Catedral Primada de América

Top choice in Santo Domingo

Catedral Primada de America (First Cathedral of the Americas), Zona Colonial (Colonial District, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, West Indies, Caribbean, Central America

Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

The first stone of this cathedral, the oldest standing in the Western hemisphere, was set in 1514 by Diego Columbus, son of the great explorer (the ashes of father and son supposedly once resided in the chapel's crypt). Construction, however, didn’t begin until the arrival of the first bishop, Alejandro Geraldini, in 1521. From then until 1540, numerous architects worked on the church and adjoining buildings, which is why the vault is Gothic, the arches Romanesque and the ornamentation baroque.

It’s anyone’s guess what the planned bell tower would have looked like: a shortage of funds curtailed construction, and the steeple, which undoubtedly would have offered a commanding view of the city, was never built.

The cathedral's current interior is a far cry from the original – thanks to Drake and his crew of pirates, who used the basilica as their headquarters during their 1586 assault on the city. They stole everything of value that they could carry away and extensively vandalized the church before departing.

Among the cathedral’s more impressive features are its awesome vaulted ceiling and its 14 interior chapels. Bare shoulders and legs are prohibited, but shawls are provided for those who need to cover up.

Although Santo Domingo residents like to say their cathedral was the first in the Western hemisphere, in fact one was built in Mexico City between 1524 and 1532; it stood for four decades, until it was knocked down in 1573 and replaced by the imposing Catedral Metropolitano.

Tickets, purchased at the entrance in the southeastern corner of the site, include an audioguide available in a variety of languages (RD$50 without audioguide). Daily mass is at 5pm Monday to Saturday and noon and 5pm Sundays.