If any city in the world could be declared the perfect holiday destination, then Santo Domingo would probably be a prime candidate, with its modern sophistication, old world charm and Latin charisma, coupled with its position on the tropical southern Caribbean coast of the Dominican Republic.
The only blight on the landscape is the crime rate: robbery, muggings, and petty theft are common, so guard your belongings with care. Santo Domingo was the first European settlement in the New World and boasts the western hemisphere's first cathedral, first hospital, first university, and first law court.
This rich colonial heritage, sparked off in the 15th century by legendary Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, has been turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of the city. Known as the "Colonial City", it is now a delightful area of cobblestone streets and 16th-century buildings, interspersed with cafes, bars, small hotels, and restaurants.
Visitors don't need to stray far to enjoy a great time in the city, but it is advisable not to ignore the modern part of Santo Domingo. The superb shopping, delicious dining, dazzling casinos, seductive parks and vibrant nightlife all beckon enticingly.
A different world awaits, from the monumental Columbus Lighthouse right down to the depths of the Guácara Taina nightclub, with its multi-level dance floors housed inside a real cave. An opportunity to watch a game of the Dominican Republic's adored national sport, baseball, at Estadio Quisqueya shouldn't be passed up.
Inside the Colonial City stands the oldest cathedral in the western hemisphere. Consecrated in 1541, it is still used to this day. Its mix of late-Gothic and Renaissance elements provide a beautiful example of Spanish Renaissance architecture, with its golden coral facade and Gothic interior. Its walls have seen a great deal of history, including the coming of Sir Francis Drake, who captured Santo Domingo in 1586 and held the town for ransom. Interestingly, the remains of Christopher Columbus were once housed at the cathedral, before their final resting place in the Faro a Colon. The cathedral's treasury has an excellent art collection of ancient woodcarvings, furnishings, funerary monuments, silver, and jewellery, which visitors can explore.
Known as the Colonial City, the historic enclave of Santo Domingo covers only one square mile (3 sq km), but has dozens of historical sites and buildings behind its walls. Visitors will find parks, forts, churches, plazas, statues, palaces and monuments. A walking tour of these fascinating buildings takes at least three hours, and proceeds over cobbled streets where Christopher Columbus, Fernando Cortez and Francis Drake once walked. The city's main street, Calle de Las Damas, is the oldest street in the New World. Regarding sights, must-sees include the House of Cord, which is the oldest European building in the Americas, and the Alcazar Palace, where Christopher Columbus' son Diego once lived. It was built between 1510 and 1514.
The monument was built on the eastern shore of the Ozama River in the early 1990s, to commemorate both Santo Domingo's status as the oldest European city in the Americas, and the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. The building is 680 feet (210m) long, and built in the shape of a cross. It houses what are claimed to be the remains of Columbus himself, and is fitted with intense lights that project the image of the cross into the sky at night. The monument was designed by Scottish architect J.L. Gleave, who won an international competition with his plans for the lighthouse. The building is also the repository for numerous documents and artefacts associated with the early Spanish colonial times.
One of the better aquariums in the Caribbean lies about a mile east of the Columbus Lighthouse monument, and offers visitors guided glimpses of the region's diverse, colourful sea life. The open, airy National Aquarium is equipped with a clear-glass sea-tunnel that makes viewing the enclosed sea life an awesome experience. Visitors can see everything from angelfish to sharks. The attraction is just a short drive out of the city.
The vast green square in the heart of Santo Domingo serves as the city's cultural and artistic showcase. It's fronted by a cluster of four museums and houses the city's most important cultural venues, including the Teatro Nacional (National Theater). The square also boasts the likes of the Palacio Nacional, which houses the Presidency of the Dominican Republic; the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), a neoclassical building that is the permanent home of the country's National Symphony Orchestra; and the Boulevard 27 de Febrero, a pedestrian promenade located on the busy Avenida 27 de Febrero, which displays works of art from prominent Dominican artists and sculptors. The museums in the plaza are the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of History and Geography, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Dominican Man. The National Theatre runs a full programme of opera, ballet, music and drama productions year round, and visitors should certainly take in a show to round off their cultural experience in Santo Domingo.
Located on the east bank of the Ozama River, the 'Three Eyes' park is a surreal experience for visitors. The attraction is actually a series of huge natural caves that contain fresh-water lagoons. One is a sulphuric lake rumoured to be bottomless. A volcanic crater contains it. The caves are also festooned with stalactites and stalagmites. History lovers should note that the pre-Columbian Taino Indians used the caves for religious ceremonies. The site is currently one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the country. The caves are open from 8.30am to 5.30pm, and are illuminated at night by many coloured lights.
The small seaside town of Boca Chica lies just east of Santo Domingo on the Avenida de las Americas, and is a popular escape from city life. Its calm, crystal-clear waters make for superb swimming conditions, and its golf and seafood scenes are highly recommended. Visitors may also enjoy the destination's yacht clubs. Along with its azure waters and pristine white sands, Boca Chica's short distance from the island's capital city makes it the most popular beach in the Dominican Republic, especially on weekends and holidays. Boating visitors can anchor off Boca Chica's two islets, La Piedra and La Matica.
Santo Domingo has a tropical wet climate. Temperatures remain constant throughout the year, with temperatures averaging between 67°F (15°C) and 70°F (27°C). Due to its location on the Caribbean, Santo Domingo is prone to tropical storms, particularly from August to October, so travel during these months should be carefully considered. The best time to visit Santo Domingo is during the drier months from November to March when temperatures are also slightly cooler.
There are several ways to get around in Santo Domingo. Buses run along major routes throughout the city, but are not a popular mode of transport for tourists as the system can be confusing. Taxis operate across the city, although not all taxis are clearly marked and they are not normally metered. Uber is also available in Santo Domingo.
Taxis usually operate according to set fares depending on the distance travelled; it's best to confirm this with the driver before getting in the vehicle. It's recommended to call a taxi dispatcher to arrange a taxi beforehand rather than hailing a taxi directly from the street.
Shared minivan taxis (publicos) are popular. These follow major routes around the city, but don't have specific stops, rather stopping when a passenger flags them down using hand signals. Although they're relatively cheap, they can be quite uncomfortable due to overcrowding.
Car hire is available in Santo Domingo, but self-driving is not always the best option due to poor roads and erratic driving conditions.
Santo Domigo has an array of historical and natural attractions to suit even the most discerning traveller. Santo Domingo is right on the Caribbean Sea, but still, this isn't a beach town. Instead, visitors should spend some time at historically significant sites like the Catedral Primada de América or the Fortaleza Ozama.
Visitors should also allot an hour or two for the architecturally significant and visually awesome Columbus Lighthouse, which now houses the alleged remains of Christopher Columbus. And then there's the Malecón, which some say is the best nightlife available in the Caribbean.
Whatever a traveller's tastes, Santo Domingo is both big enough to entertain for days and small enough to cover in a solid day of sightseeing and cultural exploring. With plenty of attractions to entertain and amaze for the whole family, the diversity of the city is really shown through various sights, from the natural beauty of the Los Tres Ojos National Park to the historical splendour of the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination