Dominican Republic Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

The undisputed most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The island paradise boasts vast coral reefs, jungles, waterfalls, pine forests, secluded islands and the highest peak in the Caribbean, as well as offering a captivating blend of history, culture, stunning natural beauty and plenty of spots for exploration.
Dominican Republic Travel Guide
Table of Contents

For a true taste of the Dominican Republic, your best bet would be to begin your discovery in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital where old and new intertwine to create a unique travelers’ experience. With its many museums, old architecture, forts and churches, Santo Domingo is the country’s cultural jewel and just the place to go to learn about Dominican history.

Wander around Zona Colonial, a walled city that houses the oldest permanent settlement in the Americas, holding claim to the first monastery, cathedral, hospital, street, customs house and university in the “New World”. The colonial homes, museums, forts and historic buildings dating back to the arrival of the Europeans offer a great blend of old and new to whet the appetite of every history buff.

If you’re looking to hike, explore caves and snorkel around amazing coral reefs, then Parque Nacional del Este is your best bet. The park is also a popular spot to view the ancient ruins of the Taino Indians. With more than 300 bird species, and many more species of insects and animals, there is plenty to discover in this park and its coral reef, which is rich in marine life.

The Dominican Republic boasts roughly 800 miles of amazing shoreline, with the Caribbean’s warm waters lapping lazily against the pristine white sands of the coast. Breathtaking beaches are the island’s main attraction, drawing travelers from around the world. While each beach has its own charm, the remote, pristine, unspoiled Playa Bahia de las Aguilas is arguably the country’s most beautiful.

Adventure seekers should also head to the central mountains and visit the secluded haven that is Bonao. Here you can indulge in an untouched paradise that is the definition of “off the beaten track”. Go swimming, trekking, camping, take many photos and admire the beautiful Yuna River that flows through the town.

The Dominican Republic is a traveler’s dream come true. No matter what kind of holiday you seek, this island nation holds something special for you. Live the history. Walk the streets. Explore the museums. Dine in the restaurants. Meet the people. Dance to their music. Create lasting memories in the Americas’ “Land of Firsts”.

But just be careful when you go to the Dominican Republic, as you could very well fall in love with it.

1. Altos de Chavon

Set high on a hill overlooking the Chavon River in La Romana, Altos de Chavon is an architectural masterpiece that comprises a village recreated and done in stunning detail. From the 5,000 seat Roman-style amphitheater, cobblestone streets, hand-cut wooden doorways and the glorious Church of St. Stanislaus, the village of Altos de Chavon is a must-visit stop.

Altos de Chavon was created during the late 1970s by Roberto Coppa, master Italian cinematographer and designer, and designed by Jose Antonio Caro, a Dominican architect.

Construction began in 1976, with the aim of having Altos de Chavon serve as the center for culture in the Dominican Republic. The site was created through the handiwork of the island people, with much of the metal carvings and stonework being handcrafted by local artisans. This has served in continuing to draw attention to the local craftwork that was once a prominent aspect of island life.

It was local artisans who crafted the buildings, stone pathways and decorative ironwork of the sprawling village. Everything was done by hand: the cutting of the stone, forging of wrought-iron details and crafting of wooden door frames. The end result is a truly remarkable recreated village that looks like it’s been standing for centuries, not just decades.

Most of Altos de Chavon is sculpted from stone, with its coastal location providing a dramatic and inspiring background. The site is an impressive example of what a Mediterranean-inspired village would have looked like a long time ago.

Its narrow cobble-covered pathways are lined with lanterns, while shuttered limestone walls surround numerous Mediterranean-style restaurants some of which require evening reservations. Most of the boutique shops situated within the historically recreated walls stock the diverse creations of local artisans, including embroidered linens, clothing, jewelry and fine cigars.

The design school also has its Altos de Chavon Studios located here as well, which sell fine arts, woven crafts and pottery. There are also art galleries here.

Besides the view of the Chavon River, the most stunning feature at Altos de Chavon is its amphitheatre which has hosted concerts by Frank Sinatra, Duran Duran, Andrea Bocelli and Julio Iglesias.

