This summer it was my first outside of EU trip since the beginning of pandemic.
I have chosen Dominican Republic due to its relaxed entry rules and feeling of security that the country won’t shut its borders few days before my arrival when all the reservations are already done.
The warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, vast and colourful coral reefs and the island’s colonial heritage were tempting me since many months to get them discovered.
I had stayed in Dominican Republic for 16 days, splitting my time to Santo Domingo (the capital) and Punta Cana region.
I stayed first 3 days in Santo Domingo, in one of the small boutique hotels in Colonial Zone. Many of old houses in this the historic central neighbourhood are having typical colonial outdoor spaces with inner patios and inner balconies where you can sit and enjoy your cigar and glass of Dominican rum. The courtyard can be arranged with plants, be covered with grass and just the fountain in the center, have a relaxing sitting area or (nowadays) have a small swimming pool or jacuzzi installed. This is without a doubt a great Spanish design of place where the life of the house is concentrated on.
Many flights from Europe (or US) fly directly to Punta Cana–the main tourist destination with famous beaches–but to understand the country more one should stay few days in the area of Santo Domingo. If you don’t want to change locations and hotels during your visit, you can also book one day trip to the capital from your hotel in Punta Cana area.
In my itinerary, I arrived to Santo Domingo and stayed there for first 3 days, then went to Punta Cana region, and then came back for last 2 days to continue my exploration of the city. I arrived and departed from the capital (tickets are often better priced since this is more the airport for locals, majority of tourists fly directly to Punta Cana).
Main cultural attractions in Santo Domingo
It will take 2-3 days in Santo Domingo to learn the colonial past of the island (or rather part of it since Dominican Republic shares Hispaniola Island with Haiti–currently rather dangerous destination). I stayed in Zona Colonial which is classified as World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is the major cultural site in Dominican Republic. I have chosen to visit few of the capital’s museums to dig into Dominican’s colonial past, they are all located in Zona Colonial, all reachable within walking distance.
- Zona Colonial
To enter the museums, you will need cash (they don’t accept cards), so get few hundred pesos prepared to not to search frantically for ATM (check my Practical tips section for more information about ATM’s and cash payments).
- Museo de las Casas Reales
The first stop was Museo de las Casas Reales which belonged to Viceroy of Santo Domingo and it is the first (oldest) headquarters of Spanish power in the New World. The former palace is transformed into museum which shows history, traditions and customs from the Spanish colonial times. Definitely to visit if you want to see the interior of a colonial noble house.
- Alcázar de Colón (Columbus House)
Few steps away you will find Alcázar de Colón, which is one of main attractions of the city.
This residence is the first fortified Spanish palace erected in the New World. The house was built between 1512 and 1514 and is known to be a home of Diego, Christopher Columbus son. Three generations of Columbus family stayed in the residence (until the end of 16th century). The interior of the house is a splendid example of colonial style including wood ceiling beams, tiled flooring, dark carved wooden door and marvellous exotic wooden furniture. Spanish colonial style homes possess large arches both in the interior and in the hallways outside of the house. The interiors of Alcázar de Colón are simply gorgeous! Sometimes when I think how my ideal house should look like, a little bit modernized version of Spanish colonial mansion near the ocean comes to my mind …
- Walking around Zona Colonial
The colonial district of Santo Domingo is an architectural pearl worth visiting on its own. Walk around and admire the stylish buildings, parks and charming corners of this UNESCO Heritage side. The amazing interiors and courtyards host also lovely little restaurants with traditional Dominican cuisine. I was tempted to enter few of them. Have a look and check the Culinary highlights section if you want to learn more about the food experience in the city!
If you want to try traditional Dominican meal, order Sancocho–a stew prepared from 7 types of meat. The best can be found in Santo Domingo (struggled to find in Punta Cana area). I ate this very filling dish in Mesón de Bari which has amazing Spanish colonial nostalgic vibe. Try also their amazing crab cakes and wide selection of drinks based on Dominican rum.
- Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor
Next to Columbus Park, the first cathedral of the Americas–Basilica of Santa María la Menor–is located. The gothic style church was erected in the first half of 16th century. The cathedral is fully operational and hosts many official and religious celebrations and ceremonies. Interestingly, the remains of Christopher Columbus were found here in the 19th century. They were moved however and now can be found in Faro a Colon outside of Colonial Zone. The interior is impressive, you can have an audioguide there to get more explanations, I recommend to sit there for a while, admire the gorgeous architecture and cool down a bit–temperature inside of church is considerably lower than outside!
- Panteón Nacional
The National Panteon of Dominican Republic was erected in the first half of 18th century and initially served as a church. In the middle of 20th century it was transformed into national mausoleum where one can find tombs of country’s most important people. Interestingly, the mausoleum was created under dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (on his order), and the people who assassinated him are having their crypts there–unexpected turn of events! The interior is filled with marble tombs along the walls, arches, and beautifully painted ceiling.
