Hispaniola : Dominican Republic : Greater Santo Domingo : Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo is the capital city of the Dominican Republic, and it prides itself in being the first European city in the New World. Founded by Christopher Columbus's brother Bartolome Colombus in 1496, it is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas and was the first seat of the Spanish colonial empire in the New World. For this reason, the city of Santo Domingo has a really rich historic and cultural heritage that makes any visit extremely worth it. Nowadays, it remains one of the most populous cities in the Central America-Caribbean area, and the main economic and commercial center of this region.
The city is divided into two parts by the Ozama River. The western side is very developed economically, while the eastern part, known as "Santo Domingo Este," has historically lagged behind.
The most important tourist destination of the city is the Zona Colonial or Colonial Zone, on the western bank of the river and facing the Caribbean Sea. To the west of the Zona Colonial lies Gazcue, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, filled with old Victorian houses and tree-lined streets. The city's waterfront George Washington Avenue, knows as "El Malecon," borders the Caribbean Sea and attracts many tourists because of its hotels, casinos, palm-lined boulevards and monuments. Surrounding the Gazcue area you will find the Palacio Nacional (seat of the Dominican government), the National Theater, the Museums in the Plaza de la Cultura, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
In the central part of western Santo Domingo lies the economic and commercial heart of the city, in an area known as the "Poligono Central" and delimited by the 27 de Febrero, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Maximo Gomez avenues. This high-income area remains rather unexplored by tourists, despite offering most of the best dining and shopping available in the city. Many of the city's most affluent neighborhoods surround the city's two main parks, the Parque Mirador Sur in the South and the Jardin Botanico in the North.
In the less developed Oriental Santo Domingo you will find other major monuments and tourist spots, such as Columbus's Lighthouse, where the explorer's remains are buried, the open caves of the Parque Nacional Los Tres Ojos, and the National Aquarium.
This all makes of Santo Domingo a cosmopolitan, vibrant and bustling city with very distinct neighborhoods and ambiances, all worth a visit, and providing the most diverse cultural experiences.
Santo Domingo enjoys a tropical climate. Temperature averages from 73.4°F (23°C) in the morning to 89.1°F (31.7°C) by the afternoon. Generally, January and February are the coldest months, and August is the hottest month of the year. The island is prone to hurricanes especially during June 1 to November 30, but fortunately they receive many warnings beforehand to prepare their people and tourist of any harm. Santo Domingo is a great city to visit during any season, because the city's ideal tropical weather runs all year long!
Santo Domingo is the headquarter of economic activity in Dominican Republic. The city catches the attention of many international firms. Many of these firms have their headquarters in the city due to its great location and prosperous economy.
Power outages have been one of the downfalls of placing a major headquarter in the city, but the infrastructure is a great advantage to many of these international firms. Since Santo Domingo has privatize and integrated with the US telecommunication system, they have been fortunate to have the benefit of a contemporary telecommunication system.
Incomes in Santo Domingo can vary from extremely rich to extremely poor. Many of the prominent families live in neighborhoods surrounding Avenida John F. Kennedy ("Avenida" = "Avenue") to the north, Avenida 27 de Febrero to the south, Avenida Winston Churchill to the west and Avenida Máximo Gómez to the east. Some other areas that are always expanding and developing are Naco, Arroyo Hondo, Piantini, Paraíso, Bella Vista, Sarasota. Most of the city's less fortunate live outside the center of Santo Domingo, which can be seen by various slums that emphasizes the huge issue poverty is for the city.
Avenida Winston Churchill and 27 de Febrero Avenue are two of the commercial centers of the city. Many malls and shops are located in these two avenues such as, Acropolis Center, Scotiabank, Citibank, Banco BHD, Banco del Progreso, Banreservas,Plaza Central and Plaza Naco. However, two of the most popular malls are Acropolis Center and Bella Vista Mall, because it contains more contemporary shops and is popular within the high income families. Santo Domingo was called "Ciudad Trujillo."
Government and politics
The national government of the Dominican Republic is located in Santo Domingo. The National Palace houses the current President of Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández Reyna, and the National Congress. The National Police (Policía Nacional) and the Tourist Police (Policia Turística) are in charge of implementing the city safety. The national police station is located in Av. Leopoldo Navarro #402, you can also contact 809-682-2151 for the cenral line, but in case of an emergency dial 911.
Direct flights from: Atlanta, Boston, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Philadelphia, Panama City, San Jose Costa Rica, San Juan Puerto Rico, Havana, Port-au-Prince, Caracas, Paris, Madrid, Frankfurt, Munich and Duesseldorf and surrounding Caribbean islands.
Airfare to Santo Domingo may vary widely depending on season and demand. A round trip ticket from from Boston or New York ranges anywhere from US$300 to US$700, with fares from Miami or San Juan only slightly lower.
Airfare from most cities in Latin America cost between US$400 and US$1,000 and require layovers in Panama City, Panama (Copa Air) or San Jose, Costa Rica (Taca).
There is ferry service to and from San Juan, Puerto Rico twice per week. It costs around US $250 roundtrip and the overnight journey last 12 hours. For an additional fee, you can bring your car along for the ride. The company is called Ferries del Caribe 
Santo Domingo was, until recently, a huge city (pop. nearly 4 million people) that was split into 5 independent municipalities: Distrito Nacional, Santo Domingo Este, Santo Domingo Oeste, Santo Domingo Norte and Boca Chica. Fortunately, nearly all tourist attractions and shopping, dining and entertainment venues are located relatively close to each other in the Distrito Nacional, making it easy for you to get around and see the sights.
Santo Domingo is not entirely a tourist-friendly city. It`s often hard to move around if you don't know the city, as many streets lack proper signage and addresses are often reliant on the neighborhood's name more than an actual street address. However, don't be afraid of asking the locals for orientation, as Dominicans are well known for their helpful nature and usually helpful to tourists. It's a good idea to get a street map (there are many city maps online but it's also possible to buy one at any gift shop or book store for no more than US$5 dollars).
Walking along major thoroughfares in Santo Domingo can prove quite challenging. First, drivers aren't very respectful of pedestrians, so you have to take extra care when trying to cross a street. Second, some sidewalks can be damaged or under construction , forcing you onto the street.
The Malecon and Colonial Zone are the most walkable parts of the city. They offer multiple pedestrian attractions and are relatively safe areas for tourists to explore. Although it is always wise to use common sense as everywhere.
While exploring the Colonial Zone try hiring a "properly-licensed" tour guide. These talented yet underpaid, multi-lingual individuals will keep you entertained for hours with unprecedented historical insight and humor. You can usually find them at the Plaza Colon in front of the Cathedral. Most are worth every penny. On the other hand, some of them are known to take their customers to businesses that throw them a kickback, so it's up to you to decide whether you really like to act upon their advice on businesses or not.
Taxis charge anywhere from US$25 to US$40 for the drive from the airport into Santo Domingo.
Unlike most major metropolitan areas, there are very few roaming taxis in Santo Domingo. In most cases you have to call a dispatcher to have a taxi sent to your location. This isn't a problem and most businesses will gladly call a cab for you. Relatively expensive, usually US$ 4-15 per average trip and possibly more if you use one of the friendly cabs waiting in front of your nice hotel lobby. Again, depending on circumstances, you may find that hiring a cab driver for the day is a good bargain.
Alternatively, go up at the second floor at the Arrivals (at the very end), where a minivan will accommodate up to 8 passengers for a ride (70 pesos or ~ 2 USD, 1/2 hour) to the Zona Colonial (only). For further distances to the center (i.e. to the Caribe Tours Terminal), you will need to negotiate just like you would have with the usual un-metered taxis. To return, the cheapest option is to go to the corner of Av. Sabena Larga with Av. Las Americas (walkable in 15 minutes from Zona Colonial), where this same van may be there, or if not take the bus going to Boca Chica (40 pesos, about 1h); ask the driver to stop before the express route to the Airport, from where you can walk (about 20 minutes, some 2 km). I would not recommend this return during night time, nor do I know if lack of Spanish will hinder this option (hardly anyone speaks English in the bus, around the terminals etc). However getting to the city center seems more viable, that van was recommended at the Tourist Desk in the airport, and some sort of authority (with a badge) was entertaining the driver while waiting for the car to be filled.
Bottom line: taxis are convenient but expensive.
By rental car
All major US car rental firms are available at the airport, along with several local vendors offering everything from subcompacts to late model Hummers, Range Rovers and Land Cruisers. When renting from local vendors be sure to read the fine print regarding insurance coverage; you might think you're getting a great deal on a car, only to get into an accident and find out that your insurance coverage does not apply or that your deductible is as high as US$5,000.
Advice to potential renters: Gasoline costs around US$ 5 per gallon here and people drive fast and furious, breaking every imaginable rule. It might be safer and cheaper to develop a friendship with a cab driver who will gladly become your personal driver, tourguide and concierge for a day rate equal to a fraction of what it would cost you to rent, insure and gas up a rental.
For some unknown reason bus service in Santo Domingo is not very user-friendly and geared more towards locals getting to and from work. It is often impossible to know which bus goes where unless you ask the driver, as neither buses nor routes are clearly marked. Bottom Line: Inexpensive (around US $ 0.5 and 1.00 per ride) yet complicated. Avoid unless you are accompanied by a local. These are called "guaguas" by locals.
