The Historical, Hidden, and Hip History of Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo – it’s the oldest European city in the Americas and has the history to match.

Whilst most visitors traveling to the Dominican Republic head to the pristine beaches of Punta Cana or Puerto Plata, the cultural city of Santa Domingo isn’t one to miss from the itinerary.

The Dominican Republic capital is brimming with history, having been ambushed by pirates, swamped by slaves, re-titled by a tyrant – and that’s not even half of it. Their troubled past pushes Dominicans to be stronger and as a country, they are justly proud of their history and status today.

Keen to learn about Santo Domingo’s enriching history and culture? Read on and we’ll spill all – including the best-kept secrets on the top spots to visit in this captivating city.

Santo Domingo Facts

  • Santo Domingo was first founded back in 1468 by Bartholomew Columbus – brother of Christopher Columbus. Originally, he named it ‘La Española’.
  • Santo Domingo is the first capital city of North and South America and its home to the first cathedral, the first university, and the first hospital.
  • In 1586, difficult times were presented – pirates. Tarnished pirate Sir Francis Drake captured the city with less than 700 men and everything and anything was stolen- including church bells. Poor Santo Domingo was left in ruins.
  • Hispaniola is the island that Santo Domingo sits on – shared with Haiti.
  • However, this hasn’t always been the case. In the mid-1600s, France attacked and captured the Western half of the island. This half was renamed Haiti and thousands of African slaves were brought in; Powerless to stop them, the Spanish retreated to the Eastern side of the island.
  • In 1795 the Spanish surrendered the rest of the island, including Santo Domingo, to the French as a result of the war between France and Spain following the French Revolution.
  • Santo Domingo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
  • In 1936, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo renamed Santo Domingo after himself to ‘Ciudad Trujillo’. After his assassination in 1961, the city was renamed back to Santo Domingo.
  • Santo Domingo is the largest urban part of the Caribbean by population.

Despite a difficult past, today Santo Domingo is thriving. Many colonial-era buildings have recently been renovated and as a result, now is the ideal time to visit.

Want to learn more? Discover Santo Domingo’s complicated past in depth here.

Things to Do in Santo Domingo

1. Explore the Old Colonial Zone

In Santo Domingo’s old colonial zone, history comes to life.

You’ll stumble across stunning Renaissance and Gothic Colonial architecture along with old, fragile structures of buildings that are worn down.

Keep an eye out not just for the historic buildings, but for the bright splashes of color that garnish the area. You’ll find they contrast beautifully with the neutral colors of the architecture.

Marvel at the crumbling ruins of the Hospital of St. Nicholas of Bari – the very first hospital of the New World.

Crafted between 1503 – 1508, the hospital was in operation for 350 years. In this time, it’s been stricken by pirates, stood as a military hospital and remained during the revolution. But in the end earthquake damage has led it to its state today – a stunning structure of ruins.

The first church of the new world – Catedral Primada de América – was constructed from limestone between 1514 and 1540.

The handsome building was designed with an interesting mix of Roman, Renaissance and Gothic architecture. And unlike the first hospital, it’s pretty much intact.

A popular visit for tourists, the site of Alcázar de Colón, located within Plaza De Espana was built between 1510 and 1512.

It was designed as a fortress for Christopher Columbus’ son Diego and his wife and today, it stands proudly as a World Heritage Site. Take a meander and discover verdant gardens, charming Spanish courtyards, historic medieval and Renaissance artworks, plus more.

2. Sample the World’s Best Cigars

Tobacco is one of the main exports of the Dominican Republic – in fact, over half of the cigars sold across the USA are sourced from the country. The result is some of the best cigars across the globe!

Yaque Valley is the Dominican Republic’s famous tobacco region, but there are plenty of spots in Santo Domingo to watch them being hand-rolled.

We suggest a gander to La Leyenda del Cigarro where all kinds of cigars sell to suit your tastes. Try mild, strong, or flavors such as chocolate or vanilla!

3. Discover the Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes) National Park

A 15-minute drive away from the center of the city are the sparkling lagoons, giant rock formations and lush vegetation of the famous Los Tres Ojos – also known as The Three Eyes – National Park.

Amble through the magnificent limestone caves via winding staircases, gaze at the breathtakingly-blue La Nevera lake and peek through verdant fanned ferns.

You’ll be stunned to realize you’re still in a city!

Visiting Santo Domingo

1. Getting Around

Santo Domingo is a walkable city, particularly in the bustling colonial zone where you’ll spend much time. To get to places outside of the center, such as Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes) National Park, it’s recommended to take a taxi or Uber.

Exploring more of the Dominican Republic? The public buses are very affordable and will take you to cities across the island.

2. Staying Safe

Keep in mind that Santo Domingo is a capital city so whilst you shouldn’t be afraid to explore, keep your wits about you, as pick-pocketing is prevalent.

As you can’t drink the tap water, make sure to buy bottled water or use a water purifier to treat the water yourself.

Plan Your Trip to Santo Domingo

With so much to do and so much history to see, you can see that the city’s highly worth visiting as a destination on its own or as part of a wider tour of the Dominican Republic – so you can mix up city sightseeing with indulgent beach days.

Ready to start planning your trip? Our city tour is a great way to discover Santo Domingo and all it’s historic, hidden and hip spots – check it out here.

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