10 reasons why you should visit the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic and just a bit more than two hours away from Punta Cana. While the city itself is a chaotic, loud and gigantic Latin American metropolis with very few attractions, it features a special district which is the complete opposite: the “Zona Colonial”. The historic center of the city with its ancient cobblestone streets, centuries-old buildings and creative art scene is a place not to miss in Santo Domingo and one of the top highlights in the entire Dominican Republic. Considering this unique way of experiencing history it is absolutely worth the journey from Punta Cana. I am showing you 10 reasons why you have to visit the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo during your vacation in the Dominican Republic.

1) The Zona Colonial is like an open-air museum

 For 4 years I was living permanently in Santo Domingos Colonial Zone and each day I was admiring the beautiful streets and historic buildings. The colonial atmosphere here is one of a kind. Therefore, it is a real pleasure to stroll around the ancient streets and have a look at what hidden gem or secret view you can discover next. Furthermore, the Zona Colonial is the most historic part of the Dominican Republic as it was founded in 1502 as a city after a hurricane destroyed the initial settlement on the other side of the river. Since then, some buildings, the design of the roads and other elements are still preserved and used in daily life so that your walk through the Colonial Zone is like strolling around in an open-air museum.

The historic streets of the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo

2) Famous sights and historical buildings in the Colonial Zone

 The Colonial Zone is home to the highest concentration of historical sights and attractions in the entire Caribbean, especially considering that all of the following sights are within walking distance of 15 minutes. When you are around, make sure to have a closer look at the following things-to-see in the Zona Colonial:

  • Alcázar de Colón (or “Casa Colón” or the “House of Columbus”), the first castle residence in the Americas, which nowadays features one of the most popular museums in Santo Domingo
  • Altar of the Nation at Parque Independencia, where you can see the tombs of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic
  • Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the most important religious building in Santo Domingo and the First Cathedral of the Americas
  • Calle Las Damas, a historic cobblestone road and the oldest street of the Americas
  • Church and Convent of the Dominican Order next to Parque Duarte, the oldest church in the New World
  • Fortaleza Ozama with views on the Ozama River, the oldest fortress in America
  • Monasterio de San Francisco, original burial place of Alonso de Ojeda and Bartholomew Columbus
  • Museo de las Casas Reales, a very beautiful building and extensive museum on the colonial history of the Dominican Republic (and Haiti)
  • Parque Colón, the Columbus Park with the Columbus statue
  • Plaza de España, with magnificent views on the surrounding colonial buildings and the Alcázar de Colón
Museo de las Casas Reales, one of the most beautiful buildings in the Zona Colonial

3) Small cafés and individual restaurants all over

 When strolling around and exploring the ancient secrets the Colonial Zone has to offer, you might get hungry or require a break. Nothing better than that! The historic city of Santo Domingo offers dozens of cute little cafés, breezy open-air terraces, delicious hidden holes-in-the-wall and elegant fine-dining restaurants. Especially the abundance of casual eateries and cafés makes it a pleasure to stop by and rest a bit. Furthermore, it allows you to stay hydrated and explore the Zona Colonial also from its culinary side. Some of my favorites are Sicily (best empanadas in town), Mercado Colon (market-style with occasional live music), Navarricos (good and cheap wine with tapas in a casual atmosphere), Corner Café (romantic café behind a historic church) and La Moricette (best sandwiches and pastry).

One of the beautiful courtyards in the Colonial Zone, here the restaurant Falafel

4) Dominicans love their Zona Colonial

 Though it has its touristy share, the Zona Colonial is still a lively spot of the Dominicans which means you can get a good dose of the daily Dominican life. When I first moved to Santo Domingo I initially did not want to live in the Colonial Zone as I thought it was way too touristy. But I was completely wrong! 

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 When Dominicans are meeting up, they often head towards the Zona Colonial, the majority of houses here are still inhabited by locals and during the weekend you can’t count the hundreds of Dominican families who are visiting the area to enjoy some free time. 

 Although the Zona Colonial might not be an authentic Dominican barrio, it still is a place mainly influenced by locals and therefore one of the best places to be and to live in Santo Domingo.

The historic streets of the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo

5) Sit back, relax and watch what’s happening!

