Overview

The Dominican Republic's capital and largest city, Santo Domingo is the oldest city in the Americas. It was founded in 1498 and was Spain's first colonial headquarters in the New World.

Today the country’s largest metropolitan area and home to more than 2.9 million people, Santo Domingo is the largest city in the Caribbean and is the country's economic and political hub, as well as one of the Caribbean's top business centers. It has the island's most exciting nightclubs, restaurants and shopping, as well as its largest concentration of historic and cultural sites, including the oldest cathedral in the Americas.

Like other large Latin-American cities, Santo Domingo also has sprawling slums and shantytowns. Even so, it's a magnet for Dominicans as well as foreign visitors.

Geography

Santo Domingo, a port city on the south coast, is virtually split down the middle by the Ozama River, with the Zona Colonial immediately west of the river and the city's more upscale areas fanning inland to the west and north. Most of the urban middle-class sprawl (and a considerable amount of the slum area) is taking place on the east side, including along the main highway to Las Americas Airport. The city is mostly flat and is fringed along the Caribbean cliff-top by a seaside boulevard (the Malecon) lined with restaurants and outdoor bars overlooking litter-strewn coves and beaches. A low mountain range abuts the northern fringe of the city.

Adjacent to the Zona Colonial is the attractive neighborhood of Gazcue, which is filled with early-20th-century architecture and is home to many professionals and academics. Northwest of Gazcue is Naco, today the economic heart of the city, with modern skyscrapers, office buildings and commercial plazas.

The city is mostly laid out in an easy-to-navigate grid, with streets running north, inland, from the Caribbean, and others running perpendicular, east-west.

History

Christopher Columbus' brother, Bartholomew, and the "Great Navigator's" son, Diego, founded Santo Domingo in 1498. Motley remains of the original settlement can be seen east of the Ozama River. In 1502, the crude settlement relocated to the west side of the river and evolved into the political center for Spain's New World possessions. The Colonial Zone is located between the Ozama River and Parque Independencia (Independence Park) and is bounded by Palo Hincado Street to the west and Avenida Mella to the north, corresponding to the old city walls (since demolished). The area contains Spanish-Colonial architecture dating from the 1500s. Santo Domingo was several times ransacked by pirates and has changed hands on multiple occasions throughout the centuries—at different periods, it was controlled by the French, English and Spanish.

Santo Domingo served as the base for Spanish exploration in the New World. Many explorers embarked from the city, including Juan Ponce de Leon, Hernan Cortes and Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Although Santo Domingo remained the political capital from which Spain administered its Caribbean possessions, the city was eclipsed by Havana, which had a more advantageous position.

Santo Domingo became the controlling center of commerce for the Dominican Republic, whose economy was based on agriculture—primarily sugarcane. A hurricane in 1930 nearly destroyed the city, but it was rebuilt and renamed Ciudad Trujillo, after dictator Rafael Trujillo seized power in 1930, initiating a rule of terror over the city and island. (Following Trujillo's assassination in 1961, the original name was restored.) After the fall of the dictator, the city began to diversify its economy with an emphasis on tourism, mining and manufacturing. The city is still the center of industry in the country and is also the Caribbean's foremost financial center, but it suffers from an influx of rural poor. Despite the slow solidification of democracy in the past 40 years, the main power base remains in the hands of a Spanish-descended upper class.

Sightseeing

Restoration of public buildings in Santo Domingo was initiated by the government in the early 1990s to showcase the city on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. Since then, dozens of churches, plazas, forts, gates, parks and palaces have been restored to their 16th-century condition. Most can be easily explored on foot.

The stunning Zona Colonial—a UNESCO World Heritage site—is what sets Santo Domingo apart from the rest of the country. Standing majestically on the west bank of the Ozama River is the original walled city, with many of the ornate Renaissance-style buildings dating from the days when Columbus' heirs ruled the region. Plan to spend some time visiting the city's rich collection of museums, landmarks and parks. It rivals, and in some ways even surpasses, the grandeur of Puerto Rico's Old San Juan.

A good place for strolling is the Malecon (Avenida George Washington), the main waterfront street where the city's historical section ends and the tourist area begins. Outdoor cafes, resort hotels and boutiques line the street, and there's always someone dancing to merengue and bachata. Farther west, the Gazcue region, with the Palacio National, Palacio de Bellas Artes and various museums is worth exploring, as is the Centro de los Heroes government complex toward the west side of the city.

Be aware that outside the Zona Colonial you'll encounter the less-attractive parts of Santo Domingo—traffic-clogged streets, air pollution and chaotic urban sprawl.

Nightlife

Santo Domingo is a lively town at night, and the Colonial Zone is the primary hot spot because of its proximity to the port and its abundance of beautiful old buildings. Be sure to find your way to at least one club featuring merengue, the sultry music and steamy dance that was invented more than 200 years ago in the Dominican Republic.

Most clubs get hopping around 10 pm and stay open into the early-morning hours. Start your evening tour at the Alcazar de Colon. The late-night scene also sizzles on Calle Hostos, where there are a number of nightspots and restaurants.

Other nightclubs are located around Avenida Maximo Gomez and Avenida Winston Churchill in the modern downtown city center.

Most of the major hotels have their own on-site clubs and bars. Although they are convenient, they do not offer the genuine club experience found elsewhere in Santo Domingo.

Dining

Santo Domingo has a wide variety of international restaurants as well as plenty of local eateries serving good Dominican cuisine. You'll also find U.S.-influenced fast-food chains, pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants, which seem to be everywhere. You will see roadside stands selling anything and everything palatable or otherwise. Think twice before eating at one of these stands—some of the food is not well-prepared and can cause illness.

Dominican food is never what you expect. It really isn't Spanish or Creole, and it isn't fiercely hot like some Mexican dishes. But you can taste those influences, as well as others from Africa, India and the Caribbean. You'll notice that Dominican food tends to be heavier than most other Caribbean fare. Meal prices are reasonable, especially in restaurants that serve local food only. Whether you dine as the locals do or feast at resort hotels with fellow tourists, you'll eat well, though you will need to know a bit of Spanish when ordering.

For lunch, ask for the plato del dia (plate of the day), which usually consists of rice and peas or beans (arroz con habichuelas), a salad of cabbage and cucumber, with a slice of green tomato, and a small meat or fish course. It is often accompanied with some variety of plantain, the cousin of the banana: platanos (sliced and fried to a mushy sweetness) or mofongo (balls of mashed plantains that have been salted and roasted).

Be sure to try a local beer—favorites are Presidente and Bohemia. Also try a rum drink; they are usually served with cola, ice (be sure it's made with purified water) and a lime wedge.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than RD$500; $$ = RD$500-$1,000; $$$ = more than RD$1,000.

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