The most vibrant and populated city in the Caribbean, Santo Domingo is the Dominican Republic’s capital and the heart of Dominican culture. There’s palpable energy you’ll feel as soon as you arrive here, with an everyday scene that includes live music, theater, shopping, nightlife, and the most diverse range of Dominican and international cuisine. Here are 15 things you should add to your visit to “la Capital.”
Tour the Colonial City
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, Santo Domingo’s colonial neighborhood is the first permanent European settlement in the Americas. Much of its architecture has been preserved, and its main streets and buildings refurbished since 2014. Stroll Calle El Conde, lined with souvenir shops, sidewalk art, and outdoor cafes. Visit Columbus Park, where families relax in the shade, and tour some of the most historical sights in the region.
Built in the 16th century, the majority of historical buildings you’ll see were the first institutions in the Americas, including the first cathedral, the first fortress or Fortaleza Ozama, and the ruins of the first hospital Nicolas D’Bari. Museums abound on the Spanish colonial days, such as the Museo de Casas Reales, which boasts a small exhibit on the slavery days.
Dine at Jalao for authentic Dominican fare with a live merengue band, go bar hopping at night on Calle Mercedes, or shop one of the many unique art galleries such as Bolos, with a collection of arts and crafts made locally.
Walk the Malecon at Sunset
Superbly renovated from 2017 to 2019, Santo Domingo’s Malecon is an over mile-long seaside boulevard ideal for long walks, workouts, and biking. The area is lined with a couple of recreational parks, such as Plaza Juan Baron, with children’s playgrounds, fast food kiosks, a Ferris wheel, and go-kart rides. On the other side of the road are brand hotels, restaurants, and casinos with bars and live music. Locals flock to the Malecon daily at sunset, often to work out, rollerblade and bike, or to relax with their families on the weekends. It’s one of Santo Domingo’s most local scenes.
Shopping is a serious activity in the DR’s capital—you’ll be spoilt for choice. Modern shopping malls such as Agora Mall, Downtown Mall, and Sambil are just a few of the options and are home to apparel stores such as Zara, Mango, or Anthony’s, a local brand, as well as electronic stores, among others. For an outdoor market packed with locally grown produce and arts and crafts, as well as larimar and amber jewelry shops, visit the Mercado Modelo near the Colonial Zone. Art lovers should head to the Colonial City for unique items to take home, from paintings to home decor.
Go to the Theater
There are several theaters in Santo Domingo, from the National Theater to Teatro Guloya, a smaller local actors’ favorite. You’ll need to speak Spanish, but glimpsing this important part of the culture is worthwhile. Go for the tapas and theater ambiance at Microteatro, with 15-minute plays on rotation every month; you can watch as many or few as you like.
Sample Dominican Cuisine
A plate of rice and beans with stewed chicken is considered the national dish or “la Bandera Dominicana,” and it’s the easiest to find. Dominican cuisine goes well beyond that, however, and you’ll be surprised at all there is to discover.
Head to a Dominican cafeteria, such as Villar Hermanos, and you’ll have a fun time discovering everything about the Dominican palate. Look for signature plates such as mangú, a signature Dominican green plantain mash, topped with red onions in a vinegar sauce. It’s often served with fried salami and fried cheese for breakfast. Sample a bowl of sancocho—meat and root vegetable stew served with a side of white rice and avocado slices. Don’t miss the desserts; sample majarete, a sweet corn pudding, or slices of caramel glazed tropical fruits. If you’re out partying at night, you can’t miss the food trucks selling frituras or fried snacks, from burgers to fried pork rinds or chicharron.
Visit the Jardin Nacional Botanico
Hike the most extensive botanical gardens in the Caribbean, located in Santo Domingo. The grounds are so large that the small entrance fee includes a free trolley ride tour around the gardens for an introduction to the various areas. A favorite is the Japanese garden, facing a pond and with plenty of lawn space to picnic and nap. Hike the gardens at your leisure and learn about native flora, all of which are marked. The garden organizes monthly birding activities and an annual flower and plant festival.
