Rollicking turquoise waves, swaying palms and some of the finest rum on the planet – the Dominican Republic is just as famous for its natural beauty as it is for the abundant all-inclusive resorts that call the island home.
While there’s no shortage of places with swim-up bars built for serene weeks of lounging by the water, getting off hotel property is one of the best ways to truly take in the Dominican experience.
Spending some time in major cities – like Santo Domingo and Santiago de los Caballeros – is ideal for sampling the island culture, while getting off the beaten path and exploring less developed natural enclaves will reward you with waterfalls, whale watching and flora-filled rainforest hikes.
Traveling from region to region is fairly common – you’ll find Dominicans commuting for business, going to visit family in the country or navigating their way to school. Taxis can be found just about everywhere, and ride-sharing services are available in the three major cities: Santo Domingo, Santiago and Puerto Plata. Public transportation in the form of bus service is both an affordable and memorable way to experience island life.
If you aren’t sure where to begin exploring everything the Dominican Republic has to offer, here’s a list of eight can’t-miss sites.
Punta Cana is best for casinos and resort life
When most people think of the Dominican Republic, it’s Punta Cana they have in mind. It’s the resort capital of the island, with an avalanche of all-inclusives catering to the bottomless-bar set.
But beyond the tourist-focused, theme park–level accommodations, Punta Cana plays host to beaches that rival some of the Caribbean’s best. Punta Cana’s 97km (60 miles) of coastline face both Atlantic and Caribbean waters, inviting you to hop on a catamaran, go deep-sea fishing or get lost in a book while baking under the warm sun.
The area also has a vibrant party scene that pulsates late into the night, thanks to the various resorts’ casinos and clubs.
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Santo Domingo is best for culture buffs
The gritty hustle and bustle of city life collide with vibrant Dominican culture in the island’s capital (“El Capital”), Santo Domingo. It’s one of the Caribbean’s oldest cities, making it ideal for history aficionados looking to explore colonial-era architecture and take a deep dive into the country’s past.
You’ll find the Zona Colonial in the city’s center, which the island’s oldest church, European fortress, monastery, university and hospital all call home. But step outside the cobblestone streets of the Zona and a metropolitan joyride awaits, with elegant restaurants, raucous nightclubs and plenty of cultural institutions to add to your itinerary.
Reserve a table at the elegant El Mesón de la Cava for dinner in an ancient Taino cave, and afterward hit the edgy, strobe-lit club Jet Set; Onno’s, a local bar chain, is also a popular spot for a casual night of beer and cocktails.
Samaná is best for whale watching
The Samaná Peninsula is where the unspoiled natural beauty of the Dominican Republic mingles with friendly small-town sensibilities – a stark contrast to the glitzy resorts of Punta Cana and the bustling grind of Santo Domingo.
The capital of this peninsular province is the eponymous Samaná, located in northern Samaná Bay. Eco-tourism is popular here, with one major star attraction: whales. The best time to go is between January and March, when thousands of humpback whales descend upon the bay to give birth to their calves.
El Museo de las Ballenas (Whale Museum) in the neighboring town of Salinas is an attraction in its own right, with guided tours of marine mammal exhibits, handcrafted souvenirs and a full 12m (40-ft) skeleton of a humpback whale, found along the rocky coastline between Las Galeras and Santa Bárbara de Samaná in 1993.
Sosúa is best for late-night partying
By day, Sosúa is your typical sleepy beach town – large swaths of sandy shores gently lapped by the Atlantic’s cerulean waves. It’s also the island’s dairy and cheese capital, courtesy of a 1938 presidential decree that allowed 100,000 Jewish refugees to settle in the area.
Some 800 people took the offer and launched a dairy and cheese factory, many of whose products you can purchase today.
While this all seems quite bucolic and mellow, Sosúa by night is an entirely different beast. After dark the main strip (Calle Pedro Clisante) closes off to traffic, and revelers spill out onto the streets from the resident bars, lounges and nightclubs, many of which feature local live music, including the Blue Ice Piano Bar and the popular Jolly Roger.
But a word of caution: the area is also known for sex tourism. Dominican and Haitian sex workers are known to approach and proposition tourists in the area, so practice a fair amount of caution.
Cabarete is best for thrill seekers
Sure, sipping cocktails by the beach is nice. But there’s only so much relaxing you can do, right? When you’re ready to shift your vacation into high gear, set your coordinates for Cabarete, a beach town located on the Caribbean coast of the Dominican Republic.
Founded in 1835 by a British merchant and former slave owner, Cabarete is now an adrenaline junkie’s dream, a haven for kayakers, snorkelers and wind and kite surfers (several international competitions are hosted here). It’s also a popular spot for avid surfers, thanks to some of the best winds and tides in the Caribbean.
El Limón waterfall is the perfect adventurous hike
Tighten your shoelaces and summon your balance – the 2.4km (1.5-mile) trail to get to Cascada El Limón is mostly wet and rocky terrain that visitors traverse on horseback. But it can also be accessed by foot – you’ll cross rivers and hop over muddy rocks to make it to your destination, so be sure to pack some rubber footwear.
After a 30 to 60 minute walk or horseback ride from the small town of El Limón, you’ll arrive at your destination – a spectacular 46m (150-ft) waterfall that flows into the cool waters of an expansive swimming hole. You can book a tour with one of the companies in Las Terrenas, a 30-minute drive from El Limón; the excursion typically includes a guide, horse and lunch.
Bayahibe best for scuba diving
Situated on the Caribbean coast of the Dominican Republic, Bayahibe is a former fishing village turned quiet resort town with access to some of the island’s most lively (and spectacular) beaches.
Just a few miles from town, you’ll find Bayahibe Beach, Dominicus Beach and boat launches that ferry you to Isla Saona, a national park that’s more booze-cruise layover than uninhabited sanctuary. Your best bet: staying in Bayahibe and taking advantage of one of some 20 different dive sites in the area – it’s one of the most active areas for scuba divers in the country. If scuba diving isn’t in the cards, try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding or snorkeling the reefs instead.
Jarabacoa offers mountainous hikes and whitewater river rafting
Jarabacoa is the antithesis of the Dominican Republic’s oceanside towns. So when you’ve had your fill of lounging on the beach, head to Jarabacoa’s soaring peaks for verdant hikes, whitewater rafting on a roaring river and warm mugs of irresistible Dominican coffee on cool, misty mountain mornings.
Known as the City of Everlasting Spring, Jarabacoa has no shortage of activities: waterfall hikes, rope-bridge crossings over the Jimenoa River, plentiful rounds of golf and visits to the Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria del Evangelio.
The area is also home to the Ebano Verde Scientific Reserve, where more than 600 species of flora and fauna populate one of the most humid areas on the island (you can arrange a tour of the reserve before you visit). Jarabacao is also known for its Carnaval festivities in February – one of the most famous celebrations in the Dominican Republic.