Breath­ing new life into the Do­mini­can Republic’s Santo Domingo


Con­tem­po­rary travel is all about the ex­pe­ri­ence and, more than that, au­then­tic­ity, both of which Santo Domingo of­fers in spades. You walk the same soft aguayo floor tiles and brick-laid court­yards as the city’s 18th-cen­tury in­hab­i­tants did. And go­ing fur­ther back into the city’s her­itage, walk cer­tain streets and you could al­most imag­ine a con­quis­ta­dor com­ing around the cor­ner.

The cap­i­tal of the Do­mini­can Republic, Santo Domingo is one of a num­ber of at­mo­spheric colo­nial Latin cities around the Caribbean – Carta­gena, Old San Juan and Ha­vana. This, how­ever, is the old­est of them all, founded in 1496 by Colum­bus’s brother, Bartholomew, on the is­land that came to be called His­pan­iola. Build­ings date from the

very early 1500s, in­ter­est­ing in it­self be­cause they are me­dieval, un­like those in other cities in Latin Amer­ica, which are baroque.


The city is just com­ing to the end of a four-year restora­tion pro­gramme. Around US$31.5 mil­lion has been spent to im­prove pave­ments, lay util­i­ties un­der­ground and in­tro­duce green­ery and street fur­ni­ture, in­clud­ing his­toric-look­ing “villa” lanterns. Around 80 fa­cades have been re­stored, but by far the most im­pres­sive al­ter­ation is the dis­ap­pear­ance of over­head elec­tri­cal and tele­phone wires, a Caribbean-wide af­flic­tion best de­scribed as look­ing like aerial spaghetti.

In par­al­lel, the pri­vate sec­tor has in­jected some US$100m, re­pur­pos­ing build­ings into cafés, ho­tels and gal­leries. It has trans­formed the ex­pe­ri­ence of a visit to the old­est city in the New World.


The Billini Ho­tel is set in a former con­vent dat­ing from the 1500s. Along­side mod­ern pho­tog­ra­phy and tech­nol­ogy – Ipad dock­ing sta­tions and Bang and Olufsen sound sys­tems – stand ex­posed sec­tions of the old rub­ble-stone walls. Dis­tinc­tive fea­tures, such as co­ral-stone pil­lars dat­ing from 1550, were dis­cov­ered dur­ing the ren­o­va­tion and have been re­stored to their former glory.

Rosadela Serulle, a Do­mini­can de­signer who trained abroad, styled the ho­tel to its cur­rent look: “There is a mix of restora­tion and mod­ern de­sign. We have ex­posed the walls to show the his­tory, but I felt the Do­mini­cans needed some­thing new and dif­fer­ent, and we wanted to stand out, rather than be just an­other colo­nial-style ho­tel.”

A strik­ing ac­cent colour of scar­let runs through the ho­tel, as does equally eye-catch­ing art from bor­der­ing Haiti – the own­ers are half Haitian. The Billini has a lively air, with a roof ter­race and pool, while a bar spills out onto the pi­azza of a 16th-cen­tury church that is still in use.

New ho­tels, bars and restau­rants are ap­pear­ing all the time, but it wasn’t ever thus. The pop­u­la­tion within the city walls (30,000 in 1965) has steadily re­duced to 8,000. For many years, new de­vel­op­ment went else­where: ini­tially along the coast­line, in vil­las and apart­ment blocks and chain ho­tels, and then more re­cently in­land. The city's busi­ness cen­tre is a clus­ter of glass high-rises around Win­ston Churchill and Abra­ham Lin­coln Av­enues.


Phase two of Santo Domingo’s restora­tion is even more am­bi­tious. The aim is to reen­er­gise the old city, as well as con­tin­u­ing to im­prove the in­fra­struc­ture.

