the best things to do in santiago de cuba

The Best Things to do in Santiago de Cuba

The city of Santiago de Cuba, which serves as the capital of the province of Santiago de Cuba, is located to the southeast of Havana, Cuba’s capital city. Since the Spaniards established the city in 1515, its colonial splendor and revolutionary history have made it a destination for travelers.  While most tourists visit Havana and the west half of the island, the east side of the island has a lot to offer as well! Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second city is, to me, the most colorful, hot, and musical city on the island.  An experience here is so very different from Havana.   So, here’s our guide to the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba.

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Ready for some one-of-a-kind Santiago de Cuba activities? This lovely city is soulful, steamy, dreamy, and brimming with color and the rhythms of Cuban music. There’s an interesting and colorful history here, and a distinctly tropical vibe, Santiago de Cuba provides quite the choice of interesting things to do.

The Best Things to do in Santiago de Cuba

Just getting to Santiago de Cuba can be a bit of an adventure, so you’d be wise to make the most of your time here.  There are some fabulous things to do and great things to see in Santiago de Cuba before you head back along the island!

Stay in a “Casa Particular” in Santiago de Cuba

Normally if you arrive in a new town or city in Cuba on the Viazul bus and you haven’t booked your accommodation in Santiago de Cuba in advance, then you’ll find casa particular owners waiting to tempt you to stay at their place.  The Viazul Bus station here in Santiago is a little bit further out from the downtown area, so you’re unlikely to be greeted by as many Casa Particular owners promoting their homes as in other towns and cities.  You will more likely be greeted by touts or jiniteros trying to get you to go to a casa particular that they are getting paid to take you to.  However, if you haven’t pre-booked, you’ll find signs outside Casa’s on the way into the center.  The first time we visited Santiago de Cuba this is how we found our place to stay.

Casa Particulars are a great way to get a feel for life in Cuba as they are owned and managed by the people who live there. As a guesthouse or bed & breakfast, they provide lodging for tourists who want to experience the culture and traditions of Cuba.  I highly recommend making casa’s your accommodation while staying in Cuba.  I recommend these Casa’s in Santiago

Colonial House Grisel in Santiago de Cuba is in a great location in the center of the city of Santiago de Cuba.  This colonial-style house has private ensuite rooms with free WiFi a patio and a terrace.  Grisel provides an excellent breakfast and also laundry service.  The casa particular is located very close to Cespedes Park.  You can check rates and availability here.

Isabel and Gerado’s Homestay in Santiago de Cuba is in a great location for the Viazul Bus station – and has private en suite rooms with air conditioning, internet access, and a garden.  It’s just a 10 minute walk from both the bus station and downtown Santiago.  They get rave reviews for breakfasts and can also provide packed lunches. Check availability here.

If you want to read more about Casa Particulars and Cuba, then our guide is here.

Moncada Baracks – Cuartel Moncada

During the 20th century, the Cuartel Moncada, or the Moncada Barracks was a military headquarters.  It was chosen by the revolutionaries on the 26th July 1953 to begin a fight against Fulgencio Batista’s regime.  This particular uprising failed, but it was the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.  The barracks were most recently used in a military conflict on 8th January 1959, when Raul Castro and the fighters of the 26th July movement took it for the Cuban revolutionaries.  This is one of the reasons that Santiago is a key place to visit on our 7 day Cuban Revolution Itinerary.

things to do in santiago de cuba moncada baracks

There’s more on the Moncada Barracks here. There are now eight rooms that comprise the 26th July History Museum that is co-hosted here with a primary school.  You can see Castro’s rifle, clothing from fallen soldiers as well as photos of those who died here.  The bullet holes in the walls of the building are original.

things to do in santiago de cuba bullet holes at moncada barracjs
  • Cuartel Moncada Opening Time: Check locally for opening times.
  • Address of Cuartel Moncada:  Avenida Moncada, Santiago de Cuba
  • Entrance Fee for Cuartel Moncada:   US$2 + US$5 for photos

