The oldest city in the New World, the Dominican Republic capital is a treasure trove of historic buildings set amid a backdrop so authentic you can practically hear the clank of the conquistadors' armor; the Old Town, or Zona Colonial, remains partially enclosed by remnants of the original city wall. Santo Domingo has a modern side as well, making this one of the Caribbean's most vibrant cities -- the lilting sounds of merengue music are guaranteed to lure you into the bars and dance clubs of the capital after dark.
Things to Do
Stroll the narrow streets and explore the old stone buildings of Zona Colonial, a 12-block area from which Spain launched its conquest of the New World. Walk the narrow cobblestoned streets in the footsteps of Columbus, Ponce de León and Cortés. Set aside a couple of hours to visit Alcázar de Colón, the palace constructed for Columbus's son, Diego, in 1517.
Amber and larimar (Dominican turquoise) jewelry are the top handicrafts on sale. Dominican amber is renowned and comes in a range of colors, from bright yellow to black, some with encased insects. Hand-wrapped cigars are sold virtually everywhere. Head to La Atarazana, a Zona Colonial neighborhood of art galleries and gift and jewelry stores -- come prepared to haggle.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Around midnight, young locals flock to the clubs of Santo Domingo, where dancers impressively strut their stuff. If you're timid about joining in on the festivities, it makes for great people-watching. La Guácara Taína, one of the best discotecas in the country, is set in an underground cave inside a verdant park. The house specialties are merengue, salsa, and other forms of Latin music.
Restaurants and Dining
Many Dominicans consider dining out a formal experience and dress to impress. Venture out with the locals to El Mesón de la Cava, where the fine-dining seafood specialties include a velvety conch gratinée and the steaming sopa de pescado (red snapper chowder). La Résidence is set in a former 16th-century mansion; among the top-flight dishes are spit-roasted lamb served with bacon, garlic, and vinegar sauce and rabbit stuffed with bacon and mushrooms.