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Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is the capital city for the Dominican Republic; it's also the nation's largest city with nearly four million residents. This bustling Caribbean seaport is one of the America's longest continuous European settlements. Bo...

Categories: Caribbean > Dominican Republic

Santo Domingo is considered to be the oldest city in the New World, where the settlement of all the Americas began. It is the home of the the first cathedral and the first hospital. Wander down cobble stone streets among the Spanish colonial architecture and imagine how things were back in the 1600s.
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Santo Domingo

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.

Must See or Do

Sights—The Malecon, the main seaside boulevard; the Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone), including the Museo de las Casas Reales (Royal Houses), the Alcazar de Colon (Columbus Palace) and the Cathedral Primada de America, the oldest church in the New World; the National Botanical Gardens; Columbus Lighthouse Monument.

Museums—Plaza de la Cultura, which includes the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) and Museo del Hombre Dominicana (Museum of Dominican Man); the Zona Colonial's Museo Mundo del Ambar (the World Museum of Amber) and Museo Dominicano Larimar (Dominican Larimar Museum); and Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana (Memorial Museum of the Dominican Resistance).

Memorable Meals—El Conuco for traditional Dominican food with folkloric entertainment; Pat'e Palo, the oldest pub in the city; sauteed shrimp in garlic at Meson de la Cava.

Late Night—Electronic beats and a young crowd at Abacus; merengue at Jet Set; dancing and drinks at Jubilee or Nowhere.

Walks—A stroll along El Conde or through Gazcue; a tour through the Zona Colonial; walking down the Malecon.

Especially for Kids—Animal exhibits at the National Aquarium and the National Zoological Park; interactive exhibits at Museo Infantil Trampolin; a ride around the Zona Colonial on the Chu-Chu Train.


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.


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.


Celebrities in Santo Domingo are often chosen for political office: A local television personality recently served as the mayor, and he was preceded by Johnny Ventura, a popular merengue singer.

Santo Domingo is a city of many firsts. Monasterio de San Francisco, erected in 1514 by Franciscan monks, was the first monastery in the Americas. The Hospital de San Nicholas de Bari was the first hospital in the New World. The Catedral Primada de America is the New World's oldest church. Among its other New World firsts: fortress, paved road, stone house and university.

Accused of abusing his authority and trying to take too much power from the Spanish crown, Christopher Columbus was returned from Hispaniola to Spain in shackles in 1500. Though he later returned to the Americas to continue his explorations, he never regained his former stature in the new land.

The local Tainos, who Columbus met, used gold but did not think it to be of great value. When Columbus gave them worthless pearls made of Baltic amber, the Tainos reciprocated with elaborate pieces of Dominican amber.

The major spectator event in baseball-mad Santo Domingo is a game between the city's two teams, the Escogido Lions and the Licey Tigers, in the Estadio Quisqueya.

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the brutal dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961, was gunned down in a car chase on Santo Domingo's Malecon. During his rule, bridges, roads, and even the capital city and the country's tallest mountain took his name.

Calle Las Damas, the principal street in the Zona Colonial, was named for governor Diego Colon's wife, Maria de Toledo, and her female retinue, who walked the street daily.

The grandiose Panteon Nacional (National Pantheon), which contains an eternal flame commemorating the republic's national heroes, was completed in 1743 as a Jesuit convent. Dictator Trujillo restored it in 1958, intending it to become his mausoleum. Instead, he is buried in Paris, where his family was forced into exile after his assassination.

Santo Domingo justly deserves its reputation as being the home of the "first" and "most" of just about everything in the country—and the Caribbean. From hospitals to malls to nightclubs to sports complexes to television channels, you'll find that "la Capital" has the most in the region, and before anywhere else.


Cruise ships dock at either the Sans Souci pier on the east side of the Ozama River across from the Zona Colonial or at the Don Diego quay, immediately south of the Zona Colonial. From Don Diego, you can cross the highway and walk up the steps into the historic heart of Santo Domingo. From Sans Souci, however, you'll need a taxi or other transportation to reach the Zona Colonial (it's a 30-minute walk, but for safety reasons this is not recommended).

The Sans Souci pier recently completed a major expansion, designed to dramatically increase cruise ship traffic to Santo Domingo. The reconstruction of a new terminal permits three smaller cruise ships to dock at once, and the enlarged terminal can also accommodate mega-ships of 5,000 passengers. A yacht club and sports marina, convention center, shopping mall, hotels, apartment buildings, and a pedestrian crossway spanning the Ozama River are still in the works as well. The Sans Souci terminals currently have an information booth, duty-free shopping outlets and an Internet center.

The Don Diego pier has two wings, each capable of receiving ships: the north wing, with an information booth, Internet and calling center, and a currency exchange plus duty-free shops; the other wing features duty-free shopping outlets.

Taxis are available outside both the San Souci and Don Diego terminals.

Shore Excursions

Tours of the Zona Colonial and trips to the botanical garden are popular, as are golfing, beach visits, trips to the tobacco fields and cigar factories of El Cibao, plus scuba-diving excursions. Some trips may include lunch and drinks, and the number of stops may vary. (Fees for children vary from half-price to full price.) Check with your ship's shore-excursion staff or travel agent for additional information.

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