The attention catches an enormous gothic-style chandelier. Opposite to the entrance, at the end of a long red carpet, an eternal flame rises from the floor.
Warning: the entry is free, but when you get inside you will be accompanied by the worker who shows you the interior and gives (very little) explanation about the building’s history. At the end, you’re asked for tips. I find it a (small) scam, there is no official guided tour, the person just walks you around without any previous agreement or arrangement and then expects money. A bit sad, especially that this place is of national importance.
- Three Eyes National Parc
If you want to escape from the bustle of the city and find some easily accessible nature retreat, the Three Eyes Natural Parc is perfect place to visit. Conveniently located in Santo Domingo (short Uber drive from Zona Colonial), the park is a natural reserve with limestone caves, lakes and tropical forest. You can take a boat and have a ride in the lake hidden in a cave. Just splendid! I have so many pictures from there, that I will create another post about this gorgeous place.
Plan it as half a day trip.
- Business district
Most of the places described above are located in Zona Colonial. It’s known fact that most visitors concentrate their activity around this area, the district is UNESCO Heritage Site, most museums are situated here, it’s also the safest part of Santo Domingo. However, it’s interesting to explore other areas of the city which are a bit raw and where the locals actually live. I was advised by a Dominican resident to visit the business district of Santo Domingo stretching around Agora shopping mall. The area looks like it’s a luxurious part of the city where you can observe the daily life of rather affluent Dominican people.
I have spent some time in Agora mall and decided to have a dinner in Italian restaurant (delicious pistachios pizza) on the highest floor with amazing view at the city (its modern part).
On the way to the business district, you also can see poorer and less touristic sides of the city which can give a good idea about the level of life of majority of Santo Domingo residents.
I advise to spend half of the day for such trip, to have more realistic view at the city, since Zona Colonial is really tailor-made to cater to touristic needs and expectations.
- Boca Chica (to avoid)
I was initially planning to visit Boca Chica to enjoy the beach in the proximity of Santo Domingo but was advised against it by one of the locals. It’s not the safest area (pickpocketing), with shady individuals around (think of Thailand’s infamous tourism of older European and American citizens to ‘meet’ the locals). If you want to go there, proceed with caution. I skipped it after taking into consideration the advice from the locals and also after quick read of the opinions on Tripadvisor.
The visit would not be complete without trying local flavours and delicacies. When planning my trip to Dominican Republic I was expecting to have a cuisine based on seafood and exotic fruits which was to some point true but the island still holds few pleasant culinary surprises.
I was eating fish mostly in Punta Cana region, where the seafood lands on your plate few hours after it was caught in the ocean. I write about this experience in the post about my stay in Punta Cana.
- Meat dishes
Surprisingly, most of traditional Dominican dishes are meat based. I was writing above to order their delicious meat stew called Sancocho. Another delicacy to try is la bandera dominicana consisting of white rice, red beans and stewed meat, and also African origin dish called mofongo made by mashing fried plantain, garlic and pork rind in a mortar. Equally famous are cakes with seafood or meat inside. All mentioned dishes you will find in Santo Domingo restaurants, all accompanied by excellent drinks based on rum, followed by delicious Dominican coffee. I actually strongly recommend to try those delicacies in Santo Domingo, where a lot of authentic colonial restaurants serve them.
The atmosphere in small bars and restaurants located in the UNESCO Heritage buildings is truly unique and provokes to absorb and contemplate the complicated history and legacy of the island. Punta Cana is much more tourist tailored and standardised, you will find a lot of restaurants which are designed in European and American style.
- Paradise for coffee lovers
Dominican Republic has a lot of coffee plantations which are mostly grown in the mountains of the country. The coffee has a rich taste with low level of acidity. The areas that meet the needs of coffee trees are generally the tropical environments which experience heavy rains. To systematise the coffee production in Dominican Republic, the grains come from 6 regions: Cibao, Bani, Azua, Ocoa, Barahona and Juncalito.
The coffee can be found in local supermarkets in Dominican Republic, but when I tried to search them in the shops in Europe, it was difficult to get the same brands.
My favourite coffee I discovered in Dominican Republic is Café Montana de Jarabacoa con Macadamia. The highest elevations in the mountains of Jarabacoa keep coffee plants at a temperature close to 20 degrees which ensures a very favourable growth environment for coffee.
My second choice is Café Santo Domingo Gran Origen Perla Roja from Barahona region. Barahona is considered the cradle of the best Dominican coffee. The sea breeze and the fertile soils are the key features that characterises its coffees with delicate acidity, subtle caramel aroma and sweet notes of tropical fruit.
An interesting coffee is also the arabica from Cibao region. It is grown at higher elevations and is known for its low acidity and slight sweetness.
