When most travelers visit the Dominican Republic, they choose beaches and resorts in a place like Punta Cana or Puerto Plata. If they come to the capital of Santo Domingo, it is for a day, or even less, on one side or the other. Well, I am not most travelers. The last thing I want out of a trip is to solely experience Americans on holiday.
So in my recent trip to the DR, I spent the entire trip – more than two weeks – in Santo Domingo. And you know what? I loved it! Santo Domingo combines history, natural beauty, fascinating culture, and terrific food. And really, who could want more, especially at an affordable price?
This guide will attempt to convey just what is so amazing about the Dominican capital, and offer suggestions as to how to make your trip a great one. It is, however, important to note that even in more than two weeks, I didn’t get to everything on my list, let alone the things a city of this size has to offer that I didn’t know about. I will only be able to talk about what I actually did. The links spread throughout this guide will lead you to more in-depth articles about specific aspects of the city, so be sure to click through for anything that interests you.
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In 98% of cases, you’ll be flying in. (Cruises to the DR rarely come to Santo Domingo, although a small Costa ship did come through one day while I was here, so it isn’t impossible.) The airport is small, with what appeared to be 15-20 gates in total, with flights mainly around the region and to the US. (Like many other former Spanish colonies, there is also an Iberia flight to Madrid.) While my American flight connected through Miami, I saw flights from Atlanta, Newark, and Fort Lauderdale, and I assume given the population of Dominican expats in New York that there is one from JFK.
The Dominican Republic requires the filling out of a form online before either coming or leaving. The resulting QR code was not checked in either direction for me, but I can’t say it won’t be for you, so make sure to do that. The fee is built into your ticket so it appears free online, and it takes about five minutes to do.
The airport (SDQ) is located east of Santo Domingo, and is about a half hour away by Uber, which will run you between $20 and $30 US. Ubers are caught upstairs, and it is common for your driver to text you via the app asking which door you are outside of, so make sure to check. You can also catch a taxi, but cabs here are significantly more expensive than Ubers. (More on that in the next section.)
Do not drive. That is worth repeating. DO. NOT. DRIVE. Let me explain. Dominican drivers, and especially those in Santo Domingo, are aggressive. Even for a guy like me who drives every day in Los Angeles, it is out of my comfort zone. You’ll be cut off, prevented from passing, and honked at incessantly. Lanes are a recommendation, but drivers will drive in between if it suits them. Intersections rarely have stop signs, and it is a free for all as to who goes – typically with plenty of honking and swerving. There are potholes, storm drains, speed bumps (planned or not), and other things that are especially tough with inadequate streetlights at night. Motorbikes will run red lights, make left turns across lanes of traffic, drive up on sidewalks and out the other side. Just don’t drive.
Ubers are plentiful and cheap. It is rare for a drive within the city to cost more than $4-5 pre-tip. (And do make sure to tip. A few bucks means a lot more here than in the US.) Drivers are Dominican and aggressive, so buckle in, but accidents seem rare.
During daylight, it is fairly easy to walk the area between the Colonial Zone and Congress (about three miles, with most international hotels and such in between). If you walk along the water, there are wide sidewalks. Bikes will avoid you, but keep half an eye out. The area is basically flat. (There are small hills in the Colonial Zone itself, but you’ll have to deal with those.)
Santo Domingo also has a metro system. It contains two subway lines and the Teleferico, an aerial tram that goes over some of the poorer areas of the city. (Click here to read about the Teleferico, and my reflections on some of the poverty I saw.) The metro is clean, fast, safe, and cheap (about 40 cents each way), but doesn’t really go any places tourists want to go, unless you use it for a day trip on the Teleferico.
If you plan to cross the Ozama River into east Santo Domingo, take an Uber even if you think you can easily walk it. The area is known for being unsafe for tourists, outside of a couple attractions that I’ll talk about below.
What to Do
The central attraction of Santo Domingo is the Colonial Zone. Santo Domingo is the oldest European city in the Americas, and a number of buildings from its late 15th century founding are still standing. (Click here to read about the colonial history of Santo Domingo and how to experience it.)
But the Colonial Zone offers more than just colonial history. It has great dining options, stellar drinks, decent shopping (this is not the best city for souvenirs in many respects) and two unique museums about rare stones and gems found only here. Did you know Dominican blue amber is honey-colored when viewed inside and sea blue in sunlight? Visit the Amber Museum! This is also the only place in the world to find larimar, which reminds me of a blue jade. The Larimar Museum is small and free – and awesome!
To experience more of the modern history of the Dominican Republic, you’ll want to go to Independence Park, which honors the founders of the republic. (Click here to read about modern Dominican history and how to see it.) Another must-see is the Museum of the Dominican Resistance, which discusses life under the Trujillo dictatorship (1930-61). The Trujillo years are especially formative, and you can click here to read more about it.