By collective taxi
These collective taxis or "carro público" as they are called by Dominicans, stick to a predetermined route (usually up and down a major avenue), picking up and dropping off passengers along the way - often cramming up to five passengers into a twenty year old Toyota Corolla. Very inexpensive,US$ 0.50 per trip, yet very uncomfortable. By the way, if you happen to be overweight don't be surprised if the driver charges you for two seats instead of one.
They fit 7 people total, the driver, two in front passenger seat, and four in the back seat.
Santo Domingo has just recently gotten its own Metro, with just one line operating on a North-South axis under the Maximo Gomez avenue, going from Villa Mella to the Centro de los Heroes and the Malecon, passing by the National Theater and the Santo Domingo Autonomous University (UASD). It costs just 20 pesos per ride (less than US$ 1.00). A second line is currently in construction.
Despite boasting a rich cultural, architectural and artistic heritage, Santo Domingo has not been exploited for all its tourist potential. You're pretty much on your own to discover this fascinating city. Make the most of your time there.
In the Colonial Zone:
There are many parks around the city of Santo Domingo. One of the most popular parks are called Los Miradores, which are located on various sections of the city. These parks are very cozy for a picnic, to bike ride, a quick jog, or a long walk to enjoy nature and relax with friends. They’re a quite huge and can be a bit unsafe if wandered during the night, because it lacks street lights. Although Santo Domingo is surrounded by beautiful parks it does lack recreational facilities accessible to the public. Some of the parks that can be found:
Santo Domingo is an excellent place to study Spanish off the beaten track and get immersed in the language. One recommended Spanish school that specializes in one on one lessons at discount rates is the RoofTop Spanish School.
Two of the top festivities of the year occur in Santo Domingo. The annual Merengue Festival in the summer and Carnival in the spring. Each of these is held on the city's main seaside main road, El Malecon, but tend to spill over into hotel ballrooms, beaches, patios and even parking lots. This is a great way to emerge oneself into the Dominican culture, as well as meet new interesting people from the city. The Merengue Festival takes place between July 26 to 31. The festival is a celebration of Dominican Republic’s main dance, merengue. They invite the top merengue bands to perform free concerts to the crowd. The festival begins with a parade, but later becomes a concert. There are art exhibitions, food fairs, and games that occur at the same time. The main activity that is done during the festival is dancing merengue, so be prepared to be spun uncontrollable when you decide to dance with a local. The other amazing festival is The Carnival, which takes place during the entire month of February, but reaches its peak on February 27, the Dominican Independence Day. The Carnival also takes place in El Malecon, where masks, which symbolizes spiritual spirits;elaborate costumes,and intriguing dances parade down the streets while entertaining and sometimes scaring the crowd.
The Colonial Zone offers plenty of shopping opportunities, especially if you are looking for Ambar and Larimar, the traditional stones of the DR. Don't forget to haggle, as all the shop owners adjust their prices for this purpose. You will also find a ton of Haitian art for sale everywhere at great prices. If that's your thing, great, just remember its not Dominican. The main boulevard in the Colonial Zone is El Conde, a pedestrian boulevard lined with all kinds of shops and eateries mostly aimed at the locales. Have fun shopping and people watching here.
If you are feeling adventurous, have a cab take you to the Mercado Modelo nearby. This indoor labyrinth of shops can be overwhelming for a new tourist but, don't worry, it is safe. Then again, you might feel safer asking the cab driver to escort you through the maze of shops and kiosks offering every imaginable kind of souvenir, jewelry, stone, artwork, etc.
If you want to experience American-style shopping there are plenty of options but here are the three most popular: Plaza Central, Acropolis Center and, for those of you willing to venture into Santo Domingo Oriental, MegaCentro. Remember: no haggling at the malls. While MegaCentro is farther away than the others, it is the largest mall in the Caribbean (possibly including Florida) and is a destination in and of itself. This place is HUGE!
Please remember when shopping at the malls, this is an island where practically everything being sold is imported and, worse yet, taxed at 16% (ITBIS or Value Added Tax). Don't expect to find too many bargains to brag about back home!
Santo Domingo offers a variety of cuisines from around the world from Chinese, Italian and Mediterranean to Brazillian. You can also find the main fast food franchises like McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, among others.
Be aware that mid-grade and high-end restaurants can be quite costly for third world standards, a dinner with an entrée, main course, drink and dessert can range from US $15-$75 per person, plus 10% mandatory tip plus 16% ITBIS tax. Be careful and ask around as price doesn't always equal quality, especially in tourist areas.
