Ranging from the brochure-worthy beaches of Punta Cana in the east (and all the uber-luxurious resort hotels that go with them) to the wild and cloud-topped mountain peaks of the Central Mountains in the west (the highest in the Caribbean), the paradisaical sands of Isla Saona in the southern swells to the virgin rainforests of Los Haitises on the north shore, it’s easy to see how the Dominican Republic commands such a respected and loved place as one of the top touristic draws in the region.
Visitors come to don the walking boots and spy out iguanas on the saline lakes, or to wax up the surf boards and hit the fabled left-to-righters.
They come to follow in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus, or seek colossal whales on the Samana coast.
The come to eat fresh seafood, smoke local cigars, and even party the night away Spring Break-style.
Let’s explore the best things to do in the Dominican Republic:
1. Roam the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo
While Santo Domingo’s booming metro population of over two million people makes it the largest city in the entire Caribbean, the over 500-year-old town is also known for its rich history and heritage.
This is focussed almost entirely on the so-called Ciudad Colonial (or Zona Colonial), which buts up to the western banks of the Ozama River as it flows to meet the sea.
This collection of cobbled streets and regal residences is actually the oldest colonial city center in the New World.
Columbus himself trod here in the 15th century, and a grand bronze statue in the central Parque Colon stands as testimony to his enduring influence.
There are oodles of must-sees in the UNESCO district, especially the First Cathedral of America (the first of its kind in all of the Americas), the grand Alcazar De Colon, and the crenulated tops of the Ozama Fort.
2. Sample luxury in Punta Cana
Punta Cana is the undisputed king of tourism in the Dominican Republic.
Poking out of the extreme eastern end of Hispaniola Island, the area is sprawling patchwork of five-star hotels and swish golf resorts, all complete with verdant fairways that undulate along the Atlantic shore and infinity pools that seem to merge seamlessly with the sparkling Carib waters.
Of course, there are beaches aplenty too, with the likes of powdery Macao Beach, palm-peppered Bavaro and scintillating white Arena Gorda often topping the list.
3. Get a feel for the Med in Altos de Chavon
Just a stone’s throw from the city of La Romana on the southern shore, raised above the bends of the Chavon River, the curious little town of Altos de Chavon is certainly worth a visit.
Coming complete with everything from half-timbered Italian-style homes and an ancient-looking amphitheatre in the Roman tradition, the gorgeous stonework of the St Stanislaus Church and a series of cobbled plazas and alleyways, it’s hard to believe the whole place was actually conceived and built in the 1970s and 80s! Designed by an Italian architect, the town is supposed to mimic the look and feel of a 16th-century European settlement.
Today, it comes packed with excellent arts and crafts stalls, and a series of galleries besides.
4. Go full ecotourist in Los Haitises
Los Haitises National Park has risen and risen in recent decades to become a veritable magnet for ecotourists making their way through the Dominican Republic.
Clutching the pearly blue waters of Samana Bay, it’s home to rows of soaring coastal mountains and deep valleys filled with primeval rainforest.
Pelicans and hutia rodents meet between the swaying mangrove swamps and empty bayous, while hiking trails delve into the virgin woods that abut the shore.
There are also a number of enthralling Taino caves to see, complete with mysterious petroglyphs from centuries past!
5. Enjoy paradise on Playa Rincon
There are plenty of reasons why beautiful Playa Rincon is a consistent mention on lists of the top beaches on the planet.
Hugging the edge of gorgeous Samana Bay, just a stone’s throw from the protected wilds of Los Haitises, the sands here spill out from the mangroves and jungles behind like something out of Robinson Crusoe.
The beach itself is split into three rough sections.
On one end there’s a shallow coastal lagoon with a clutch of sunbeds and beach taverns touting fresh Carib fish cuts from its barbeque, while the other extremity of the beach is wilder and more windswept, offering gorgeous views over the Cibao coast and crystal-clear shore waters to boot!
6. Go off-the-beaten-track to Lake Enriquillo
The largest lake in the entire Caribbean is home to saltwater crocs and pink flamingos, yet still very few tourists make their way to this far-flung section of the island.
Why? Well, for one it’s a hefty journey from the resorts of Punta Cana, and there’s little in the way of classic tropical attraction.
However, those who do decide to make the trip over the rugged heights of the soaring Cordillera Central all the way to the hypersaline lake are in for a real treat.
There are some curious creatures to see, like stalking iguanas, along with hundreds of bird species, not to mention some of the island’s more rustic, earthy villages and towns, strewn out along the verdant banks of Independencia Province.
7. Spot whales on the Samana Peninsula
Samana Bay is the final destination for one of the largest migrations of marine mammals on the planet.
The result of this colossal undersea peregrination can be seen in the winter each year, around January and early-February.
This is when boat loads of visitors hit the seas off Sabana de la Mar and El Limon, to seek out the hulking outlines of humpback whales in the Dominican waters.
