36 Hours in Santo Domingo

Walking the vibrant streets of Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, can be frustrating for the beach-seeking tourist — you’re tantalized by the sight of the sea but the best beaches, with that quintessential stretch of pristine sand, are miles away. But history, culture and nature abound in this cosmopolitan Caribbean city, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The oldest church and first paved road in the Americas are both in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial, but so are plenty of new businesses that reflect an evolving artistic and activist presence. These days you can find: Mamey, an L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly cultural space featuring a bookstore, gallery and theater; Microteatro, which delivers 15-minute plays about Dominican life; and Miss Rizos Salón, a hair parlor that often hosts events to fight the stigma against kinky or curly hair. There are also pockets of nature amid the bustle. In Santo Domingo Este, a short drive from the city center, is an underground lake where Taíno women once bathed. And in Santo Domingo and elsewhere, an influx of immigrants, including Haitian, Chinese and Venezuelan, have left their mark in recent decades — most noticeable, perhaps, on the culinary scene, bringing everything from arepas to dumplings. Santo Domingo is a city alive and in transition, the sea a mere backdrop to its many charms.

(Note: A string of deaths among American tourists at resorts in the Dominican Republic earlier this year raised alarm among travelers. Local authorities say the deaths were the result of natural causes, and the F.B.I. found that to be the case in the three deaths it investigated. Punta Cana, where most of the deaths occurred, is about three hours from Santo Domingo.)

There’s history at every turn in the city’s Zona Colonial, a network of about a dozen narrow cobblestone streets filled with colonial buildings in the heart of the city, many of them dating as far back as the 1500s. Start at the Puerta del Conde, the 17th-century military building around which a park, Parque Independencia, was built. It’s where the country’s founders declared independence in 1844, and their remains are kept in a white marble mausoleum called the Altar to the Fatherland. Walk down El Conde, a long pedestrian street lined with boutiques, restaurants and vendors selling art and handmade jewelry, and make a right on Calle Arzobispo Meriño to get to the regal Catedral Primada de América, a mixed Baroque and Gothic style church that dates to the 1500s. For 70 pesos (less than $1.50), tour the grounds of the nearby and usually uncrowded Fortaleza Ozama, an ancient but well-maintained fortress that defended the city from pirates and British, Portuguese and French conquerors. At the top are stunning views of the Ozama River, which divides the city and reaches surrounding towns nearly 100 miles away.

The Plaza Pellerano Castro, a small park with pastel and pink flourishes, was named for the Dominican poet Arturo Pellerano Castro, who frequented it in the 1800s. Some of his poetry about rural life and the natural world are displayed on large plaques, and you’ll find groups of older men playing dominoes and a statue commemorating the revolutionary Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. Next, head to the hip Mamey, a cultural center in a colonial building on Calle Mercedes that has a bookstore, two gallery spaces with rotating contemporary art exhibitions, and a small theater showing international documentary films with English subtitles (200 pesos). Mamey’s foyer is chicly decorated with plants and Moroccan-inspired blue tiles, and dangling white Christmas lights brighten the cafe and courtyard. Have a pre-dinner snack, like a pastelito (150 pesos) or fresh passion fruit juice (150 pesos), and chat with the local entrepreneurs and artists who frequent the space.

Grab a table at El Conuco, a restaurant with décor that evokes the rural feel of the Dominican Republic’s inland mountainous towns, with country facades and traditional instruments like the güira or tambora, a two-headed drum. It draws locals and tourists alike, and a traditional merengue dance show creates a lively mood. Dishes include classics such as “la bandera,” the unofficial national dish of rice, beans and stewed chicken or beef for 375 pesos, or mofongo, a small hill of mashed plantains mixed with fried pork rinds, bacon or shrimp served inside a wooden mortar (370 pesos).

Back in the Zona Colonial is Onno’s Bar, where revelers dance to both English and Spanish-language jams. The music is good, and you’ll find a selection of 43 shots, including “attitude adjustment” (vodka, triple sec, amaretto and melon liqueur) and “sanky panky” (tequila, strawberry liqueur and Bailey’s); a variety of fruity cocktails, which combine local tropical flavors like passion fruit, coconut and pineapple; and an open courtyard to cool off in between dance sessions.

A series of freshwater lakes called Los Tres Ojos (entrance, 200 pesos), or The Three Eyes, are nestled in an underground limestone cave less than 10 miles east of the Zona Colonial. For 1,000 pesos, a guide will usher you from lake to lake and share their history, pointing out where women of the Taíno indigenous group, which was mostly wiped out by the Spanish, once bathed. Dip your feet in the cool, clear water and let the guppies nip at them. There’s also a dark, slightly creepy ride across one lake on a wooden barge. On the other side is a surprise: a fourth, jaw-droppingly gorgeous green lagoon lush with vegetation where several movies, including “Jurassic Park,” were filmed.

