Parque Independencia separates the old city from modern Santo Domingo, a sprawling, noisy city with a population of close to 2 million. The 12 cobblestone blocks of Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial contain most of the major sights in town. It's one of the most appealing historic districts in the Caribbean and is best explored on foot. The Zona ends at the seafront, called the Malecón.
Spanish civilization in the New World began in Santo Domingo's 12-block Zona Colonial. As you stroll its narrow streets, it's easy to imagine this old city as it was when the likes of Columbus, Cortés, and Ponce de León walked the cobblestones, pirates sailed in and out, and colonists started settling. Tourist brochures claim that "history comes alive here"—a surprisingly truthful statement. Almost every Thursday to Sunday night at 8:30 a typical "folkloric show" is staged at Parque Colón and Plaza de España. During the Christmas holidays there is an artisans' fair and live-music concerts take place. A fun horse-and-carriage ride throughout the Zona costs $25 for an hour, with any commentary in Spanish. The steeds are no thoroughbreds, but they clip right along. You can also negotiate to use them as a taxi, say, to go down to the Malecón. The drivers usually hang out in front of the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando. You can get a free walking-tour map and brochures in English at the Secretaria de Estado de Turismo office at Parque Colón (Columbus Park), where you may be approached by freelance, English-speaking guides who will want to make it all come alive for you. They'll work enthusiastically for $25 an hour for four people. At the time of this writing, the major reconstruction of so many of the streets in the Zona is expected to come to an end soon. Yet simply put, the Zona is not as safe as it once was—particularly at night and during festivals. Don't carry a lot of cash or your passport (leave them in the hotel safe).