Still searching for those coffees in France as my stock from Santo Domingo is about to finish soon.
- Paradise for coffee lovers
The tropical environment of Dominican Republic is perfectly suitable for growing cacao trees. All cacao in Dominican Republic is grown in the shadows of leaves of citrus, banana and avocado trees. The Dominican cacao is famous of its low acidity and notes of yellow fruits.
Interestingly, the country is the largest producer of organic cacao in the world. The cacao beans are used to produce top quality chocolate, you can find a chocolate manufactures and make your own chocolate in Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo.
My favourite chocolate manufacturer is Kah Kow situated on Calle las Damas within the Colonial Zone.
You can try there their freshly made chocolate pralines (my favourite is with pistachios–the combination of sweet and salt in melting chocolate is just perfect), hot chocolate to drink and many other chocolate delicacies.
You can hide in the shadow of their small cafeteria and watch the machines producing chocolate.
On the side there is also a lovely shop with their produce where you can buy their cacao and chocolate for your loved ones. I recommend their delicious chocolate mousse (must be kept in the fridge though).
If you bring just Dominican organic natural cacao powder (easier to transport), you can prepare at home your own delicious drink from the recipe below.
Cup of water or milk
3 tablespoons of cacao powder
1 tablespoon of vanilla
Pinch of cinnamon
How to do it:
Boil a cup of water or milk. Next, add cacao powder, vanilla and cinnamon. Stir all the ingredients. Simmer for 7 minutes. You can add sugar for taste.
- Country full of fruits
I was expecting to try a lot of exotic fruits (and vegetables) in Dominican Republic. The country doesn’t disappoint. You have enormous stands with fruits in bigger supermarkets, some of them I have never seen before. Dragon fruit, zapote, chinola, carambola, bread fruit, guava…wanted to eat them all! I was shocked by the size of Dominican avocados- they are enormous, their taste is much sweeter than those which are imported to Europe.
I was in the shop during Avocado Festival and could observe the locals choosing the best pieces. Looks like they are also big fans of this fruit.
Dominicans are also fond of the plantains (which is a sort of vegetable banana) which are harder and need to be cooked. You will find a lot of mashed plantains (mangu) accompanying many traditional dishes. Attention–they are very filling so don’t order too much if you want to have space for your main meal.
- Other Caribbean traditions
Last but not least ‘culinary’ Dominican highlights is their production of rum and cigars. An evening with a glass of this golden beverage and a slow smoke of cigar is a very authentic Caribbean experience.
I am personally not that big fan of rum so I was drinking it with tonic, but if you would like to have a real rum tasting the Barcello, Brugal and Bermudez are the brands worth trying. I am a much bigger enthusiast of their local drink called Mamajuana which is a spiced alcoholic beverage made by infusing a mixture of rum, red wine, and honey with tree bark and herbs. It has a good reputation as an effective aphrodisiac 😉 Try it in different restaurants and some bottles from the shops–Mamajuana can taste very differently depending on the proportions of ingredients.
Perfect companion to your rum will be Dominican cigars–less famous than the Cuban ones- but equally good.
I don’t smoke on daily basis, but enjoyed the Dominican cigars a lot. In Santo Domingo there is plenty of cigar factories, you can visit them and see how the cigars are made, and of course purchase them.
I personally liked my experience in Saoba cigar shop in Zona Colonial–huge variety of products and competent staff to advise and assist, I needed their help since I’m not a regular smoker.
- Practical tips
- Convenient way to move around Santo Domingo (outside of Colonial Zone) is Uber, the prices are very low (unless it’s during hurricane or heavy rain). I recommend to take Uber to/from the airport
- The cash machines in Santo Domingo often don’t work or take big commissions. I suggest to withdraw cash for few days if you find working ATM, the cash machine which almost always worked was the one in Supermercado National in Zona Colonial
- The dollar/Dominican peso exchange rate in the shops is usually not very favorable for the buyer, it’s more profitable to pay in peso
- Authentic souvenirs are easier to be found in Santo Domingo than in Punta Cana region (small charming jewelry shops, cigar manufactures, chocolate speciality shops, etc.)
- Buses from Santo Domingo to Punta Cana are safe and reliable, the company operating this route is Expresso Bavaro (around 7 euro per ticket). Alternatively, you can take Uber from Santo Domingo to Punta Cana for around 60 -70 euro. Interestingly, the opposite route with Uber (from Punta Cana) is much more expensive.
- Zona Colonial is very safe, but the other areas outside of this district are much less secure especially after twilight.
- The weather can be volatile in the summer months (rainy season). Check the weather predictions and warnings (especially hurricanes warnings). If you need to travel in difficult weather, don’t postpone it (departure earlier) since the roads can be flooded and/or blocked and damaged after few hours of intense wind and rain (see my ride to the airport during hurricane in the video below- I still left relatively early so the roads were not blocked).