Zona Colonial - Old Town, Santo Domingo
The Old Town features the New World's first street (Calle Las Damas), fortress (Ozama fortress), sundial and Cathedral (Catedral Primada de América), among others, as well as many old churches, el Alcázar de Colón (Diego Columbus' house), el Museo de las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Houses), the Amber Museum, etc.
Parts of the Old Town that aren't as known as these ones feature Ruinas del Monasterio de San Francisco (San Francisco Monastery ruins), the New World's first hospital (Ruinas de San Nicolás de Bari), Santa Barbara church and Fuerte de San José, among others.
The Old Town is quite easy to walk around on by yourself as long as you have a good map so that you get to know what you're walking past by. There are guides that can walk you through the main sights and you can find them either at Parque Colón or at the entrance of some of the monuments. Having a guide can be of advantage because they can get you ahead of lines, if there are any, and to get an overview of the sights if you have reduced time. Before you get started, negotiate a rate and stick with it, but if the service was good then perhaps you can give them a little tip.
To recharge your batteries grab a cup of coffee in one of the cafés or bistros in front of the Spanish Square for a fantastic view or buy water, juice, soda or even a beer and a light snack at the local convenience store or supermarket and sit on the steps by the Square and enjoy people watching.
Read my individual tips on some of the sites.
Amber is a vegetable fossil resin that when hardened becomes a semi precious gem used in jewelry. The range of its colors go from pale yellowish to bright red, and more rarely green and blue. It differentiates from Baltic amber in the tree where they're originated from.
Larimar is a variety of pectolite rock, blue/turquoise, that's only found in DR. It's mined in Barahona and it's also used for making jewelry. It was discovered by a local named Miguel Méndez and the Peace Corps volunteer Norman Rilling. The name Larimar comes from Méndez' daughter's name, Larissa, and the Spanish word for sea, mar.
Larimar Museum: Calle Isabel la Católica, close to the Ozama Fortress and the Cathedral.
Amber World Museum: Arzobispo Meriño esq. Restauración.
These 2 museums are places to buy good quality amber and larimar.
House of Bastidas was the residence of the Capt. Rodrigo de Bastidas, the Principal Royal Tax Collector and one of the many governors of Santo Domingo we've had throughout history. The House looks more like a warehouse than a house where people lived in and this is because it was both a storehouse and safe to keep the treasures until they could be sent to Spain and a residence. I don't remember much about being inside the house, but in the patio with roman arches when the sun was too hot for our teachers and they wanted to sit down in a bench surrounded by the shadow and cool breeze you get from all the plants. Today it houses art exhibitions and some concerts and celebrations.
Practical info: open daily between 8am and 6pm.
Zona Colonial is the old city of Santo Domingo. The area was renovated in the 1980s and is now declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Parque Colón could be a good place to start in Zona Colonial . Parque Colón is an open space with a statue of Colón (Columbus) in its centre.
Near Parque Colón you will find the cathedral, El Conde (the shopping street), the town gates, some museums and cigar shops.
Take your time just to watch all the beautiful buildings in the old city.
You will probably be met by a lot of locals, who will offer you a guided tour in Zona Colonial . I didn't - maybe you will?
We walked across and down to Calle Las Damas and to see the Changing of the Guard in the mausoleum which occurs at noon every day. This is the National Pantheon (The name translated to English means "A Church run by the Jesuit Fathers and National Pantheon") which was built in the early 1700s (some say as early as 1714, some say it was in use in 1747, and others say it was not finished until 1755) as a Jesuit church by Geronimo Quezada y Garçon .
Later it was used as a tobacco warehouse, housing for the San Fernando seminar, public offices and and a theater for the independence fighters of 1860. The Spanish architect Javier Borroso adapted the building for the former dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina in the mid 50s. (Some sites say 1955, some say 1956 and some say 1958.) The floor is made of Dominican marble. It was originally Trujillo's intention to be buried here. Now it is used to honor Santo Domingo heros such as Gregorio Billini, Gregorio Luperón, Don Eugenio Maria de Hostos - a Puerto Rican who is revered by the Dominicans for organizing the educational system in their country, General Pedro Santana, the five-time president of the republic and others.
It has a large bronze and mahogany chandelier - a gift from Franco (photo 3) .
I sat down on the steps facing the guard. The central nave is the widest and is covered by a vaulted ceiling covered with a mural. I asked Gloria what the murals above us represented (photo 4), but she didn't give a terribly satisfactory explanation. According to websites, they are a fresco inspired by the Death and Resurrection.
I tried to take a short movie with my video camera of the changing ceremony which involved a lot of rifle maneuvers, but someone walked over and stood in front of me.
COST: Free. OPEN: Mon.-Sat. 10-5.
You cannot leave Santo Domingo without wandering around the old town, Zona Colonial. Apart from the Cathedral (the oldest in America), the house of Colon.... etc. you have many nice places to stop to have a drink or dinner (see my other tip about "Palacio de la Esquizofrenia"). We were not much impressed by the architecture (as we Spaniards do have seen many similar "old towns" in our contry, for instance in Andalusia or Canaries) but we should reckon it's a nice and interesting area!
The Colonial City is the perfect starting point for visitors to discover Santo Domingo. Here, between Independence Park and the Ozama River, you will find the first city built in the New World by European settlers, including Columbus's brother, Bartholomeo, and his son, Diego Columbus.
