If debating which part of the Dominican Republic you want to visit, Punta Cana and Santo Domingo have probably crossed your mind. After all, they are two of the most popular regions of this beautiful country.
Choosing between them can be a struggle though, as they both offer exciting experiences.
However the reality is they couldn’t be any more different from each other. Punta Cana is a relaxed resort town, while Santo Domingo is an energetic metropolis. So as you would expect, the lifestyle and everyday activities are highly different in each – as we’ll show you here!
Despite being poles apart in almost every aspect, they still bear many comparison points. We will go through those next to help you figure out what kind of vacation suits you best.
All so you can decide which is best for you. Let’s get started!
- A Quick Overview
- How Do The Beaches Compare
- How Do They Differ Regarding Culture & History
- What Activities Can You Do & Which Is Better
- What About Accommodation
- Which Has The Better Nightlife
- Which Is Better For A Family Trip
- Our Final Thoughts
A Quick Overview
Located in the Dominican Republic’s easternmost end, Punta Cana offers everything your heart desires: paradisiacal beaches, all-inclusive resorts, pumping nightlife, and fun activities.
Over the years, it has become one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean, and as a result it has more of a tourist vibe than Santo Domingo. It also has more activities geared towards tourists than the capital city, and definitely is the better choice if you want sun, sea, and sand.
However being a more touristy destination than Santo Domingo also makes Punta Cana a far more expensive destination too, so that’s important to keep in mind.
Santo Domingo is the Dominican capital and the Caribbean’s most populated city. In the 15th century, it was home to the natives (Tainos) until Christopher Columbus found it and the European troops colonized it.
Most colonial buildings still stand today, giving the city a real historical look. Its streets and homes take visitors back to a different time, which is why it is such a fascinating destination.
It has a far more authentic ‘local’ vibe to it than Punta Cana, and will likely suit culture seekers and history buffs more than beach lovers.
How Do The Beaches Compare?
The Dominican Republic is famous for its idyllic beaches. The clear water, white sand, and palm trees along the coastline make them an unbeatable sight.
And let’s be honest, the beaches are the top reason why most tourists visit the Dominican Republic. So it is only right we compare Punta Cana and Santo Domingo in this respect.
Simply put, Punta Cana excels when it comes to the sun, sea and sand.
Staying at the luxurious resorts here means you’ll be just a few steps away from some of the best beaches in the world.
Surely you’ve already heard about Playa Bávaro. After all, it is Punta Cana’s most famous beach. It is the most developed one, too. You can find restaurants and souvenir shops along the coast here, but there’s plenty of room to also relax in the shade below palm trees.
Bávaro’s calm sea is also ideal for enjoying water activities such as swimming, parasailing and catamaran sailing.
If you prefer a more laid-back vibe, Playa Macao will wow you. There are only a few resorts and private areas there, and it is much less crowded for that reason. It has a wilder more rugged feel to it.
Macao, on the other hand, is perfect for surfers as there are more waves than in Bávaro. Buggy tours along the shore are also a possibility for adventure-seekers.
Whereas, Playa El Cortecito offers a budget-friendly alternative and local atmosphere. The accommodation places are more diverse: hotels, guest houses, and apartments are cheaper alternatives to expensive all-inclusive resorts.
In addition to moderate prices, the second upside is that there are fewer private resort areas on the beach, making the public beach easily accessible.
The craft shops run by locals there also give the beach a much more relaxed feel than the high-end restaurants and establishments of Playa Juanillo in Cap Cana, one of the most exclusive areas in Punta Cana.
The one big thing about Santo Domingo is that while it is on the coast, it isn’t really close to any beaches – we did warn you that the capital isn’t really the best place for beach worshippers!
Most of the best beaches are at least 50km away from the city. Either way, their natural beauty makes them worth mentioning and describing.
The nearest beach is Boca Chica. You’d have to travel 30km to get there, but once there you can enjoy the kid-friendly calm and shallow sea. Snorkeling and diving are the most popular activities at this beach.
When in Boca Chica, you won’t have to leave the beach to have lunch either: there are many restaurants along the coast where you can buy (safe) delicious seafood and fried fish.
