Visitors will often find mention of Santo Domingo’s status as the ‘oldest’ settlement in the New World, which simply means it is the longest continually inhabited colonized area created in the Americas. Christopher Columbus’s brother Bartolome Columbus founded Santo Domingo in the late fifteenth century. Columbus declared it a possession of the Spanish crown in 1496 and since then, Spain, France and finally Haiti variously ruled Santo Domingo until its independence in 1844. It was since again occupied by Spain and the United States, and then ruled by dictator Rafael Trujillo. Freedom finally came after Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, since which time the city has been rebuilt and colonial monuments and buildings restored.
The Ciudad Colonial – or Colonial Zone – was built by the Spanish crown, which subsequently used Santo Domingo as a departure point to conquer neighboring territories. The center of the Colonial Zone is the Royal Houses, which has been converted into a museum of colonial era relics and history. This monument, built in the sixteenth century, was originally the administrative centre for the Spanish crown to rule over their colonies. The first floor was the Royal Court, that held important meetings and royal functions, and the second floor was the office of the Captain General.
In 1973, the Dominican President Joaquin Balaguer converted the Royal Houses into the museum it is today. It highlights the colonial history of the city as well as housing some well-preserved colonial era-relics. The museum is located on Calle las Damas, the city’s oldest Spanish road.
Further along is the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor, which was built in 1540, making it the oldest church in the New World. Its architecture highlights the trends of its time in Europe – the church has a mixture of Gothic and Baroque styles with vaulted ceilings inside.
Alcazar de Colon was the residence of Diego Columbus, son of Bartolome, in Santo Domingo. Built in 1512 after Diego’s appointment as the Viceroy of La Espanola, this is the oldest Viceregal house in the Americas. It held an important position during the colonial period as most of the Spanish conquests and explorations were planned from this very residence. Today the house is a museum which holds late medieval and Renaissance art from Europe, as well as important tapestries from the 15th to 17th centuries. These works of art were acquired in the 1950’s, after the Dominican government restored the residence.
Across from Alcazar de Colon is the Naval Museum of the Ataranazas, which is housed in what was originally a depot in the sixteenth century. It documents the history of various shipwrecks along the coast of the Dominican Republic since colonial times, and the fruits of the recovery efforts. Cannons, coins, swords and other trinkets are among the treasures found in these colonial-era wrecks.
Santo Domingo’s colonial history is carefully maintained for tourist and local consumption alike. While European influence is abundant in the area one can also see local culture mingling with colonial history in the Ciudad Colonial.