Before the Spanish colonized the area, the entire island was home to the Taino people. Some incredible artifacts from these now extinct tribes are on display at the Museum of the Dominican Man (sadly the signage is solely in Spanish and there is no audio guide) in Santo Domingo’s Plaza de la Cultura. Or check out the monument to Friar Antonio de Montesinos, who was the first Spanish priest to speak out against the mistreatment of natives. (Read more about him and the Taino here.)
On the east side of the Ozama, two things stand out. First, spend a couple glorious hours at Los Tres Ojos National Park, a series of caves with underground lakes. (Just note that the caves themselves are not handicap accessible and require some fairly steep – and slippery in places – stairs.) Second, visit the brutalist mausoleum of some of Christopher Columbus’ remains. (Click here to read about Columbus and why some of his remains are here and some in Spain.)
Finally, make sure you find some way to experience merengue, which was invented here. Several clubs feature the music and dancing, or you can even take a lesson with locals like I did. (Click here to read about merengue.)
Beaches in Santo Domingo are tiny and often overrun with trash tossed from ships, so while the water is beautiful, you’ll need to head out of town for a day in the sand. The easiest day trip is to Boca Chica, just on the other side of the airport (so a $30-40 Uber). One note: when trying to Uber back from Boca Chica, I had a tough time finding an Uber that wasn’t attempting to extort me for more money in cash. I didn’t have this experience any other time but the one, though three separate drivers tried to pull the same stunt.
Or you can book a full day excursion to a place like Saona Island, a pristine island off the country’s southeastern coast. I did this, and it was pretty great. (Click here to read about my experience at Saona Island.)
Where to Stay
Remember I spoke about that area that is easy to walk along the coast between the Colonial Zone and the congress? Stay there. I chose an Airbnb in a gorgeous building with ocean views, but if you prefer hotels, there is a Renaissance, a Crowne Plaza, and a former Hilton that is now the Catalonia. All look nice, and the single night I spent at the Crowne Plaza when I arrived (with an 11pm arrival, I spent a night before checking into my Airbnb the following day) was lovely.
If you stay near the airport (I spent my final night at the Hampton Inn there before an early flight out), places like Boca Chica will be easily accessible, but the city of Santo Domingo itself will subject you to steep Uber rates along a toll highway each way, offsetting any hotel savings, not to mention the time.
What to Eat
First, let’s talk pork. Specifically, chicharron. We think of chicharron as pork skin, but here in the Dominican, it is fried and very meaty (and fatty and crispy and chewy and wonderful). It will come with a very acidic sauce – you’ll be asked if you want it – and a toothpick for eating. The best way to consume it is on the sidewalk of a tiny joint. It doesn’t make great leftovers, however.
If you like empanadas, Santo Domingo is the place for you. I visited MIX in the Colonial Zone twice. My favorite was the beef and plantain.
If there is a national dish in the Dominican Republic, it is sancocho, a stew of various meats (on the bone in many cases), root vegetables, and plantains, served with rice and avocado. It is hearty and delicious.
Drinks are just as important here. Dominican coffee is spectacular (and cheap; a latte will run you $2-4), and the rum is perhaps the best I’ve had. (Click here to read about Dominican coffee and rum, along with cigars.)
Other Useful Information
Let’s talk safety, as Santo Domingo doesn’t have the best reputation. The central tourist area (that same stretch mentioned a couple times earlier) is very safe, at least during the day. I used Uber at night. The biggest danger for me was the aggression of traffic, making crossing the street a daunting task until I got used to it. As with any major city, use caution, and don’t wear expensive flashy jewelry just to be safe.
English is spoken here, but limited. Few Uber drivers (or even servers at restaurants) spoke much, so you’ll want to memorize some basic Spanish phrases before coming, or at least consult a translation app.
A note on weather: it is hot and humid. Even in January, the coolest month, temperatures were in the mid to upper 80s Fahrenheit, with humidity that made it seem worse. Carry plenty of water with you if you walk.
Speaking of water, the tap water here is not safe to drink. You’ll want to get bottled water. (Note: most restaurants that cater to tourists will use filtered water for ice, so don’t overthink having ice in your cocktail.) If you choose to go grocery shopping, the CDC recommends avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables that don’t have thick peels (like bananas or avocados) due to contaminated water.
Credit cards are accepted in more places than not, but you’ll need cash while here. It is currently about 55 pesos to the dollar. ATMs give out money in 1,000 peso bills, which some places won’t want to change, so ask your hotel to help with smaller bills.
While it isn’t the place to go for all inclusive beach resorts, Santo Domingo is awesome. It is a terrific city, with a ton to do and see, and generally warm people who are welcoming toward American tourists. So even if you are planning to go the Punta Cana route, if your flights bring you through the capital, spend a couple days and see the “real” Dominican Republic.
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