Santo Domingo -- a treasure-trove of historic, sometimes crumbling buildings -- is undergoing a major government-sponsored restoration. The old town, or Zona Colonial, is still partially enclosed by remnants of its original city wall. The narrow streets, old stone buildings, and forts are like nothing else in the Caribbean, except perhaps Old San Juan. The only thing missing is the clank of the conquistadors' armor.
Old and modern Santo Domingo meet at the Parque Independencia, a big city square whose most prominent feature is its Altar de la Patria, a national pantheon dedicated to the nation's heroes, Duarte, Sánchez, and Mella, who are all buried here. These men led the country's fight for freedom from Haiti in 1844. As in provincial Spanish cities, the square is a popular family gathering place on Sunday afternoon. At the entrance to the plaza is El Conde Gate, named for the count (El Conde) de Penalva, the governor who resisted the forces of Admiral Penn, the leader of a British invasion. It was also the site of the March for Independence in 1844, and holds a special place in the hearts of Dominicans.
In the shadow of the Alcázar de Colón, La Atarazana is a fully restored section of one of the New World's finest arsenals. It extends for a city block, holding within it a catacomb of shops, art galleries, boutiques, and some good regional and international restaurants.
Just behind river moorings is the oldest street in the New World, Calle Las Damas (Street of the Ladies), named not because it was the red-light district, but for the elegant ladies of the viceregal court who used to promenade here in the evening. It's lined with colonial buildings.
Try to see the Puerta de la Misericordia (Calle Palo Hincado just north of Calle Arzobispo Portes). Part of the original city wall, this "Gate of Mercy" was once a refuge for colonists fleeing hurricanes and earthquakes.
You'll see a microcosm of Dominican life as you head east along Calle El Conde from Parque Independencia to Columbus Square (Plaza de Colón), which has a large bronze statue honoring the discoverer (or to be more accurate, the explorer of an already inhabited land). The statue was created in 1882 by a French sculptor.
As impressive as the old town or Zona Colonial is, monuments are not the total allure of Santo Domingo, as you'll soon discover. Following a day of shopping for handicrafts, or perhaps jewelry fashioned from amber or larimar -- a semiprecious ocean-blue gemstone found only in a remote mountain in the southwestern region of the country -- the sound of merengue will lure you to the bars, dance clubs, and casinos of the capital after dark.
If you like views more than you do wandering around dusty relics, head for the Fuerte de Santa Bárbara (Fort of Santa Barbara) standing at the corner of Juan Parra and Avenida Mella. When it was constructed in the 1570s, it was one of Santo Domingo's principal points of defense. As formidable as it was, it fell to Sir Francis Drake -- locals call him "the pirate" -- and his two dozen ships, who took the fort in 1586. Today the place is a complete ruin, but worth a visit for its small garden and little square. The view of Santo Domingo from here is panoramic.
The Monasterio de San Francisco (Monastery of San Francisco) is a mere ruin, but romantically lit at night. It was built between 1512 and 1544. That any part of it is still standing is a miracle; it was destroyed by earthquakes, pillaged by Sir Francis Drake and his men, and bombarded by French artillery. To get here, go along Calle Hostos and across Calle Emiliano Tejere; continue up the hill, and about midway along you'll see the ruins.
Plaza de la Cultura -- Once the personal property of the dictator Trujillo, this modern complex of buildings houses three museums: Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art), Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Museum of the Dominican Man), and Museo Nacional de Historia y Geografía (National Museum of History and Geography). These ultramodern buildings stand in a parklike setting, and you occupy the better part of your day if you choose to visit everything.