History buffs should visit the Archaeological Regional Museum which is situated behind St. Stanislaus Church. Full of pre-Columbian artifacts that offer insights into the rich history of the island, the collection features over 3,000 pieces.

The main component of the village is the on-site Altos de Chavon School of Design, which offers an intensive 2-year art and design program that focuses on 4 areas: interior design, graphic design, fashion design and fine arts/ illustration, working on a controlled-curriculum arrangement with the Parsons School of Design at which its graduates gain automatic acceptance.

Because it focuses on the artistic and cultural elements of the island, Altos de Chavon is a great spot for visitors to enjoy exploring. Spend at least half a day visiting Altos de Chavon as photo opportunities abound around each cobblestoned corner.

2. Zona Colonial

Situated on the central south coast of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo is the oldest European-settled town in the Americas. In contrast to the island’s otherwise relaxing beach vibes, Santo Domingo offers a cosmopolitan vibe with a lot of political history.

The city is regarded as the first European city in the “New World” and has been continuously inhabited by Europeans since 1496 when Spanish colonizers landed on its shores. The first cathedral and university of the Americas were built there and remain standing to this day. The original grid pattern of the city also served as a blueprint for future towns and colonies in the Americas.

The Caribbean is famous for its brilliant colors and vibrant culture. Travelers to the Dominican Republic will confirm this, especially in the lively streets of Santo Domingo, where the urban center of the country is ripe with the sounds and smells of Latin America.

But those who venture into Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial will find a small enclave full of traditional European-style architecture, cobblestone streets and well-maintained parks. Zona Colonial is one of the most historic neighborhoods of the city which stands out with its preserved historical buildings.

The historic sites and incredible architecture unlike anywhere else in Santo Domingo are part of what make Zona Colonial a favorite among travelers seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, as well as experience the Dominican capital as it once was.

Officially known as Cuidad Colonial, or the “colonial city”, Zona Colonial is the historic heart of Santo Domingo. With more than 300 historic buildings and museums, it offers an unparalleled look into the first European city of the “New World”. Zona Colonial is situated on the western banks of the Ozama River.

In Zona, much of the original city can still being seen today. The 16th century buildings have signs of Spanish architectural styles of the period, many of which remain in great condition and are a wonder to behold.

Visitors can stroll through the narrow cobbled streets and be transported to a bygone era. Begin your tour on Calle de las Damas, the oldest paved road in the “New World”, which runs through Zona Colonial. Built in 1502, the street’s name harks back to the daily ritual of noblewomen taking a leisurely stroll along the street in the late afternoons, promenading in true Spanish tradition.

The street of Calle de las Damas is decorated in colonial tiles, and offers a glimpse into the splendor of colonial Santo Domingo. The fortress, former noble residences and other colonial buildings that line the street have since been converted into government buildings, upscale hotels and museums.

Take your own walk with the ocean breeze on your face and the warm sun overhead, but no pesky petticoats to weigh you down, taking in the historic attractions of the city along the way.
A large portion of the Calle de las Damas’ southern end fronts Fortaleza Ozama, the world’s oldest military colonial building that was built in 1505. The street also crosses the National Mausoleum, Plaza Maria de Toledo and other colonial landmarks.

Here you can view a sundial that dates from 1753, as well as Casa de los Jesuitas, which houses a fine research library on colonial history, and the Institute for Hispanic Culture. Follow this street toward Malecon where you will cross a picturesque alley, fronted by a wrought-iron gate, which has colonial structures perfectly maintained and owned by the catholic church.

Also head down the pedestrian-only Calle del Conde, which is a popular center for souvenirs, as well as Dominican and Haitian art. At the end of your walk, you will have arrived at the Alcazar de Colon, home to an amazing collection of old European art, as well as a history of its own. Alcazar was the scene of many landmark events in the history of the Dominican Republic.

After such a long and busy walk, you deserve some refreshment. Lucky for you, Calle de las Damas has an abundance of restaurants and cafés to nourish the weary traveler. Once done with your own afternoon stroll, enjoy a meal at one of the many restaurants and bars situated near Plaza de la Hispanidad, the northern terminus of Calle de las Damas.

