Santo Domingo — The Oldest City in a New World
Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, was founded by Christopher Columbus' brother, Bartholomew, and it is the oldest European city founded by Europeans in the New World. It was the first seat of Spanish colonial rule in the New World. Since then, Santo Domingo has been home to nobles and knights, soldiers, monks and slaves, pirates and damsels in distress.
Here you can find everything from an active nightlife to historical sights. The city is also one of the best places to shop in the Caribbean, and the hottest item on sale is the hand-wrapped cigars along with local handicrafts.
When the city was founded on the southeastern Caribbean coast in 1496, it was named New Isabella and was much later renamed Santo Domingo. Since then, it has had a long history, interspersed with glory and destruction. Even today, the city reflects its French, Haitian, and Spanish heritage.
Santo Domingo is located on the Hispaniola coast where it meets the Caribbean Sea, which makes it a great vantage point for trade, and sure enough it furthered the city's economic development during colonial times. The Ozama River, located to the east of the city, is the country's busiest port.
Santo Domingo is relatively low in altitude and the average temperature varies little in the city. However the country does experience two seasons, winter and summer. November to April is winter characterized by relatively lower humidity levels and low precipitation. December and January are the coolest months, while July and August are the warmest. The humidity makes it seem much warmer than it really is. The tropical climate however, makes the region very vulnerable to hurricanes.
Before the region was discovered by European settlers in 1492, the Taino Indians lived on the island of Hispaniola. The modern city was founded on August 5, 1498 by Bartholomew Columbus. Christopher Columbus set up the first settlement here called Navidad after discovering the island in December 1492. He later established a community he called Isabela in the northwest, which Bartholomew later moved to present-day Santo Domingo.
Santo Domingo became the first capital of the new territories, the first to have Spanish coinage, a fort, a monastery, a cathedral, a university, a hospital and a palace. It is where Madrid's rulers in 1512 set up the highest level of its judicial system since the Middle Ages, the Spanish Colonies' first royal appellate court.
Governor General Nicolas de Ovando arrived here in 1502 but the region was destroyed by a hurricane shortly after his arrival and he had it rebuilt on a different site nearby. The original layout of the city and a large portion of its defensive wall, many 16th century buildings and structures are today part of the Colonial Zone, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.
In 1586, Hispaniola was invaded and ravaged by Francis Drake weakening the Spanish dominion over the island which had served as a capital for over 50 years but was now abandoned and left to the mercy of the pirates. Then again in 1655, the island was invaded by the French.
Later on, in 1822, the Haitians commanded by Jean-Pierre Boyer, took over the entire island. Finally, in 1844, the Spanish part of the island regained its independence after 22 years of Haitian rule due to a group of patriots headed by Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sanchez and Matias Ramon Mella. From then on, the Spanish part of the island became the Dominican Republic.
Since its new settlement, Santo Domingo became the launching pad for many explorations to the New World including the expeditions that led to Ponce de Leon's discovery of Puerto Rico, Hernando Cortes' conquest of Mexico, Diego de Velazquez’s expedition to settle Cuba and Balboa's sighting of the Pacific Ocean. Serving as the base of exploration, the seaport soon became the center of Spanish activity in the Greater Antilles.
Santo Domingo celebrated its 500th birthday on August 1998.
Places to See
Santo Domingo is filled with places and monument of historical significance. El Faro a Colon or the Columbus Lighthouse is a 206 m tall monument built in the shape of a cross. In the heart of the edifice is a chapel that contains Columbus’ tomb. The most outstanding feature here is the lighting arrangement made up of 149 searchlights and a 70-kilowatt beam that reaches out for nearly 71 km. When illuminated, the lights project a gigantic cross in the sky that can be seen as far away as Puerto Rico (reminds one of the Bat-signal that is lit up to call Batman!). Although the concept of the memorial was conceived 140 years ago, the first stones were laid only in 1986.
As long as you are visiting the Columbus Lighthouse, make sure to visit the Los Tres Ojos and then the National Aquarium. Los Tres Ojos is a 50-ft deep cave with three lagoons surrounded by stalagmites and lush vegetation. The National Aquarium is an aquarium where you can see sea creatures contained in the Plexiglas fish tank.
At the Parque Independencia you can see the two cities—ancient and modern Santo Domingo, meet. The big city square’s most prominent feature is the Altar de la Patria, a national pantheon dedicated to the nation's heroes—Duarte, Sanchez, and Mella, who are buried here—who led the country's fight for freedom from Haiti in 1844. The square is also a popular meeting place. Then there is the El Conde Gate named for the Count de Penalva who resisted the British invasion. It is also the site of the March for Independence in 1844.
Many would agree that the city’s most outstanding structure is the Alcazar de Colon, a palace built for Columbus' son, Diego.
Right next to the Alcazar is La Atarazana, a fully restored section of one of the finest arsenals. Extending for a block, it has an array of shops, art galleries, boutiques, and some good places to eat. Another site not to be missed is the Puerta de la Misericordia, which was part of the original city wall. The ‘Gate of Mercy’ was once a refuge against hurricanes and earthquakes.
At the Columbus Square you will find a large bronze statue honoring the explorer and the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor. The cathedral is the oldest in the Americas, and was completed in 1540, although the first stone was laid by Diego Columbus in 1514. The golden-tinted coral limestone facade is stunning. The structure features Gothic and Spanish Renaissance styles of architecture with Romanesque arches. The church holds a magnificent high altar chiseled out of silver and an excellent collection of ancient art, woodcarvings, furnishings, funerary monuments, and jewelry.
Museo de las Casas Reales or the Museum of the Royal Houses traces the city’s history from 1492 to 1821 through artifacts, tapestries, and maps. Its treasures include gilded furniture, arms and armor, and other colonial artifacts like replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and is also said to hold some of Columbus's ashes. The main attractions here are two galleons sunk in 1724 on their way from Spain to Mexico, and remnants of another 18th-century Spanish ship, the Concepcion.
Casa Diego Caballero was built in 1523 and is distinguished by two square towers and the inside is full of galleries composed of solid stone arches. Casa Sacramento was home to many important figures. These are two famous houses of Santo Domingo.
Around the city there are a few beaches where many flock to over the weekends. The principal beach resort is 31 km from the city at Boca Chica with clear, shallow blue water, a white-sand beach, and a natural coral reef. Another white-sand beach is that of Playa Juan Dolio nearby.
Make sure to visit the many museums celebrating all aspects of Dominican life, many of which, such as the Museum of the Dominican Man, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of History and Geography, and the National Museum of Natural History, are located in the Plaza de la Cultura.
Things to Do
Gambling at Santo Domingo is not very popular but if you want to try your luck, most casinos are open till 5am. The most glamorous casino is the Renaissance Jaragua Hotel & Casino with its brilliant flashing sign—the most dazzling light along the Malecon.
For the avid shopper, there are many delights to be found that include handcrafted native items, especially amber jewelry, Dominican rum, hand-knitted articles, cigars, ceramics, and mahogany pieces. Ever since John F. Kennedy was presented with what became his favorite rocker, visitors have wanted to take home a rocking chair from here. Some of the best shopping streets are El Conde and Avenida Mella.
The Amber World Museum attracts many visitors with a collection of plants, insects, and even scorpions fossilized in resin millions of years ago. Not all of the displays are for sale but you can watch craftspeople at work, polishing and shaping raw bits of ancient amber.
If you happen to be in Santo Domingo in February, you are in luck because it’s when the people flock to the streets to celebrate the annual Santo Domingo Carnival every weekend throughout the month. Revellers dressed in the traditional devil costume with elaborate carnival masks lead a parade down the Malecon at the end of the month.
The Santo Domingo International Book Fair is another annual event that brings in a host of bookworms at the Plaza de la Cultura Juan Pablo Duarte around the months of April and May. The Festival of Dominican Song Eduardo Brito, named after the Dominican baritone, takes place in the National Theatre in an effort to encourage composition among Dominicans. It is an annual event that happens usually in June.
The Santo Domingo de Fiesta, or rather ‘Party Time in Santo Domingo’, is when the city doles out cultural shows and performances in the old Plaza Espana every Friday and Saturday.
Don’t forget to try some of the delicious local cuisines while you are in town. The servings will leave you wanting more. If you are not sure what to order, try asopao (a tomato, rice, seafood or fish-based dish), batida (a fruit juice made with ice and milk), empanadas (small pastries filled with meat or vegetables), habichuela con dulce (sweet red beans made only during Easter week), mofongo (ripe bananas with grilled sesame), postulad (wheat pancake filled with seafood, meat or vegetables), sancocho (meat dish boiled with vegetables), filete a la criolla (filet mignon Creole style), pollo guisado (stewed chicken), and asopao de camarones (a thick rice soup with shrimp). These are just a few of the local specialties. Be adventurous with your taste buds and explore more delights!
Las Americas International Airport is Santo Domingo major international airport and currently the busiest in the country. The Aeropuerto Internacional La Isabela is a new airport servicing mostly domestic and charter flights as of now.
A 15 km underground and elevated Santo Domingo Metro is under construction, and once completed will make commuting in the city mush faster. Buses are now the best way to get around the city—they are inexpensive and have an extensive network.
Other modes of transportation are carros publicos (shared taxi) and motoconchos (motorcycle taxis).