Santiago de Cuba—Cuba’s second-largest city—is one-sixth the size of Havana but boasts many draws with which the capital can’t compete. The Spanish-American War and key Revolution events took place here, much of Cuba’s traditional music was birthed here, and the energy level is high despite the often debilitating heat. The oldest building in Cuba, El Morro Castle, is here, plus the graves of national hero José Martí and Fidel Castro. Also, Cuba’s hottest carnival is held here each July.
Getting There and Around
Santiago de Cuba is especially popular with French visitors, who fly to the city’s international airport direct from Europe. North American travelers can fly from Canada and the USA to Holguín, a scenic four-hour drive from Santiago de Cuba.
Havana and the provincial capitals are linked to Santiago de Cuba by Víazul buses. Alternately, masochists might choose the train, which runs irregularly from Havana via Santa Clara and Camagüey, but the service is extremely unreliable. You can always opt for a rental car and enjoy the cross-country drive—It’s a 600-mile journey between Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Note that the Autopista Nacional peters out in the middle of nowhere in Sancti Spíritus province. Thereafter your only route is the east-west Carretera Central. It only has one lane in each direction but thankfully traffic is light.
Santiago de Cuba is far too hilly for bicitaxis (rickshaw-like bicycle taxis). Uniquely, mototaxis—small motorcycles—are the local transport of choice. Their drivers are wild and often give first-timers the most thrilling (or scariest) ride of their life. Classic cars (with driver) can be rented outside tourist hotels, and tourist taxis can also be hailed. For more info on arranging your trip see this article about planning your visit to Cuba.
Crafting Your Itinerary
Which of Santiago de Cuba's many sights you choose to see depends on how much time you plan to spend. If you only have two days, start by exploring around Parque Céspedes, with the cathedral, Casa de Don Diego Velázquez, Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardí Moreau and the sights along Calle Heredia and Calle Padre Pico. Take a late lunch before an afternoon visiting historic sites like the Cuartel Moncada (Moncada army barracks) and San Juan Hill. On day two head for the key outlying sites: the Plaza de la Revolución, Santa Ifigenia Cemetery and, south of town, El Morro Castle. Linger for sunset and the cannon-firing ceremony.
Three days allows for a more leisurely pace as you further explore the Reparto Los Hoyos historic reparto (district) by morning, visiting small museums plus the Tumba Frances cultural center. The afternoon gives you time to wander Reparto Vista Alegre, an upscale district with eclectic museums and much-faded mansions.
With four or more days you can set your sites further afield. Consider beach time at Playa Siboney, combined with visits to Granjita Siboney and the Spanish-American War museum, plus Parque Baconao and Gran Piedra. An additional day grants time to head to Basilica del Cobre—Cuba’s top religious shrine—and maybe a scenic drive west along the Caribbean shore to Chivírico. For more great beach options in Cuba, see this article.
Santiago de Cuba’s Top Sights
Casco Histórico (historic district)
Rising inland from the harborfront, a grid of narrow colonial-era streets covers several distinct districts. The city’s main square, Parque Céspedes, is found here. It's named for Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the "Father of the Nation" who freed his slaves in 1868 to launch the War of Independence. On the north side of the square, the Ayuntamiento replicates the original 18th-century town-hall. From its balcony, Fidel Castro gave his victory speech on January 2, 1959, after Batista fled Cuba. Dominating the square, the Basilica Metroplitana Santa Ifigenia—aka Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción—dates from 1922. There's also the Casa de Don Diego Velázquez, built 1516-1530 as the home of the eponymous governor; today Cuba's oldest building houses a superb museum.
The Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardí Moreau is also a must-visit. This museum in a Neoclassical edifice contains two stories of artifacts dedicated to local history, and to the world travels of its namesake patron (1844-1922)—founder of the Bacardí rum corporation.
Calle Heredia is an important street leading uphill from Parque Céspedes and is lined with noteworthy historic buildings. Most important is the Casa de la Trova, considered to be the birthplace of son, and Cuba’s most important traditional music house. The Museo de Carnaval has colorful costumes and other exhibits portraying the history of Santiago de Cuba’s carnival celebration.
Plaza Dolores is a delightful little plaza with wrought-iron benches beneath shade trees. It hosts several restaurants and bars and is the gathering place for the city’s gay community. Rising to the east is the Colegio Jesuita Dolores, a former Jesuit college where Fidel Castro was educated and is now a conservatory. You can also visit the Museo del Ron, a small museum regaling the story of the production of rum. The La Maqueta de la Ciudad is a scale-model of the Casco Histórico, with every building exact. The adjacent Balcón de Velázquez has sensational views.
Head up Calle Padre Pico to the staircase of La Escalinita. It's famous as the setting for the murder by police of three members of Fidel’s revolutionary Movement in 1956. Atop the stairs is the Museo Lucha Clandestina, a former police station and now the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle (against Batista). There's also Avenida Jesús Menéndez, a broad waterfront boulevard that makes for a pleasant stroll in early morning or dusk. At the west end is Fábrica de Ron Caney, the former Bacardí rum factory still making rum; tours are not offered, but you can sample the goods in a tasting room. To the east, a French-Renaissance clock tower centers manicured Parque Alameda.