For above-ground views of the city and the lush greenery interspersed throughout, ride the city’s cable car, which many locals use to commute to the city center. Get on at the Eduardo Brito stop and ride in a loop for 20 pesos. You’ll enjoy panoramic views of the Ozama and Isabela Rivers and neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, including Sábana Perdida and Gualey. On a recent trip, children could be seen splashing in a natural watering hole below, while others played baseball, the island’s most popular sport.

Head to the Malecón on Avenida George Washington, a boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean. On any given day, families, couples or college students might be found along the strip. The Obelisco Macho, where Paseo Presidente Billini and Avenida George Washington converge, is a memorial for the Mirabal sisters, with colorful renditions of the three women who plotted against the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina until he had them killed in 1960. Buy “una fría,” a cold Presidente beer, and grab a seat in Plaza Juan Barón, a popular spot to people-watch and gaze at the sunset.

The food truck park The Alley, on Avenida Rómulo Betancourt, is only open during the evenings and is a lively spot with lots of open-air seating and a variety of food options. The crowd is a mix of families and young professionals, and during the weekends the vibe is festive and friendly. The trucks offer a variety of Dominican and international foods. “Come Arepa” sells Venezuelan corn cakes like the “vegetariana,” stuffed with cheese, sweet plantains and avocado (250 pesos). “Los Jefes” offers a range of sandwiches and burgers, including the chimi (350 pesos), a Dominican-style hamburger with coleslaw, “pink sauce” and caramelized onions. Wash it down with “un rojo,” a popular local Country Club soda flavor.

Microteatro, a repurposed colonial building in the Zona Colonial, offers a short-form theater experience, with 15-minute comedic plays that draw from different aspects of Dominican life and culture. Each play costs 230 pesos, and visitors can watch as few or as many as they’d like. The plays are lively and sometimes interactive. A recent performance, called “La Sirena,” had guests seated around a pool watching two young actresses. Another, “Narciso,” was about a man blinded by his own good looks. As in many of the colonial buildings in the area, there is a courtyard where guests can have snacks and drinks in between shows, like nachos (310 pesos) or a whiskey ginger (300 pesos).

Many Dominicans go to bars and restaurants inside or attached to the luxury malls spread throughout the city. Dock Lounge Terrace is one such establishment, at the Acrópolis Center on Avenida Winston Churchill. The lounge’s two floors, including an open-air terrace, are packed on Saturday nights, with partygoers dancing to merengue, bachata and salsa beats, as well as the more contemporary dembow, popular among younger people. For a break, head next door to Seb’s Beer Market, which offers a range of international beers.

Get up early for a bustling weekly market in Santo Domingo’s Chinatown (“Barrio Chino” on Avenida Duarte), where vendors line up until noon, selling Chinese and other Asian goods. The strip, bracketed by two traditional Chinese arches, was created in 2008 in recognition of the thousands of Chinese and Chinese-Dominicans who live in the city and the island as a whole. There is fresh fish and lotus root and an abundance of other options, such as dumplings (four for 50 pesos) or Japanese takoyakis, fried octopus balls (six for 100 pesos).

Walk a few blocks down Avenida Mella and you’ll reach the broad yellow stairs leading up to Mercado Modelo, a massive market where merchants sell local goods and souvenirs. Snap a photo at the stairs before heading inside, where dozens of vendors will beckon you to their stands to haggle for dominoes, decorative drums or paintings. Bring back a wooden mortar — pilón in Dominican Spanish — to a friend who likes to cook, or a “muñeca sin rostro,” a faceless doll meant to represent the diversity of the Dominican people.


Boutique Hotel Palacio (Calle Duarte 106; www.hotel-palacio.com; double rooms from $89 per night), centrally located in the city’s Zona Colonial, offers 48 basic but comfortable and clean rooms. There’s a small rooftop pool and an outdoor courtyard where guests can commune.

For a luxury experience, try El Embajador (Avenida Sarasota 65; www.barcelo.com; double rooms start at $113 per night) in the upscale Bellavista neighborhood, near the Zona Colonial and the Malecón. It offers 298 modern rooms, a beautiful outdoor pool and a range of amenities, like a 24-hour fitness center and a sauna.

The charming Gascue neighborhood is close enough to the city’s main attractions but out of earshot of the traffic and bustle. One bedroom rentals start at around $49 per night.


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