Ask me what my favorite areas to photograph are in the Dominican Republic, and the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo would easily rank among the top five. I’ve been photographing this neighborhood — a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site — and the Dominican Republic steadily for the past five years and I never tire of it.
In an ongoing state of renovations and upgrades since 2014, Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial straddles a part-modernized and part ancient world, where artsy new building designs contrast against those that remain in ruins.
The Zona is so photogenic, it brings out local photographers and filmmakers every week.
Around these 16th century buildings – many of which have been transformed into boutique hotels, bars, cafes and shops – are streets and alleys that liven up in the late afternoons, particularly on the weekends. They fill up not just with tourists, but also locals who now love flocking here to enjoy the renovated parks, the new bicycle and tricycle or moped rentals, and the numerous free activities that take place here year round.
I love seeing how far the Colonial Zone has come and how much it has revived for everyone’s benefit. It’s honestly the only neighborhood in Santo Domingo where everyone visits and feels comfortable hanging out, because you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy this historic neighborhood.
Going on a photo walk in the Zona remains one of my favorite things to do when I’m taking a break from my writing desk at the end of my day.
Here are my best travel photographer tips to help you enjoy a successful photo walk around the Zona Colonial.
*Disclaimer: There are affiliate links below, at zero cost to you. As always, all recommendations are my own.
1. Walk light: Keep your gear simple
It’s been said that the best camera is the one you have at that moment. It doesn’t matter if you prefer an iPhone or an SLR camera – the point is to enjoy seeing and taking great photos.
For my professional shots or when I’m out shooting to build my photo library, I take my Sony Alpha 7 full frame SLR, with my walkabout Tamron 28-75 2.8 lens attached (I used to shoot Nikon, but my back needs a break after the past 10 years). I don’t usually head out with more than one lens unless I’m on a specific assignment, because I want to be able to move fast and being burdened affects creativity.
Depending on what my goal is that day, I might switch lenses and just take my telephoto. Other times, I’m perfectly fine shooting for fun with my iPhone and Moment lens attached.
Bottom line: take only what you want to carry in the hot sun – the photos will reflect your level of ease and comfort.
2. The best time to take photos in the Colonial Zone
The best time to shoot the Colonial Zone is when it’s buzzing with activity – especially when locals come out and play with their loved ones. You’ll come across local photographers shooting quinceañeras, newlyweds, and models almost every week.
Mondays through Wednesdays are the quietest to be in the Zona and it can feel like you have more eyes on you.
Thursdays to Sundays are more active, with Sunday being the best day to capture the neighborhood at its liveliest. As for the time of day, just before sunset through dusk or from around 5pm to 7pm, is the best time to take photos in the Colonial Zone.
In typical Caribbean fashion (also smart because the sun is dangerous), locals come out when the sun begins to lower. There are more people around, the light is a gorgeous golden shade and you can capture the sky changing to a beautiful deep blue as dusk arrives.
3. Pick a theme for your photo walk
When you’re in a new place, it’s tempting to go out immediately and capture everything you see. But that’s also a sure way to end up with the same photos as everyone else, rather than making your own memories.
Of course, you’ll want to hit the Colonial Zone’s classic trail first: visiting the historic first-ever Spanish buildings in the Americas, from the Fortaleza Ozama to the Alcazar de Colon. Once you’ve done that, go for a spontaneous walk. The best way to end up with a unique set of images from the Colonial Zone – and any place around the world, for that matter – is to choose a theme.
It can be a color, a particular pattern or architectural design, people or even a cultural topic. Once you’ve decided what you’ll focus on, head out and capture everything you see that fits your theme and calls your attention. If people are in your shot, be sure to ask for permission first.
Choosing a theme helps your eye focus better, and you’ll end up spotting details that you might have otherwise missed by just going out and shooting at random.
Last Sunday, for instance, I decided on a blue and yellow color theme. I ended up with an entirely new set of images from the Colonial Zone. Try this approach and watch your photographic eye improve.
4. The most photogenic Colonial Zone streets
Even if you choose not to have a theme, there are definite photogenic streets in the Colonial City’s center.
Calle El Conde is packed with colorful, cultural photo ops — this pedestrian street runs through the heart of the Zona and is lined with sidewalk art vendors, cafes, shops, restaurants and iconic old buildings as well as restored ones.
Nearby Calle Arzobispo Meriño is another favorite of mine, lining the popular Parque Colon on the west and also going north towards its intersection with Calle Luperon.
Calle Hostos also offers splendid colors and views from either end; it’s the third oldest paved street in the Americas. It’ll lead you to the ruins of the 16th century San Nicolas de Bari Hospital, as well as the San Francisco Monastery ruins where an outdoor merengue, salsa and son concert is held every Sunday evening.
A little more tucked away from the center is Calle Arzobispo Portes, shown at left — a lovely, tree-lined residential street with a few corner colmados or mom and pop grocery stores, as well as colorful doors and balconies that will throw you back a century or two.
Calle Padre Billini — between Fortaleza Ozama to Calle Santome — is another lovely, unshaded stretch with bougainvillea flower pots in windows and random street art. There are also historic churches on Calle Padre Billini, with gorgeous courtyards.
Calle Las Damas is lined with museums, the Nicolas de Ovando luxury hotel, the French Embassy and the National Pantheon – and opens onto the beautiful Maria de Toledo fountain plaza.
You’ll have plenty to photograph around the above streets. If you want to hire a photo walk leader to show you the Zona’s best corners while learning photography tricks, get in touch.
5. Safety tips
The Colonial Zone is one of the major tourist-friendly neighborhoods in Santo Domingo – aside from the adjacent Malecon waterfront area. This means that like most tourist areas around the world, it attracts its fair share of pickpockets and the occasional motorbike-thief who might try to snatch your camera off you if the opportunity strikes.
I’ve never had that happen to me and I’ve been photographing the Colonial Zone and all over the Dominican Republic solo for the last four years. But I’m also vigilant: I know that I have to be sensitive anywhere in the world when I’m walking around showing expensive gadgets. That’s why I recommend you keep it light in terms of gear. Stay in majorly trafficked areas and quickly put away the camera after you shoot.
The more you venture out to the edges of the Zona Colonial, which are run down and isolated, the riskier it gets in terms of wandering solo with equipment.
For my fellow solo traveling females: street harassment has significantly reduced in the Colonial Zone. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen (don’t we wish), but it’s safe to walk around solo along the area’s busy streets. The tourist police (“CESTUR”) are posted on major street corners on busy days; they keep an eye out on visitors, especially if they see you with a camera. It’s an improvement I’ve noticed over the past four years.
In conclusion: Visit Santo Domingo Now
If you were debating whether to squeeze in Santo Domingo on your trip to the Dominican Republic — beyond the fact that you’d be visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site in this cultural capital — I hope the images in this post made you realize that it’s a no brainer. You might just fall in love with it as hard as I did.
For my expert recommendations on places to stay, museums to visit, local restaurants and bars in the Colonial Zone, purchase a copy of my upcoming, updated Moon Dominican Republic guidebook for Moon Travel Guides. It’s compact and it’s also available in electronic (Kindle) format.
If you’re more of a listener, click here for my podcast conversation about Santo Domingo with The Postcard Academy, where I share my insider tips and favorite places, from museums to food and cultural do’s.
For more of my images on Santo Domingo and the Dominican Republic, visit my portfolio.
Have you ever been to Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone?