Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, is the heart of Dominican culture, with a beat that’s both contemporary and traditional. This is where you’ll find a diverse urban scene celebrating history and art, theater, the outdoors, gastronomy of all kinds, live music, and nightlife. The pace is as dynamic and welcoming as Dominicans themselves. A sort of mini New York City of the Caribbean. As a culture-holic and travel journalist, I love La Capital, with all of its pluses (and inevitable minuses). There’s so much to see, learn, and absorb. To get your started, here are 13 of my favorite free or affordable fun things to do to in this big, bold Latin city.
1. Explore The Colonial City
“Zoneando” is actually a term residents use in La capital. Spending the day walking around the Colonial Zone is indeed one of the city’s top bona fide activities. Wander down the pedestrian Calle El Conde, which gets even more active and crowded after 5pm. Shop if you choose, stop for a sidewalk cafecito, get an ice cream cone at Helados Bon, and day dream on a park bench–at Parque Colon and Parque Duarte in particular. People watch and encounter street artists, musicians, outdoor painters, live poetry, and drummers along the way.
From 16th century churches, to museums (entrance less than $3), sprawling plazas, and a Euro-Caribbean vibe, the recently renovated UNESCO-ranked neighborhood of Santo Domingo is all the rage among locals and visitors. Why not “splurge” and for a few more dollars (no more than $30/hour) you can get your own tour guide to show you around the history and architecture and explain it all–well worth it; my pick is in Moon Dominican Republic. Or rent a bike and zoom along the streets.
2. Hang Out at Centro Cultural de España
Keep an eye on the monthly calendar of this excellent cultural center, located in the Colonial City. They often host free concerts in the center’s gorgeous, intimate back yard complete with stage, featuring well-known Dominican and international musicians. They also host interesting lectures and exhibits.
3. Art, Music, Movies at Casa de Teatro
Casa de Teatro is one of Santo Domingo’s iconic institutions. And it’s an excellent choice for an evening of culture–such as low-cover concerts, a weekly free movie night, and a summer jazz concert series. The latter is currently taking place every Thursday through July. They also have a cool café bar if you’re more into conversing in a creative ambiance. They publish their events and a monthly calendar online, and host rotating exhibits in the entrance that are free to the public.
4. Santo Domingo de Fiesta Show at Plaza España
What’s Santo Domingo without live music and dancing? It’s just not possible. And a couple of the best shows are free and set under the stars in the charming Colonial City. Friday and Saturday nights from 8pm-10:30pm, catch the country’s Ballet Folklórico. This talented group of female and make dancers perform a range of traditional dances in vibrant costumes. The stage is set around Plaza España’s stairs. Expect plenty of drum beats and twirling to merengue, bachata, and other dances you don’t yet know. Sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism, there’s free seating, and a small floor to dance alongside these inspiring artists. They seem to perform only one night a week (Saturday) in the slow summer season.
5. Go To The Market
Exploring the market in the DR is exhilarating–the country grows a majority of its own fruits and vegetables, rice, cacao, coffee, potatoes, corn, plantains, and the list goes on. If you love fruits in particular, you’ll be intrigued by the variety here, including ones you’ve likely never encountered in other parts of the Caribbean. Close to the Colonial City is the Mercado Modelo (pictured above), a good market for newbies. Indoors are multiple crafts and jewelry stands, and outdoors is the vegetable market. Prepare for lots of hollering, bustle, and all around Dominican energy. Bring small change to buy your fruits and veggies.
6. Cool Off At The Park
It’s a city of nearly three million people, and Dominicans love to spend either family time or meet for a romantic tryst at the park (usually after 4pm). It’s free and entertaining even you just sit and watch the world pass by, and it cools you off on hot days. It’s also a preferred meet up point of couples. Some are city parks while others are protected nature parks, offering many kinds of recreation–from bike rentals, to lagoon rides and horseback riding. Other spaces are ideal for flying kites like Plaza Juan Baron on the Malecón, which also offers snack restaurants and plenty of cold beer for the grown ups.
7. Tour the Panteón Nacional
Open daily, the National Pantheon–built in the 18th century and turned into a mausoleum in 1956– is one of the most majestic and respected sites in the Colonial City. Permanent guardias de honor stand watch over this final resting place of the country’s national heroes and most honored citizens, from generals to poets. One holds the Dominican flag while on duty, and another at the entrance will encourage you to go inside. It’s free, and it’s worthwhile to admire the opulent baroque interior and ceiling mural. There’s more but you’ll have to go explore to find out, or see #1–hire a local guide.
