Live like a capitaleño in Santo Domingo

A sprawling urban hub of nearly three million people, the capital of the Dominican Republic is the country’s cultural center. It’s a place where old and new mesh across neighborhoods, and where traditional haunts are as cherished as modern cityscapes. From the Colonial City’s museums to seaside parks, upscale restaurants, a lively music scene, and nearby white sand beaches, Santo Domingo celebrates life daily.

Walk the Colonial City

Once the stomping grounds of Christopher Columbus and his cronies, Santo Domingo’s Colonial City – which served as the Spaniards’ first settlement in the Americas – is a charming historic area stretching approximately ten blocks. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, this neighborhood is filled with museums, parks, sidewalk cafes, sprawling plazas lined with restaurants, and restored 16th Century Spanish colonial and gothic architecture.

In the heart of the Colonial City sits the first European cathedral of the Americas © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

In the heart of the Colonial City sits the first European cathedral of the Americas © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Walk down the first paved street of the Americas, Calle de Las Damas, or tour the first cathedral, Catedral Primada de América, where Columbus’ remains were first discovered. Cool off in the shade with a cold Presidente beer, and watch the crowds of families and snack vendors at Columbus Park. At dusk, the Colonial City takes on an old world charm with its lantern-lit alleys, and lovers stroll the pedestrian Calle Conde while bars fill up with patrons dancing the night away.

Stroll the malecón

Easily the most iconic landmark in the city, the capital’s seafront promenade – officially called Avenida George Washington – is lined with royal palms and impressive Caribbean Sea views on one side. On the other are hotels, casinos, and restaurants, making it an attractive spot for locals to enjoy their city while escaping the heat.

An ice cream vendor cycles down the malecón © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

An ice cream vendor cycles down the malecón © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Head to the promenade as the sun begins to set to enjoy the breeze, snack on freshly-sliced coconut from a mobile vendor, or hangout with locals at one of the waterfront recreational parks. Plaza Juan Baron offers glorious sea views, as well as plenty of fast food and ice cream shacks with seating areas. The malecón gets particularly crowded on the weekend, and offers a classic slice of Dominican life in the capital.

Dine out Dominican style

The heart of the country’s gastronomy scene is in Santo Domingo. This is where you’ll sample authentic Dominican cuisine in all its forms as well as international dishes from around the world. Whether you stop at sidewalk carts with roadside picnic tables, local buffet cafeterias, or fine dining establishments, eating out is a bonafide activity.

A range of romantic bistros line Plaza Espana, ideal for a first-time dinner in Santo Domingo © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

A range of romantic bistros line Plaza España, ideal for a first-time dinner in Santo Domingo © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Start out in the Colonial City with Pat’e Palo for Latin American tapas on an outdoor patio facing Plaza de España, or head into the center for a rooftop, poolside dinner at Winston Grill, inside the JW Marriott, perched 101 feet above Winston Churchill Avenue. For a casual local restaurant with a bustling outdoor terrace, head to Cafeteria El Conde, facing Columbus Park.

Dance and enjoy life

Music and dance are a national pastime, and as Dominicans will tell you, it doesn’t get better than Santo Domingo for nightlife. At the local park, neighborhood watering hole, or music venue: enjoying life through music is an essential part of one’s week in the big city. It won’t be long before you hear a Dominican tell you, 'hay que bailar y gozar!'– one must dance and enjoy life.

A free cultural dance show takes place on Plaza España every Friday and Saturday evening from 8pm to 10pm © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

A free cultural dance show takes place on Plaza España every Friday and Saturday evening from 8pm to 10pm © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Live music venues and nightlife options range from merengue bands to jazz concert nights, and weekly cultural shows on outdoor plazas. Popular picks include Grupo Bonye, performing live on Sunday evening at the San Francisco Monastery ruins, and JetSet Club on Monday nights for live Dominican salsa and merengue bandsOn Thursday evening, Lulu's hosts Latin Jazz NightsPick any day of the week in La Capital and you’re certain to find a place to wear your dancing shoes.

Head to Sunday Beach Day

Although traveling out of the city is required to indulge in some beach time, the capital’s dwellers are blessed with no more than a 25-minute drive east to white sand beaches and turquoise Caribbean waters. Head there on Sunday to see how capitaleños seize the opportunity to celebrate their day off with a bit of tropical scenery.

Juan Dolio beach attracts city dwellers looking for some quiet family time © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Juan Dolio beach attracts city dwellers looking for some quiet family time © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Start at Boca Chica for a typical Dominican beach vibe, where the merengue blasts and rows of fish shacks sell lunch roadside. Set up your chair on the beach, and indulge in a plate of fried Mahi Mahi with tostones (fried mashed plantains), yaniqueques (large, fried johnny cakes) and avocado, washed down with an ice cold Presidente or a fruit juice.

Continuing 15 minutes’ east of Boca Chica will lead you to the quieter, even more brilliant white stretch of Juan Dolio. Wherever you end up, a sandy Sunday is an authentic way to end the week in the capital.

This article was refreshed in July 2017.

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