Playa Guayacanes and Playa Juan Dolio are farther than Boca Chica — and 60km away from Santo Domingo — but are close to each other, meaning you can visit both on the same day.
By doing that, you get the best of both worlds: Guayacanes is a laid-back, sparsely-visited beach, while Juan Dolio is a commercial beach town that hosts many hotels, shops, restaurants, and luxurious apartment complexes.
Beaches: Which Is Better?
If you want to head down to the beach every day, Punta Cana is the best option for sure. The beaches in Punta Cana are arguably the most beautiful in the country too, and some of the best in the Caribbean.
How Do They Differ Regarding Culture & History?
While not as ‘local’ a destination as Santo Domingo, you can still find cultural activities in Punta Cana.
Walking down Barceló Avenue, a branch of the Boulevard Turístico del Este (Eastern Touristic Boulevard in English), you will encounter the Mundo Auténtico Shopping Center.
There you’ll find Don Lucas Cigars, an acclaimed cigar factory where the staff will guide you through the making process of one of the most significant elements of Dominican culture.
Dominican chocolate also has a lot of history, and you can learn about it at the ChocoMuseo, located in the same shopping center. You can touch cacao beans and pods while learning about the process the raw material goes through to transform into chocolate. You don’t even have to pay for this as the museum offers free entry!
Farming tobacco and cocoa is considered an art in the Dominican Republic because of the rigorous nature of the process. So listening to locals talk about it is experiencing the local culture firsthand.
Music is also a big part of the Dominican Republic culture. Many resorts in Punta Cana offer free dance classes by the pool, usually dictated to the fun rhythm of Merengue. Taking at least one of these classes will brighten your day and teach you about the lively music genre Dominicans love.
Santo Domingo was the first city the Spanish colonizers built in the Americas, and UNESCO have declared it a World Heritage Site. That alone tells you a lot about how much history and culture Santo Domingo holds.
Where do we begin? The city is home to countless cultural attractions and landmarks. Alcázar de Colón is the most frequented attraction in the Colonial city, and it used to be Diego Columbus’ — Christopher Columbus’ son — fortified home. It now functions as a museum where you can see the rooms, furniture, and weapons from the 16th century.
Just a short walk from the Alcázar stands the Primada de América Cathedral in all its glory. Both the exterior and interior architecture is gothic. Entering through the front gate, the imposing vaulted ceilings, numerous religious art pieces, and altar will welcome you. As the first New World cathedral, it is a stop you need to make.
There are even more buildings from the 1500s in Santo Domingo too, but it also has cultural centers such as Casa de Teatro and Centro Cultural de las Comunicaciones. The first is a theater that hosts art and live music exhibits, and the latter is a museum that walks you through the Dominican Republic’s media evolution until the present day.
Even if you don’t visit any of these landmarks, a simple walk through the city is a cultural experience in itself. It offers constant sights of colonial constructions, especially if you visit Las Damas Street, El Conde Street, and the Ozama river.
Culture: Which One Is Better?
Culture abounds in the Dominican Republic. However, Punta Cana is an area specifically designed for tourists who long for a relaxing beach vacation. It’s not meant to be a culturally enriching destination, so it only has a few museums.
You can leave the rich culture and history to Santo Domingo’s streets and buildings. For those who would love to learn about the country, and the city’s fascinating origins, Santo Domingo is ideal.
What Activities Can You Do & Which Is Better?
The Reserva Ecológica Ojos Indígenas is a protected natural reserve near Punta Cana. Its name comes from the 12 crystal-clear emerald lagoons it hosts, which the natives used to call “ojos” — eyes in English. Visitors can swim in these lagoons next to tilapias and sweet water turtles. It’s an incredible expercience.
From the walking trails there you can also see more than 500 plant species and diverse fauna, ranging from birds to lizards.
Punta Cana also offers a theme park that combines nature, adventure, and adrenaline: Scape Park. There you can do cave swimming, ziplining, and underground cave hiking.
However, Hoyo Azul is the park’s most impressive experience by far. This is the most turquoise cenote you will ever see, and it’s at the bottom of a wooden staircase, hidden inside a massive rock formation resembling a cave. The best part is you get to swim in it!
Scape Park also hosts a Cultural Route where you can observe replicas of Dominican natives’ (Tainos) and Spanish conquerors’ homes, surrounded by dense jungle.
On top of that, Punta Cana is right beside some incredible beaches so you have all the usual water activities to enjoy – snorkeling, swimming, jet skis, catamaran trips and more!
A natural disaster caused rock formations to collapse, resulting in the appearance of three lakes or lagoons near the capital city. The area was then declared a national park — Los Tres Ojos National Park — to preserve the ecosystem and protect its fauna.
Contrary to Punta Cana, it is not permitted to swim in the lakes, but visitors can move across them by boat. Pathways and staircases connect Azufre Lake, La Nevera Lake, and Las Damas Lake, so you can easily tour the attraction on foot too. The lakes are surrounded by imposing cliffs and springs, vegetation, and lianas, which add even more beauty to the already stunning bodies of water.
For more kid-friendly activities, located in Eastern Santo Domingo is a water park called Aqua Splash which has slides of all shapes and forms, wave pools, jacuzzis, and restaurants.
While Aqua Splash is an artificial park since there are no natural pools or caves, it’s still a great option to switch it up, take a break from all the walking, and have a fun day.
Activities: Which One Is Better?
Because Punta Cana is a tourist area, the attractions there tend to be more developed and offer a greater variety of adventure activities.
Adding to that, the area around Punta Cana is a less developed place than Santo Domingo, thanks to the natural preservation and geography. Naturally then, its parks are much more unique and allow visitors to be in touch with every kind of environment the Dominican Republic has. It also has all the beach and water activities you can imagine.
This doesn’t mean that, for instance, Los Tres Ojos in Santo Domingo is not worth visiting. However, the possibility of swimming in the lakes only exists in Punta Cana. Small details like that can enhance your holiday, and in that respect Punta Cana has everything to really make an unforgettable holiday activity-wise.
What About Accommodation?
Punta Cana is famous for its luxurious all-inclusive resorts, and has far more of this sort of accomodation than Santo Domingo.
Staying at one is the ultimate relaxing experience. Most resorts boast numerous pools, private areas on the beach with direct access to it, outdoor and indoor bars where bartenders pour piña coladas and daiquiris, enormous buffets with countless meal options that change daily, spa experiences, and fun activities.
Some of the best resorts in Punta Cana are Hyatt Ziva Cap Cana, Ibero Star Bavaro, and Hard Rock Hotel Punta Cana.
But if you need affordable options, Dreams Royal Beach Punta Cana and Royalton Splash Punta Cana are significantly cheaper and number 1 and 2 in our eyes when it comes to price-quality ratio.
Apartment rentals, condos, and apart-hotels are also available. However, compared to the resorts’ amenities and peaceful atmosphere, these options are definitely not as appealing!
All-inclusive resorts are not the norm in Santo Domingo. Rather, accommodation in this city consists of hotels, apartments, and guest houses.
The amenities also vary depending on location: hotels near beaches have a pool and a private beach area. But in the middle of the city, hotels usually have fewer services, which makes sense since you will be spending the whole day exploring Santo Domingo, not your hotel.
Accommodation: Which One Is Better?
Both Punta Cana and Santo Domingo offer accommodation places that align with the activities visitors will likely do in the area. Choosing accommodation is a personal matter, and it depends almost entirely on the area you want to stay in and what you want to do during your vacation.
The only thing you should keep in mind is that all-inclusive resorts are more comfortable in terms of meals. The buffets allow you to eat anything you want at any time of the day without it affecting the price. It is certainly more convenient than paying for meals elsewhere, or buying ingredients to cook your own food.
Which Has The Better Nightlife?
Going out at night is the perfect opportunity to connect with locals. Luckily, Punta Cana has plenty of nightspots to enjoy Latin music and is a famous nightlife destination.
Drink Point Bavaro is a casual club highly frequented by locals. There’s no dress code, and the prices are reasonable: the perfect recipe for a chill night out. Dance to the rhythm of bachata and reggeaton while sipping beer and having a great time.