Visit the “Cementario Santa Ifigenia” in Santiago de Cuba

This famous cemetery in Santiago is the resting place of Jose Marti, a Cuban patriot who played a pivotal role in Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain.   His tomb rests on a handful of soil from each country in America, the soil is included to represent Marti’s international influence. A military escort protects the tomb 24/7, replacing the officer on duty every half hour. The changing of guards is a lovely ceremony to watch and when you come to this cemetery you should make your way here to see the ceremony.

changing of the guard at jose martis tomb things to do in santiago de cuba Cementario Santa Ifigenia

The Santa Ifigenia Cemetery was declared a National Monument in 1979 and it’s the second-largest cemetery in Cuba (after Cementerio Colon in Havana).

things to do in santiago de cuba jose martis tomb Cementario Santa Ifigenia

The other key locations to head to in the cemetery here in Santiago de Cuba are

  • Mariana Grajales:  mother of Antonio Maceo, a Cuban War of Independence, who fought with his brothers to free Cuban from Spanish influence.  Such was the support that Grajales had for the revolution, that when she heard that two of her sons had died fighting the Spanish, she answered that she still had more sons to give for the revolution.
  • Carlos Manuel de Cespedes:  First President of Cuba in 1868. He was previously a plantation owner who freed his slaves and made the declaration of Cuban independence in 1868, starting the 10 years war.
  • Tomas Estrada Palma:  President of Cuba from May 1902 until September 1906 as well as the president of the Cuban Republican in Arms during the 10 years war.
  • Emilio Bacardí-Moreau:  the first democratically elected mayor of Santiago de Cuba, he is perhaps more well known as the owner and manager of the Bacardi Rum Company.
  • Compay Segundo:  Compay was his professional name, his birth name was  Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz Telles and he was a Cuban Trova singer, guitarist, and composer, responsible for the release of the Buena Vista Social Club Album.
  • Fidel Castro:  Revolutionary, politician, leader, dictator.  Castro was the leader of Cuba from 1959 to 2008.  He was prime minister from 1959 to 1976 and president of Cuba from 1976 to 2008.
things to do in santiago de cuba Cementario Santa Ifigenia Fidel Castros Tomb

As you enter the cemetery there’s a map displaying the location of the tombs of these key figures (there’s a photo of it below too).

  • Cementario Santa Ifigenia Address:  Av Crombet
  • Opening Hours of Cementario Santa Ifigenia:  0800 – 1800
  • Entrance Price of Cementario Santa Ifigenia:  US$3

Plaza de la Revolucion, Santiago de Cuba

The Plaza de la Revolucion was opened in 1991.  You’ll likely find it on a map as Monumental Complex Antonio Maceo.   There are separate sections here – those dedicated to monuments, a sculptural area, and the eternal flame. 

things to do in santiago de cuba plaza de la revolucion

There’s also a museum and exhibition area.  The most striking area to see is the equestrian figure of Major General Antonio Maceo a collection of 23 machetes, representing the fighting spirit of the Cuban people.  Inside, the museum and exhibition there are documents and images memorializing Antonio Maceo.

  • Address of the Plaza de la Revolucion:  Avenida de las Américas con Calle 9. Santiago de Cuba.

Museo Lucha Clandestino, Santiago de Cuba

The Museo Lucha Clandestino, or the Clandestine Fight Museum is located in the Loma del Intendente Hill.  This pretty building was previously a police station that was attacked by the revolutionaries’ 26th July Movement in 1956 to distract their attention from the landing of Castro and his soldiers in Granma.

things to do in santiago de cuba museo de lucha clandestinos

There are four rooms in this sleepy little museum (which closes if it rains) and they contain items related to the Cuban Revolution and the role that Santiago de Cuba played in it.  You’ll specifically find the stories of Frank Pais and Celia Sanchez.

things to do in santiago de cuba museo de lucha clandestinos (2)
  • Museo Lucha Clandestino Address:  Calle General Jesús Rabí, 1. El Tívoli. Santiago de Cuba.
  • Opening Hours of Museo Lucha Clandestino:  From Tuesday to Saturday 9 am – 5 pm
  • Entrance Price of Museo Lucha Clandestino:  US$1

Plaque to Frank Pais in Callejón del Muro, Santiago de Cuba

Frank Pais was a Santiago de Cuba-born Cuban revolutionary leader during the Batista dictatorship. He is best remembered as being the leader of the 1956 Santiago uprising that coincided with the landing of Fidel Castro on 2 December on the boat Granma. (You saw the Granma in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana).  Pais was a guerrilla fighter and member of  Acción Nacional Revolucionaria which merged with Castro’s 26th July Movement. While Pais’ uprising was quelled, he did escape capture and survived for a year before being betrayed.  He was taken away along with Raúl Pujol by police officers, who then shot them in the back of the head in Callejon del Muro on 30 July 1957. 

things to do in santiago de cuba monument to Frank pais

His role in leading the Santiago de Cuba guerrillas was then taken over by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who’s remains are interred in Santa Clara.

There is a plaque to Pais in the street where he was shot.  He had 36 gunshot wounds and was 22 years old.

Explore Parque Cespedes in Santiago de Cuba

At the center of all that happens in Santiago de Cuba is Céspedes Park. The Town Hall, Cathedral, Governor’s House, and the homes of the community’s prominent families were all positioned around the park’s perimeter. Named after Santiago’s Cathedral, this park was initially constructed in the 16th century to be used by Spanish troops for military drills and parades.  The original name of the Parque Cespedes was the Plaza de Armas.

things to do in santiago de cuba Parque Cespedes

Attractions in Cespedes Park’s buildings:

  • The Hotel Casa Grande is one of Santiago’s most luxurious establishments. Graham Greene, an English writer, and journalist stayed at the hotel regularly, and he described it in his book, Our Man in Havana. (our guide to the best books about Cuba is here). The hotel is a lovely place to have a drink and watch the world go by.
  • Also at the heart of Santiago de Cuba is a municipal hall, the Ayuntamiento – City Hall erected by Diego Velázquez in 1516. It is located directly in front of Cespedes Park.    The building has been a prison, hospital, and town hall.   The traditional flag festival takes place here every 31 December, when, at midnight an 18 metre long Cuban flag is hung, while the Cathedral bells chime 12.    It’s also on this balcony that Fidel Castro delivered his first speech after the triumphant Cuban Revolution. 
  • The earliest colonial-style mansion in the Caribbean, Casa de Velazquez, also on the park, dates back to 1515. The house was constructed in the style of a Mudéjar (or Hispanic-Moorish).

Pay a visit to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción)

The Nuestra Senora de la Asunción Cathedral has stood here since the early twentieth century in the exact location where other churches were built.   Previous incarnations have been destroyed by weather, earthquakes, and pirate attack.  The current cathedral is oriented north to south and consists of five halls and has been a National Monument of Cuba since 1958.   The first colonial governor, Diego Velázquez, is buried underneath the Cathedral.

things to do in santiago de cuba Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
  • Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Address:  Calle Heredia, between Félix Peña & General Lacret
  • Opening Hours of Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción:  Mass is celebrated 6:30pm Mon & Wed-Fri, 5pm Sat, 9am & 6:30pm Sun
  • Entrance Price of Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción:  Free

Enjoy Santiago de Cuba’s Music Scene in Calle Heredia

Visit Calle Heredia, especially on an evening.  This is Santiago de Cuba’s most vibrant nightlife sector, where people gather to dance, have fun, and soak in the city’s lively atmosphere. This important street was inspired by José Maria Heredia, a Cuban-born poet widely regarded as the first romantic poet of the Americas and the founder of Latin American romanticism. His birthplace is on this street and is now a Tangible National Monument.  It makes Calle Heredia a synonym for music and entertainment for everyone who enjoys the experience of Cuban nightlife.

Visit Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba – the House of Music!

