Occupying the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is the most visited tourist destination in the Caribbean. And the country’s image as a sun-blessed playground is merited – you can happily spend your days on sandy beaches framed by crystal-clear waters and lofty palm trees, and fill your nights with merengue and dark rum.
But there’s a lot more to the DR, as it’s commonly known. Set on the most geographically diverse Caribbean island, it boasts alpine wilderness, tropical rainforests and mangrove swamps, cultivated savannahs, vast desert expanses and everything in between. The opportunities for ecotourism and adventure travel are staggering: if you were so inclined, in a single week you could scale a 150m waterfall on a rope, mountain bike along remote dirt tracks, ride the best windsurfing waves in the hemisphere, trek to the top of a 3000m mountain and head out in a fishing boat to marvel at the humpback whales crashing about in the bay of Samaná.
As Dominicans are quick to point out, their land was the setting for Christopher Columbus’s first colony, La Isabela, and Spain’s first New World city, Santo Domingo. The events that took place during this brief heyday did much to define the Americas as we know them, and examples of period architecture – both preserved and in ruins – remain in the colonial heart of Santo Domingo. As for Dominican culture today, locals take great pride in the sophisticated and intoxicating rhythms of merengue and bachata – the national musical forms – and in the exploits of homegrown baseball players who become stars in the North American leagues.
Religion, too, is an integral part of life. The roots of syncretic religion are complicated and nuanced but its theatrical side can be experienced firsthand at one of the dozens of vibrant fiestas patronales. Held in every town across the country, the celebrations in the name of a patron saint are usually music-driven, round-the-clock processions and street parties that can last several days, and offering visitors another chance to see the DR in full, passionate swing.
Best Time to Visit the Dominican Republic
When thinking about the best time to visit the Dominican Republic, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are two distinct tourist high seasons; the summer months of July and August, when travellers from the northern hemisphere fill the resorts and all but the most out-of-the-way beaches, and the winter season between December and late February, when the Dominican climate is at its optimum, having cooled down a little from the summer. You’ll therefore save a bit of money – and have an easier time booking a hotel room on the spot – if you arrive during the spring or the autumn, which is just fine, as the temperature doesn’t really vary all that much from season to season.
Keep in mind also that the Dominican Republic is in the centre of the Caribbean hurricane belt, and gets hit with a major storm every decade or so. August and September is prime hurricane season, though smaller ones can occur in the months before and after.
12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Dominican Republic
Postcard-perfect beaches, luxury resorts, and a solid tourism infrastructure are what draw many tourists to the Dominican Republic. The diverse geography, which ranges from lush forests and mountains to semi-desert areas, also creates unique opportunities for travelers who want more than a simple beach vacation.
The beach resorts of Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, and La Romana, offer what many packaged vacationers are looking for: a tropical escape designed for relaxation. Independent travelers who want to escape from this scene can head to remote areas of the country, like the Samaná Peninsula, the mountainous interior, or the less tourist-focused towns and cities. Surfers and kiteboarders will find exactly what they’re looking for in places like Cabarete. And no place in the Caribbean delivers on history quite like the colonial zone in Santo Domingo.
Immerse yourself in nature, find secluded beaches, and learn about the culture with our list of the top attractions and best places to visit in the Dominican Republic.
- Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial
In this city, where Christopher Columbus first landed in the America’s, you’ll find the hustle and bustle of modern day life being played out against the backdrop of centuries-old buildings. The colonial architecture, much of which today houses museums, restaurants, shops, and quaint hotels, lines the streets and squares, and takes you back to another era in mind-blowing fashion. Much of the activity focuses around Calle El Conde, the main thoroughfare and a popular street for shopping or dining el fresco. Wandering around the various streets, you’ll see crumbling ruins, like those of Monesterio de San Francisco; beautifully preserved buildings, such as the Catedral Primada de América (First Cathedral in the Americas), which is still in use today; and residential areas, offering a glimpse into local life. Even eating pizza in a restored colonial building on a hot night, or lounging in the courtyard of your 450-year-old hotel can feel like a unique experience in this beautiful city. Santo Domingo is definitely a place worth spending some time.
