Welcome to the beautiful and vibrant city of Santiago de los Caballeros, the second-largest in the Dominican Republic. Famously nicknamed as “La Ciudad Corazón” (the heartland city) and historically known as the first “Santiago” of the Western Hemisphere (there are so many). The city was founded in 1495, as the first wave of European colonization crushed the Americas. As such, it is a major cultural hub and home to one of the best museums in the Caribbean: El Centro Leon!
Today, Centro Leon Museum serves as a culturally enriching space to learn, explore our roots and connect to Dominican art. This museum is a must-visit if you’re in the Cibao Valley. The perfect stop in between Santiago’s many things to do and places to see. Here’s how to visit and what you shouldn’t miss!
Visiting el Centro León
Upon arriving at Centro Leon’s entrance, visitors will be greeted with an impressive architectural sight surrounded by idyllic palm trees, fountains, and a pool of water on each side. Once inside, take in the outstanding features of high ceilings and grandeur, as you are entering what many consider not just the best but also the most modern museum in the Caribbean.
Museum Collections & Exhibition Spaces
The Leon Centre offers three permanent exhibitions and a temporary one which changes per season.
1) Signs of Identity: Dominican History, Heritage & Anthropology
This room begins with a pitch-dark welcome until suddenly the lights from all around screens showcase aspects of Dominican culture (architecture, food, landscapes, facial features, etc). With a lively typical merengue playing in the background, the images flash as we envision the richness and variety that represent what being a Dominican is about.
Later, this experience takes us to where it all began: The mangroves. A larger-than-life installation of Taíno existence in the mangroves, showing how they fished, the tools they used, tribal practices, and some of their body paintings.
Onwards, we arrive at a very distinct time in our history: the Spanish colonization (1492). Here, a huge trapiche (sugar mill) sits in the center of the room dividing the Spanish side with shiny objects such as coins, pistols, and old keys on display and the African side (musical instruments, carnival elements, and voodoo figures) are somewhat hidden, demonstrating how this era is portrayed in Dominican narratives.
Further on, visitors see a traditional Dominican market showcasing all the local products and food you would find with the pregoneros (local vendors) that shout and sing quirky songs or funny rhymes of the foods they’re selling.
Lastly, we would enter a hallway with elements of the old Santiago de los Caballeros, things that would be common in the ’30s and ’40s. Big photographs portraying the fashion of the era, house elements like ironing machines and hot combs, and the famous local baseball team Águilas Cibaeñas when they started out in the ’30s. We can also see bits of victorian architecture and how it evolved to this day and age.
On the other side, we notice a particular change in the scenario of how technology has affected the town, with images of life in the late ’80s and ’90s.
And finally, we finish the room looking at two suitcases, a portrayal of the Dominican dream, the effort to travel and leave the island hoping to find a better life. The suitcase shows us the kind of things we take to feel more at home wherever we go. Also, the one we bring back, because “a veces hay que irse para volver” we read on the neon wall sign.
2) Genesis & Trajectory: Dominican Art
Visitors will then enter the next room dedicated to Dominican arts. All areas of this room are decked in paintings, sculptures, photography, and various other forms of media.
Here, you can learn of the first known origins of Dominican art, most commonly recognized by:
1) Dominican natural landscapes
2) Life in el Campo
3) Vibrant portraits
Popular artists include: Yoryi Morel, Jaime Colson and Celeste Woss y Gil.
But like any art, Dominican art is not just paintings. This space demonstrated the different methods of expression and relevant themes per era, whether graphic posters, photography, and other mediums/contemporary ways of expression.
You’ll also come across several local pieces that have won the famous Eduardo Leon Jimenes Art Contest, a contest that takes place every two years since 1964. Some of the winners include: Raquel Paiewonsky, José García Cordero, Johnny Bonelly, Sayuri Guzmán, Limber Vilorio and more.
3) Trace & Memory: A History of the Leon Family
In the Trace and Memory room, visitors can learn more about the León family’s history, their origins as tobacco growers, and how they came to develop a multi-million dollar empire.
Centro Leon’s Temporary Exhibitions
Since it’s inception, el Centro Leon has been hosting temporary exhibitions for several artists and collectives, not just locals from the island but also those of the Dominican diaspora. Important subjects have been showcased as well such as Taíno art excavations, Caribbean musical expressions, local ecosystems, and environmental care. There are efforts for the inclusivity of the arts, such as hosting an exhibit for people with visual impairments.
When we wrote this article, the center was showcasing a major exhibition on Dominican fashion designer Oscar De La Renta. Check their website to see all their exhibitions.
Fun Events & Workshops at Centro Leon
Centro Leon offers more beyond art-displays. The center also offers a monthly agenda with educational activities, live music performances, movie forums, workshops, artisan markets, and other community events.
Moreover, they have their own media library (for research and investigation), auditorium, multi-purpose rooms, a coffee shop, and a souvenir store filled with cultural books, jewelry, and hand-made artisan pieces.
A Brief History of Centro León
Created by the León family, the center officially opened its doors in 2003. It was named after Eduardo León Jimenes (1885-1937), founder of La Aurora Cigars – one of the oldest cigar factories in the country, which from then on paved the way for the Grupo León to come forth. A company that produces beer and cigarettes in the Dominican Republic. Brands like Presidente, Bohemia, Miller, Heineken, and Marlboro are under their umbrella of products and manufacturing. Read more about Dominican cigars here.
How to Get to Centro Leon
You can take one of the many buses that goes to Santiago from around the country:
From the bus stop, you can easily order an Uber in Santiago to el Centro Leon.
Tours, Pricing & Admission
Centro Leon is normally open Tuesday through Sunday. From 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. We strongly recommended getting a guided tour. We loved our guide and his storytelling abilities.
- General admission: RD$150.00
- Children: RD$100.00
- Guided tours (by appointment): RD$250.00- Spanish. Also available in English, French, and more RD$300.00.
- Free day: Tuesdays!
Read Our Other Dominican Republic Blog Posts
- 42 Fun & Incredible Things to Do in the Dominican Republic
- Gorgeous Hotels in the Dominican Republic to Stay
- 41 Things to do in Santiago, Dominican Republic (coming soon)
- Places to Visit & Things to do in Puerto Plata, DR (coming soon)
- Read ALL our Dominican Republic guides here
Contributing writer: Adriana Badía Paulino is a journalist and photographer based between Sosua and Cabarete, Dominican Republic. She studied Social Communications (PUCMM) in her hometown of Santiago. Her life-work experience has taken her around the island where she’s been active in various media projects including magazines, photography, translation, tour guide, social media, video, and movie productions. Nowadays, she’s a full-time mom and continues to write about her love of travel, nature, and culture. Follow some of her adventures in @adrianabadiaphoto
About Dominican Abroad LLC: educating, inspiring culturally immersive travel, empowering cultural heritage preservation, supporting community values, amplifying local voices around the world, and encouraging diversity in travel (from cities to mountains). Founder, editor & writer: Gerry Isabelle. Follow me @DominicanAbroad