 People-watching is one of the most interesting things to do in the Zona Colonial if you want to relax for half an hour or more during your discovery tour of the area. First of all, because there are tons of options to sit down for a while, either in the several public parks (Parque Duarte, Parque Colón, etc.) with its benches or in the aforementioned cafés and terraces where you have a great view of the daily life. Second, you can see so many amazing things when observing the daily life for a bit: Dominican families on their weekend getaway, artists giving creative performances, all kind of tourists wandering around, young locals on their shopping trips, multi-cultural couples having their daily drink, expats coming home from work and so much more … 

 If you sit down for an hour and watch the life happening you probably see a very good profile of the variety of the Zona Colonial and its people.

Playing Domino is one of the biggest passions of the Dominicans

6) Vibrant nightlife in the Zona Colonial

 As mentioned, Dominicans love to go out to the Zona Colonial, which is why it has a vibrant nightlife. Especially from Thursday to Sunday you will see the several parks populated by hundreds of locals, sipping on their beer or rum and chatting with their friends or simply strangers. Alternatively, you can visit one of the multiple bars for delicious cocktails – usually rum-based, if you stick to the original Dominican ingredients. Afterwards, clubs and dancing bars are opening for everyone to dance the night away to Merengue, Salsa and Bachata. The Dominicans are crazy about music and dancing. They are happy to show you some steps and moves as well, especially as the nightlife here in the Zona Colonial is quite relaxed and low-key, compared to other locations in Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo at night

7) Bonye, the biggest party of Santo Domingo

 However, there is one dancing respectively nightlife event which earns its separate reference here in this article about the reasons why to visit Santo Domingos Zona Colonial: Bonye. This is the name of an extremely popular and long-standing Dominican band who is performing every Sunday evening in an amazing historical setting next to the ruins of San Francisco.

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While just the location is worth a visit, the Bonye band guarantees that every event is a big street party for everyone. When you get there, you will see hundreds of Dominicans and tourists alike dancing to the typical Bachata, Merengue and Salsa music, while the bars and colmados next door are open to sell drinks and snacks. The event is for free, an unparalleled highlight and a must-see when visiting Santo Domingo.

The Sunday night party Bonye in the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo

8) Photo opportunities in the Colonial Zone

 If you are a photographer, the Zona Colonial will be your heaven, thanks to the historic buildings, the little alleyways and especially the abundant colors. Not only can you take photos of the popular sights, but also of hidden spots, creatively painted buildings and ancient street. There are also dozens if not hundreds historic and picturesque courtyards to discover. For a serious photographer, it might take several days to explore all the secrets the Zona Colonial has to offer.

The boutique hotel Dona Elvira in the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo

9) The Zona Colonial is perfectly safe

 Safety sometimes is an issue when talking about the Dominican Republic (mostly unjustified due to a lack of knowledge or experience). While Santo Domingo indeed has some crime issues, the Zona Colonial is perfectly safe, as long as you keep your eyes open and are not moving around careless. There is a high presence of police (ordinary and tourist police), the streets are always busy and there are even surveillance cameras in the area. You can walk around without worries, can ask any person for advice if in doubt and you can even enjoy the nightlife without problems as long as it doesn’t get too late (after midnight you should take a taxi everywhere) or you are getting too drunk (and therefore vulnerable).

The historic streets of the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo

10) Starting point of Great adventures in the Dominican Republic

 If you are not only coming for a day trip from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo but are planning several days (or even a full road-trip through the Dominican Republic), the city will be your perfect starting point to venture out to the country. Due to the logistical structure of the Dominican Republic (busses, highways, etc.) and the geographical location you can reach nearly all interesting regions (Southwest, mountains, North Coast, Samaná) from Santo Domingo in around 2-4 hours – doesn’t matter if you are planning to travel by bus or by rental car. Therefore Santo Domingo marks a great starting point if you are planning to see more from the Dominican Republic than just Punta Cana.

The famous Plaza Espana in the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo

Frequently asked questions

How to book an organized excursion from Punta Cana to the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo?

 If you are on an all-inclusive vacation in Punta Cana (or Bayahibe, La Romana, Uvero Alto, Bavaro, etc.) and just would like to visit Santo Domingo for a day, the easiest option is to book a guided excursion. Most of the tours are starting quite early in the morning to allow you sufficient time in Santo Domingo as you will spend 5-6 hours on the bus on the way from and to Punta Cana (approximately 2.5 hours each way). After arriving in the Colonial Zone, you will have a guided tour with a lot of the sights mentioned above, incl. entrances to some of them, depending on the tour finally booked. In the afternoon, you have either a tour by bus to other sights of the city or some free time to explore some of the highlights I described above before heading back to Punta Cana. If you are interested, you can check out some recommendable offers here.