Trips range from day excursions into the ocean to see the splashing tail fins and mating rituals of the gargantuan males, to longer boating expeditions that offer up-close-and-personal meetings with the giants of the sea along the shores of Puerto Plata.
8. Sail across to Isla Saona
From the rocky piers of Catuano to the bobbing sailboats that line the waters of Mano Juan on the south shore, little Isla Saona really does live up to its reputation as a paradisiacal enclave of the Caribbean.
Entirely encompassed by the boundaries of the East National Park, the little pinprick of land off the southern edge of the Dominican Republic coast remains hardly developed at all.
That means the beaches here still ooze a natural charm.
Swaying coconut palms take the place of hotel sunning beds, and mangroves sprawl where mega resorts otherwise would.
(No wonder it’s so often used in films as a backdrop for the picture-perfect tropics!)
9. Visit the highlands of Constanza
If you can pull yourself away from the sparkling Carib beaches and aquamarine seas of Punta Cana or the north shore for a spell, then be sure to make a beeline for the soaring heights of the Cordillera Central.
Set deep in the heartlands of the country, this is where the pretty little mountain town of Constanza makes its home.
It’s encompassed by sweeping fields of apple orchards and strawberry plantations, all of which are brushed over by cool highland breezes (offering a welcome break from the sultry tropical heat of the low country). Either opt to kick-back in a hammock and enjoy the curiously Japanese-influenced culture of the spot, or head to the hills and hike or bike along the rumbling trails to your heart’s content.
10. Discover the Damajaqua Cascades
Carving their way through the hilly reaches just south of Puerto Plata, where the Cordillera Septentrional rises up from the Caribbean Sea, the Damajaqua Cascades remain one of the top sights for adventure tourists in the country.
Known colloquially as the 27 Waterfalls, they offer a series of canyons and plunge pools that are perfect for gorge walking excursions.
Trips to the truly beautiful section of the Damajaqua River often involve scaling sheer-cut rocks and plunging into cool mountain ponds, while the boughs of the jungle all around mean no end of colourful birds and exotic creatures to spot along the way!
11. Party the night away at Coco Bongo
A colossal arena of a club that pulses with high-octane chart and EDM, laser shows and plumes of smoke, electric-infused flamenco dances, multi-coloured explosions of confetti and memorable tribute acts, cabaret and gravity-defying trapeze performances from Tuesday to Sunday, Coco Bongo remains one of the top nightlife spots in the Dominican Republic.
Expect a raucous time of hedonism and fun that doesn’t wind up until the early hours of the morning! Entry deals typically include unlimited drinks and a pickup from local hotels.
12. Hit the swells of Cabarete
Occupying a little hump of a headland on the north shore, just a short jaunt eastwards from Puerto Plata, Cabarete is a great place for both expert and beginner board riders looking to don the wetsuits and hit the Caribbean swells! The beachfront is roughly broken into three separate sections, with surf schools making use of the soft left-to-righters that crash in from the sand banks of Bobos and Main Peak.
More seasoned wave searchers will want to head a little to the west, where the reef breaks of Destroyers really does live up to its name!
13. Wonder at the Basilica of our Lady in Higuey
Standing tall and proud in Art Deco and modernist lines over the skyline of Higuey, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia (that’s just the Basilica of our Lady for short) is one of the most striking religious structures on the island of Hispaniola, nay in the entire of the Caribbean.
The curious building was completed back in 1971, on Altagracia Day – now one of the most important pilgrimages for Catholics in the Dominican Republic.
It was constructed atop an older, 16th-century basilica, and finished with gildings of gold and bronze, along with a series of stained-glass windows and elegant natural-style filigrees atop the doorways.
14. Gawp down at the Hoyo Azul
Plunging its way deep into the green landscape around southern Punta Cana, the Hoyo Azul is one of the true natural jewels of the Cap Cana.
A breathtaking sight to behold, travelers head to spy out the colossal cenote and its sparkling blue waters, which sit glistening and dappled with light under a 75-meter-high cliff.
Visitors are invited to swim in the cool and refreshing pool, which is reached by a purpose-built footbridge and timber staircase clutching the rock.
What’s more, the walk to the attraction takes travelers through some of the island’s lush forestry, where zip lines and trekking are just two of the add-on possibilities!
15. Feel the romance at La Yola Restaurant
Perched out on timber stilts above the waters of the Cap Cana harboursides, where whitewashed yachts reflect in the Caribbean Sea, pretty little La Yola is arguably one of the most romantic spots to dine on the entire island.
Patrons take up tables right on the shoreline, where the glowing lights of the Puntacana Resort & Club dapple against the rippled surface of the dock.
The menu, meanwhile, is a medley of Mediterranean-influenced staples with a twist of Latin flavor.
Expect the likes of seafood ceviche with citrus dressings, red snapper fillets, Dominican seafood stews – the list goes on!