There was a time, not long ago, when many young people in the Dominican Republic dreamed of life elsewhere. Maybe it was Miami or Madrid, but a generation ago becoming something often meant leaving the island.
Go to the Dominican’s capital Santo Domingo now and it’s clear that’s changed. Diners at cafes in trendy neighborhoods spill onto the sidewalks on weekday nights. Beer bars and nightclubs pulse like South Beach clubs. Co-working offices and boutiques signal that younger professionals are deciding to stay on the island.
This new millennial Dominican means it’s a whole lot more fun for younger travelers. In fact, nowadays nearly half of all tourists to the island are from 21 to 35.
Below are five of the best ways to see this new Santo Domingo, a destination that’s increasingly becoming the hipster island of the Caribbean.
1. Affordable Luxury Accommodations
There was a time when tourists headed to the Dominican skipped Santo Domingo on their way to the sugar-sand beaches of Punta Cana. Now that some are exploring the city of about a million people, luxury hotels have popped up around Santo Domingo. The finest of them is indisputably the J.W. Marriott, a towering glass structure in the city’s trendiest neighborhood, Piantini. Attached to the island’s high-end fashion mall, the J.W. also features a rooftop bar with a glass floor. Across town, along the Malecón walkway that serves as the city’s waterfront gathering spot, are a pair of hotel towers: the Renaissance Santo Domingo Jaragua Hotel & Casino and the Sheraton Santo Domingo. Both feature resort-style pools, attached casinos, updated lobbies and rooms and views of the Caribbean spread out to the south. Maybe the best part? Prices start under $200.
2. A Working Historic City
In much of the Caribbean, the old colonial city centers have largely become tourist playgrounds, full of tacky t-shirt shops and overpriced restaurants. In Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial remains a neighborhood of mostly working-class locals, full of the kind of culture you typically have to go elsewhere to find on other islands. And this is a truly historic neighborhood: the Americas’ oldest capital city and home to the first cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. At any point in the day, you’ll find crowds of locals strolling among the stores and barber shops and cafes on the pedestrian street of Calle El Conde. After work, locals gather on front stoops and on chairs outside of a colmado, or convenience stores that double as cafes and bars. In the evenings, the plazas laid out by the Spaniards become gathering spots, with parents on benches and kids kicking soccer balls around the pigeons. Aside from a few restaurants and bars, you’ll find few other tourists, meaning, at least for a day, you can live like a Zona Colonial local.
3. Eating Well In Santo Domingo
It’s easy, while sitting on the bustling porch of La Dolcerie on a Thursday night, to think that you’re actually on Brickell. The restaurant begins its life as a high-end dining destination early, with a dress code for the inside dining room and perhaps the city’s best steaks and seafood and sushi. By late night, there’s a crowd waiting for tables and spilling out onto the street, as slinky dresses and tie-less jackets become the norm. It’s a similar scene at Lulú Tasting Bar, the tapas restaurant in the Zona Colonial, where, early in the night, people sit along the plaza out front and dine on escargot and sliders; they stay later for the near-nightclub scene at the glass-wood-and-concrete bar inside. You’ll find the same trendy crowd having difficulty deciding between the widely international menus at Travesías, Mitre, Laurel Food & Wine and a dozen more restaurants around a town that’s more and more becoming a dining destination.
4. Shopping With Cocktails
Perhaps the first indication of a city’s hipster status is the trendiness of its boutiques. In Santo Domingo there’s a new movement of boutiques that double as bars and cafes, with hidden courtyards and tucked-away bars behind racks of artist-made gifts. At La Alpargatería, pass by rows of hand-sewn sandals and pumps made by the shop’s owner and find a small bar nearly hidden by a curtain of colorful ribbons. Grab a couple margaritas made from fresh-squeezed juices (two-for-one at happy hour) and continue on to the colonial-era courtyard in the back, with its mismatched chairs and tropical plants climbing the paint-flecked stucco walls. The scene is similar at Diseño Local Store, where out front you’ll find locally made wooden jewelry, vintage t-shirts and stylish straw hats. Continue on through the arched doorway and you’ll find a café serving tacos and drinks to younger crowds that gather on the latticework wrought iron furniture in the courtyard.
5. Beer Bars
Like any city with a crowd of young drinkers, Santo Domingo’s beer scene has gone a bit nuts lately. Here, though, the craft beer bars still feel very Dominican, often with pumping house music, mixed-drink menus and patrons dressed like they’re later headed to a nightclub rope line. For perhaps the city’s best craft brew selection, head to one of the two locations of Beer Market, with its thesis-thick laminated menu. The Zona Colonial location features outdoor seating along Plaza de España, with nighttime views of the 500-year-old Alcazar de Colón. Across town, the second location is smack in the middle of Piantini, making it a fine spot for the first or final drink. For an entirely locals’ way to have a beer, pull up a plastic chair outside a colmado, found on nearly every corner in the Zona Colonial, and order a bottle of Presidente that’ll likely cost you less than a buck. Sip it as bachata music drifts from an apartment window upstairs, the breeze from the Caribbean drifts down the cobblestones and you come to a realization why all these younger Dominicans are staying put in Santo Domingo.