Have you ever heard of cave partying? Imagine Punta Cana is an exclusive underground nightclub that has multiple caves, where live DJs play different beats in each one, so you can choose whichever cave calls your name.
The atmosphere is chaotic in the best way possible: there are firebreathers, vivid crowds, and hand-crafted cocktails. The dress code is a bit more formal than in Drink Point Bavaro, but there’s no need to overdo it.
If live performances are your thing, go to Coco Bongo. Dancers and acrobats put together vibrant shows while the crowd watches and dances along. The concerts are usually themed: some take inspiration from movies, and others pay homage to Latin music genres such as samba or merengue.
The young crowds usually know where the best parties are, and 75 Grados seems to be their designated nightclub. Reggaeton makes the floor rumble all night long there, and sweet cocktails give you the energy to keep up with the energetic crowd.
If you’re willing to break open the piggy bank to experience an opulent night out, visit the VIP Room Santo Domingo. Gigantic crystal chandeliers and lasers hang from the ceiling and light the enormous dancefloor. Sip high-end champagne while swaying to pop music among chic crowds.
The Carnival and Independence Day festivities take place in Eastern Santo Domingo. This cultural celebration is carried out in February and is the most festive time of the year.
It includes live concerts, parades with sparkly costumes and hand-crafted masks, helicopters, and fireworks. To really immerse in the celebrations, take time to learn about the different characters that locals portray during the Carnival: Diablo Cojuelo, Roba La Gallina, Guyoles, Los Lechones, Los Alí Babá, Los Pintaos, Los Tiznaos and much more.
Nightlife: Which One Is Better?
Both areas host fun, pumping nightlife. And wherever you decide to go, you will enjoy your night and meet kind locals.
However, Punta Cana’s nightlife is indeed more varied, ranging from simple seaside bars to big sticky-floored nightclubs. If you plan on staying for many nights, you’ll never be bored in Punta Cana since there’s always something different to do. The options we listed are just the ones we consider the best among an endless list of possibilities.
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
Punta Cana remains one of the most popular destinations for family trips. After all, beach days are always a good idea since they are fun for everyone. Children build sand castles and play by the shore while parents relax or join the fun.
Traveling with the elderly is not a problem in Punta Cana either. Resorts and hotels are comfortable enough for everyone: they have elevators and places to sit everywhere (including the beach), which makes up for any physical difficulty.
National parks and theme parks are kids’ favorites, and Punta Cana has plenty of them. They provide once-in-a-lifetime moments that children will never forget and will make your trip a hundred times better.
Holidaying with kids in Santo Domingo is tricky. While it is an excellent idea for children to learn about foreign cultures and experience other realities, Santo Domingo is a city where you have to walk a lot. Children become tired of strolling quickly and throw tantrums out of irritation and exhaustion, which is an uncomfortable situation for everyone.
In addition to this, an appreciation for culture and history often comes with age. For adults, Santo Domingo is a fascinating place. For children, however, it could be a bit boring.
Family Trip: Which One Is Better?
In this case, Punta Cana seems to be the better fit. However, if you still want your family to visit the capital, you can stay in Punta Cana and easily make a one-day trip or excursion to Santo Domingo. Spend the day taking in everything the gorgeous city has to offer, and return to Punta Cana when the sun goes down.
In this way, you get to enjoy Santo Domingo while avoiding your kids getting burnt out or bored. However, remember to book transportation or a guided tour. It is not recommended to drive by yourself in the Dominican Republic, especially at night, as we’ve explained previously.
Punta Cana or Santo Domingo: Our Final Thoughts
So, what will it be – Punta Cana or Santo Domingo?
The truth is, whatever choice you make will be a good one. The Dominican Republic is a wonderful destination in every aspect, and Punta Cana and Santo Domingo are no exception. Your trip will be memorable in either one!
The decision comes down to your preferences. Do you want to dip your toes in the sand and breathe in the salt air or marvel at how rich Dominican culture is? Do you long for a relaxing trip or one searching for historical sights? Asking yourself these questions is vital during vacation planning.
Hopefully, the information we give you here helps you make up your mind and choose your dream vacation. Enjoy your trip!