Don't be most tourists.
For many tourists, the Dominican Republic is nothing more than a beach-centric getaway. To change this, Santo Domingo has invested upwards of $120 million in a massive restoration project in hopes of pulling tourism dollars from the country’s beaches and into the capital. The project focuses on restoring colonial-era homes, installing streetlamps, removing the tangle of electrical wires that hover over streets, and cleaning up trash.
To visit the capital city today is to witness a place in transition. As you walk through the Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone), you’ll find cobblestone avenues with colorful facades reminiscent of, say, Cartagena, Colombia, but, just as quickly, you’ll turn and find a run-down looking boulevard waiting for its turn at a makeover.
Before you head to beachside destinations like Samaná to bask in natural attractions like El Limón Waterfall, take a few days to explore the capital city. From its impressive history and architectural charm to its artisan boutiques and gorgeous hotels—here’s why you should spend a few days in Santo Domingo before heading to the beach.
Take a Self-Guided Walking Tour of the Zona Colonial
Santo Domingo is the most ancient settlement in the Americas. The entire Zona Colonial is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the oldest cathedral, hospital, and viceregal residence in the Americas, dating back to the 1500s. Start with a stroll down Calle El Conde, the most popular shopping street and one of the oldest avenues in Santo Domingo. This pedestrian-only walkway is lined with restaurants, textiles, cafes, and an inexplicable amount of tattoo parlors. As you amble down El Conde, you’ll run right into history at the corner of Calle Arzobispo Meriño where you’ll find Parque Colón and the oldest Catholic church in the Americas, Catedral Primada.
INSIDER TIPDownload the GPSmycity mobile app, which offers downloadable self-guided walking tours that come with a map, suggested stops, and a brief history of each place you visit. I used the “Zona Colonial Walk,” which took about two hours.
Cool off With Mojitos at the Iconic Hotel Conde
It gets humid in Santo Domingo, so one way to cool off is by grabbing an icy mojito under a canopy of trees. While exploring the Zona Colonial, chances are you’ll find yourself in front of Hotel Conde. This hotel sits opposite Parque Colón, which is considered the main square of the city’s historic district. In the center of the park stands a statue of Christopher Columbus, for whom the square was renamed in 1887. On the corner across from Hotel Conde is the unmistakable Palacio Consistorial de Santo Domingo (the first city hall in the Americas) with its iconic clock tower. Grab a seat at one of the many shaded outdoor tables, order a mojito, and bask in history.
Learn How to Make Your Own Chocolate Bars
One of the great things about exploring the Zona Colonial on a self-guided walking tour is having the ability to press pause and explore anything that catches your eye. During my walking tour, I noticed a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chocolate shop with a sign out front encouraging guests to come in and make their own chocolate bars.
Having enjoyed a myriad of chocolate experiences throughout my life—from cacao tours in Panama to chocolate tastings in France—I was immediately intrigued. Stop by Chocopick for a bean-to-chocolate bar workshop where you’ll have your choice of crafting a dark, milk, or white chocolate bar from scratch using locally sourced and produced chocolate. The Chocopick shop is also home to wonderful chocolate-based goods, ranging from body scrubs to teas.
INSIDER TIPYou can book your chocolate workshop in advance through Airbnb Experiences.
Book a Stay at the Colonial Hotel, Casas del XVI
If staying in Santo Domingo, consider booking a stay at a colonial-era hotel like Casas del XVI, which is featured on Fodor’s Finest Hotels list. This unique hotel is made up of former colonial residences that date back to the 16th-century. The homes—some of which are available for private rental—have been lovingly restored and feature a mix of modern décor with elements that honor the city’s colonial past.
Each house is within walking distance of one another and features rooms surrounding a lush courtyard with ancient fruit trees and a pool. Casas del XVI is ideally located in the Zona Colonial, a quick walk from all of the historical attractions you’re likely to visit.
INSIDER TIPCasas del XVI offers unique wellness, cultural, and gastronomic experiences that connect you to local artisans, give you a taste of Dominican cuisine or afford you private tours of historical sites.
See Gothic Ruins and Birds at Hospital San Nicolás
Santo Domingo is home to the Hospital San Nicolás, the oldest hospital built in the New World back in the early 1500s. During its storied 350 years of operation, this historic hospital faced everything from pirate attacks to revolution, only to fall to ruin in the early 1900s when its façade collapsed.
Today, the remaining ruins are hauntingly beautiful, with gothic archways reclaimed by nature and overrun with pigeons. Yes, everywhere you look at Hospital San Nicolás today, you’ll see flocks of pigeons nesting in the walls and walking along what was once hospital hallways.
Buy Espadrilles Made by Generations of Spaniards
Since 2011, this bar-meets-shoe store has been carrying on the tradition of making artisanal espadrilles from scratch. Espadrilles are a popular summer shoe with soles notably made of natural jute, a rope-like fiber produced from plants commonly found in Africa and Asia. Beyond being deceptively comfortable, these jute soles offer unbeatable foot and arch support compared to regular shoes.
In Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial, La Alpargatería is founded by a Spanish ex-pat whose family has been crafting espadrilles for four generations. The handmade jute soles are produced in Spain and shipped to the Dominican Republic, where they are then hand-stitched with unique canvas and leather fabrics by local artisans. Going shoe shopping is a treat in itself, but La Alpargatería adds a bit of magic with a tree-filled backyard where you can sip cervezas under string lights.
INSIDER TIPLa Alpargatería offers customizations and a quick turn-around time. If you see a pair of espadrilles that you wish came in a different color, fabric, or size—just ask!
Visit Alcázar de Colón, the Oldest Viceregal Residence in the Americas
Because Santo Domingo was founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus (Christopher Columbus’ brother), it is considered the first Spanish colony in the Americas. For this reason, the Dominican Republic’s capital is home to many historic buildings, including the first viceregal residence. Built in the early 1500s, this Gothic and Renaissance-inspired palace was the home of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego, and his wife, María de Toledo, who was the niece of King Ferdinand. Today, the palace is a museum that houses medieval and Renaissance art and a stunning tapestry collection.
Support Local Artisans at This Woman-Founded Stoneware Workshop
Casa Alfarera is a woman-founded stoneware workshop owned by ceramist Ysabela Molini. At Casa Alfarera, a team of local Dominican artisans have been crafting pottery and paving the way for aspiring potters to hone their craft. Using raw materials sourced from around the island, every intricately designed vase, bowl, and plate is handmade and hand-glazed using a custom recipe. While in town, stop by Casa Alfarera to visit their boutique store and stoneware workshop. Not only will you find something truly unique for the kitchen table, but you’ll have the chance to meet and support local artisans.
INSIDER TIPIf staying at Casas del XVI, book an experience at Casa Alfarera through the hotel.