Best Places to Visit in the Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic: you’ve probably heard of it, maybe heard of the baseball players it has given Major League Baseball. Maybe even been there already, but no matter what you know (or don’t), the Dominican Republic is a place with someone for everyone from solo travelers to those with families. So whether you’re looking for a relaxing beach, a night out in the city or kite boarding in one of the best places on Earth, there are many incredible places to visit in the Dominican Republic.
Before we delve into what you can do in the Dominican Republic, you first need to know when is the best time to visit. The Dominican Republic is a tropical island, located just south of the Tropic of Cancer. This means the summers can be warm and brutally humid, while the winters dip down to the perfect, low-humidity temperatures for enjoying everything it has to offer.
When to visit the Dominican Republic
Summers (verano e infierno – summer and hell) in the Dominican Republic are not as warm as you might expect, with averages reaching around 80-85˚ F (27-29˚ C), but the humidity can reach as much as 90-100% making being outdoors difficult at times. However, you should note that most places to stay will offer air conditioning. As a nation in the Caribbean, the DR is also under Hurricane Watch from June-November and while it has been spared from large hurricanes in recent years, it is something to take into account in your travel planning. All of that said, the months of March – October are the low season in the Dominican. However, prices of accommodations and plane tickets drop off and it’s still a wonderful time to be in the country!
Winters in the Dominican run from approximately November through March when humidity reaches much more manageable levels, while temperatures remain in the low to mid 80’s. This is the ideal time to visit the Dominican, though be warned, it’s also “high” season when prices for accommodations, plane tickets and everything else peak. Yet, you’ll still be able to find great deals on places to see and things to do during the Dominican winter.
Getting around the Dominican Republic
Getting around the Dominican Republic is best done by car. All the major car rental companies are present in the DR and driving there, while intense, can generally be done with ease. When you’re driving in the Dominican, especially in cities, you’ll need to pay attention to motos (people on motorbikes) as they can take over the roadways, especially outside Santo Domingo. You might also have to have a keen eye out for potholes. Leave a major roadway and potholes could end up being the bane of your trip. There are speed limits, which are mostly obeyed by other drivers as are stop lights and signs. If you’re comfortable driving normally, you’ll be plenty comfortable here.
Best places to visit in the Dominican Republic
Although there are many more places to visit in the Dominican Republic, some of which are more “off the beaten path”, we are focusing here on looking at some of the places in the Dominican Republic that may be better known, or easier to access thanks to having international airports, and giving you some options of things to do outside of the typical beach vacation most people tend to think of the Dominican Republic for.
Let’s start with Santo Domingo, the first city of the Americas, for those of you who think you can’t see anything “old” on this side of the world.
1. Santo Domingo
Getting to Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo is only second to Punta Cana in airline traffic. Depending on where you are, it may be more or less easy to find a direct, affordable flight, but it’s certainly not impossible. The airport code for Santo Domingo is SDQ.
Flights to Santo Domingo typically come from the following places:
From North America
Many of the largest cities on the East Coast of the US, such as New York, Boston, Altanta, and Washington, D.C. offer nonstop flights to Santo Domingo. To get to Santo Domingo from the West Coast, you will need a layover somewhere in the East to hop down. The three largest US-based airlines (Delta, American, United) all offer nonstop flights to Santo Domingo from the East Coast, in addition to some of the major lower-cost airlines (Spirit, JetBlue).
You can also fly nonstop to Santo Domingo from Toronto, Canada, and Mexico City, through their flagship airlines.
From Central and South America
There are daily nonstop flights from Bogota, Colombia, and Panama City, Panama. Panama is also a great layover option if you’re flying from the West Coast, as it’s only a two hour flight to Santo Domingo from there.
From Western Europe
You can fly nonstop to Santo Domingo from Madrid, Paris, and Frankfurt. From Europe, however, you have a much greater offer of flights if you fly to Punta Cana instead, which is a two and a half drive to Santo Domingo.
You can also visit Santo Domingo as part of a Caribbean cruise itinerary. Major cruise lines such as Carnival, Ponant, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Seaborn are stopping at the Santo Domingo Port in some of their itineraries, which allows you, in most cases, at least enough time to visit the Colonial City. As the first city in the Americas, the Colonial City is the crown jewel of Santo Domingo. If you only do one thing in the city, do this.
The Highlight of Santo Domingo: the Zona Colonial
Founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus (Christopher Columbus’ brother), Santo Domingo was the founding capital of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. As such, it boasts many of “the firsts” of its kind in terms of government buildings and infrastructure, including the first fort, the first courthouse, the first hospital, and the first cathedral. The whole Colonial City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
Easily walkable despite the cobblestone streets, the Zona Colonial features remarkably preserved examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, most notably present in the Catedral Primada de America.
Start your journey at the Colonial Zone at Plaza España, an open square facing the port, which gives you access to landmarks such as the Alcazar de Colon (the Palace of Diego Columbus), and the Calle Las Damas, where many of these “first of the Americas” buildings are. Give yourself at least a morning to explore and enjoy one of the multiple cafes or restaurants spread across the different streets of the Zone.
A Seasonal Highlight: Winter Baseball
While many, if not most, people don’t visit the Dominican Republic to watch baseball, it is one of the most fun activities you can do while visiting. Baseball is the country’s national sport, something evident by the large number of Dominican players that end up playing professionally. Running from late October to mid-January, the games are held in venues around the country. Tickets are extremely affordable and you’ll have the chance to see some big names from the MLB come down and play winter baseball as well as glimpse future up and coming stars. Unlike games in the US, baseball games here are a bit wild with a vast array of drinks and cheerleaders. That’s right, cheerleaders! All in all, Dominican games are a highlight when visiting the country and if you get the opportunity, it’s one you should take. Weekday games are usually in the evening and weekend games start in the late afternoon.
2. Punta Cana
If you are familiar with the Dominican Republic, or have been before, chances are you visited Punta Cana or that came up as an option for your vacation. And while Punta Cana is the prime destination for resort vacations in the Dominican Republic, there’s more to it.
Getting to Punta Cana
Punta Cana is easily the Dominican’s top destination. With the island’s busiest airport (and 2nd busiest in the entire Caribbean), getting there is not difficult. Punta Cana has year-round flights from everywhere in the Western Hemisphere; you might want to arrive from either eastern North America, South America, or Europe. With a new highway built, Punta Cana is also only a short 2.5 hour drive from the capital – Santo Domingo should you choose to rent a car.
What to do in Punta Cana
Punta Cana is the Dominican’s top destination, boasting many of the best activities and accommodations on the entire island and possibly in the entire Caribbean. Punta Cana boasts all-inclusive hotels as well as themed hotels, such as the Nickelodeon Resort, where everything, from the rooms to the restaurants and rides, is themed after some of Nickelodeon’s most popular shows. You can even stay in a SpongeBob SquarePants-themed pineapple suite, which is a townhouse shaped like a pineapple on the outside. Or the Hard Rock Hotel, which hosts some of the top concerts and shows in the country, including world-famous Cirque du Soleil in recent years.
Punta Cana also boasts pristine, extensive beaches for every beach taste. Here are some examples:
- Macao Beach is the preferred destination for those looking for adventure in Punta Cana, with its buggy rides and surf-friendly waves.
- Juanillo Beach in Cap Cana, a postcard-perfect beach of white sand sprinkled with palm trees, is perfect for swimming and water sports like kayaking and Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP), as well as lounging under perfect blue, breezy skies.
- Cabeza de Toro is a beach area northeast of Punta Cana where you can go out fishing and snorkeling. This area of the country often sees competitive fishing tournaments, so fishing is some of the best you can do. You can book a fishing, snorkeling, or sailing excursion through most hotels.
Last but not least, the Ojos Indigenas Reserve in Punta Cana is a welcome respite from the beach-heavy environment Punta Cana can bring across at times. The Ojos Indigenas Reserve includes 12 freshwater lagoons in 1500 acres of land. The reserve includes species endemic to the Dominican Republic and intends to preserve the natural habitat of the area as it was experienced by the Taino people, the indigenous inhabitants of the island.
3. Dominican Republic’s North Coast
Next, let’s talk about the original tourist destination of the Dominican Republic: the North Coast. The north coast is home to many of the most popular places to visit in the Dominican Republic.
Getting to the Dominican Republic’s north coast
The North Coast of the Dominican Republic offers a wonderful reprieve from the resorts of Punta Cana and the business of Santo Domingo. Getting there is as easy as flying into Puerto Plata’s Gregorio Luperón Airport with a number of seasonal flights from the eastern US, Europe and Canada as well as a few year round flights from the US East Coast and Canada. Puerto Plata is about a 10 minute drive from the airport, while Cabarete is about a 20 minute drive.
Puerto Plata is the Dominican Republic’s largest city in the north, with a population of around 330,000. Founded in 1502, Puerto Plata offers a whole host of sites to see and do. You can visit Fort San Felipe (completed in 1577) as the main colonial remnant on the North Coast of the DR.
You can also take a cable car up Mount Pico Isabel de Torres to see a smaller Christ the Redeemer Statue than Rio, but a taller mountain and take in resplendent views of the city and ocean. If you are there at the end of February to early March, you can also enjoy Carnivál in Puerto Plata when Dominicans go out and celebrate with masks, parades, and much more.
Top attraction in Dominican Republic’s north coast: The 27 Waterfalls
One of the main attractions in the area, however, are the Damajagua Falls or 27 Waterfalls (Veintisiete Charcos), but keep in mind you’ll need to be 12 or older. If visiting in the winter when water levels are higher, you can visit this wonderful natural wonder and enjoy a truly experience. You’ll have a guided tour and two options to make your way up. You hike (quicker and easier) or swim and climb up through deep, gorgeous caverns. You can go up to the first stage (7 waterfalls), 2nd stage (12 waterfalls) or the 3rd and most difficult stage, all 27 waterfalls, but be warned it’s a difficult swim up. Upon reaching your destination, you’ll be able to jump and slide your way back down with falls landing from 5 feet up to around 15-20 foot jumps. If you’re willing and able, the 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua can be one of the highlights of your trip!
When planning, you’ll find a host of accommodations for everyone from boutique hotels to all-inclusive resorts. Options within the city are available for those looking for a more low-key, authentic Dominican stay, but all-inclusive resorts around the city and surrounding area. If you’re unfamiliar, all-inclusives charge by person (not room) and include room, food, and drink. We recommend doing your research as some of the all-inclusive have seen better days.
A short drive from Puerto Plata and about 20 minutes from the airport, you can find yourself in Cabarete, a thriving beach town where many young people and snow-birds alike end up. Cabarete is one of the top kiteboarding locations in the world and just west of the town (1-2 miles) you’ll find hundreds of surfers in the winter months.
Cabarete has many great food options including a whole slew of wonderful beach bars. There are fewer resorts available here, but plenty of amazing options in town and next to the beach. Many places available to stay have full kitchens available as well and the grocery store is stocked well enough to satisfy all travelers. Cabarete is also one of, if not the, best spot on the island to find large sweets for boogie boarding and surfing. Like everywhere else in the Dominican Republic, Cabarete has something for everyone: beaches, outdoor activities, and great food and drink.
5. Samaná Peninsula
Continuing on the Atlantic coast, Samana is a definite change of pace from what we see in the largest resort destinations in the Dominican Republic.
Getting to Samaná Peninsula
While one of the most beautiful parts of the Dominican Republic, it can also be one of the more difficult to arrive at Samaná does have an airport with a few year round flights (all from Canada – Toronto & Montreal and Europe – Madrid) with seasonal flights from these same places, but Miami in the US. As such, many travelers rent a car and drive. From Santo Domingo it is a 2.5 hour drive on easy going roads. There are several tolls along the way, but the alternative route is not worth avoiding these costs as the roads are far worse and it takes far longer.
Las Terrenas is one the main places you’ll want to visit on the Samaná Peninsula. With a population hovering around 15,000, it has become a go-to spot for expats, especially from France, looking for a more relaxed lifestyle. Despite its size, however, Las Terrenas has plenty to offer for everyone! Like many places to visit in the Dominican Republic, Las Terrenas is surrounded by beautiful beaches. If you’re staying in the city, the beaches are just a short walk away. Playa Las Terrenas and Punta Pops are right there and provide plenty of shade with crystal clear blue waters. Unlike other places in the Dominican Republic, the beaches here are going to be far less crowded as Las Terrenas provides a quieter time (though still with a great nightlife, more on that later!).
If you’re staying outside the city, the beaches are not nearly as vast, but are even more peaceful with plenty of places to relax and enjoy the warm waters, whether its Playa Carolina Portillo to the east or Playa Bonita to the west. Playa Cosón, a short drive further east from Playa Bonita, offers wide swaths of gorgeous golden sand beaches, with towering palms. It is also as isolated a beach as you may ever find.
While Las Terrenas is not as lively as say Cabarete or Punta Cana, it still offers an exciting nightlife. A row of restaurants and bars along the waterfront in downtown Las Terrenas offers a slew of places to go for families and singles alike. As with the beaches, just outside the city to the East and West, many small bars and restaurants also exist, many as part of hotels for those looking for a quieter night out.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive travel guide on the Dominican Republic. Hopefully, it gives you some ideas for your next vacation. Thanks to its natural beauty and rich history, the Dominican Republic is a prime Caribbean destination for all travelers. Ready to go?