Note: Unless the contrary is specified menu prices don’t include the 10% service charge and 16% sales tax, so real prices are 26% higher than indicated in the menu.
If you want to spend less than US $8 on a decent meal and drink:
Comedores offer a “Plato del Día” or predetermined meal of the day (usually rice, beans, salad and meat or chicken, and a soda) for just US$3 – 8. Cafeterias and Comedores can be found everywhere around the city but specially around business areas and universities, this is where locals eat so is a great way of getting in touch with the culture. “Mimosa”, located on Padre Billini street in the Colonial Zone, offers a great variety of tasty local food during lunch hours. Another great option is Cafeteria "El Parque" which is in front of Eugenio Maria de Hostos Park attached to the "Clinica Abreu" one of the country's best and most prestigious clinic,close to the Colonial Zone and the Malecon, great place for breakfast, lunch and an early dinner.
"Barra Payán", located on 30 de marzo street only five minutes from the Colonial Zone, is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. A sandwich cafeteria, the place has been a traditional eatery for more than a half century. Buy a sandwich and a delicious squeezed-to-order fruit juice or milkshake for less than US$ 5.
At some point in history Dominicans became quite fond of fried chicken and chinese food, combining both cuisines into fast food establishments known as "pica pollos". These are usually take-out joints run by first or second generation chinese immigrants, serving up heaping portions of fried rice, plantain slices and tasty (and greasy) fried chicken, along with the usual variety of chinese comfort food. Very inexpensive. Visit Santo Domingo's China Town, near the Mercado Modelo and not far from the Colonial Zone (Duarte Avenue), a very busy zone where working class people do a lot of their shopping. If you feel adventurous enough to enter this usually chaotic but very picturesque part of the town it would an experience to remember. Keep in mind, pick-pockets love the crowded streets, watch your belongings closely.
A Mcdonalds combo costs around US$ 5, Taco Bell, Wendys and Pizza Hut around US$ 6. There are also several very good local franchises like Pizzarelli where you can have pasta, pizza or a salad for no more than US$ 10, and others like Pollos Victorina. Also, don't miss some good Dominican "empanadas" at De Nosotros Empanadas. Interesting note: you can walk into a McDonalds in Santo Domingo and order a value meal with a Presidente beer instead of a Coke. How cool is that?
American and international midrange franchises include:
If you have to ask how much, you can't afford these places. The following are very tourist-friendly:
Santo Domingo has an amazing variety of night life options. Unfortunately, most bars and clubs must close at midnight from Sunday to Thursday and at 2AM on Friday and Saturday. This is a regulation imposed since 2006 intended to curtail the escalating crime in the city. Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to start partying at 8PM on the weekends. Happily, the regulation is suspended on holidays and the last two weeks of December for Christmas partying. Usually the clubs located inside major hotels are exempt from this rule, although they aren't usually much fun.
The Malecon is home to several options as well, depending on what's in style at the time.
Check out Jet Set on Monday nights for live Merengue and Bachata shows from the most popular top bands.
Head over to the upscale side of Santo Domingo (Naco, Piantini) if that is your scene. There are a ton of options there, including perennial favorites such as Trio Caffe, Praia and Montecristo. Be aware that those kind of places can have a rather strict admission policy, you usually have to look white enough and rich enough to be admitted. This discrimination hasn't go unnoticed, the Embassy of United States directed all resident official U.S. Embassy employees to refrain from patronizing Loft one of the most popular and exclusive nightclubs in the city, responding to the actions of Loft management in selectively denying entry to African-Americans embassy on July 22 2007. 
In this upscale area of Santo Domingo, consider:
If you you are more into the bohemian scene check out the Colonial Zone for great bars and cafes, as well as a vibrant gay nightlife scene. Here are some hints:
Outside the Colonial Zone try Cinemacafe, . A nice caffe in the Plaza de la Cultural. Check the website for the activities calendar. Whatever you do, don't leave Santo Domingo without visiting La Guacara Taina, the only nightclub in the world inside a huge natural cave. Descend several hundred feet into a fantasy world of lights and sound. You have to see this place to believe it. Located (under) the Mirador Sur park mentioned above.
Poverty, though not as bad as next door Haiti, is still rampant and it is best you take precautions. Do not flash obvious wealth in poorer or middle class sections of the city (lots of jewelry, expensive camera, big watches, etc). Keep your bag away from the street when walking as it can be snatched by kids on mopeds and keep a firm grip on it. Keep your passport at your accomidation and in a safe (some maids can steal).
Walk confidently. Don't dress like a tourist. Be yourself but if yourself is flashing Gucci and Prada where ever you go, maybe you need to dress down a bit.