Top 10 Sites to visit in Santo Domingo
Who would have thought that what started as an educational trip to Dominican Republic, to learn about the transnational experience in the Caribbean would change my life completely. The first time I visited Santo Domingo was January 2007, with a group of university students and a professor. After that trip I continued to travel there every year and even married a Dominican with whom I am now expecting our second child. My most recent trip there was last November 2011 and it won’t be the last. The first thing, that stood out as we left the airport during my first visit, was the crazy driving, they don’t respect traffic signals and a 4-lane street becomes a 6-lane one with everyone driving all over the place. I remember saying that I would never drive in Santo Domingo and now I love it, it is an adventure of its own. Don’t let the driving discourage you from wanting to visit such an awesome island, if you ever think of planning a trip to this small piece of paradise don’t hesitate it will be an amazing experience.
During that first trip we had an opportunity to interact with students in different careers attending UASD (Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo) also known as the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. It was interesting how the students were mostly interested in talking about immigration and politics, which was a great experience on its own, meeting young educated Dominicans interested in such topics. I feel that the best experience is the one you have talking to locals because you notice how they talk about their country and know so much of the history that really is different than reading about it in a travel book or even a history book.
I am going to give you a list of the places that in my opinion are the top ten to visit while in Santo Domingo. I will include pictures that I have personally taken during all my trips there. Santo Domingo is rich in history and even though it may not be the first choice when deciding on a vacation, you will not regret choosing this tropical paradise as the destination. There is always something new to see and do. Narrowing it down to the top 10 things to do while visiting is not easy, the sites are not limited to the ones I will be presenting but they are in my opinion and from what I have heard from locals, the best to begin with. I hope you enjoy the pictures, even though a picture is worth more than a thousand words, an experience firsthand is even better.
Ciudad or Zona Colonial (Colonial City)
The Zona Colonial would be one of the first places to visit when in Santo Domingo. It houses the museums and features New World’s first street Calle Las Damas (Ladies Street). According to locals this street was named Calle las Damas because it was the street where Columbus would walk with his Ladies. Two museums surrounding the Zona Colonial are La Alcázar de Colón (Diego Columbus’ house) and Museo de las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Houses). There is also La Catedral Primada de America (First Cathedral in America), Panteón Nacional (Pantheon) and Parque de la Independencia or Altar de la Patria (Independence Park or Altar of the fatherhood).
The Ciudad Colonial de Santo Domingo as mentioned in the plaque located within the heart of the city, was declared as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. The City of Santo Domingo was founded by Bartolome Colón on August 5, 1498 following orders from the Catholic Kings and Christopher Columbus.
La Alcázar de Colón (Columbus Alcazar)
The Alcázar de Colón, is the oldest residence in America and is part of the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo. The building houses the Museo Alcázar de Diego Colón, whose collection exhibits the Caribbean’s most important ensemble of European late medieval and Renaissance works of art, which were acquired in the 1950s. The Alcazar is the most visited museum in Santo Domingo.
This was the house of the Columbus family in Santo Domingo. It was built by Christoper Coulmbus' son, Diego in 1515. Today, it's a museum furnished with original and period furniture. Since it is the museum that is most visited in Santo Domingo, I would say it is one of the best historical attractions there.
Museo de las Casas Reales (The Museum of the Royal Houses)
Museo de las Casas Reales was built in the beginning of the 16th century. It is also considered another important cultural monument built during the colonial era. This monument is located in the Zona Colonial as well. According to historians it was built to house the administrative offices of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The building was divided into two floors. The first floor housed the Royal Court, which was the first podium in the New World. The second floor housed the Captaincy General. The building was named Las Casas Reales because it housed the Royal Court and it was also used as the residence of the Governors and General Captains of the time.
I would say that this museum is the second most popular in the Zona Colonial, because it showcases colonial architecture. This museum was established to collect and highlight the history, life and customs of the inhabitants of the Spanish colony.
Panteón Nacional (National Pantheon)
The Panteón Nacional was built between 1714 and 1746, by Geronimo Quezada y Garçon and was originally a Jesuit church. The structure was constructed in the neoclassic-renaissance style. Today the structure stands as a national symbol of the Dominican Republic and serves as the final resting place of the Republic’s most honored citizens.
Jesuits held mass there for about 21 years and after that is was used as a tobacco warehouse and finally after that it was used as a theater.
In 1956, during the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the Spanish architect Javier Borroso renovated the structure to serve its new purpose, a national mausoleum. Originally, Trujillo envisioned being buried at the Panteón Nacional, yet ironically today it is the place where the country’s most famous persons are honored, among them Trujillo’s assassins.
A soldier is always stationed at the entrance, and a special ceremony is conducted every time the guard changes. The rifle is passed on to the new guard and the National Anthem is played. There is also a flame in the middle of the mausoleum that is to always remain on, similar to the Altar de la Patria, it is considered to be the “eternal flame” in honor of those buried there.
Catedral Primada de America (Primate Cathedral of the Americas)
The Catedral Primada de America is located in the Zona Colonial. It is the oldest cathedral in the Americas. It was built between 1512 and 1540, its name is Catedral Santa María la Menor named after Saint Mary of the Incarnation. It has 12 chapels inside, sculptures and paintings. It is located at the end of the walkway known as El Conde and next to El Parque de Colón (Columbus’ Park).
