Like most Caribbean islands, the Dominican Republic tantalizes with miles of sugar-white beaches. But if you’re headed to the capital city of Santo Domingo, where sun and sand lie at least 30 minutes away by car, you’re still in for a treat. With an impressive history, beautiful old quarter, and lively, youthful vibe, this first permanent establishment in the New World that Christopher Columbus’s brother, Bartholomew, founded in 1496, has much to show for itself. In fact, here are seven great things to do in Santo Domingo beyond the beach.
1. See Columbus Lighthouse
The idea to build a monument to honor Christopher Columbus first surfaced in 1852. However, the project didn’t begin until 1923, when the Fifth International American Conference held in Chile approved it, leading to an international design competition. British architect, Joseph Lea Gleave, won in 1931 for his giant, cross-shaped building, which wasn’t realized until 1992, due to political and financial reasons. Columbus Lighthouse, not only stores the explorer’s remains, but has 63 exhibitions representing different world nations, and shines a massive cross into the night sky thanks to 157 colored beams.
2. Tipple top-shelf rum
Head to any swell bar or restaurant to sample high-end Dominican rum, so smooth, it deserves to be sipped on its own. Look for brands such as Brugal Leyenda, a velvety, amber rum flooded with flavors of toffee, spices, and crème brulee.
3. Take a historic walking tour
Whether self-guided or through an outfitter, don’t miss touring the cobbled, historic quarter Ciudad Colonial, the oldest European settlement in the New World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Laid out in a grid pattern that served as a model for many future towns, the area houses lovely Spanish-style colonial buildings and the first cathedral, monastery, university, and hospital in the Americas: Saint Mary of the Incarnation Cathedral, Saint Francois Monastery, Saint Thomas Aquinas University, and Nicholas de Bari Hospital. The area also has picturesque pedestrian streets, a lovely square, and tree-shaded restaurants and cafes.
4. Discover larimar
The pale blue stone, larimar, only comes from one place in the world — the Dominican Republic. A rare type of pectolite, the mineral ranges from inexpensive blue marbled with green or white to very pricey pure baby blue. Beware, street vendors usually hawk fake larimar, so find reputable stores that sell the real thing, like at the Larimar Factory in the Zona Colonial.
5. See turquoise lagoons
Escape the heat by plunging into Mirador del Este park, filled with sun-dappled walking trails and several limpid subterranean pools, Les Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes). Via a series of (sometimes slippery) steps and paths, interspersed with plants, stalagmites, and stalactites, you can reach the limestone caves and pools filled with tiny darting fish.
6. Indulge in chocolate
Dominican chocolate can be superb, such as at Kah Kow in the Zona Colonial. At the small museum, you can learn the history of chocolate-making via an excellent film and series of exhibits, including a small chocolate factory. At the gift store and café, load up on bonbons, bars and the shop’s signature macadamia nut chocolate spread before savoring super thick hot chocolate (per tradition, request it be made with water, not milk) on the patio. Via Kah Kow’s Soap Lab and Chocolate Classes, you also can craft your own cocoa butter soap and chocolate bars.
7. Explore a museum or two
From the itty-bitty amber, cigar, and rum museums, all mainly gift shops with token exhibits, to the Museum of the Royal Houses, displaying the history of SD, the city has a great collection or museums. The Museum of Modern Art has permanent and temporary exhibits of 20th century Dominican art, while the Museum of Dominican Man highlights the native Taino Indian and Dominican culture, has exhibits on voodoo, slavery, and carnival and has one of the top collections of Pre-Columbian Taino artifacts in the world.