The Dominican Republic has always been one of the top destinations in the Caribbean. The beaches of Punta Cana, Bavaro and Cabarete receive millions of visitors every year. Recently though, the UNESCO Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo has also been drawing lots of visitors who are eager to explore this historic and charming Colonial city.
The Colonial Zone, or “Zona Colonial”, is a treasure trove of Spanish Colonial architecture. Many of the 16th century palaces today house museums, stunning restaurants, private homes and government offices. But the Colonial Zone is also a vibrant and bustling neighborhood with a unique culture that is fun to explore.
Let’s take a look at our Top 5 attractions in the Colonial Zone, and don’t forget to just relax and people watch along the way!
1. Plaza de España and the Alcazar de Colon
Our first stop, the Alcazar de Colon, is located at the east end of the enormous Plaza de España, overlooking the Ozama River. Built in the 16th century, it was initially the home of Diego Colon, the son of Christopher Columbus. This building is a must-see!
When arriving and leaving the Alcazar de Colon, it is impossible to miss the famed Plaza de España and its numerous restaurants and cafes. If you are lucky, some cultural event might be underway. Another idea – come back on a weekend evening and enjoy live Dominican music while sitting at one of the restaurant’s outdoor terraces.
2. Casas Reales
The Museo de las Casas Reales or “Royal Houses” is home to a collection that documents Santo Domingo’s history. From Taino Indian artifacts to Spanish Colonial art and furniture.
Perhaps even more impressive is the courtyard. Here, you will get a feel for traditional Spanish Colonial architecture, which often centers around an open, sunny courtyard with trees and a garden. This type of structure was, and still is, ideal for warmer climates as the courtyard was always nice and cool.
3. Cathedral and Parque Colon
The true heart of the Colonial Zone lies at the picturesque Parque Colon and the Cathedral. This area is always active, with thousands of people passing by each day. Business people, tourists, expats, artists and locals share the benches and cafes in this charming park. No matter where you sit, though, you will always have a spectacular view of the cathedral. This is the first cathedral constructed in the New World. It features a variety of architectural styles, including Gothic. It does, however, lack a tower. There are some beautiful Baroque paintings and sculpture inside and it is always nice and cool, so stay for awhile and look around. Situated at the south end of Parque Colon, the main entrance is actually on Calle Arzobispo Meriño.
4. Calle El Conde
Perhaps the most unique, modern feature of the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo is the pedestrian street “El Conde” that runs from Parque Duarte at one end all the way to Parque Independencia. El Conde is lined with shops, cafes and businesses.
For the most part, these are places that the locals visit. There are, of course, many souvenir shops, “art” sellers and cafes where tourists can relax, but the shops are typically lower to middle-end and not international quality. But that’s ok because walking along El Conde away from Parque Duarte you will experience a more genuine Dominican culture. At the far end, just across from Parque Independencia, you will find the famous Cafe Grands, where you can relax with a tasty and healthy natural papaya or passion fruit juice, or perhaps try some authentic Dominican food. You will never forget your first voyage down El Conde!
5. Calle Las Damas
On a more historic note, you must also visit the very first paved street in the Americas – Calle Las Damas. The name “Las Damas” or “The Ladies” originates from the 16th century custom of wealthy woman in Santo Domingo taking evening strolls down the street. Today, many of the Colonial Zone’s principal buildings are located on Calle Las Damas: Fortaleza Ozama, the National Library and the National Pantheon, as well as several exclusive homes and hotels. There is also a very charming square called Plaza Toledo that fronts on Calle Las Damas. It is shady and has several benches, so take a break here and enjoy the unforgettable views.
Remember, there are very good reasons for the Colonial Zone’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So take your time and explore.