Santo Domingo is the oldest permanent European-founded city in the New World. Christopher Columbus’s brother, Bartholomew, founded the city in 1496. You can see his home and walk the same streets that Columbus, Cortes, Ponce de León and other Spanish Conquistadors did centuries ago. The 12-block Zona Colonial is the original settlement of Santo Domingo and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the main plaza, Parque Colón, a statue of Christopher Columbus points skyward in front of the Gothic Catedral de Santa María la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the New World.
Be clear about payment before going along with any ad hoc tour guides.
Take It or Leave It:
Santo Domingo has special uniformed police, called Politurs, to protect tourists and keep them from being harassed by overzealous vendors. They are helpful with giving directions or with any problems you may be experiencing.
Wear comfortable, closed-toe walking shoes when going to the Zona Colonial.
The two main areas to stay in Santo Domingo are within the historic Zona Colonial, the main tourist spot in Santo Domingo, and in the Gazcue district, the area along Avenida George Washington/the Malecón and the Caribbean just west of the Zona Colonial. In the Zona Colonial, you’ll find cozy, small hotels tucked into centuries-old buildings and luxurious, castle-like properties, especially along the Calle las Damas. In Gazcue, you’ll find branded high-rise hotels with all the amenities including pools, lounges and casinos.
Not all hotels take credit cards. Make sure to ask when booking.
Ask if the room fee includes breakfast, or ask how much it is to upgrade to use the concierge lounge if the hotel has one.
Santo Domingo has some exquisite cuisine, from local Caribbean-inspired meals to the talents of expat chefs who now call this beautiful country home. Small stands selling chicken, rice and bean plates are ubiquitous. In the Zona Colonial, dine al fresco at any number of restaurants and cafes, especially across from the Parque de Colón and the Alcázar de Colón. For formal dining where well-heeled Dominicans like to go, explore the white-tablecloth restaurants in the Piantini district, which is between Ave. Winston Churcill and Ave. Abraham Lincoln near the geographic center of Santo Domingo.
A national tax of 16 percent is added to most bills; if your ticket reads "ITBIS incluído," the tax (ITBIS) has already been included. Tipping is customarily 10 percent, but more and more the American 20 percent is becoming expected, especially at nicer places.
Take It or Leave It:
While it's rare to see coats and ties in the Dominican, residents here do dress up a little more for dinner. Slacks and a polo shirt are fine, but avoid flip flops and shorts at nicer restaurants.
Be Sure to Sample:
La Bandera, or the Flag, is the Dominican Republic's main dish, and consists of rice, red beans and chicken or stewed pork. It can be simple street/beach food, or served in finer restaurants. Fried plantains are a specialty here, too.
Santo Domingo loves to party and dance. It seems almost every corner store has a speaker blasting music and people dancing in the street. The area near the ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco is known for impromptu nightly street dances. In the Atarazana area near the Alcázar de Colón, there are several dance clubs and merengue dance floors in the back rooms of bars. All throughout the Zona Colonial, small lounges and bars play music and any floor becomes a dance floor. Most casinos have a lounge and club that plays popular international club music.
In Santo Domingo, clubs have to close at midnight during the week, and 2 am on weekends. Casino clubs are typically exempt from this curfew.
Take It or Leave It:
Clubs come and go here quickly; ask your hotelier what they recommend.
Some hotels offer merengue classes, and most people are happy to show you a step or two.
The Dominican Republic is known for its amber and a turquoise-like mineral called larimar. In the movie Jurassic Park movie, it was Dominican amber from which dinosaur DNA was extracted from a trapped mosquito, and the country has certainly capitalized on this. The Dominican Republic is the only country where larimar–The Blue Stone–is found. Both amber and larimar are commonly set in silver jewelry. Watches and other luxury goods can be found in Santo Domingo’s nicer shopping malls, and art galleries throughout the city sell quality Caribbean-style sculpture and paintings.
Make sure the amber or larimar you're buying isn't just colored plastic.
Shop around; the price of larimar can vary greatly. Pieces sold in the museums of gift shops tend to be overpriced.
Best Local Souvenir:
Larimar and amber jewelry.