Founded in 1498 by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher, Santo Domingo is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas. Now the capitol city of the Dominican Republic with a population of more than 3.8 million, Santo Domingo boasts some of the most impressive historical sites this side of the Atlantic. Here are Santo Domingo’s top 5 not-to-be-missed historical gems.
1) Cathedral of Santa María la Menor
Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the church was completed in 1540 and is the oldest cathedral in the Americas. Built in the Gothic style with Plateresque and Baroque elements, this austere limestone structure features exquisite friezes and ornamentation, crowned by a majestic vaulted ceiling. Another main attraction is a beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary dating from 1520.
The tomb of Christopher Columbus was once housed inside the building, but has since been moved to the Columbus Lighthouse (Faro a Colón) in Santo Domingo Este as well as Seville in Spain. Recognized by UNESCO as a supreme example of Spanish-colonial architecture, the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor is on the list of World Heritage Sites.
2) Alcázar de Colón
This museum was once the home of Diego Columbus, the eldest son of Christopher and a Governor of the Indies As the seat of the Spanish court, many expeditions to various parts of the New World originated at Alcázar de Colón, and it was here that it is here that Cortez, Pizzarro, Balboa and Velazquez planned their respective conquest of Mexico, Peru, Panama and Cuba.
The original governor’s palace, built between 1510 and 1512, was on a much grander scale than the present, containing more than 50 rooms. However, after it was sacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, the building fell into ruins and abandoned. Extensively restored in 1955, the Alcázar de Colón now houses an impressive collection of Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance art. On the second floor, many of the rooms are decorated with original artifacts and furnishings from the 15th to 17th centuries, and walking through them is like stepping back in time. Also, the wonderful view from the balcony of the historical district of Ciudad Colonial is not to be missed.
3) Colón Park
This park in the middle of the Ciudad Colonial district is dedicated to Christopher Columbus, whose heroic statue presides over it. Surrounded by grand historical buildings such as the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the Casa de Abogandos (the old town jail) and Palacio Borghella, the park had long served as the city’s main square where many festivities were held. Today, scores of locals and tourists come out to the park for a stroll in the early evening, and it is the perfect place for people watching while sipping a cool drink at a street-side café.
4) Fortaleza Ozama
Named after the Ozama river, the Fortaleza Ozama (Ozama Fortress) had guarded the entrance to the port of Santo Domingo and defended the city against attacks by foreign forces and pirates for centuries. Built in 1502, it is the oldest European-built military structure in the Americas.
Visitors can enter the complex through the entrance gate kwon as Calle Damas and get up to the top of the Torre del Homenaje (Tower of Homage) to enjoy a panoramic view of the city and the harbor. In the courtyard stands a statue of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, a famous chronicler of the sixteenth century and author of the first history of the Americas, who also served as warden of the fortress from 1533 to 1557.
5) National Pantheon
This former Jesuit church built in the 18th century is now the final resting place for many of most illustrious figures of the Dominican Republic. In 1956, dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the structure to be renovated and converted into the national mausoleum and intended to be buried there himself. However, after his assassination in 1961, Trujillo’s remains were first interred in France and finally relocated to Madrid in Spain.
Notables honored at the National Pantheon include Pedro Santana, the first constitutional president of the Dominican Republic, and José Gabriel García, a historian whose four-volume history of the Dominican Republic published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries earned him the title, “Father of Dominican History”.
Santo Domingo bears witness to a rich and checkered history of colonial rule and conquests by successive European powers, independence, dictatorship, civil strife and transition to democracy, much of which are etched upon its many historical landmarks. History buffs and casual tourists alike can come away with a deeper understanding of European colonialism and its lingering influences on this beautiful nation.
Written by Simon Chung
Simon Chung is a digital nomad based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He specializes in research and writing for companies, organizations and academic institutions. He can be contacted here.