style buildings—with wrought-iron details and tiled porticos—date from as far back as the 1500s. Others are from the Victorian era, with the requisite gingerbread and fanciful colors, while more recent construction is often designed in a Victorian style. Old Town Santiago covers roughly the area from the central park, Parque Duarte, to the fort, and then to the monument.
Santiago is the center of the island's cigar industry, and the Arturo Fuente factory is in the free zone here. Cafés and restaurants abound on the Calle del Sol, and on weekends the outdoor cafés allow you to watch the world of Santiago go by. This is a great, feel-good city that is often overlooked. Inland, there are no pearl-white beaches, but in the nearby foothills and mountains of the Cordillera chain there are icy rivers and little natural balnearios (swimming pools).
Santiago at a Glance
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