Santo Domingo is full of history. It was founded in 1496 (remember the old rhyme – 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue) just a few years after the Europeans discovered “The New World”. It houses the first Catholic Church in the Americas. Tons of history and neat things to see and do. Here is our list of the top sights to see in Santo Domingo if you should ever visit.
We have the advantage of travelling slowly so we can take our time when visiting the sites of whatever area we are in. Altogether we spent about forty days in Santo Domingo and took our time visiting many of the typical tourist sites. The advantage of this is that we have flexibility on the day and time that we go. For example, the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo has a lot of the tourist sites. One Friday we planned to visit the Colombus House, but a cruise ship happened to be in town and it also looked like every grade school in Santo Domingo decided to have a field trip that day. The line for the Colombus House was out the door and lined up for half a block. We simply decided to visit another day. No stress.
In the Colonial Zone there is no shortage of tour guides that want to give you a tour. They typically approach you with a laminated card showing pictures of about 20 different sites, museums, etc. and offer to give you a one hour tour for around $20 US. While we will spend the money for a good tour guide with intimate knowledge of a particular site, we typically don’t take these, “I’ll show you 20 sites in 30 minutes” tours. We didn’t take anyone up on these tours.
Basílica Menor de Santa María – also known as the Catedral Primada de America. In English this would be the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Incarnation. Even if you have travelled to Europe and seen hundreds of Cathedrals, I would recommend checking this one out. To me, it is so full of history. Construction began in 1512 and was finally completed in 1540.
Like most attractions in Santo Domingo, it is quite inexpensive by my standards. I forget exactly how much but it is probably about RD$40-50, around a dollar US. It includes an audio tour – headset and a module that you punch in the number of whatever artifact or area you are looking at.
Museo de la Casas Reales – In English, the Museum of the Royal Houses. This museum gives a good colonial history of Santo Domingo from the time that Columbus arrived. Originally the building was the seat of the Spanish colonial government, but is now a museum. Kind of unrelated but still interesting is an exhibit showing weapons throughout the ages from around the world. I understand that the weapon collection was from a Mexican general and somehow the Dominican Dictator Trujillo got hold of them and now they are in the museum.
Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominica – Memorial Museum of the Dominican Resistance. This was an unexpected find. It is near the Colonial Zone, but a few streets away from the center of everything. We discovered it by accident when we took a different street on our walk from the apartment to the Colonial Zone. It doesn’t rank very high on the Trip Advisor ranking of things to do in Santo Domingo, like #44.
It is probably one of the most well done and well maintained museums in Santo Domingo. It is air conditioned, fairly rare in most of the museums we saw. Everything works – lights, displays, etc. Somewhat surprising to us, many of the museums in Santo Domingo had very poor maintenance: glass hadn’t been cleaned on exhibits, lights were out, some of the signage had fallen down and had not been fixed, etc. This was not the case for the Museo de la Resistencia.
The museum has a lot of photographs and signage in Spanish. A couple of the reviews I read on Trip Advisor by English speakers complained about this. However, I felt that with the audio guide it was pretty easy to understand. Most of the museums, sites, etc. in Santo Domingo focus on the Spanish Colonial history with a heavy emphasis on Christopher Columbus’s discovery of Hispaniola and his brother Bartholomew’s establishment of Santo Domingo. The Museo de la Resistencia focuses on the struggles of the Dominican people against decades of brutal dictatorships.
The museum opened in 2011, making it a fairly recent museum. It covers the period from about the 1920s through the 1970s. We found it interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, I guess I didn’t know much at all about the recent history of the Dominican Republic and secondly the events were more recent and probably had more relevant impact to the lives of present day Domincans.
Los Tres Ojos – The Three Eyes. This is a series of underground and open air freshwater lakes. There are a total of four lakes three that are actually underground and one in the same system that is totally outdoors so not considered one of the three eyes.
You are met by numerous guides offering to give you a guided tour for $30 US or so. There is no need to take a guided tour. The caves are pretty cool, but I can’t imagine why you would need one. The admission fee is only RD$100 (around $2 US).
There is a boat that takes you to the third underground lake. It costs an extra RD$20 (around 50 cents US).
Jardin Botanica Nacional Dr Rafael Moscoso – National Botanical Garden. This garden is over 200 acres. You can spend at least a half a day there, maybe even longer. It is the largest botanical garden in the Caribbean and we are told one of the most highly recognized gardens in the world. Lots of lush, tropical vegetation, a very good Japanese garden. The admission fee includes a ride in a “choo choo” train that drives around the roads of the garden. On the train is a “guide” that says a few words about whatever you are passing by, but doesn’t add much value. “Esto es una palmera (This is a palm tree).” The benefit of the train ride is it covers a majority of the garden and gives you an idea of where you might want to walk back to.
We went on a Saturday and it was pretty cool to see the locals enjoying the park. We must have counted at least five or six groups taking photos for their quinceaneras. (A quince is a big party that is thrown for a girl when she turns 15. Very big in most Latin American cultures.)
Alcazar de Colon – The Columbus House – This is a house that was built by Diego Colon, the son of Christopher Columbus. It was built in 1510 and is said to be one of the oldest royal homes in the Americas. It now houses a museum with many works of art and rooms restored to their original purpose. Again an audio guide and headset takes you through the museum.
It gives you a good idea of how the business of the colony was run back in the day.
Fortaleza Ozama – Ozama Fortress – There is one major building in this walled compound. If you climb to the top, you get a great view of Ozama River and the entrance to the port of Santo Domingo. We had no trouble climbing up to the very top, but reviews that I had read online said that there would be someone up there charging an extra US dollar to climb all the way to the top.
No real exhibits here, but exploring the building and the grounds is pretty cool. There are quite a few canons along the outer walls of the fort. You can feel the history.