> Destinations > Dominican Republic > Santo Domingo
A great place to begin your exploration of the Dominican Republic is the nation's capital, Santo Domingo (population 1 million). It's an enchanting city combining modern sophistication, old world charm and Latin charisma.
This bustling metropolis will seduce you with superb dining, vibrant nightlife and fashionable shopping. The first European city in the Western Hemisphere, a large part of its rich colonial heritage is preserved in a charming enclave beside the Ozama River called the Colonial City.
It's an extraordinary cityscape of 16th century dwellings and imposing late medieval palaces and fortresses, et amid a refreshingly non-geometric street grid. Santo Domingo boasts the America's first cathedral, its first monastery, first hospital, first university and first court of law.
Recognizing Santo Domingo as the cradle of European civilization in the new World, UNESCO declared the Colonial City a world heritage site. The well-lit cobblestone streets and centuries-old facades of the Colonial City house scores of picturesque cafes and bars, small hotels and well-established restaurants. In the expansive plaza framed by the Palace of Columbus, the Casas Reales Museum and the quaint 17th century sundial, the sidewalk cafes come alive after dusk offering an intimate, informal rendezvous for locals and visitors alike.
Beyond its handsomely preserved colonial past, Santo Domingo's cultural and artistic vitality is showcased in its vibrant theatres, concert halls and its galleries galore. While the palaces of the Colonial City have become fascinating museums, the aptly naked Plaza de la Cultura - a vast, green oasis in the heart of the city clusters four museums: the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of History and Geography and a museum that charts the progress of Dominican civilization, the Museum of Dominican Man. Also on the grounds is the National Theater, home to the best of concerts, ballet, opera and theatrical performances on their Latin American tours.
On the Eastern bank of the Ozama River, the Columbus Lighthouse is a vast mausoleum housing the mortal remains of the Great Discoverer and exhibits from Spain and almost every American country. It towers over the Mirador del Este Park where athletes from the Americas came in August 2003 to compete in the Pan American Games. Nearby, a thoughtfully designed "up-close" aquarium and The Three Eyes (Los Tres Ojos), with its transparent water lagoons over 50-feet deep in an open cave are both open to tourists.
Follow the "Las Americas Expressway" and horseback enthusiasts can watch thoroughbred races at the V Centenario Race Track and enjoy a perfect view of the Caribbean. Or not far away, speed enthusiast can watch sleek racecars burn rubber at the Las Americas Autodrome. On the west side of the city, Santo Domingo also maintains a zoo and a magnificent botanical garden with a memorable Japanese garden within.
Come for vacation and go back with a new look. Santo Domingo's beauty salons are tops in the world; its gyms and spas are right up there with the best, too. Stop by the high-tech Salon Daisy, or visit Body Shop, Gold's Gym. Payot Institute at Salon Llongueras, Virginia Spa or many others for body pampering.
For those interested in shopping, Santo Domingo is a joy. It seems every American or European trademark is represented in addition to the many attractive products manufactured locally.
While its true that ear muffs and overcoats are in short supply, beautiful tropical apparel and swimwear are available as is marvelous Dominican jewelry made of amber, larimar and bone. And when you're looking that ideal souvenir for family and friends, don't forget that richly flavored Dominican cigars, silky-smooth Dominican rum and deeply satisfying Dominican coffee are real bargains.
Click here for Santo Domingo after dark.
Information provided by the National Hotel & Restaurant Association Tourism Promotion Council.