While in Zona Colonial, don’t miss out on Museo de las Casas Reales, a museum that showcases the European roots of the Dominican Republic. A must-see stop, the museum is situated in a 16th century building that was once home to the administrative offices of the Spanish colonies.

The museum comprises two distinct structures, the South and North buildings, both of which were designed to house the first court of the “New World”, the comptroller’s workspace and the offices of political leaders. Visitors can wander the grounds exploring the labyrinth of rooms which feature displays of early legislation, the chief judge’s office, historical ceramics, and old world family life.

West of Zona Colonial is the rambling, tree-shaded Gazcue, the prettiest residential district in the city, which features stately Victorian-era housing, prominent government buildings and museums. There are also various historic monuments on the palm tree-lined El Malecon Avenue.

The Gazcue neighborhood is highlighted by the Plaza de la Cultura, a large green expanse of museums, gardens and other cultural attractions in the center of Santo Domingo. Full of large grandiose trees, beautiful water features and quiet inner roads, the plaza is just the place to go for a taste of the history and high culture of the Dominican Republic.

Here you will find the Biblioteca Nacional or the national library which is worth a visit, along with the complex of 4 museums: Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo del Hombre Dominicano, Museo de Historia y Geografia and Museo de Historia Natural.

Museo de Arte Moderno is a showcase of a good collection of contemporary art, most of which is by Dominican painters. Look out for works by Candido Rido, Frank Almayar and Vela Zanetti. At the Museo del Hombre Dominicano you will find an impressive collection of ancient Taino artifacts.

At night the Plaza is transformed into a hotspot with a nightclub and theater. Theatre lovers can visit El Teatro Nacional, the marble-covered national theater which is one of the best in the Spanish language and the place to see drama and symphonies.

For your nightclub fix, choose a spot that plays merengue or bachata. Along with Cuba, the Dominican Republic is the center of Latin American music, whose most popular and enduring genre is merengue. With its simple rhythms and complex instrumentation, merengue is ideal for dance aficionados. Bachata is another popular Dominican dance worth learning the steps to while you’re in the country.

Better still, if you’re in the Dominican Republic towards late July to early August, be sure to attend the Festival del Merengue, which is also held around Santo Domingo’s El Malecon region.

3. Mercado Modelo

Situated on Avenida Mella in downtown Santo Domingo, Mercado Modelo is a boisterous shopping location and the largest craft market in the capital. Mercado Modelo is surrounded by food stalls that cater to local shoppers who come here to shop, although the items and prices are geared towards tourists.

A festival of color and a flurry of Dominican life, many call Mercado Modelo by another name: Little Haiti, due to the large group of Haitians who trade in this area. Once a popular local marketplace, older Dominicanos remember Mercado Modelo as the spot to buy produce, prepared dishes and other essentials. While it is no longer a true urban market, it remains a good place for shopping in the area.

Truly a one-stop shop for all your souvenir shopping, Mercado Modelo comprises dozens of similar stores that sell typical crafts of the country. These include Haitian paintings, Dominican and Cuban cigars, liquors, jewelry, flowers, handicrafts, tropical fruit, spells, embroidery, potions, perfumes, stamps, carnival masks and costumes among others.

Located at an important commercial hub, the market shows off the more popular aspects of the local culture. The market is also famous for its colors and the charismatic sales gimmicks of the vendors, and it offers a wide array of goods considered to be truly Dominican, including faceless dolls, which are a symbol of Dominican craftsmanship.

Faceless dolls are the essence of Creole handmade culture. Originally from Moca in the north of the country, the dolls represent sinuous women in sensual shapes and delicate garments that bring out their beautiful skin color. Many have braids or heads covered in exquisite wide-brimmed sun hats and a delicate bouquet or fruit basket in their hands. But all of them have no faces.

During your visit to Mercado Modelo, try on the distinctive amber jewelry and taste the spiced liquor that is supposed to have aphrodisiac qualities. While you shouldn’t shy away from haggling down the prices, don’t be too frugal either. Keep in mind that most of the items you encounter in the craft market stalls have been made by the industrious hands of peasant families of the Dominican Republic.

4. Taino Park

Taino Park is a unique park that tells the story of a lost civilization. The Taino Indians were the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic, who inhabited the tropical island nation some 1,500 years ago. Following the arrival of Christopher Columbus, there was a clash between the Spanish colonizers and the peaceful natives who sought to defend their land, ethnicity and traditions.

Situated west of Santa Barbara de Samana, the park’s main exhibits include 25 animated scenes of life-size figures that depict the peaceful life of the Tainos and their conflict with the Spanish conquistadors. The ornate costumes worn by the figures were fashioned by some of the best movie-making companies in Europe.

The museum also features an archaeological exhibition with over 200 pieces that includes bone fragments, stone and wood carvings, as well as clay pots all excavated from the site.

Visitors to the museum can bear witness to the troubled past of the Taino and explore their ancient culture and traditions. Plan to spend at least an hour here with an audio guide. No need to worry if it rains as the tour is fully roofed.

5. Bonao

Bonao isn’t a place that many tourists go, and that’s exactly why you must visit. Bonao is the hidden corner of the island paradise that is the Dominican Republic. It boasts the charm of a rural Caribbean village nestled within impossibly green mountains, and crisscrossed by an abundance of waterfalls and streams.

Fortunately, the wave of mass tourism that hit the Dominican Republic has bypassed Bonao, and any traveler who ventures off the beaten track and heads to Bonao will be rewarded for her curiosity.

Set high in the hills, an hour north of historic Santo Domingo, Bonao is a city where traditional Dominican arts and culture offer insights into the soul of the island. The most colorful time to visit is February during Carnaval, when thousands of revelers color the town with their lavish outfits and energy.

During other months, the highlight of any trip here is touring the studios of artisans who have mastered their crafts rather impressively. Admire the wood workings of the Santos de Palo, as well as their traditional, religious art. Also visit the astounding Casa Tiburcio, where every single piece in the entire house is regarded as a work of art.

At the Candido Bido cultural center, you can take a peek at murals by one the country’s most well-known traditional painters, and learn how indigenous Taino designs have been fused with other art influences. Thereafter, grab a tasty meal at a corner café and gaze up at the rolling green hills that surround the entire town.

Bonao is also the gateway to Los Quemados, a sleepy village nestled in the foothills of the Cordillera Central, and a destination that remains a precious secret to the few who have enjoyed its allure. It boasts spectacular views of lush mountain ridges, and the clear freshwater River Yuna that runs through the settlement. You could spend many peaceful days here simply enjoying the location’s natural beauty.

Adventurous travelers will find endless pleasure in trekking to waterfalls and swimming in the many babbling streams and waterholes. The region boasts such stunning alpine landscapes and wonderful temperate climate for a Caribbean island.

At Bonao, take some time to appreciate the wonderful diversity of the Dominican heartlands. One of the greatest assets of Bonao is its proximity to the magnificent Cordillera Central, the largest of the Dominican Republic’s five mountain ranges. The range features Pico Duarte, the highest point in the Caribbean.

6. Catedral Primada de America

Officially known as Basilica Catedral Santa Maria de la Encarnacian or Santa Maria la Menor, the Catedral Primada de America is the oldest cathedral of the Americas.

Founded in 1514, the aim of the cathedral was to serve as the center for the Vatican’s mission of religious proselytizing in the “New World”. The Catedral was finished in the early 1540s, due to delays after some workers abandoned the work to go search for gold in central America.

When it was originally built, the Catedral was a hut made of royal palms, and when it rained, no service took place. Today it occupies an entire block. Tucked into the old-world streets of Zona Colonial, Catedral Primada de America is the most famous religious structure in Santo Domingo and an icon for the catholic community of the Dominican Republic.

The church features Roman-style arches, Gothic-style vaults and Baroque-style ornaments. These Gothic, Spanish Renaissance and Baroque architectural influences are due to the fact that the church was designed and worked on by many different people. Yet this blend only adds to the originality and powerful dominating look of the cathedral.