The first street in the Americas is Calle de Las Damas, the site of numerous historic buildings including the Ozama Fortress, the oldest fortress in the Americas. There is also the house of Nicolás de Ovando, governor of Santo Domingo in the early 1500's and a ruthless warrior against the Taino Indians.
Of great historical interest is the Museo de las Casas Reales(Museum of the Royal Houses), the restored 16th century palace of the Spanish Court, which features a wonderful glimpse of the past. Nearby is the Alcázar de Colón (Castle of Columbus) built by Diego Columbus and his wife Maria de Toledo, niece of the Spanish King Ferdinand.
A few streets over in the center of the walled city, visitors will find the Cathedral Basilica Santa Maria la Menor, pronounced the first cathedral in the New World by Pope Paul III in 1542. While touring the colonial city, visitors can learn all about amber, the stone made even more famous by Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park film. The Amber Museum on Calle Arz. Meriño features exceptional educational exhibits of this semi-precious jewel.
Fray Montesinos was a 16th century Spanish priest who railed against the Taíno genocide - ostensibly commited by the same troops who made the preaching of Catholicism in the Caribbean possible. The large statue of the Fray easily evokes the man's passion for his cause, as Montesinos was supposedly sculpted such that his wild hair would evoke his rage against injustice. Although the purpose of the monument is not qidely publicized, it is hard not to be awed for a moment at the massive statue that overlooks the Caribbean Sea.
The Spanish colonial administration, representing a régime in its cultural and political heyday, was often concerned with the preservation of proper Spanish life even in the colonies. For this reason, the Calle de las Damas, was the first street constructed in 1509 when Ovando decided Santo Domingo should be moved to the opposite side of the Río Ozama from its original settlement. It is called Street of the Ladies because of the large number of noblewomen who would accompany María de Toledo, the wife of the governor Diego Columbus, down the street to Church every Sunday. Today it is one of the best preserved streets in the Zona Colonial and is a prime component of any tourist itinerary. Beware, however, as you are certain to be harassed by innumerable "official tourist guides" wishing to give you guided tours of the Zona Colonial.
The Casa Tostado was constructed in 1503 by Francisco Tostado, a scrivener whose son was later killed by a cannonball fired by Drake's men. The truly remarkable feature of this building is the double Gothic window above the entrance - the only one you'll find in this hemisphere (allegedly). Inside is the Museum of the 19th Century Dominican Family. Joanna and I decided to skip this museum, which contains mainly antique furnishings from some of Santo Domingo's better off families.
Plaza España is the large, open area that rounds off the fanciest and best preserved parts of the Zona Colonial (after Calle de las Damas). It also is the location of the Museo de las Casas Reales and the Alcazar de Colón. The Plaza is a favourite local hangout for children and, after dark, for Dominicans of all ages, somewhat like the Malecon in Havana. On the southern edge, across from the Museo, you'll find an interesting sundial from the 1700s that was designed in such a way that bureaucrats from the Colonial administration would be able to tell the time by simply looking out the window. Farther along that side of the Plaza is Puerta San Diego, intended to be an entrance to the fortified city from its port. The opposite end of the Plaza has several high-end restaurants and tourist boutiques, including the Museo del Jamón (Ham Museum), definitely something unique for Santo Domingo.
The colonial zone is a great place to visit, comprising some of the oldest buildings in Latin America. Many of the buildings are still in use. There are tourist guides who for a small tip will tell you the history of many of the important buildings, some of the history is quite amazing. Be prepared to take loads of pictures. And if by the end you are tired and hungry you can go to one of the restaurants in the area which are not expensive at all.
The San José Fort was constructed in the 17th century after the English, led by Drake, invaded Santo Domingo. The English were obviously expelled, but the Spanish administration felt that it needed greater protection for the city's coastline and thus ordered the construction of the Fort. It now consists primarily of about 100 metres of the city walls. There isn't much to see of it, but it is still interesting to take pictures of and is and the way from the Fray Montesinos Monument to the Cathedral. Alternatively, if you walk west along the Malecón into the city, its a good end point for your seafront tour.
The Plaza of the Priests, which is just behind the Catedral de Santa María de la Encarnación, is a delightfully peaceful plaza set off from the hustle and noise of the Parque de Colón. It was once a cemetary, but was disrupted during the English occupation and the reign of Drake. Today it is no longer a place of the dead and you can wander freely and take as many photographs as you like. If you enter from the south side (Padre Billini) you will have to pass through the Alley of the Priests - so named since it leads from the Cathedral to the priests' quarters. It really is a beautiful and peaceful walkway, with Islamic arches and bougainevillea growings along the sides.
There is little that remains of the Monasterio San Francisco, built by the Franciscan order starting in 1544. This is because the originally building and its reincarnations have seen several earthquakes and an assault by the English under Drake. The Gothic portal leads to the Chapel of the Third Order, which was built in 1704. Today the ruins, which still have the same pretty pink coral stone, are used mainly as a backdrop for bridal photography, but in the 1800s this place had a less savoury use as an insane asylum. The grounds of the monastery itself are ok, but the parks around are filled with the destitute and homeless who may harass you for money as you photograph the ruins.