The Cathedral was consecrated by Pope Julius II in 1504 and its construction began in 1512 under the leadership of bishop Fray Garcia Padilla. It was also the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo, which bore the above-mentioned title of Primate.
The first noticeable features of the structure are the solid limestone walls and three doors, two of which are gothic and the third main door which is plateresque. The Cathedral also has a treasure containing retables, paintings, old woodwork, furniture, sculptures and tombstones. Also, the remains of Christopher Columbus were once housed at the Cathedral, before they were moved to their final resting place in the Faro de Colón.
Calle el Conde (El Conde Walkway)
El Conde is, in a way, known as the shopping district. It is one of the oldest streets in Santo Domingo and still among the city's most popular commercial centers. It is a pedestrian street and it houses a variety of stores that include clothing and textile shops, shoe stores, restaurants and cafes, gift shops and jewelry stores. It is a great place to buy souvenirs; the name ‘El Conde’ honors the Count of Peñalba who defeated the English in the 17th century.
At the end of the Calle el Conde lies El Parque de Colón. It is a nice place where one can sit down by or under the big trees and get away from the hot sun. The only downside to resting is this park is that because it is the largest tourist zone, you will have vendors coming up to you to try to sell everything and anything.
Puerta del Conde (The Counts’ Gate)
La Puerta del Conde is the site in Santo Domingo, where Francisco del Rosario Sanchez, one of the Dominican Founding Fathers, proclaimed Dominican Independence and raised the first Dominican Flag, on February 27, 1844. The gate is part of a structure called El Baluarte del Conde (The Count’s Bulwark), a fort in Ciudad Colonial. The Altar de la Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) and Parque Independencia (Independence Park) are located here.
Today, La Puerta del Conde serves as the main entranceto El Parque Nacional also known as El Parque Independencia. El Baluarte del Conde is a symbol of Independence and contains several monuments and structures which attest to the Dominican struggle for freedom. It is common to refer to the fort as La Puerta del Conde/Parque Nacional, being that these are the two most visible and relevant symbols of the Dominican Republic.
El Parque Independencia is a historic park within El Baluarte del Conde, it was named because it contains the site where Dominican independence was proclaimed. Parque Independencia is currently only bound by a section of the original defensive wall. In 1912 the park was redesigned by architect Antonin Nechodoma to its present state; no longer was there a street passing through the park, which later facilitated the construction of the Altar de la Patria.
Altar de la Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) is a mausoleum made of white marble, built in 1976. The altar houses the remains of the Founding Fathers of the Dominican Republic; Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sanchez, and Ramon Matias Mella, collectively known as los Trinitarios. Within the mausoleum there are statues of the founding fathers and there is also an “eternal flame” that is kempt lit in memory of the patriots. They were the heroes of the 1844 independence movement from Haiti and became the founders of the Nation.
Faro de Colón (Columbus Lighthouse)
The Faro de Colón is a monument located in the east side of Santo Domingo. The construction of the lighthouse began in 1986. The Faro de Colón was built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America and it was inaugurated in 1992.
The monument’s lighthouse-style features projecting beams of light, forming a cross shape, which are so powerful they can be seen from Puerto Rico.
It houses the remains of Columbus after being moved there from the Catedral Primada de America.The monument serves both as a mausoleum and a museum showcasing objects including a boat from Cuba and Columbian jewelry. Even though the monument was originally built to be a mausoleum, it was adapted to house permanent collection of exhibitions from each American country as well as other European and Asian countries, as requested by former President Balaguer.
Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes)
Los Tres Ojos is the name given to a 50-foot open-air limestone cave located in the Mirador del Este Park, in Santo Domingo. The site is currently one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. There were originally three caves but a fourth cave was discovered as well. The caves are illuminated at night by a myriad of colored lights.
The site was created centuries ago as a result of tectonic fractures when underground caves collapsed, forming a bowl-shaped depression which subsequently filled with water. Initially, the cave was inhabited by the indigenous Taino Indians who were the first inhabitants of the Hispaniola Island. The three lakes (the three eyes) are called Aguas Azufradas, which was discovered in 1916. The Nevera and El Lago de las Mujeres. Finally the newest and fourth lake is called Los zaramagullones.
Plaza de la Cultura
The Plaza de Cultura is a large cultural complex in the northern end of Santo Domingo that contains four museums: Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo del Hombre Dominicano, Museo de Historia y Geografía and Museo de Historia Natural. The Teatro Nacional is also located here. It is a bit of an odd location, given that what surrounds the park is either residential or warehouse type buildings. It is also near la zona universitaria, where the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo is located. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful green space with many fountains and outdoor sculptures to entertain you even when you are not inside the museums. The only museum we were able to see was the Museo del Hombre Dominicano. It was a wonderful experience; the museum had lots of history within. It basically focuses on the Indigenous group Taino Indians, which were the first inhabitants in this island. It promotes Dominican culture through the use of a permanent collection of archaeological and ethnographic materials that cover the Dominican history, from pre-Columbian to the present time.
For the historical content in each of the sites I used Wikipedia.org