Firmly entrenched on Calle Heredia is Santiago de Cuba’s Casa de la Trova, and I can attest to a night here being great fun.    It’s here that famous artists like Compay Segundo got their start.   Most major cities in Cuba have a Casa de la Trova, but if you visit just one Casa de la Trova in Cuba, then you should make it here in Santiago.

things to do in santiago de cuba casa de la trova

Visit the Museum of Rum in Santiago de Cuba

Visit the Santiago de Cuba Rum Museum to learn about both the sugar industry and explore the Cuban-made spirits collection. A wander through the museum’s halls will take you through the history of Cuban rum and the Caribbean’s most well-known drink.  It’s a little quirky and there’s not much here in English, but there are six different rooms here that include the process of making rum from sugar cane as well as the manufacturing of rum, a historic collection of bottles as well as the bottling process.  The building that the museum is hosted in was also home to a couple of famous people, and so there are some elements of life on display here too.  You’ll get a taste of rum when you finish your visit and then you’ll want to head to the bar at the back of the building, where they make some pretty great Mojitos. 

  • Santiago de Cuba Rum Museum Address:  San Basilio Street, 358
  • Opening Hours of Santiago de Cuba Rum Museum:  Monday through Saturday from 9 am – 5 pm
  • Entrance Price of Santiago de Cuba Rum Museum:  US$2

Plaza de Marte, Santiago de Cuba

This area, the symbolic center of Santiago de Cubas was previously used as a military training camp and was also a meeting place during the Revolution.  There’s a column in the center of the park, topped with a “Phrygian Cap” – also known as a liberty cap (more here) – the type of hat associated generally with revolutionaries worldwide.  It’s a great people-watching square now, but you’ll also see sculptures of the heroes of the city – Marti and Cienfuegos.

Visit the Jose Marti – Cubist Fountain in Santiago de Cuba

The giant Cubist Fountain is etched with the visage of José Marti and the phrase “To die for the Fatherland is to live” from the Cuban National Anthem. On the opposite side of the monument depicts the face of Abel Cuadrado Santamaria Cuadrado (1927–1953), a revolutionary leader in Cuba who was tortured and executed by the police during the failed revolt on July 26, 1953.

things to do in santiago de cuba jose marti cubist fountain

Visit the Malecón and Parque Alameda in Santiago de Cuba.

This small park, situated under the Tivoli neighborhood, complements an 1840 dockside promenade restored in 1893. Refurbished for the 2015 Quincentennial, it is now the focal point of a Havana-style Malecón (boardwalk), equipped with a playground, palm trees, and public wi-fi. The north end is home to the historic clock tower, Aduana (customs house), and cigar factory.

There’s a craft beer place called Cerveceria Puerto del Rey down here that does some interesting tastings.

things to do in santiago de cuba puerto del rey cerveceria

Visit the Fábrica de Ron Caney in Santiago de Cuba

The Bacardi family used to control Cuba’s oldest rum distillery, which now makes rums under the Caney, Santiago, and Varadero labels. The on-site store, the primary attraction, has a bar, live entertainment, and free samples. The attached bar is called Baritta de Ron and its right by the Viazul Bus station and train station.

  • Fábrica de Ron Caney Address:  Av. Jesús Menéndez y Calle Gonzalo de Quesada
  • Santiago de Cuba, Santiago de Cuba  90100, Cuba
  • Opening Hours of Fábrica de Ron Caney:  Monday through Saturday from 9 30am to 4 45 pm

Visit the Jardín de los Helechos in Santiago de Cuba

This tranquil garden is a lush paradise filled with 350 different types of ferns and 90 different sorts of orchids, making it the perfect place to unwind and rest. There is still plenty of life in the 3000-square-meter garden, which used to be a private collection of santiagüero Manuel Caluff and was presented to the Academia de Ciencias de Cuba (Cuban Academy of Science) in 1984 after being a part of his private collection. The park’s focal point is a pleasant, forested woods with benches placed around it.  If you’re coming to see the orchids, then its best to see them between November and January.

To get here from downtown, you can take a taxi, or walk – its about 2km (1.25 miles), or bus number 5 leaves from Plaza de Marte and goes past the gardens en route to El Caney.

  • Jardín de los Helechos Address: Carretera de El Caney No 129
  • Opening Hours of Jardín de los Helechos:   Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm
  • Jardín de los Helechos Admission Price:  US$3

Visit the Balcony of Velazquez, Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba’s Balcony of Velazquez is one of the most famous viewpoints of the city, you can see both the city and coastline from here.  The Balcony de Velazquez was begun building in 1539, on the orders of Hernando de Soto, but it wasn’t finished until 1550, because of contact fighting against Indian uprisings.  The purpose of the Balcony of Velazquez was to watch maritime traffic to try and avoid surprise pirate attacks.  There’s not much of the original building left, but it does provide an excellent Santiago de Cuba viewpoint.

