El Faro A Colon.With so many beautiful beaches competing for the attention of tourists, it would be easy to overlook Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. But what a mistake that would be! The path of history has touched Santo Domingo – it is here, in the 500-year-old architecture and the rich historical sights, that visitors come to appreciate the French, Haitian and Spanish influences on the island’s history.

The colonial walled city was founded in 1496 by Bartolomé Columbus, the brother of the famous explorer. When his nephew, Diego Columbus (eldest son of Christopher) became the colony’s governor, Santo Domingo rose as the hub of Spanish commerce and culture in the New World.

Now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, Santo Domingo claims bragging rights as the “city of firsts,” including:

• The oldest city in the New World; because of its strategic site used as a departure point for the Spanish conquests across the Americas.
• The first road laid out in the New World – Calle Las Damas – lined with restored colonial buildings, was a favourite promenade for elegant ladies of the Spanish aristocracy.
• The first cathedral in the Americas, Catedral Primada de América.

Ciudad Colonial.

At the historical heart of Santo Domingo is the Ciudad Colonial (also called the Zona Colonial or the Colonial City), a priceless collection of 16th-century architecture restored and preserved in an expansive colonial neighbourhood of squares, churches, historic buildings, important monuments, cobblestone laneways and atmospheric ruins. The neighbourhood contains most of the historical sites in Santo Domingo, and a walking tour through its narrow streets and into its museums is a must for any visitor.

Today, the Ciudad Colonial is much more than a collection of glorious architecture; it is a busy, historic neighbourhood incorporating lively cafes, romantic courtyard restaurants and some of the best shopping in the city.

The old town is still partially enclosed by remnants of the original city wall, that at one time was a first line of defence for its inhabitants. The grid pattern used by the city planners became the model for almost all town planners in the New World. At its centre is Parque Colón, a popular meeting place for both locals and tourists and one of the best people-watching spots in the city. In the centre of the park stands a large statue honouring the great explorer, Christopher Columbus. All of the historic sights in the Ciudad Colonial are within walking distance of the park.

Catedral Primada de America.A Dozen “Don’t Miss” Sights

1. Catedral Primada de América, the first cathedral in the western hemisphere, is a treasure trove of artwork, ancient wood carvings, paintings and sculptures all inside a breathtaking building constructed in the Spanish Renaissance style.

2. The sign out front could say, “Columbus once slept here.” Museo Alcazar de Colon.Dominican Republic Tourism BoardBuilt as the Columbus family palace, the magnificent coral limestone Museo Alcázar de Colón has more than two-dozen rooms decorated with paintings, religious tapestries, period silverware and 16th-century antiques. The Alcázar is the most visited museum in Santo Domingo.

3. The Museo del Hombre Dominicano contains displays of pre-Columbian history, including artifacts of Taíno culture and history. There’s also a section dedicated to the city’s colourful Carnaval traditions.

4. For even those with only a passing interest in history, the rich colonial past portrayed in the city’s museums is too good to miss. The excellent Museo de las Casas Reales traces history from the 15th to 19th centuries. Housed in the restored palace of the Spanish court, displays include replicas of the three ships in Columbus’ maiden expedition, and loot recovered from sunken Spanish galleons.

Fortaleza Ozama.Dominican Republic Tourism Board5. The imposing Fortaleza Ozama, with its two-metre thick walls, was once the first line of defence for the colonial city (and the oldest fort in the New World). A narrow staircase in the tower leads to a spectacular 360-degree view of the city, the river and the Caribbean Sea.

6. All that remains of the 16th-century Monasterio de San Francisco are rubble and ruins. The once-glorious structure was looted, burned and damaged by earthquakes and hurricanes. It was never fully restored, but the ruins are dramatically lit at night.

7. The large Parque de Independencia sits at the juncture of the old colonial city and the cosmopolitan, modern section of Santo Domingo. This popular meeting place holds a special spot in the hearts of Dominicans – it was here that freedom fighters marched for, and won, the country’s independence from Haiti. It was this revolution that established the Dominican Republic as a sovereign nation.

8. The centre for nightlife is along the Malecón (Avenida George Washington), the long oceanfront boardwalk lined with bars, cafes, restaurants, casinos and hotels. During Carnaval – and especially on February 27, Independence Day – the Malecón is closed to traffic and opened up to noisy festivities including an elaborate parade, booths and vendors.

9. The merengue is the national music and dance of the Dominican Republic, and its joyful beat is embraced with fervour across the island. In Santo Domingo, merengue can be found in the hot dance clubs along the Malecón and in small bars along the narrow cobblestone laneways of the Ciudad Colonial. In July and August, Santo Domingo hosts its Merengue Festival, where Dominicans and tourists seem possessed by the infectious music.

10. The towering El Faro a Colón is an enormous cross-shaped monument constructed to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. The chapel, guarded by a 24-hour honour guard, is said to house the tomb of Columbus.

11. There is no country in the world that produces as many Major League Baseball players as the Dominican Republic – besides being the national sport, baseball is a source of immense national pride. Sports fans should not miss a game at the Estadio Quisqueya ballpark to see one of Santo Domingo’s two home teams.

12. Visitors can quench their shopping thirst along the Calle El Conde, a pedestrian-only street lined with cafes, restaurants and shops, and one of the oldest streets in the city. The best mementos to take home are amber and larimar jewelry, Dominican rum and cigars, music, art and crafts made from native mahogany.