The first permanent colony of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere was established in the Dominican Republic. Santo Domingo was founded in 1496 by the brother of Christopher Columbus; the first permanent city in the New World. The colonial center of Santo Domingo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.The Colonial Zone, bordered by the Río Ozama, has an impressive collection of 16th-century buildings, including palatial houses and majestic churches that reflect the architectural style of the late medieval period.

The city’s most important colonial buildings include the Catedral Primada de America, which is the first Catholic Cathedral in the New World; the Alcázar de Colón, once the residence of Don Diego Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus who became viceroy of the colony; the Monasterio de San Francisco, the ruins of the first monastery in the Americas; the Museo de las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Houses) a museum of colonial life and the former Palace of the Governor General and the Palace of Royal Audiences; the Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Museum of the Dominican Man), with exhibits on pre-Columbian life on the island; the Museo de Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art), with works by Dominican artists.

Puerto Plata, on the North coast of the island, has the Museo de Ámbar, which displays unusual pieces of Dominican amber with plants, insects and small animals embedded inside them; the Parque Colón, a historic square; the Fortaleza Ozama, the oldest fortress in the New World; the Panteón Nacional, a former Jesuit now hosting the remains of various renown Dominicans; and the Iglesia del Convento Dominico, the first convent in the Americas.

Art, music, and literature developed in part along Western patterns, with a strong African cultural component. The African heritage is especially notable in the country’s folk culture, particularly the music. The best representation of the blend between the Spanish and African traditions is the popular national song and dance, the merengue. Merengue music can be heard everywhere on the island, and every summer Santo Domingo holds a two-week merengue festival at which the world’s finest merengue bands and merengue dancers appear.

In 2005, UNESCO also proclaimed Cocolo Dancing from the Dominican Republic a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Cocolo dancing drama tradition developed among Caribbean English-speaking migrant workers, who came to the Dominican Republic in the mid-nineteenth century. The term Cocolo was originally a term for migrants working on the British sugar plantations of the island. These migrants set up their own churches, schools, benevolent societies and lodges providing mutual assistance and organizing collective cultural events, such as the annual performances of the Cocolo Dancing Drama in the city of San Pedro de Macorís.

Among the country’s most beloved writers is Salomé Ureña de Henríquez, who is considered a national poet. She lived in the second half of the 1800s and in 1881 organized the Instituto de Señoritas, the first Dominican center of higher education for women. Her two sons, Pedro and Max Henríquez-Ureña, became distinguished Latin American writers and thinkers. Other Dominican writers include Gastón Fernando Deligne, a modernist poet of the late 1800s and early 1900s; Fabio Fiallo, author of delicate love lyrics in the early 1900s; Manuel de Jesús Galván, author of Enriquillo (1882), a historical novel based on an early Native American revolt against the Spaniards; and Manuel del Cabral, a versatile 20th-century poet whose work showed his strong sympathies with the country’s impoverished blacks.

Juan Bosch, president of the republic in 1963, was also one of the most distinguished Dominican writers of the mid-20th century, a well known as a novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Joaquín Balaguer, the republic’s president from 1986 to 1996, was also an accomplished writer on many topics. Much of the best-known Dominican writing today comes from Dominicans who have emigrated. Julia Alvarez, who moved with her family from the Dominican Republic to New York City at the age of 10, has written about the collision of the two cultures in such works as the novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and the children’s book How Tía Lola Came to Stay (2001).