  • Balcony of Velazquez Address: Calle Mariano Corona Street and San Basilio Street. Santiago de Cuba.
  • Balcony of Velazquez Admission Price:  FREE

The Best Day Trips from Santiago de Cuba

If you plan on making Santiago de Cuba your base for a few days then there are several great day trips from Santiago de Cuba.  If you plan to go onto Baracoa, then the bus leaves in the morning and takes about 5 hours.

Dive a Shipwreck from Santiago de Cuba

On this day trip from Santiago de Cuba, you can see the Almirante Oquendo Shipwreck in Santiago de Cuba.  It’s been beneath the waves since 1898.  The diving depth is between 4 and 13 meters and it’s possible for beginner divers to join this trip (there’s just a requirement for a short training session beforehand.  The ship has a tower than emerges from the water and an impressive ecosystem of fish and coral around it.  You can see more information on this day trip from Santiago de Cuba here.

Take a Classic Car Trip to Morro Castle from Santiago de Cuba

Morro Castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997 and the San Pedro Fort here is on top of a 60-meter (200 feet) promontory at the entrance to the harbor of Santiago de Cuba.  It’s about 10 km (6 miles) from the city.  This classic car tour to Morro Castle takes you to the fortress which was built in the 17th century.  There are amazing views from the upper terrace of both the coastline and the Sierra Maestra mountains.  Juan Bautista Antonelli also designed the forts in Havana, but it wasn’t completed until 17 years after his death because of financial constraints, it was sacked by the British privateer Henry Morgan in the meantime. 

day trips from santiago de cuba morro castle

As piracy declined, the fort then became a prison and stayed that way on and off until a form of restoration began in the 1960s.  Today there’s a museum of pirates here and also an exhibition of the 1898 US naval battle (one of the ships wrecked in that battle can be seen on a diving day trip from Santiago de Cuba!).  Like Havana’s fort, there is a firing of the cannon ceremony each day at sunset. You can get to El Morro by taking bus 212 and then walking for 20 minutes.  Or you can arrange (and prepay this day trip in a classic car.  The fort is open from 9 am until 7 pm and entrance fees are US$5.  Book this excursion to Morro Castle in a classic car here.

day trips from santiago de cuba morro castle view

A brief history of Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba is the country’s second-largest city and is located in a valley in the Sierra Maestra, pierced by a Caribbean Sea harbor.  Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Cuba’s first governor, established Santiago de Cuba in 1514; it was later relocated a few kilometers to its current location in 1522. In the early colonial era, the city had a key position in the northern Caribbean and served as the capital of Cuba until 1553. 

Havana overtook Santiago de Cuba as the island’s capital city as its inhabitants migrated to the western end of the island to build fortifications. The first mayor of Santiago de Cuba was Hernán Cortés, the conqueror who led the expedition that led to the conquest of Mexico in 1519.

Santiago de Cuba is the center of a farming and mining district. The city exports copper, iron, manganese, sugar, and fruit, and it serves as the southern terminal of the Central Highway and Cuba’s main railway. 

The city is home to the University of Oriente (established in 1947), a medical school, a sports stadium, a cathedral, and various museums. The city boasts a multi-ethnic population with the highest number of African descendants in Cuba. It holds one of Latin America’s oldest and most authentic street carnivals.

Where is Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s second-largest city and the capital of the province of Santiago de Cuba. It’s 540 miles (870 km) from Havana and is in the southeast area of the island of Cuba.

Travel Tips for Exploring Cuba

Final Words on the Best Things to do in Santiago de Cuba

Getting to Santiago de Cuba these days is an adventure in itself and while it’s a key stop on our Cuban Revolution itinerary, not many people will get all the way down the island to visit.  If you do get here, you’ll see colonial splendor and a mass of revolutionary history.  It’s hot here, colorful, and a great musical city.  And it’s uniquely different from Havana.  Come on down to this end of the island, it’s great fun!

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