8. Visit Noche Larga de Los Museos
Noche Larga de Los Museos–“the long museum night”– takes place on the last Saturday of every quarter (March, June, September, December) and it’s free. The major museums and buildings of interest in the Colonial City waive their small entrance fees (usually under $4) to the public. The colonial zone’s main streets and the museums are also all lit up in various cool neon colors, making it a fun time for night photography and adding to the all night fun vibe with families milling all about. See the Alcazar de Colón, the Museo de las Casas Reales, the Fortaleza Ozama, and the Center of Communications (fascinating), among other spots. There’s also live music concerts of various genres in the area’s parks.
9. Stroll The Malecón
Walk down the city’s iconic seafront boulevard, lined with hotels and casinos on one side, and restaurants or open-air parks on the other. The sea breeze is worth it–early morning or after 4pm is your best bet–as are the views. The Malecón sidewalk, on the water side, is currently undergoing renovations for the first in a long time, and it’s expected to be complete before October. Still, you can venture over to Plaza Juan Baron, an open recreation space that gets going around 4pm, where kids fly kites and adults swing back a cold one to the sounds of bachata. There’s also Güibia, near the Hilton Hotel, offering gym equipment, zumba classes, or just hanging out with a drink and bite by the sea. I don’t advise walking the Malecón late at night (it’s a big city–use your common sense).
10. Chill at The National Botanical Gardens
Lovers of nature and manicured gardens, rejoice! There’s no better spot than the beautiful Jardín Botánico Nacional, the largest botanical garden in the Caribbean, featuring native flora and fauna. Entrance is just $5 and includes a train ride and guided tour around the 640-acre land. Hop off at the Japanese garden and spend the afternoon picnicking on the lawn around the lagoon. If you feel more ambitious, hike to the various areas, including the orchid garden and the on site museum.
11. Dance Under The Stars to Grupo Bonyé
On Sunday evening, dance outdoors to popular local band Grupo Bonyé, performing merengue, salsa, and son live around the sprawling colonial ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco. Show up around 7:00pm when the party is well under way, and join the crowd on the tiny floor or stand anywhere that strikes you fancy and watch the city that loves to dance. As of June 2017, group is currently performing on the Calle Duarte side of the Monastery while its usual stage area (at the end of Calle Hostos) is undergoing electrical work. Either way, head in that direction and follow the music, and the crowd.
12. Visit Plaza de La Cultura
Catch the subway–the only one in the Caribbean, and a safe, clean, air-conditioned cheap method of transport at just 10 pesos one-way–to Plaza de la Cultura. This large, gated compound is home to some of the country’s best museums, including the Museo del Hombre Dominicano (my favorite), and the Museo del Arte Moderno, among others. There’s a large green space for outdoor walks or breaks, as well as an on site restaurant, a Cinema Cafe, and a bookstore. If you speak Spanish, I recommend you catch a play at the Teatro Nacional Eduardo Brito, also located within this compound. Entrance cost to each museum is under US$2.
13. Drinks and Dancing At The Colmado
My Dominican friends laugh at me with this but I’ll say it again: there isn’t a more authentic, laid back, culture-filled nightlife spot than your neighborhood colmado or colmadón (corner store slash bar). And it’s cheap. Order an ice-cold jumbo size (“yumbo” as they pronounce it here) Presidente beer at RD$150 or a Brugal rum bottle with friends, pull out chairs from the stack, park yourselves on the sidewalk or on the street across the colmado, and listen to bachata and merengue music. Everyone is welcome here, and that’s what I love about it–zero pretense. If you want to know how to order your beer, check out this video. When you feel caliente enough, get up and dance right where you are. Not all colmados are created equal of course. Pick one in a decent part of the city–the Colonial City has excellent choices and dare I say, they are the liveliest ones.
I could easily list another 15 free or affordable things to do. That’s how fabulous Santo Domingo is. Subscribe to the mailing list for more of my posts on this and other DR updates from around the country, and follow along on YouTube and Instagram.
For more details on the above activities and exploring the DR, including my top hotel and sight picks, get a copy of Moon Dominican Republic. In full color, it includes my custom itineraries according to interests, best beaches from personal experience over the years, and a full chapter on all the major regions in the DR, including Santo Domingo. All of this for less than $20, print or ebook. You can read the Amazon reviews as well as a full review of the book with an author interview at this link.