Day Trip to Boca Chica or Juan Dolio Beaches
Escaping the city heat, especially on Sunday, is a quintessential Santo Domingo activity. You’ll find local vibes at Boca Chica, a beautiful white sand beach with calm and shallow Caribbean waters ideal for kids. Boca Chica is known for its streetside vendors serving fried fish meals, but there are also plenty of restaurants and bars lining the beach. Another half-hour east is Juan Dolio, equally stunning with its white sand beach, but with more breeze and waves.
Enjoy the Nightlife
Santo Domingo is unmatched for its nightlife. You won’t find a higher concentration of bars, clubs, and parties on the island. There’s no day of the week that locals don’t party, and Sunday is the biggest party night of all.
Bar hop downtown on Avenida Tiradentes in downtown Santo Domingo, where outdoor patios are abuzz with music and crowds. In the Colonial City, head to Calle Hostos Calle Mercedes or Calle Isabela Catolica, all lined with bar and nightclub options.
Live music is part of the culture. Merengue concerts are a Monday night fixture at JetSet Club, while the music pumps daily at lounges such as Miami Hot, Zambra, and Parada 77. You can also just hang out in the colmados or bodegas of the Colonial City, like locals, and party all night to their blasting speakers.
Hang Out at the Parks
Do as the locals and take your drinks and snacks to the city’s numerous parks. Recently renovated, they offer plenty of shaded benches and spots to relax in the shade or at sunset. A popular park is Parque Colon, ideal for families with its pigeons and wide-open space. Parque Duarte is a favorite of the LGBTQ community in the Colonial Zone.
Catch a Baseball Game
The Dominican Republic’s Baseball League hosts an annual tournament every year. Running from October through January and held countrywide at the DR’s professional stadiums, six teams compete for the domestic title. This gives the winning team a chance to participate in the Caribbean World Series. Santo Domingo’s favorite home team is Tigres del Licey, also one of the first founded. You’ll feel Dominicans’ passion for their game when you attend one of the games. Tickets and schedules can be found on the Dominican Baseball League’s website.
Visit the National Pantheon
If you only visit one building in the Colonial City, make it the National Pantheon. This 18th-century built structure is one of the most revered places in the country since it turned into a mausoleum in 1956. Guards of Honor stand at its doors, and entrance is free to all to pay respects to the Dominican Republic’s most honored national heroes and distinguished citizens, as well as to admire its stunning baroque interior and ceiling mural.
Sundays with Grupo Bonyé
Sundays are a tradition in Santo Domingo when Grupo Bonyé’s outdoor son and salsa band performs on the steps of the San Francisco Monastery Ruins. Locals and tourists flock here to close out the week, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Bars and colmados surround the area, adding to the electric atmosphere of seeing hundreds of people dancing the night away under the sky.
Go Gallery Hopping
Visit the Colonial City to view and purchase unique paintings from Dominican and Haitian artists. You’ll find paintings starting on Calle El Conde, where local creatives display their work. Art gallery enthusiasts will also find galleries around the Zone for framed works from Dominican talent. To admire one of the largest private art collections from 19th and 20th-century Dominican artists, visit the Museo Bellapart.
Visit the Museums
Among the most important museums in the Dominican Republic, in the heart of the Colonial City, is the Museo de la Resistencia, a multimedia display on the days of resistance against the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo.
Stop in at the Museo de Casas Reales to get a sense of the Spanish colonists’ opulence as well as to visit the small, single room dedicated to the dark days of sugar cane plantations and slavery. Afterward, hop in a taxi to Plaza de la Cultura, home to some of the most important museums in the country, including the Museo del Hombre Dominicano.
Hit the Pool
It can get sweltering hot in the city if you visit from April through October. Luckily, numerous hotels offer “day passes” for pool and restaurant use. Among them are the Sheraton Santo Domingo and the Renaissance Santo Domingo Jaragua Hotel & Casino on the Malecon. You can also get day passes at the Dominican Fiesta Hotel and the Napolitano Hotel.