- The Resort Destination of Punta Cana
Where an endless stretch of beautiful white-sand beach meets the emerald waters of the Caribbean is Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic’s premiere resort destination. If you are looking for luxury all-inclusive resorts, a couple’s retreat, or family-friendly accommodation combined with an unending list of water-based activities for entertainment, this is the place to come. Bavaro Beach is Punta Cana’s most impressive stretch of beach, where you can wade into the water or walk for hours along the sand. Resorts line the beach and offer easy access to all the activities. This is not a place to come for a quiet getaway. The ocean is a flurry of activity, with boats, parasailers, and tour boats coming and going. Roped-off areas offer safe places to swim. Inland from the beach are a smattering of restaurants and retail, most of which are very modern, especially by Dominican Republic standards.
- Puerto Plata & Playa Dorada
Along the north coast, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, the resort destination of Puerto Plata and the beautiful stretch of beach known as Playa Dorada is one of the Dominican Republic’s biggest tourist draws. This golden-sand beach is lined with luxury resorts, although much less densely packed than what you’ll find in Punta Cana. This area is also much more subdued and has more of a tranquil feel. The beaches are not busy with boats and water sports, although it’s a beautiful area for swimming or snorkeling. You can walk beyond the resorts to undeveloped beaches backed by palm trees and forest.
- Cabarate & the Beachside Restaurants
Cabarete is known for its relaxed atmosphere and huge, crescent-shaped beach lined with casual restaurants where visitors can dine right on the sand. Unlike the Dominican Republic’s resort destinations like Punta Cana or Puerto Plata, this town is not full of all-inclusive resorts and packaged-vacation tourists. Instead, Cabarete attracts free spirits, backpackers, retirees, and kiteboarders who come here to spend a few weeks or months, particularly during the winter.
If you are staying in nearby Puerto Plata you can day trip to Cabarete to spend a day on the beach, enjoy a meal, or do some shopping. In the early evenings, especially on weekends and Tuesdays, musicians often perform in the local beachfront restaurants and provide entertainment as the sun sets.
- Las Galeras
At the farthest tip of the Samaná Peninsula, where the road dead ends at the ocean, looking out over one of the area’s many beautiful beaches, is the small town of Las Galeras. Its remote location will appeal to independent travelers looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience. Palm-lined, white-sand beaches and turquoise water create an idyllic scene. Beaches like Playa Rincon, La Playita, Playa Fronton, and other unnamed stretches of undeveloped beaches in the area are some of the best beaches in the Dominican Republic and offer the polar opposite experience of the major resort destinations on the island. Here, you can hire a boat to take you to a remote beach for a morning or afternoon, or walk from town to several beautiful sandy coves in the surrounding area.
The town itself has only one main street but restaurants along here, many operated by French expats, offer outstanding cuisine at backpacker prices. Restaurants in the surrounding mountains or along the oceanfront cliffs, which require a drive from town, provide more great options. Las Galeras is the perfect place to get away from busy streets and the tourist scene, while still offering enough infrastructure to make you comfortable.
- Kiteboarding on Cabarete’s Kite Beach
Around a headland from Cabarete’s main beach, about a 20-minute walk along the waterfront, is Kite Beach. This small area has its own unique vibe. In the mornings, the beach is quiet, with the exception of walkers and runners or people swimming and stand up paddleboarding. In the afternoon, when the winds pick up, kiteboarders descend on the beach, and the sky fills with kites. The sand is a riot of colors with kites waiting for the best winds to materialize. A few restaurants along here offer casual food, many with a particular focus on vegetarian food and other healthy offerings. On Friday afternoons, a free circus offers entertainment at the end of the beach. Even if you are not a kiter, it’s worth coming to see the spectacle. Cabarete hosts the annual Master of the Ocean competition in February, where the best in the world come to compete in kitesurfing, windsurfing, surfing, and stand up paddleboarding. This is a great time to see some incredible kiting on Kite Beach. If you are interested in taking up this sport yourself, numerous schools offer lessons and hotels cater to kiters.
