The first street in the New World, Calle de las Damas, runs through the middle of Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone. The western hemisphere’s oldest cathedral, the remains of the first hospital and the Plaza de la Cultura’s four fascinating museums all stand within these historic 12 blocks of the New World’s oldest European-founded city. 10 percent of the Dominican Republic’s relatively small landmass is reserved for its 17 diverse and beautiful national parks and eco attractions.

Catedral Primada de América

Diego Columbus placed the first stone on the western hemisphere’s oldest cathedral in 1514. However, construction in the heart of Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone was not completed until 1540. Although Sir Francis Drake used the structure as his headquarters and looted much of the church during his 1586 occupation of Santo Domingo, much of the cathedral’s stunning interior remains intact. Just remember to dress modestly as you admire the 14 smaller chapels, arched ceilings, and beautiful artwork. Address: Calle Arzobispo Merino, Santo Domingo Phone: +1-809-682-3848 Website: n/a

Plaza de la Cultura

No fewer than four museums stand within this serene Santo Domingo square alongside the Dominican Republic’s national library and theater. The Plaza de la Cultura’s museums are about modern art, natural history, and geography. The Museum of the Dominican Man contains artifacts from the Dominican Republic’s original Taino residents on its third floor and collections from the post-Columbus era on its fourth floor. The National Theater hosts most of the country’s finest dance, opera, and ballet performances. Address: Calle Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Santo Domingo Phone: n/a Website: n/a

Columbus Lighthouse Monument

The remains of Christopher Columbus and other early Spanish colonial artifacts and historic documents are said to be buried within this gigantic cross-shaped structure on the Ozama River’s east shore. The 693-foot monument was built in 1992 to commemorate both the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first New World voyage and Santo Domingo’s status as the New World’s oldest surviving city. When the 149 searchlights are lit at night, the enormous cross project can be seen all the way from Puerto Rico. Address: Avenida España, Santo Domingo Phone: +1-907-683-9532 Website: n/a

National Aquarium

One of the Caribbean’s finest aquariums is home to ferocious sharks, harmless angelfish, and all sorts of sea creatures in between. A manatee named Tamaury who was rescued off Barahona’s coast as a baby may be the star of the show and visitors can observe all the aquarium’s marine life from an enclosed sea tunnel made from clear glass. Address: Avenida de las Americas, Santo Domingo Phone: +1-809-766-1709 Website: n/a

Los Tres Ojos National Park

Before Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on the Dominican Republic, the territory’s original Taino people used this park’s interconnected freshwater lagoons and natural caves to conduct religious ceremonies. One of the sulphuric lakes along the Ozama River’s east bank is situated within a volcanic crater and rumored to be bottomless. Address: Avenida Las Américas, Santo Domingo Phone: +1-809-472-4204 Website: n/a

Mount Isabel de Torres

A giant Jesus Christ statue stands guard over Mount Isabel de Torres, which towers 2,600 feet above Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Visitors can reach the summit by hiking, mountain biking, or taking the seven-minute journey by cable car. No matter how visitors get to the top, once there they can relax in the botanical garden, enjoy a meal at the restaurant, or simply admire the breathtaking views and surrounding beaches. Address: Puerto Plata and Playa Dorada Phone: +1-809-970-0438 Website: n/a

Eastern National Park

Few Caribbean marine parks rival the size of this popular scuba diving and bird watching spot between Boca de Yuma and Bayahibe. Dive among the park’s coral formations, spot at least 114 different bird species above the southern tip’s saltwater lagoons, or simply sunbathe at some of the Dominican Republic’s most secluded beaches. Cueva del Puenta is the easiest of the 400 caves to get to and one of the coolest, with ancient Taino pictographs among the stalactites and stalagmites. Sturdy walking shoes and flashlights are a must for the 30-minute guided tours. Address: Between Bayahibe and Boca de Yuma Phone: n/a Website: n/a

Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos

No point in the Caribbean stands at a lower altitude than the giant saltwater Lago Enriquillo in the middle of this island national park. Coral fragments and seashells are strewn across the shores and the human population is vastly outnumbered by ferocious crocodiles, wild flamingos, and colorful tropical birds. Although Lago Enriquillo’s waters are up to four times saltier than the ocean, visitors prefer to cool off at the park’s balneario resort. Address: Isla Cabritos Phone: n/a Website: n/a

Altos de Chavon

One of La Romana’s top attractions is this replica of a 16th century Spanish village which has overlooked the Chavon River since the early 1980s. Three art galleries, numerous Mediterranean restaurants, several craft shops, and an archeological museum can be found in the shuttered limestone buildings along Altos de Chavon’s cobblestone streets. Some of the world’s most famous musicians have performed at the 5,000-seat Roman-style amphitheater, while the Church of St Stanislaus has become a popular wedding venue. Address: La Romana Phone: n/a Website: n/a

Amber Museum

This stately Puerto Plata Victorian building contains an impressive collection of the Dominican Republic’s most famous gemstone. The amber harvested was formed from hardened tree resin to become the most valuable and transparent amber on Earth. Insect and plant fossils are enclosed within several specimens to be admired or purchased as jewelry from the gift shop. Address: 61 Duarte Street, Puerto Plata Phone: +1-809-586-2848 Website: