15 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial
Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial is a delightful mix of history and modern Dominican life. Crumbling 16th-century ruins scattered between wonderfully restored colonial buildings are a constant reminder of this city's incredible history. Founded by Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s, this first city of the New World is where Columbus lived and is buried. Today, the entire colonial district, Zona Colonial, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many of the historic buildings house museums, restaurants, and hotels. The area is relatively compact and easy to explore on foot, but with so much to see, it's easy to spend a few days here sightseeing and soaking up the atmosphere.
Narrow one-lane roads open onto parks with mature trees and old stone buildings. Outdoor restaurants, reminiscent of European cafés, offer inviting retreats from the heat of the day, where you can sit and watch life go by. Parque Colón (Columbus Park) and Plaza España are two of the main tourist hangouts and good places to start your tour. You'll find numerous restaurants in these areas, as well as official tour guides offering to show you around and providing information on attractions and things to do in the city.
1 Parque Colón (Columbus Park)
At the heart of the Zona Colonial is Parque Colón, the most lively and enticing square in the city. Musicians and street performers frequent the square, shoe shiners set up along the street side, and children chase pigeons around the statue of Christopher Columbus, which stands proudly in the center. On the south side of the square is the Catedral Primada de América, the first cathedral built in the Americas. Constructed in the early 1500s and completed in 1540, its real name is Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor.
Running along the north side of the Parque Colón is Calle El Conde, the city's main pedestrian street, with a couple of restaurants with outdoor tables that look onto the park. This is the best place to sit and appreciate the sights and sounds of this beautiful square. If you are looking to take a tour, the Chu Chu Colonial tourist trolley departs from the east side of the square.
This is also a perfect area to base yourself if you are spending a night or more. Not far from Parque Colón is the quaint Boutique Hotel Palacio, set in a historic building with a beautiful courtyard and old-world charm. It offers a variety of luxury to mid-range rooms that vary in size and price. Another hotel worth considering, with a similar colonial atmosphere, is the El Beaterio Casa Museo.
Location: Calle El Conde and Calle Arzobispo Meriño
2 Catedral Primada de América (First Cathedral in the Americas)
This impressive basilica, set on the south side of Parque Colón, was completed in 1540 and was the first cathedral built in the Americas. This is not a ruin but a functioning place of worship that still maintains many of the original features from the 16th century. The original Mahogany doors open into the grand interior, where you can see the silver altar and a painting of the Virgin Mary from 1520. Although the real name is Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, tourist maps list this site as Catedral Primada de América.
Location: South side of Parque Colón on Calle Arzobispo Meriño
3 Museo de las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Houses)
Built in the first half of the 16th century, this impressive structure was originally constructed on orders from Spain and designed to house the most important government offices of the New World. In the 1970s, it was turned into a museum to showcase the history and culture of the region. Displays include Taíno artifacts, colonial furnishings, and an interesting weapons collection, among other items. The hallways are narrow in places, and on busy days the museum can feel quite congested, but the interior courtyard, with benches and a small garden, offers a pleasant reprieve. Displays are in Spanish, but headsets with audio recordings in multiple languages are available with your admission fee.
Location: South side of Plaza España, on Calle Las Damas
4 Panteón Nacional (National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic)
Originally constructed as a church in the first half of the 18th century, the building was converted to the national mausoleum in 1956 under the orders of dictator Rafael Trujillo to honor the country's most important people. In a twist he would not have envisioned, the building now houses, among others, the remains of the men who assassinated him. Also interred here are famous names such as Francisco Gregorio Billini, Gregorio Luperón, Eugenio María de Hostos, and José Gabriel García.
The interior is beautiful, with marble tombs along the walls, arches, an ornately painted ceiling, and a huge Gothic-style chandelier. Opposite the entrance, at the end of a long red carpet, an eternal flame rises from the floor.
Location: Calle Las Damas, one block south of the Museo de las Casas Reales
5 Plaza España
Plaza España is a very large and open square on the edge of the Zona Colonial, near the Rio Ozama. Frequently the site of events and public gatherings, this is not an intimate square where you would go to sit on a bench and sip a coffee under a tree. However, on the edge of the park are a number of restaurants with outdoor dining. Tour guides often hang out in the vicinity of the cafés and approach visitors to entice them into joining a walking tour. On the square, opposite the restaurants and closer to the river, is the Alcazar de Colón. This former residence of the Columbus family is now a museum.
Location: Calle La Atarazana, or the north end of Calle Las Damas, beyond the Museo de las Casas Reales
6 Chu Chu Colonial Sightseeing Trolley
The Chu Chu Colonial is a small, open-air sightseeing train that runs through Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial. While the area is quite small and easily walkable, on hot days the Chu Chu is a tempting option. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and lets you see the sights from the relative comfort of a shade-covered bench as it pulls you along cobbled streets and past the city's most famous sites. Keep an eye out for places you might want to visit after the tour. The tour starts from the east side of Parque Colón.
Location: Parque Colón
7 Monasterio de San Francisco
The ruins of Monasterio de San Francisco are one of the most important historical sites in the Dominican Republic. The first monastery to be built in the New World, it stands as a symbol of the trials and tribulations that have inflicted this city throughout the centuries. The monastery has endured countless disasters, having been hit by hurricanes, devastated by earthquakes, sacked by Francis Drake, and used in battles, only to be repaired time and time again. The ruins are still used today as a venue for some events.
Location: Calle Hostos and Calle Juan Isidro Perez
8 Choco Museum Santo Domingo
The Choco Museum is more than just a tasty stop in the Zona Colonial. Housed in a 16th-century building, the museum and chocolate factory is an educational experience and a fun way to learn about the cacao industry in the Dominican Republic. You can sample pieces of chocolate and chocolate drinks or try out cacao-based beauty products. Beyond the sampling counter is a small museum with displays on the history of cacao and the operation of drying and processing the cacao seeds. In the front portion of the store, you can purchase all kinds of chocolate goodies and products. Displays are labeled in English and Spanish, and some of the staff speak English. The museum and chocolate sampling are free.
Location: Near Parque Colón on Calle Arzobispo Meriño, just north of Calle El Conde.
9 Calle El Conde
Calle El Conde is a pedestrian street that runs from Plaza Independencia to Parque Colón and just beyond to the Rio Ozama. The most beautiful section is the portion closest to the river, around Parque Colón where most of the restaurants are located. Restored colonial buildings lining the street and outdoor dining give this end of Calle El Conde a distinctly European feel. Tourists tend to frequent this area. As you walk towards Plaza Independencia, the street becomes more modern, with clothing stores, small shops, and a more authentic Dominican vibe.
10 Parque Independencia
At the far west end of Calle El Conde, Parque Independencia commemorates Dominican Independence. Entering through the huge Puerta del Conde, the square is lined with busts that lead to the Altar de la Patria (Altar of the Nation), a mausoleum where the founders of the Dominican Republic are laid to rest. The names Sanchez, Duarte, and Mella are prominently displayed inside. This square offers little to no shade, apart from the mausoleum itself, and is very hot during the middle of the day.
11 Amber World Museum
The Amber World Museum is an incredible place to see fine examples of amber and learn about this fossilized resin. Even if you have no interest in visiting museums, the visually striking displays here are worth a look. For a very small admission fee, a knowledgeable English-speaking guide will lead you through the museum, walking you through the exhibits, which explain how amber is formed, mined, and used.
The amber pieces, which come in a variety of hues, are backlit to reveal the fossils inside, which range from ants and termites to leaves and flowers. Some of the pieces have magnifying glasses, so you can get a detailed look at the fossils. Note the curving handrail on the stairs to the second floor is made of amber pieces encased in acrylic.
The Dominican Republic is well known for amber, which here is almost always transparent, giving it a glow you don't always find in amber. You can frequently see fossils in Dominican amber, even in very small pieces. Attached to the museum is a jewelry store where you can buy amber, as well as larimar, but there is no pressure to buy.
Address: Calle Arzobispo Meriño 452
As the capital city of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo has some of the best shopping in the country. In the Zona Colonial is a mix of tourist oriented shops and regular shops where you can find Dominican fashions and everyday goods. The Dominican is a popular place to purchase amber and larimar, which you can either buy loose or in jewelry settings. Larimar is a semi-precious stone that comes in a variety of shades but is most commonly a pale blue. The translucent amber pieces, which are generally a golden orange color, often reveal fossils. Amber with fossils is considered the most valuable. Many jewelry stores sell both amber and larimar, but for quality settings you may want to stop by the first floor of the Amber World Museum, one block north of Parque Colón on Calle General Luperon, where the shop sells a large variety of amber and some larimar.
For clothing and fashion, take a walk along Calle El Conde towards Parque Independencia. You can find a variety of boutiques and reasonably priced stores all along this street and the side streets.
13 Convento de Los Dominicos
While the Catedral Primada de Américas gets all the attention as the first cathedral in the New World, the Convento de Los Dominico pre-dates the cathedral and is known as one of the oldest buildings in the Americas. Begun around 1510 and put into use in various stages until it was finally completed in 1531-32, the convent later went on to become a teaching institution and eventually became the start of what is today the University of Santo Domingo.
Location: Padre Bellini and Avenue Duarte
14 Bicycle Ride or Trikke Tour through Santo Domingo
Semi-adventurous tourists can rent a bicycle or take a trikke tour to explore the streets of Santo Domingo. While it may seem daunting to make your way through an unknown city on a bicycle or scooter, the streets of Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial are almost all one way streets with only single-lane traffic, making it a delightful place to give this a try. Most of the streets are not particularly busy, intersections are easy to navigate, and you don't have to worry about crossing multiple lanes of traffic. The main hazards are the deep gutters lining the sidewalks.
The large, wide-open space of Plaza España is a great place to try out your bike or trikke before tackling the narrower streets. From here, you can either plan out a route or simply make your way up and down the streets, which are laid out in a basic grid pattern. Bicycle rentals are available at Zona Bici Bike Rental or Sunny Bikes RD. For an organized tour with a guide, you can opt for a two-hour Santo Domingo Trikke City Tour on a three-wheeled electric scooter.
15 Photographing the Zona Colonial
The streets are a riot of color, and the old architecture, ranging from crumbling ruins to completely restored colonial buildings, provides endless subjects for photographers. The light can be very intense at midday, but the morning and afternoon sun can be wonderful for photographing this historical area. The Museo de las Casa Reales faces east and is best captured in the morning when it is not in shadow. The ornate façade of Catedral Primada de America, and the Convento de los Dominicos, face west, with a warm glow falling over them in the late afternoon.
Streets worth investigating with your camera include the north section of Calle Hostos, where the street curves on a hillside lined with colorful, small wooden houses. On Callejón Macorís, south of Calle Padre Billini, near Parque Duarte, you will also find a colorful row of buildings.
Particularly lovely squares are Parque Colón, with pigeons and street entertainers, and the quaint Parque Duarte, lined with old buildings, benches, and trees.