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Top things to do in the Dominican Republic

29 February 2016 ( 08 February 2017 )

The Dominican Republic was one of the first places to be discovered by Spanish explorers crossing the Atlantic at the end of the 15th century.

A coconut tree overhanging a beach in the Dominican Republic
A coconut tree overhanging a beach in the Dominican Republic

A melting pot of cultural influences, each Caribbean island carries its own charm. Find out more here

The legacy of Christopher Columbus can be seen in the many splendid cathedrals and fortresses built here – and many travellers come to the Dominican Republic for precisely this reason. 

But it is the beauty of nature that keeps them coming back. From coastal mountains to mangroves, crocodiles to humpback whales, the Dominican Republic has unexpected diversity like nowhere else on earth.

Whether you’re a keen scuba diver or just a fan of film-worthy beaches and a good rum cocktail, the Dominican Republic delivers everything you could want from a Caribbean holiday. 

So sit back, relax, and let us take you through the top attractions in the Dominican Republic.

With its glorious beaches, hidden coves, tree-topped mountains and waterfalls, the Dominican Republic really is a paradise found. Find out more here

Travel back in time in Santo Domingo

Founded by Columbus in the 15th century, the Dominican Republic’s capital is about as old as the New World gets and as a result, comes with many firsts: Catedral Primada de América – or the first cathedral in the Americas – the first university and the earliest surviving fortress.

Explore the Zona Colonial, the city’s heart and a UNESCO heritage site, and you may think you’re back in the days of the Spanish Caribbean, surrounded by Gothic fortifications and cobble-paved plazas. 

There are museums of high quality here, not least the Museo de las Casas Reales, which showcases maps, weaponry and other maritime objects from that fascinating colonial period. 

Venture out in the evening for the lively atmosphere, superior restaurants and charming people that give the city its modern character.

Relax in Punta Cana

Laidback resorts and spa hotels line the famously beautiful shore at Punta Cana, at the easternmost point of Hispaniola. 

Long sunny days here are perfect for traditional massages and healing body treatments within earshot of the waves, while the nights come with spectacular sunsets and the sound of salsa music. 

For those wanting a more action-packed holiday, you can snorkel and dive around the many shipwrecks and discover stingrays in the reefs – although don’t worry if you don’t want to leave your sun lounger, you can also see the striking Aston shipwreck from the beach!

Discover the idyllic charms of the Dominican Republic with a stay at the Punta Cana Resort. Find out more here

Go local in Higüey

One of the first conquests of the Conquistadors, Higüey is most notable for its unique-looking Catedral Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia. 

The striking spire of this historic structure towers over the city and inside you’ll find a gallery of mesmerising stained glass. 

This is a great place for to take a day trip from nearby Punta Cana, with attractions such as the Plaza Higüeyana for all your artisanal souvenirs, or the open-air food market near the cathedral’s basilica, for a spot of people watching.

Hike in the Central Highlands

Had enough of the soaring Caribbean temperatures? Make for the Cordillera Central Mountains, home to the highest peak on the island, where the mercury drops low enough to pack a jumper. 

The fresh breezes here are often welcomed by tours and travellers, and the landscape is second to none. 

Peaks cap the clouds and rivers merge into beautiful scenic spots like the Balneario la Confluencia, perfect for a picnic. 

Stay in one of the hotels in the relaxed town of Jarabacoa, or the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, and plan a few days of hiking, horse riding or just chatting with the friendly locals.

Tour Saona Island

If you have ever had a vision of the perfect desert island, this might just be it! Isla Saona is home to impossibly clear shallows surround soft sandy beaches, all backed by coconut palms.

The island lies to the southeast of the Dominican Republic and is a part of the Eastern National Park, an area of remarkable natural beauty. 

There are no hotels on the island, so get here via a boat tour, spending your day floating on a catamaran, sipping rum cocktails or visiting the local turtles at the island’s sanctuary.

Explore Bayahibe and the Eastern National Park

You may have come to this part of the DR because of Saona Island, but there’s plenty more charm to be found. Along with Saona, the Eastern National Park is home to hundreds of caves, forests and corals waiting to be explored. 

Bayahibe town is a great place to set out exploring from and the town itself is a lovely old fishing port. 

There is much enjoyment to be had simply wandering along the colourful front of the town, watching boats bobbing in the bay, and trying the catch of the day in a local restaurant.

Learn about the arts in Altos de Chavón

Want to know more about the culture of the Dominican Republic? 

Take a visit to a mock-European Medieval village in La Romana, a carefully constructed piece of local design, all created by island craftsman, whose wares are showcased at various printing, ceramics and textiles studios. 

Also home to a philanthropic arts school for local students, the picturesque church of Stanislaus and plenty of riverside cafes, Altos de Chavón even once played host to Frank Sinatra at the 5000-seat amphitheatre. 

A project and a town of many faces, it is fascinating stop-off for anyone visiting the Dominican Republic.

Dive off the North Coast

Sporting types should consider the north coast of the Dominican Republic, where places like Puerto Plata make the perfect base for activities from kite-surfing to scuba diving. 

Learn to dive in one of the bays, or explore more advanced underwater routes if you have some experience. 

Silver Bank is the most famous reef around these parts and although it’s some distance north of Hispaniola, this 20-mile-long plateau offers some of the best diving in the world. 

If you prefer to stay above the waves, Silver Bank is also known for its humpback whale population, so it’s definitely worth the boat trip!

Get back to nature in Montecristi

Montecristi province draws nature lovers in their droves, and true to the Dominican Republic’s diverse style, is home to some startlingly different topography. 

Some come to hike around the dramatic peak of El Morro, rising above perfect white sands over Playa El Morro, while others prefer to take a trip round the inland mangroves of Montecristi National Park. 

The park is also a haven for bird watching – plovers, American kestrels and wood storks are all sighted here. 

With plenty of hotels in the old port of Montecristi itself, consider spending a few days in the northwest to make the most of its natural attractions.

Sample the local cocoa

Don’t miss an interesting and tasty visit to the El Sendero del Cacao – an organic cocoa farm. 

A short drive from Santiago in the centre of the Dominican Republic, you’ll be welcomed with a fresh cup of hot chocolate, and taken on a tour of the plantations, finding out about every stage of the bean-to-bar process of making chocolate. 

Fulfil a childhood dream and tour the chocolate factory with its amazing smells before opting for a chocolate-tasting challenge or enjoying a traditional Dominican lunch.

Sail the Samaná Peninsula

Incredibly photogenic and teeming with wildlife, this peninsula juts from the northeast corner of the island. 

Take a boat around the tranquil inlets of the coast, past green carpeted cliffs trickling with clear waterfalls and you’ll soon see why Columbus declared it ‘the fairest land on the face of the earth’. 

Standout attractions include Salto El Limon waterfall and the secluded beach of Playa Rincon (boats run here from Las Galeras). History fans should also ask about touring the pictographs left by native Taino people, long before the Spanish settlers arrived.

Dance the Merengue – or the Bachata

The Latino-Caribbean rhythms of the Merengue and its close cousin the Bachata are everywhere you care to listen on the island. 

It shouldn’t be hard to pull up a chair at a local bar in Santo Domingo or Santiago to watch live musicians play the tambura drum or see dancers strut their stuff. 

If you want to learn some steps to impress the family back home, catch the Dominican Republic Bachata Festival in January to February, which takes place in locations across the island, including La Romana, Haina and Santo Domingo.

Spot wildlife on Lago Enriquillo

Get close to the American crocodile at this waterborne national reserve near the Haitian border. A broad expanse of saltwater lake home to many species of bird and reptiles, Lago Enriquillo is a must for naturalists. 

The crocodiles are found mostly around Isla Cabritos or ‘Kids Island’ in the centre of the lake, in one of the largest wild populations in the world. 

You can also observe the rare rhinoceros iguana along the trails here. The Bay of Boca de Cachon sees hundreds of flamingos and spoonbills taking to the water – and you might want to follow suit at the renowned sulphur pools, claimed to have health benefits.

There’s so much worth discovering in the Dominican Republic it can be difficult to take your pick! 

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.