Away from the seaside resorts, the capital of the Dominican Republic is alive and in transition, with music, dance, delicious food and local crafts around every corner.
Walking the vibrant streets of Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, can be frustrating for the beach-seeking tourist — you’re tantalized by the sight of the sea but the best beaches, with that quintessential stretch of pristine sand, are miles away. But history, culture and nature abound in this cosmopolitan Caribbean city, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The oldest church and first paved road in the Americas are both in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial, but so are plenty of new businesses that reflect an evolving artistic and activist presence. These days you can find: Mamey, an L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly cultural space featuring a bookstore, gallery and theater; Microteatro, which delivers 15-minute plays about Dominican life; and Miss Rizos Salón, a hair parlor that often hosts events to fight the stigma against kinky or curly hair. There are also pockets of nature amid the bustle. In Santo Domingo Este, a short drive from the city center, is an underground lake where Taíno women once bathed. And in Santo Domingo and elsewhere, an influx of immigrants, including Haitian, Chinese and Venezuelan, have left their mark in recent decades — most noticeable, perhaps, on the culinary scene, bringing everything from arepas to dumplings. Santo Domingo is a city alive and in transition, the sea a mere backdrop to its many charms.
(Note: A string of deaths among American tourists at resorts in the Dominican Republic earlier this year raised alarm among travelers. Local authorities say the deaths were the result of natural causes, and the F.B.I. found that to be the case in the three deaths it investigated. Punta Cana, where most of the deaths occurred, is about three hours from Santo Domingo.)
1) 3 p.m. Historical walking tour
There’s history at every turn in the city’s Zona Colonial, a network of about a dozen narrow cobblestone streets filled with colonial buildings in the heart of the city, many of them dating as far back as the 1500s. Start at the Puerta del Conde, the 17th-century military building around which a park, Parque Independencia, was built. It’s where the country’s founders declared independence in 1844, and their remains are kept in a white marble mausoleum called the Altar to the Fatherland. Walk down El Conde, a long pedestrian street lined with boutiques, restaurants and vendors selling art and handmade jewelry, and make a right on Calle Arzobispo Meriño to get to the regal Catedral Primada de América, a mixed Baroque and Gothic style church that dates to the 1500s. For 70 pesos (less than $1.50), tour the grounds of the nearby and usually uncrowded Fortaleza Ozama, an ancient but well-maintained fortress that defended the city from pirates and British, Portuguese and French conquerors. At the top are stunning views of the Ozama River, which divides the city and reaches surrounding towns nearly 100 miles away.
2) 4:30 p.m. For the literary-minded
The Plaza Pellerano Castro, a small park with pastel and pink flourishes, was named for the Dominican poet Arturo Pellerano Castro, who frequented it in the 1800s. Some of his poetry about rural life and the natural world are displayed on large plaques, and you’ll find groups of older men playing dominoes and a statue commemorating the revolutionary Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. Next, head to the hip Mamey, a cultural center in a colonial building on Calle Mercedes that has a bookstore, two gallery spaces with rotating contemporary art exhibitions, and a small theater showing international documentary films with English subtitles (200 pesos). Mamey’s foyer is chicly decorated with plants and Moroccan-inspired blue tiles, and dangling white Christmas lights brighten the cafe and courtyard. Have a pre-dinner snack, like a pastelito (150 pesos) or fresh passion fruit juice (150 pesos), and chat with the local entrepreneurs and artists who frequent the space.
3) 6 p.m. Dinner and merengue
Grab a table at El Conuco, a restaurant with décor that evokes the rural feel of the Dominican Republic’s inland mountainous towns, with country facades and traditional instruments like the güira or tambora, a two-headed drum. It draws locals and tourists alike, and a traditional merengue dance show creates a lively mood. Dishes include classics such as “la bandera,” the unofficial national dish of rice, beans and stewed chicken or beef for 375 pesos, or mofongo, a small hill of mashed plantains mixed with fried pork rinds, bacon or shrimp served inside a wooden mortar (370 pesos).
4) 10 p.m. Cut a rug
Back in the Zona Colonial is Onno’s Bar, where revelers dance to both English and Spanish-language jams. The music is good, and you’ll find a selection of 43 shots, including “attitude adjustment” (vodka, triple sec, amaretto and melon liqueur) and “sanky panky” (tequila, strawberry liqueur and Bailey’s); a variety of fruity cocktails, which combine local tropical flavors like passion fruit, coconut and pineapple; and an open courtyard to cool off in between dance sessions. (…)