Santo Domingo is the oldest city in the New World and was founded by Christopher Columbus and his younger brother, Bartholomew Columbus, in 1496. The part of the city inhabited in the early 1500's is called the Colonial Zone (Zona Colonial in Spanish). The Colonial Zone boasts of many firsts for the New World. The first paved street, university, cathedral, castle, monastery, hospital, and fortress – to name a few. With beautiful architecture and the rich history, the Colonial Zone is a must see while visiting Santo Domingo. The Colonial Zone has been classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
In the Colonial Zone, along with the beauty of the historical buildings, you will find: hotels, restaurants, cafes, museums, bars, shops, etc. The two most famous streets in the Colonial Zone are Calle Las Damas (the street of the women) and Calle Conde. Calle Las Damas was the street the women of high society walked after church on their way to lunch. Calle Las Damas is an amazing street during the day, but it becomes even more amazing at night as the street lights turn the walls of the buildings a beautiful orange hue. With every step you take on the first paved street of the New World, you travel back deeper in time until you feel as though you are in the 1500's walking next to Christopher Columbus himself.
There are many hotels to choose from and they provide a wide range of prices from economical to elegant. What is nice about the economical hotels in this area is that they are clean and staffed with friendly people – with many speaking English. Keep in mind that these are old buildings, and, while they are clean, most rooms are small and have "Old Building" issues. Still, for the price, I think they offer a great experience in a great area. There are many of these hotels and with many offering different specials at different times, so it is hard to recommend one specific hotel. The reason I like the hotels in this area is that when you walk out the door of your hotel, you don't need to pay a taxi to take you to a location to enjoy. You are already in the # 1 destination spot in Santo Domingo.
On the higher end, there are several hotels to enjoy, but I will talk about Hodelpa Nicolas De Ovando. This hotel has spacious guest rooms, a nice courtyard out back to enjoy the evenings, a small bar, good food for the breakfast buffet, and for dinner they have a wonderful menu, but the best two aspects of this hotel are its history and its architecture. Nicolas de Ovando, a traveling companion of Christopher Columbus, was the 3rd governor of the Indies and this hotel used to be his home and dates back to 1502. This hotel is located on Calle Las Damas (the first paved street) in one of the first houses built, so to me, there is no better place to stay to be able to immerse yourself in the culture of the oldest city in the New World. But don't worry if the hotel is outside your budget, you can visit it and enjoy a cocktail at the bar or in the courtyard.
Things To Do And See
I highly suggest your taking the walking tour on Calle Las Damas and to make it one the first thing you do when you arrive in the Colonial Zone. Once you understand the buildings and their history, you will be able to enjoy them more. For example, if you are sitting in the Spanish Square (Plaza Espana) enjoying a nice dinner, as you look across the square and see the stone building, it will not just be a stone building anymore because, after taking the walking tour, you will understand this is the house of Christopher Columbus' son, Diego Columbus.
When walking down Calle Las Damas, you will be approached by the tour guides who will offer you the walking tour. So far every tour I have taken has been with guides who have spoken excellent English. The walking tour typically lasts two hours. I usually speak to the tour guide before and ask them to hit the highlights and try and get the tour done in 1 to 1 1/2 hours. The cost for the tour is usually about $ 1,000 Dominican Pesos ($ 20 USD), but you can try to negotiate a lower price. The tour guides do a great job and are caring, so I think they earn the $ 1,000 Pesos.
The next section will talk about some of the buildings worth seeing and many of these will be included in the tour.
Buildings, Museums, and Historical Attractions
Cathedral de Santa Maria / The Cathedral of Santa Maria – built in 1514, is the first cathedral of the Americas. This cathedral is an active cathedral and conducts services and has 7 beautiful chapels.
Alcázar de Colón is the house of the son of Christopher Columbus (Diego Columbus). This home has been turned into a beautiful museum with some original furnishings and some reproductions of the original furniture. Walking through this museum will give you a feel for how Columbus lived in the 1500's.
Plaza de España is a large, open gathering area that on one side has 8 restaurants overlooking the square and on the other side has the Alcazar de Colon (the house of Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus). The plaza is found at the end of Calle Las Damas.
Calle Las Damas is probably the most historically significant street in the city. It was the first paved street of the Americas and it was also the street the women of high society walked down after church to attend lunch. The street is filled with buildings from the 1500's that are now turned into museums, hotels, restaurants, etc. Draw in the history as you walk down this street.
Calle Conde is probably the 2nd most important street in the city. This street is closed to cars and is filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, and it has a small park (Parque Colon) in the middle and, at the far side of this street, has the Parque Independencia (Independence Park).
Fortaleza Ozama is a 16th-century castle built overlooking the Ozama River in the Colonial Zone. This is the oldest European-designed fortress in the Americas.
Ruinas de San Francisco is the remains of a monastery built in preparation for Franciscan Fathers in 1508. This is considered an important ruin and was the works of Governor Nicolas de Ovando.
P anteon de la Patria originally was a church for the Jesuits, later turned into a mausoleum to house the remains of some of the most notable national, civilian and military heroes of the Dominican Republic.
El Parque Colon (Columbus Park) was the main gathering center for festivities in the colonial times and still is today. Located on Calle Conde across from the Hotel Conde and bordering the Cathedral de Santa Maria, it is a great place to sit on a park bench under a tree and take a break from visiting the museums and ruins to soak in the beauty and the culture.
Restaurants, Bars, Cafes, and Nightclubs
There are many restaurants, bars, cafes and nightclubs in the Colonial Zone. I will focus on the ones that have historical significance, the ones that I have enjoyed and some that our past clients have enjoyed.
Overlooking both Plaza Espana (Spanish Square) and Alcázar de Colón (Deigo Columbus' house) there are 8 restaurants located in a row. Each of them has a menu located in front of the restaurant in Spanish and English. All 8 restaurants are elegant and the longest running restaurant in the New World is one of these 8. Pate Palo (the wooden leg) once owned by a one legged pirate is a 500-year-old restaurant that Sir Francis Drake once ate at. Whether you eat at Pate Palo or one of the other 8, you can't go wrong choosing one of these.
On Calle Conde there are several restaurants to choose from. They are casual dress for lunch and either casual or upscale casual at night. Segrefrados, an Italian restaurant is an excellent location not only for food but for people watching. They have great coffee in the morning to start your day off, and their pizzas are excellent as well. For a more traditional Dominican cuisine, you can visit the first floor of the hotel Conde. This restaurant has a patio overlooking both Parque Calon and Cathedral de Santa Maria.
At the end of Calle Conde is a very famous café / diner named Grands, formerly Pacos. This restaurant is open 24 hours a day and is a great place to get a coffee and some breakfast to start your day off. This is not a fancy place but a regular café that on any day of the week, you will see people gathering here to enjoy a good conversation with their coffee, and Dominican style food, no matter the hour.
LuLus Tasting Bar is a great place to enjoy a cocktail and dinner. It is a very trendy location that is upscale casual.
Onnos is a nightclub located in the heart of the Colonial Zone where you can hear the countries favorite music (Bachata, Merengue, and Salsa).
As I had mentioned before there are many more restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs to choose from but I wanted to give you a list of what we consider the popular choices. While walking around you will see many others, if you see one you like, just go in and enjoy.
Between the history, museums, the great restaurants, cafes, and nightlife, the Colonial Zone should be a must see for anyone visiting the Dominican Republic. This is an English speaking friendly area that is very safe to walk around as a tourist.