- Whale Watching in Samaná Bay
Each winter, from December through March, thousands of humpback whales enter Samaná Bay to mate and give birth, making this one of the best places to see these beautiful giants in the wild. The city of Samaná, on the Samaná Peninsula, is the main departure point for Whale Watching trips. The city itself holds little else for travelers, but the whales are such a popular tourist attraction, many companies offer day trips here from various destinations around the island. If you are passing through on your way to Las Galeras, of if you are based in nearby Las Terrenas, less than an hour away, you can stop in Samaná and sign up for a half-day whale watching trip with a marine biologist. You can also do a 12-hour whale watching day trip from Punta Cana, which involves a short flight and a shuttle bus to the boat.
- Las Terrenas
On the north coast, Las Terrenas is a busy Dominican city with a peaceful and laid-back beachfront area, where winding, single-lane dirt roads meander past small French cafés and lookout over palms, beaches, and the aquamarine ocean. Just a short stroll inland takes you to the motorbike-filled streets, where Dominicans are going about work and everyday life. This is one of the best places to visit if you want a taste of Dominican culture and all the conveniences of a city, combined with a great beach destination. Like Las Galeras, many French people have made Las Terrenas their home and have set up restaurants and inns.
- Bahia de Las Aguilas
Well off the major tourist route, the remote Bahia de Las Aguillas in Jaragua National Park is a glorious eight-kilometer stretch of beach, which you may have all to yourself on any given day. The shallow, clear, calm water and white-sand bottom, combined with a distinct lack of tourism and development, make this one of the most pristine beaches in the Dominican Republic. Located on the southwestern coast of the country, close to the border with Haiti, this area is isolated, to say the least. From Santo Domingo, the drive time is at least six hours. The nearest town to the beach is Pedernales, almost an hour away by car, and the tourism infrastructure in this part of the Dominican is some of the least developed in the country. You won’t find luxury resorts, but you will find tranquility, solitude, and unique experiences if you come out this way. The climate here is semi-arid, and the landscape, which consists largely of cactus and scrub, is much different than other areas of the country.
- Isla Saona and Parque Nacional de Este
While Parque Nacional del Este, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a serene place of natural beauty and habitat for countless plants, animals, and birds, most people know the park for the beaches of Isla Saona. This island is a tourist magnet, with all kinds of day trippers from the nearby resort destinations of Punta Cana and La Romana. The soft-sand beach and turquoise water is what most people would imagine if they were to picture a tropical island paradise. But, despite the fact that there are no resorts on the island, it is a lively destination during the day as catamarans and speedboats drop tourists on the beaches to relax in lounge chairs and soak up the sun. If you are tired of the scene in Punta Cana and looking for an outing, you can hop on a Saona Island Day Trip from Punta Cana. A small speedboat will whisk you over to the island for a day of relaxing on the beach and playing in the shallow waters.
While many Dominican vacationers consider Jarabacoa a summer retreat destination, foreign travelers tend to see it as an outdoor adventure playground in the mountains of the Dominican Republic’s interior. In the vicinity are opportunities for rafting, hiking, biking, and other types of exploration. At an elevation of over 500 meters, the climate here is much milder than the coast and nights are often cool. If you are spending more than just a week or two in the country, it’s worth venturing up to Jarabacoa. This town also makes a convenient stop for a couple of nights if you are traveling between Santo Domingo and either Puerto Plata or Cabarete.
- La Romana
Not far from Punta Cana, La Romana is one of the Dominican’s lesser-known resort destinations. This area has a number of large resorts, some of which are geared towards more independent travelers looking to self-cater. However, the number of resorts here is not nearly on the same scale as Punta Cana. Beautiful beaches in the area are the main draw. One of the most popular things to do here is visit the Altos de Chavón, where you can shop for crafters and souvenirs in a replica of a 16th-century artisan’s village. The village is set off on its own, but you can join an organized shopping trip if you don’t have your own transportation. Not far from La Romana is Bayahibe, a fishing town with a public beach and the departure point for trips to Isla Saona. You can also day trip from La Romana to Santo Domingo, about 1.5 hours away. Golfing is another popular activity in the area.