The Dominican Republic is a country known to most Americans for its beaches, baseball, and beautiful women (if Drake videos are to be believed). A developing country in the Caribbean, its ten million inhabitants reside in the Easternmost two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, with Haiti taking up the rest. The country is relatively safe and welcoming to tourists from around the world and is a major travel destination year-round – in fact, tourism is one of the two leading drivers of the country’s regionally strong economy, alongside agriculture, and Dominicans have a reputation for being open, warm, and incredibly hospitable people.
The best known and accessible destination is Punta Cana, with its white sand beaches, all-inclusive resorts, and pre-packaged experiences – which is totally ok if disconnecting and getting drunk off mamajuana is your thing. That being said, that is also an incredibly unrealistic, sheltered, and watered down version of what makes my home country so special. If you find yourself with a little extra cash and a sense of adventure, my suggestion is you hop on down to Santo Domingo. Our capital city – one of Latin America’s most underrated urban areas – is easily at your reach: there are daily direct flights from both BWI and Dulles, as well as single-connection trips from National Airport. This means you can be drinking a Presidente beer in the back of a taxi driven by a man with no regard for neither the laws of God nor traffic within just six hours of leaving your house.
Santo Domingo is the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere, and as such there’s plenty of history to be found. Conveniently, most of it is concentrated in the old city, referred to by locals as the Zona Colonial, or just “La Zona”. Founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus (brother of genocidal maniac Christopher) on the banks of the Ozama River, the settlement of Santo Domingo was Spain’s principal port of call and base of operations during the first wave of their efforts to colonize the New World. La Zona is littered with bars, restaurants, museums, and souvenir stores built inside old Spanish-style structures approximately five centuries old.
Places of historical interest include El Alcázar de Diego Colón – home of the former Governor of Santo Domingo (and first born son of genocidal maniac Christopher), the National Pantheon, where the DR’s national heroes are laid to rest, and the Museo de Las Casas Reales – where you can learn more about the every day life of 16th century Spanish settlers in Santo Domingo. Museums in the Dominican Republic are surprisingly good about telling unvarnished versions of the truth, warts and all, and scoping out all three of these should take no more than 3.5 – 4 hours total. If you’re still in the mood for historical awe, swing by the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor, next to Columbus Park. Completed in 1540, it’s the oldest cathedral in the Americas, and the gothic-baroque building uses our plentiful natural light to cast a golden glow throughout the interior.
Tired of reading about dead people? Walk down El Conde Street, a pedestrian walkway full of shops selling cigars, rum, artwork, and amber. Prices for tourists are generally higher than other parts of the city, but the general quality of goods is pretty solid and most merchants speak English. Alternatively, spend a quiet moment at Casa Quien, one of the city’s newest and most intriguing contemporary art galleries, before popping into Mamey Librería Café for a drink. Built into an old Spanish colonial home, Mamey has a classic Iberian courtyard and is a popular hangout with hip twenty-somethings both day and night. Lulú Tasting Bar is yet another worthwhile stop known for having delicious, innovative cocktails set in a relaxed environment with excellent ambiance and music.
La Zona has quite a few interesting corridors and alleyways which are perfectly fine to navigate as a tourist during the day time, but be wary of your surroundings at night. Do your best to stick to well-illuminated and populated streets, and use your best judgment. A reminder – Santo Domingo is a city with over 2.5 million people, so as always, keep an eye on your belongings and don’t be a dumb gringo (with your phone, with your passport, with money, with your drinks). Hailing taxis off the street – including motorcycle taxis, or motoconchos – is generally safe but they are cash-only. So, get ready to rent a car or put your data plan on roaming so that you can call an Uber – which is approximately half priced compared to DC, thanks to the 1:50 exchange rate between US dollars and Dominican pesos. Not a bad deal.
Once you’ve had your fill of La Zona, drive along the Southern edge of the city on El Malecon Avenue (Pier Avenue) to el Parque Mirador del Sur, a three mile long ecological preserve and park that runs along the coast in parallel to the Caribbean Sea. The park is free and open to the public, and you’ll often find Capitaleños exercising, playing music, or drinking an ice cold beer.
Airbnbs are prevalent throughout the coastal parts of the city, but less so as you move further inland. You can find a particularly good deal in residential Gazcue neighborhood, as well as the aforementioned Zona Colonial and Parque Mirador Sur areas – high end rentals go for less than one hundred dollars a night. If you’re more comfortable staying in a hotel, Santo Domingo has plenty of quality options including the Billini Hotel, the Hotel Casas del XVI, and the historic Hotel Embajador, which formerly had a polo field on premise where longtime dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo played. The Embajador also stood in for the Cuban Presidential Palace in The Godfather II – odds are you’ve already seen it.
I’m biased, but I would daresay the Dominican Republic has the best cuisine in the region – although Puerto Rico gives it a run for its money. Our national dish consists of steamed white long-grain rice, kidney bean soup, braised or stewed meat, twice-fried green plantains tostones, and a green salad (with fresh avocado, of course). It’s so ubiquitous that it is referred to as “La Bandera”: the flag.
Traditionally, Dominican food is rarely served outside the home or working class lunchrooms. Adrian Tropical changed all of that, and assuming you’re not invited over for a meal by a Dominican family (which you might actually be), it’s your best bet. The homegrown chain remains open late night, and the location on George Washington Avenue pulls right up to the sea.
Buche’ Perico is another place that pulls us back to the Zona Colonial, and for good reason – the menu takes a wider lens view at Caribbean cuisine and executes it with aplomb. If you’re feeling homesick and want something more familiar, swing by Luga for enormous (and delicious) burgers and fries.
While the Dominican Republic is leading the way in the evolution of music, fashion, and fun, we’re nowhere near Mexico or the States when it comes to haute cuisine – so classic fare like Italian is still the pinnacle of fine dining in the country. Should you want to splurge one night, you won’t do much better than La Cassina, widely considered among the top upscale meals in town.