In this district you'll find the Plaza de Marte, a lively 19th-century plaza first used as a Spanish military parade ground. It now features busts of various Cuban patriots. Then visit the Cuartel Moncada, the origins of Cuban revolutionary history. It was at this former army barracks that Fidel’s revolution began when he and 122 fellow revolutionaries launched a suicidal attack on July 26, 1953. It’s now a school plus the excellent Museo Histórico 26 de Julio, which offers English-speaking guides.
Reparto Vista Alegre
In Vista Alegre you'll find the Bosque de los Mártires de Bolivia. This bas-relief monument on Avenida de las Ámericas is dedicated to Che Guevara and his band of revolutionaries who died in Bolivia in 1967. The Avenida Manduley runs the length of this once upper-class residential district. Most striking here is the former home of Casa de José ‘Pepín’ Bosch (corner of Calle 11), president of the Bacardí rum corporation. The Casa Cultura Africana (corner of Calle 5) celebrates Cuba’s African heritage. Stop in at the nearby Museo de las Religiones Populares (Calle 13) to learn about Afro-Cuban religions. There's also the Parque Histórico Loma de San Juan, site of the famous charge of Teddy Roosevelt’s "Rough Riders" took place on this hilltop battle-site in 1868 during the Spanish-American War. Cannons and impressive memorials celebrate the event.
Sights on the city outskirts
The Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia (Santa Ifigenia Cemetery) is one of the top five attractions in the city and is astonishing for its wealth of noteworthy tombs. Many historical figures are buried here, from Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and José Martí to Fidel Castro and many members of the revolutionary cause. A changing of the guard occurs every 30 minutes; don’t miss it. Parque Histórico El Morro is a massive castle sitting atop the headland and dates from 1664. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it contains a piracy museum, and a live-cannon is primed and fired at sunset by soldiers in Mambí (Independence Army) uniforms.
A ferry runs from beneath El Morro castle to Cayo Granma, an island and fishing community featuring a slice of Cuban life seen by few tourists. It has casas particulares and two restaurants.
Sites further afield
Basilica del Cobre is a cathedral and Cuba's holiest shrine located a 40-minute drive from downtown. It’s devoted to the black Virgin of Charity and has an altar to votive offerings that once included Ernest Hemingway’s Noble Prize. A 30-minute drive southeast of the city is Playa Siboney, a tiny beach community that draws families on weekends to party by the sea. Nearby Granjita Siboney—the farmhouse from which Fidel and his cohorts set out to attack Moncada—is a museum. A stone's throw away, the Museo de la Guerra Cubano-Español-Americano has fantastic displays commemorating the Spanish-American War.
When to Visit
Santiago de Cuba doesn’t get the volume of visitors as Havana or Trinidad, so shortage of lodging isn't an issue, even in the cooler winter months (high season). However, the city’s most important festival—Carnival—is held in July; it’s wise to reserve your lodging well in advance.
As for temperatures, even in winter, daily temps average 80° Fahrenheit. In summer, the daily average approaches 90° Fahrenheit and walking the streets during midday is truly wearying. If you visit then, it’s best to rise early to explore in the morning hours, then spend midday relaxing before venturing out again in late afternoon. For more info, check out our article on when to visit Cuba.
Where to Stay
In Casco Histórico, the Hotel Casa Granda is the first choice. This grand dame looms over Parque Céspedes and at press time was being renovated by Spanish hotel group Iberostar, promising deluxe standards. There are other hotels in the area offering comparable standards of modern luxury. Budget and independent-minded travelers are best served by staying in B&Bs. One of our favorites is the antique-filled Casa Colonial Maruchi, whose charming owner is an expert on Afro-Cuban culture.
Where to Eat
Santiago de Cuba has yet to rise to the standards of Havana when it comes to dining, but new paladares (private restaurants) are popping up and enlivening the scene. St. Pauli is a paladar hidden up an alley off Plaza Marte and offers a menu of lobster, ropa vieja (marinated shredded beef prepared with sweet peppers, garlic and onions) and other staples. Roy’s Terrace Inn is a popular B&B/restaurant option (reserve in advance) featuring traditional Cuban fare. And don't miss Coppelia La Arboleda: the Santiago de Cuba location of the Cuban ice cream chain. It's wildly popular with santiagueros (locals from Santiago de Cuba).
Santiago by Night
Santigueros love to paint the town. The experience not to miss is the world-renowned Casa de la Trova, where Cuba’s tradition of romantic trova ballads and son music were born. Also, look for performances by one of the city’s colorful Haitian-heritage cultural groups, such as Ballet Folklórica Cutumba or Tumba Francesa. Jazz lovers can chill to cool riffs at the Iris Jazz Club. The Hotel Meliá’s Santiago Café is one of the city’s best nightclubs for salsa. And for the best in sexy Las Vegas-redux style cabaret check out the open-air Tropicana. If all you desire is a good beer then head to Cervecería Puerto del Rey, a brewpub on the waterfront; it hosts live music.
Santiago de Cuba Tips
- The early morning hours are the best time for photography. If that's your passion, take an afternoon siesta and reemerge to catch the late afternoon sunlight gilding Santiago de Cuba's colonial houses in gold.
- Stay hydrated: drink plenty of bottled water. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses and, ideally, a shade hat.
- Santiago de Cuba has more than its fair share of jiniteros (street hustlers). Many take advantage of tourists in various ways, such as trying to sell fake cigars—a firm but polite “No gracias!” should suffice to keep them at bay.