In 1492, Christopher Columbus used the remains of his flagship Santa Maria to build a small fort where the Ozama River emptied into the bright blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. Four years later, in 1496, on a return visit, Columbus established a colony on the spot. Today, Santo Domingo remains the oldest European-built city in the Americas, and much of that colonial history still stands for visitors to see.

Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone sits on the western bank of the Ozama, and nestles up to the sea on its southern end. It is fairly small, relatively flat, and easy to walk. In comparison to other similar colonial cities like San Juan, it is reasonably free of tourists (Santo Domingo, after all, is a huge city but not a tourism hot spot) and the associated boutique hotels and souvenir stands, although there are some of each of these things. What it does have is trendy restaurants (mostly frequented by locals, making them even more awesome), a plethora of people-watching, a few cool museums, and several buildings that date back to the early 16th century. It is these that tell the story of colonial Santo Domingo.

In 1502, Nicolas de Ovando became governor of the colony of Santo Domingo (under the regional governor or viceroy). His house, now a hotel, is the oldest to survive, and sits just north of a fortress constructed by Ovando in the southeastern corner of the Colonial Zone, which was built to guard the entrance to the river. The Ozama Fortress, and some of its outbuildings, dates all the way back to this early period, although some features like the external stairs of the building were added later.

Ozama Fortress

Signage inside the fortress (which, like most buildings in the Colonial Zone only costs a couple dollars to enter, although this one does not include an audio guide) tells visitors both of its early days, and its more recent history as a prison used by the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who added the much taller cement walls and towers around the southern portion in the mid-twentieth century. Pre-sighted cannon emplacements allowed gunners to cover both sides of the river, which explains the rather unusual lack of a corresponding fort on the opposite bank. Walls on the city side of the compound were added once a local garrison was needed to oversee a full-time population, and Ovando planned streets of his new city based on the compass points from this original north-south wall. (Signage also says that this was the first such planned city in the world, with streets running due north-south and east-west, but I can’t verify that.)

These cement walls and towers were added much later

In 1504, Ovando began construction of a cathedral, which would be finished in 1550. The oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor is more often called Catedral Primera, or the first cathedral. The inside is beautiful, and even some of the artwork dates back to early Spanish masters or local artists. An audio guide is included in your small admission fee, and will take about an hour to work through.

The cathedral

While the main altar and chamber are lovely, it is a side chapel done in mahogany and silver that catches the eye.

A beautiful side chapel with an altar of silver and mahogany

In 1511, Diego Columbus, Christopher’s son, was given the title of Viceroy of the Indies. After moving to Santo Domingo with his wife, Maria de Toledo, he had a huge mansion constructed for himself, which stands on the northern side of the Colonial Zone just inside the river walls. The Alcazar Colon (or Columbus Palace) today holds a small museum dedicated both to the Columbus family (click here to read about their complicated legacy) and to the time period, with original furnishings that, while not from this particular house, date back to the 16th century. As with the cathedral, touring with the full audio guide will take about an hour.

Alcazar Colon

Under Diego’s rule, the seat of power for Spanish control of the Indies was also constructed here, and sits just south of the Alcazar Colon. Now the Museum of the Royal Houses, this building, built in 1511, was the seat of the viceroyalty all the way to 1844, when the Dominican Republic gained independence from Spain (and was the seat of power for occupying French and Haitian forces during two periods of the early 19th century) and would continue to host Dominican presidential offices until the construction of the current National Palace in 1947.

Museum of the Royal Houses (Casas Reales)

Of all the museums in the Colonial Zone, this is the most impressive. Artifacts on display range from documents hand written by Christopher Columbus to old maps and weaponry, an early model of the city, original furnishings, portraits of Spanish monarchs, a fascinating collection of pharmaceutical instruments used to catalog local plants and herbs, and even the dictator Trujillo’s personal collection of weapons from throughout the world.

The audience chamber with its collection of portraits of Spanish kings

The audio tour here is long, and if you want to spend less than a few hours, you’ll need to pick between entries in each room. Make sure to visit the royal courtroom, tucked into a corner of the upper floor, for a fascinating description of what it would have looked like in session. (As an American, I also find some of the descriptions of piracy to be hilarious, as they state that the English, French, and Dutch refused to accept the right to supremacy in the new world as dictated by Spain, thus resorting to violence; this is the opposite tale that we hear of the “good” English and French colonies and their pirate protectors like Francis Drake. Propaganda goes both ways.)

The remainder of the Colonial Zone is a bit more run down than its San Juan equivalent, which is perhaps the closest city of comparison. The walls once encircling the city are mainly gone, though ruins can be seen along the river and on the sea edge. Buildings more closely resemble a “normal” Santo Domingo neighborhood than a restored colonial city, which makes sense given that people live here, and the area still has grocery stores, banks, and other needed local businesses. At night, it lights up, especially along the pedestrian El Conde, along which sit cafes, shops, and cute restaurants catering both to locals and tourists.

El Conde lit up at night

Santo Domingo is the oldest European-constructed city in the Americas, and a visit to the Dominican Republic wouldn’t be complete without a day spent here. (From here, one can also begin to appreciate some of the modern history of the Dominican as an independent state, but that is an article for another time.)

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