Its classic Gothic and Baroque architectural features are a nod to the European roots of the church, while its fancy friezes and ornaments mark the church as Plateresque. As with most colonial era structures, the cathedral was built using coralline blocks and features an extensive collection of religious artifacts and wood carvings that will make any visit here well worth it.

The mahogany doors are 500 years old and still opened using the same centuries-old key, while the altar is made of hammered silver and worth a peek. Other highlights include a painting of the Virgin Mary that dates from 1520, and a number of beautiful windows and historic murals. Also check out the uncovered bell tower.

7. El Museo del Tabaco

From the late 16th century, Cuba was the king of the cigar world. However, this changed following the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent US embargo that forced many cigar makers to immigrate to the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic is today the world’s largest cigar exporter, producing some of the finest and most famous cigar brands in the world. Some cigar aficionados believe that many of the cigars made in the Dominican Republic are superior in quality to their much more famous Cuban counterparts, as they offer a greater variety in aromas and colors.

Cultivated by the Taino Indians long before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, tobacco is the oldest crop in the Dominican Republic, and Santiago is the main hub for receiving tobacco from the Cibao Valley where the crop is grown. Located in the town center of Santiago is El Museo del Tabaco, the tobacco museum at which you can learn all about the making of cigars in the Dominican Republic.

The museum is situated in a former Victorian cigar warehouse and features exhibits that include the tools used to form cigars, as well as fascinating old pictures. The distinctive museum displays a collection of art with exhibits that cover the usage of the crop dating back to the times of the Taino.

The tobacco museum is an ideal spot for cigar lovers and a great place to relax after a full day of exploring. At the museum, you not only learn about the art of cigar-making, but can also purchase some of the top brands in the country.

There is also a mock cigar room in which visitors can observe how some of the world’s finest tobacco is processed and rolled. Here you can watch the process of cigar-making from when the tobacco leaf is cut to when the cigar is rolled. If you desire a flavorful and unique Dominican cigar for your own pleasure or as a souvenir, you should definitely go here.

8. Museo Folklorico Yoryi Morel

Santiago de los Caballeros or just Santiago in short is located in the Cibao Valley. As the second-largest city of the Dominican Republic, Santiago has a thriving arts and culture scene. A good place to get a taste of this is at the Museo Folklorico Yoryi Morel.

Situated on Restauracion Street in the historic city center, Museo Folklorico Yoryi Morel is a museum that showcases the carnival culture of Santiago. Here you will find interesting designs of the “lechones”, the garments worn in the Santiago Province of the Dominican Republic during Carnaval. The museum also displays carnival costumes from other provinces.

The museum is named after Yoryi Morel, the late Dominican Republic painter who is regarded as one of the founders of the modernist school of Dominican painting. A native of Santiago, Morel was self-taught and is famous for his portraits, landscapes and genre paintings. The museum is situated in a pretty painted wooden house with columns at the front, and highlights the passion of Yoryi Morel for folklore.

Right from the doorstep, you can admire huge masks hanging from the walls, which immerse visitors into the carnival atmosphere. The eclectic museum collection comprises an amazing clutter of unusual, colorful personal objects that tell the story of the villages of Cibao Valley.

9. Parque Nacional del Este

Declared a national park in 1975, Parque Nacional del Este was established to protect the coastal and island environments on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic. Highlights of Parque Nacional del Este include the sandy beaches of Saona, the tropical moist forest and the limestone landscape of the mainland.

Located on the Dominican Republic’s southeastern tip, the park boasts an intact coastal ecosystem that provides a prime habitat for hundreds of species of plants, fish, birds and other sea animals. The range of biodiversity preserved in the park is incredible, with over 570 plant species and 163 bird species.

Most of this habitat is situated in the mangroves that fringe the peninsula, and the sea grasses that waft in the water. The peninsula’s eastern side has more limestone cliffs that drop off into the ocean dramatically. The southern tip is full of saltwater lagoons and mangroves, and is a great spot for birdwatchers to find birds. Many endangered animal species live inside this protected area.