How to get to Santo Domingo from Punta Cana (on your own)?

 If you would like to visit Santo Domingo from Punta Cana on your own I would recommend you at least two days. This gives you more time to enjoy the unique atmosphere of the Colonial Zone and stretches the travel time to two different days. Furthermore, you’ll also have the chance to experience Santo Domingos great dining and vibrant nightlife.

 To get from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo, you have three options:

 1) Private Transfer: If you would like to have it relaxed and with peace of mind, you can book a private transfer. Prices for a door-to-door transfer (from your resort in Punta Cana to your hotel in Santo Domingo) should range between 150 and 180 USD one-way incl. taxes and fees. If interested, you can book those transfers with the following links: 

 2) Rental Car: In case you are planning multiple excursions on your own anyway, you should consider renting a car. Driving in the Dominican Republic might sometimes be a bit chaotic but is doable. However, please note that traffic in Santo Domingo is a little crazy so it is best to leave the car in the garage once you have arrived in Santo Domingo. You can check out attractive rental car prices here*. If driving with your own car, you need around 2.5 hours between both cities (avoiding rush hour)

 3) Bus: Quite often I see people taking the bus from Bavaro/Punta Cana to Santo Domingo (which I do as well). As there is a direct express service 6 times a day between both cities, it is quite easy. On top, the journey is very comfortable as the busses are new and modern. The journey costs around 7 USD per way. Depending on your mobility you might need taxis or motoconchos to get to and from the bus station.

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The author Chris in the Dominican Republic

How to get to Santo Domingo from elsewhere?

 In case you are not vacationing in Punta Cana, you can put Santo Domingo as your first travel destination in the Dominican Republic. It is very suitable to be your first stop, as there are a lot of flights from various cities in the United States to Santo Domingo*, among them Atlanta, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Orlando. If you’re coming from Canada or the UK, it’s usually easier to fly to Punta Cana and take one of the transport options mentioned in the previous point.

 In case you are already in the Dominican Republic, just take a bus to Santo Domingo. There are direct busses from nearly every corner of the country to the capital.

Where to stay in Santo Domingo?

 If you are deciding for the two-day-option (or longer) I absolutely recommend you to stay within the limits of the Zona Colonial. One reason is for safety, but the main reason is that with your accommodation being in the Zona Colonial, everything is within walking distance. Furthermore, there are dozens of hotels in old colonial buildings and with a unique historic charm, so if you pick a good hotel, your accommodation might already be an attraction for itself where you can feel the atmosphere of 300 years ago. 

 If you’re looking for some highly recommendable hotels within the Zona Colonial with colonial charm, please have a look at this list with my top-picks*.

Is it safe to visit Santo Domingo?

 As described above, it is absolutely safe to visit the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo. Also, the way from the bus station or when arriving by car is no problem. In case you’d like to explore further parts of Santo Domingo please ask a local for advice or send me an email on where to go and not to go.

Alternatives to Santo Domingo and the Zona Colonial

Honestly, the Zona Colonial is top-notch if it comes to history, nightlife, culture and sightseeing, so there aren’t any equivalent alternatives to this area. Within Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial is by far the most interesting part.
If you are looking for alternative historic buildings and a colonial old town, Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic is another option, but not as spectacular as the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo.
In terms of nightlife, Piantini in Santo Domingo is another hotspot for the night, especially for posh and elegant bars and clubs. Outside of Santo Domingo, Cabarete on the North Coast has some decent nightlife, especially on the beach. If you don’t want to venture out from Punta Cana, the center of Bavaro does have a few nightlife options.
However, due to the unique characteristic of Santo Domingos Zona Colonial, there is hardly any full alternative and it is absolutely worth the trip, especially if you stay overnight and spend at least 2 or 3 days in the city.

If you don’t want to overnight in Santo Domingo but feel that the city is too far for a day trip, you can check out other day trip ideas from Punta Cana here.

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The face behind Punta Cana Travel Blog: Chris

CHRIS

Author, Travel Coach & Punta Cana based digital nomad

Hey, I am Chris, a born and raised German, travel-addictive and Caribbean Soul. Since 2011 I have been living in the Caribbean, among them 5 years in the Dominican Republic. Punta Cana is my home-base here in the country and I’d love to tell you more about how to experience Punta Cana off-the-beaten-track and give you all the advice you want to know for your vacation in Punta Cana.

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