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.
Fun horse-and-carriage ride throughout the Zona are available year-round, though the commentary will likely be 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.
Most major reconstruction projects in the Zona Colonial have finally come to an end. Shopkeepers and visitors alike are once again loving the joy of this charmed neighborhood. Unfortunately, the Zona is not as safe as it once was—particularly at night and during festivals. Don't walk on the streets with little pedestrian traffic and low lighting. Do not carry a lot of cash or your passport (leave them in the hotel safe).