Isla Saona is arguably the most popular part of the park. Situated on the southern coast, the island boasts powdery white sandy beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, stretches of idyllic, coconut-tree backed beachfront, lagoons and mangrove swamp. A large species of birdlife live here along with about 300 inhabitants residing in the two small fishing villages. Further settlement is prohibited on the largely unpopulated island.

One of the largest marine parks in the Caribbean, the park has an immense coral reef system in its offshore waters that’s home to many fish species, as well as manatees and bottle-nosed dolphins. The coastline of the park offers various coral formations and is great for diving, especially along the western side, which makes the offshore coral reefs in this park a popular favorite with divers.

With regards to culture, you can also view some signs of early Taino activity. Throughout the peninsula, traces of Taino life before the arrival of the Europeans can be seen in subterranean tunnels and caves that contain numerous pictographs. The easiest cave to visit by foot is Cueva del Puenta which contains several Taino drawings that depict their culture, in addition to numerous stalagmites and stalactites.

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A great way to access the park is by hiring a boat from Bayahibe, after which you can hike inland. Be sure to wear insect repellent to shield you against the ubiquitous Dominican Republic mosquitoes and many wasps.

10. Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas

Considered by many to be the most beautiful beach in the entire Dominican Republic, Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas is without a doubt one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean.

It isn’t for no reason that Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas has earned the reputation of being the most magnificent beach in the Dominican Republic. This is primarily because it is in fact the largest and one of the most natural and remote beaches in the country.

Named after the eagles that had taken refuge in the area, Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas is situated inside the Jaragua National Park, which is one of the largest and most important nature preserves in the Dominican Republic. The beach is a protected part of the island’s unique tourist attraction that eco-tourists will especially enjoy, as it would seem to have been established specifically for them.

The unique virgin beach is home to many endemic species of animal and plant life, including the rhinoceros iguana, along with a wide diversity of endemic birds, and many exotic cacti. Over 130 bird species call Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas home.

The entire region and in particular this beach are the definition of unspoiled paradise. Go on, be an explorer for a day at Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas. As the crown jewel of beaches on the Jaragua peninsula, this spectacular, seemingly endless beach will definitely take your breath away with its amazing white sands and crystal clear turquoise waters.

The natural beach has a thick sprawling dry forest with an abundance of trees and vegetation growing in the sand, just enough to provide shade during a hot day. The vegetation comprises mainly of cactus and other desert plants. A delightful wind keeps the sun’s heat at bay. To cool off further, take a dip inside the sparkling water with its beautiful blue-green gem colors.

Visitors will need a sturdy car to use the official dirt roads in the national park leading right up to the beach. The most pristine of Dominican beaches, it is also one of the most challenging to get to – although getting there is half the adventure. But the payoff is out of this world.

This natural wonder is a relaxing yet stunning sunny hangout. It is possible to go snorkeling as well as camp on the beach. You can obtain camping supplies from the town of Pedernales.

Carry plenty of water, and because there are no restaurants in the area, it would be wise to carry a packed lunch if you want to enjoy a full day out in the sun.

Close by is the small village of La Cuevas which is famous for its caves. You will have to go through this village to access Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas. Up until a few years ago, the people of Las Cuevas situated their homes inside the caves of the cliffs in an effort to remain cool in the oppressive heat of the region.

There is a small Ministry of Environment shack at which you can arrange for a local fisherman to take you to the remote beach. While here, you can also take a break from sunbathing and visit the Monumento Natural Miguel Domingo Fuerte which is close by.

Tucked away within a much quieter section of the Dominican Republic, Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas offers visitors an angelic enclave. If you are looking to get off the beaten beach path, then this beach is your best bet. A welcome respite from the lovely yet typically crowded big city beach spots such as those of Punta Cana, Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas will help you avoid the hoards of holidaymakers.

Abide by the rules of responsible eco-travel and do not leave a footprint. Take your garbage with you to help maintain the pristine state of the beach for the visitors who follow in your footsteps. While the threat of commercial development looms constantly, preservationists have been fighting against it. That said, it would be wise to visit Playa Bahia de Las Aguilas before the big hotels succeed in encroaching it.

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