Mari­bel Vil­lalona is the head ar­chi­tect over­see­ing the project. “Con­ser­va­tion in our times means a liv­ing city,” she says. “Suc­cess in phase two will be to dou­ble the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in the colo­nial zone and bring it back to life. Also, to per­suade ev­ery vis­i­tor to ex­plore the colo­nial zone.”

There will be a fur­ther US$90 mil­lion to spend, via an­other loan from the In­ter­na­tional Amer­i­can De­vel­op­ment Bank, cur­rently be­ing passed by the na­tional gov­ern­ment. They ex­pect it to lead to the cre­ation of 500 new busi­nesses, which will in­clude non­tourism re­lated en­ter­prises as well as restau­rants, bars, var­i­ous ac­com­mo­da­tions and gal­leries.

Span­ish ar­chi­tect Rafael Mo­neo has won the de­sign com­pe­ti­tion for phase two.

Many of the same im­prove­ments will be car­ried through the rest of the old city, but his plan also re-opens the city walls to walk­ers, re­stores more mu­se­ums and land­marks, and 120 fa­cades. The scheme will also con­cen­trate on com­mu­nity, re­work­ing ne­glected pub­lic spa­ces and im­prov­ing 200 homes.

Con­cepts of restora­tion have moved on. Nowa­days, the mon­u­men­tal build­ings that were ren­o­vated in the 1980s feel a bit ma­rooned, set in large open spa­ces, with lit­tle of the street life that makes the rest of this coun­try so lively.

In con­trast, the new Ma­rine Her­itage Mu­seum feels quite mod­ern. Set in the Atarazana, the old Royal Cus­toms House, through which all goods im­ported to the Caribbean were sup­posed to pass for two cen­turies, it dis­plays Do­mini­can ma­rine ar­chae­o­log­i­cal her­itage through in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibits of ship­wrecks from across the cen­turies with life-size mock-ups of ships, au­dio-vis­ual dis­plays and ex­ca­vated can­non, pipes, combs and coins.


Latin cities can tan­ta­lise – as you walk around you snatch glimpses through win­dows and open doors; a run of Ro­manesque arches here, paint­ings on a wall, per­haps a fam­ily at sup­per there. But you can ex­pe­ri­ence the in­side of these homes through Casas del XVI, a col­lec­tion of houses that can be rented.

Each Casa has an in­te­rior court­yard and is re­stored with pe­riod and re­pro­duc­tion fur­ni­ture, even ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal pieces, to give a sense of tra­di­tional Santo Domingo. The walls of Casa de las Ma­pas are lined with colo­nial maps, and the new Casa del Dise­nador – the house that once be­longed to fash­ion de­signer Os­car de la Renta – ref­er­ences Do­mini­can de­sign­ers. The Casas del XVI are cool and calm spa­ces, but with but­ler ser­vice and a concierge to make sure you get the best of the city.

And sim­i­larly, restau­rants and bars are open­ing up in fan­tas­tic set­tings. You can lis­ten to merengue and jazz un­der a colon­nade in a baroque court­yard, or drink in a brick-paved ware­house that was once fre­quented by con­quis­ta­dors (and pi­rates).

Back to Rosadela Serulles of the Billini for a final word: “We have some­thing that no-one else has – the old­est city in the New World. We’re au­then­tic.”

The Casas del XVI are cool and calm spa­ces, but with but­ler ser­vice and a concierge

Statue of Christo­pher Colum­bus in front of Santa Maria la Menor Cathe­dral

The aim is to re-en­er­gise the old city, as well as im­prov­ing the in­fra­struc­ture

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: A scar­let ac­cent and Haitian art are fea­tures of the de­sign of Billini Ho­tel; the build­ing was once a con­vent; rooms fea­ture mod­ern pho­tog­ra­phy and the lat­est tech; his­toric-look­ing “villa” lanterns have been in­stalled on the streets

Casas del XVI of­fers the op­por­tu­nity to stay in the former homes of the city’s in­hab­i­tants

LEFT: Each Casa has an in­ner court­yard ABOVE LEFT AND RIGHT:

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