Santo Domingo: The Perfect Travel Destination for Beaches, Chocolate, and Culture

Lily Girma has authored several guidebooks on the Caribbean. She also writes for Lonely Planet, AFAR, and other great travel publications, and partners with different tourism boards. All photos in this article are  courtesy of Lily .

Lily Girma has authored several guidebooks on the Caribbean. She also writes for Lonely Planet, AFAR, and other great travel publications, and partners with different tourism boards. All photos in this article are courtesy of Lily.

Lily Girma is a lawyer turned travel writer who’s spent a significant amount of time in some of the most beautiful destinations in the world, including Belize and Jamaica. In the Santo Domingo episode of the Postcard Academy travel podcast, Lily explains why she now calls the Dominican Republic home.


We talk about the cultural events you can’t miss, the best beaches to go to, which chocolate plantations to visit — that’s right, this holiday can combine beach and chocolate. Does it get any better? Lily also talks about the history of slavery and dictatorship in the DR, and the cultural reawakening that’s happening in the country.


Listen to the Postcard Academy for free to hear the whole story. Here are links to Lily’s best Santo Domingo recommendations.  (subscribe here for free).


 

Fun facts about Santo Domingo

Dominican culture is friendly and loud, with merengue and bachata music playing everywhere. It’s sitting and relaxing at a colmado - a grocery store, bar and nightclub all wrapped up in one.




MUST-SEES SITES IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Colonial City. A rare pedestrian area, perfect for exploring the charming antique buildings now restored and turned into boutique hotels. You can also find several must-see museums here.

  • Fortaleza Ozama. If you’re looking for history, this is the first military fort in the entire Americas. Built by the Spaniards in the 16th century, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

  • Mercado Modelo. The oldest market in the city and the first one ever built, it’s a great spot to buy souvenirs and crafts in the front and fresh local produce in the back.

  • Insider Tip: Lily’s recommendation for a perfect day in Santo Domingo includes exploring the botanic gardens and taking a walk through the city’s parks and Downtown Santo Domingo.




Parque Colon.

Parque Colon.

MUST-HAVE EXPERIENCES IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Centro Cultural de España. This cultural center has free events subsidized by Spain and celebrates different aspects of Dominican culture, including movies, writers, artists and even hosted walks.

  • Ballet Folklórico Nacional Dominicano. A fantastic, funny and free dance and music show on Friday and Saturday nights put on for tourists near the Alcazar de Colon in Plaza España. This outdoor show demonstrates the evolution of traditional music and dances over the past few decades.




HIDDEN GEMS IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Mercado Paris. An area on the sidewalks of the Duarte that has been taken over by locals and is a really authentic Dominican-style market. It’s busy, loud, chaotic, and unusually organized. Perfect for the adventurous.



An Uber alternative: the Sunny Bike.

An Uber alternative: the Sunny Bike.

BEST MUSEUMS IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Alcázar de Colón. This is the former home of Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus, which has now been converted to a museum which is perfect for period furniture enthusiasts.

  • Museo de las Casas Reales. Learn about the history of the Dominican Republic, from the colonization by the Spanish to slavery.

  • Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana. For hardcore culture geeks, this museum covers the bloodiest period in Dominican history and the war between the dictatorship, led by Rafael L. Trujillo, and the resistance. Rafael was a dictator for 30 years and is it’s speculated that he murdered up to 30,000 people and was also responsible for the Haitian genocide in 1937. The museum was created as both a cautionary tale, of what we can become when we give in to evil and corruption, and to highlight the heroes of that time.

  • Museo de la Porcelana. Another one for the architecture lovers, Museo de la Porcelana is a beautiful building with wonderful architecture. A homage to porcelain, the museum was created by a Dominican woman who fell in love with porcelain and ceramics and brought in rare pieces from all over the world to be housed there.

  • Museo del Hombre Dominicano. The entire history of the Dominican Republic from the native civilization of the Tainos and several artifacts, to slavery and sugar cane plantations, to carnival and modern day life.




DAY TRIPS FROM SANTO DOMINGO

Chocolate lovers can visit the cacao plantation El Sendero del Cacao a couple of hours north of Santo Domingo. There’s also Chocal and Chocolala, two chocolate farms in Puerto Plata Province run by women.




FOOD AND DRINKS YOU NEED TO TRY IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • La bandera dominicana: the national dish of the Dominican Republic, it includes rice and beans with chicken or beef stew

  • Sancocho: a big stew with meats and root vegetables prepared on special occasions like New Years Eve

  • Chicharron: a delicacy of fried pork rinds

  • Frituras: fried snacks

  • Jalao: this traditional Dominican sweet is a little round coconut and honey ball

  • Mamajuana: a very potent mixed drink with rum, red wine and tree barks.
    Insider Tip: A small hotel called Hotel Doña Elvira has a really great version that Lily highly recommends.





Corner Cafe.

Corner Cafe.

WHERE TO EAT IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Coffee Shop

    • Corner Cafe. A lovely cafe with an outdoor terrace covered in flowers and is a great place to work on your laptop and pick up local sweets and pastries

  • Lunch

    • Petrus. For local, home-cooked, buffet-style food at great prices.

    • Villar Hermanos. This is a family business which, according to Lily, is the best in Santo Domingo with a fresh buffet every day.

  • Dinner

    • Mesón de Bari. This restaurant has a long history for great Dominican food and is very well-known.

    • Travesias. Chef Tita serves new Dominican cuisine that aims to create a gastronomic experience by using locally-sourced, community-developing Dominican produce.




Boca Chica.

Boca Chica.

BEST BEACHES IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Boca Chica. A wide and long beach very popular with locals.

  • Juan Dolio. Less hectic, more relaxing, and more upscale than a lot of the other beaches. You’ll also find lots of restaurants on the beach

  • Playa Guayacanes

  • Bávaro in Punta Cana



BEST PLACE FOR NIGHTLIFE IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Hard Rock Live. You’ll find really fantastic live shows and small performances, located in Blue Mall. Just upstairs, you’ll find JW Marriott with a great rooftop bar called Vertygo 101.

  • Jalao. Perfect for dinner and dancing.

  • Buche Perico. Restaurant with nightly live jazz.

  • Casa de Teatro. Rotating exhibits in the front, bar with live shows in the concert room in the back. This is where Santo Domingo’s official Jazz festival is held.

  • Los Navarricos. For a casual night out, you’ll enjoy outdoor sidewalk terrace with tapas on the cheap.



BEST NEIGHBORHOODS IN SANTO DOMINGO

  • Colonial City. A rare pedestrian area, perfect for exploring the charming antique buildings now restored and turned into boutique hotels. You can also find several must-see museums here.

  • Gazcue. A bit less upscale compared to the Colonial City but also very nice place to find great local and authentic restaurants.


SHOULD YOU TIP IN SANTO DOMINGO?

The tipping is same as the U.S., but they do include 10% in the bill. “It's debatable whether business owners give the 10% back to the staff,” Lily says. “Some do and some don't, so I always tip anyway and recommend visitors do that as well.” Tips are also expected for personal services like drivers and you can expect to spend about 20% for dinner and 15% for lunch.



BEST WAY TO GET AROUND SANTO DOMINGO

Lily recommends Uber above everything else. It’s a really cheap, safe and easy way to get around Santo Domingo.



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If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.