The Cuban island is filled with natural and cultural wonder wherever you turn. From the white-sand beaches that line its coasts to the amazing cultural heritage of its colonial cities, Cuba’s undeniable charm attracts visitors from all over the world year after year. Though most travellers are familiar with Havana, the island’s vibrant and diverse capital or the paradisiacal beach hub of Varadero, many other cities are buzzing with interesting sites to see. This is certainly the case of Santiago de Cuba.
With an average yearly temperature of 28°C, the sizzling city, which was once the country’s capital, is deemed the nation’s most Caribbean city. Founded as a Spanish settlement in 1515 by famed conquistador Diego Velazquez, the region was invaded and taken over by various global powers over the next couple of centuries. This is why the people of Santiago’s ethnic and cultural background is so diverse including Spanish, African, French, British and Haitian roots.
The second biggest city, after Havana, Santiago de Cuba is also a city filled with history, as many of its sons and daughters starred in the war for the nation’s independence in the 19th century as well as in the 1959 Revolution. Besides being known for their bravery and character, “santiagueros” stand out for their inborn rhythm as the creators of nearly all of Cuba’s music genres including salsa and rumba.This is why the best way of getting to know this buzzing and colourful city is through its friendly and flamboyant people.
For those planning a trip to Santiago de Cuba and looking to get the most out of their stay, this blog offers a guide of 25 unique and incredible spots to visit whilst in the city. Though it would be ideal to see each and every one of these landmarks, this detailed list will help you narrow down the options depending on your interests, in case your time in Santiago is limited.
1. Castillo San Pedro de la Roca del Morro
Built in 1638 to defend the port of Santiago de Cuba, the Castillo San Pedro de la Roca is a 60-metre high military fortress set in the entrance of the Santiago harbour, 10 kilometres to the southwest of the city. Declared UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, the city’s Castillo del Morro, is a wonderful spot to get a feel of the island’s history, tracing back to the time of colonizers and pirates, as well as observe breath-taking views of the blue sea beyond.
2. Parque Cespedes
A beating kaleidoscope of walking, talking, hustling, flirting and guitar-strumming, Parque Cespedes is the centre of Santiago de Cuba’s street life. This bright square is presided by a statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Cuban hero and slavery abolitionist who set off the island’s independence process in 1868. East of Parque Cespedes, visitors can also find Plaza de Dolores, a former marketplace now dominated by the 18th-century church Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. After strolling around Parque Cespedes, refreshments and food are provided in the many restaurants and cafes that flank this square.
3. Plaza de Marte
For more insight into what makes “santiagueros” tick, Plaza de Marte is ideal. The gathering spot or "esquina caliente" (hot corner) where local baseball fans plot the imminent downfall of Havana's Industriales, this square guards the entrance to the old town. Very different to its macabre past as a 19th-century Spanish parade ground where prisoners were executed publicly for revolutionary activities, Plaza de Marte is a hub for social life in the city.
4. Impressive Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Cathedral
One of the most enchanting sites of the city, the impressive Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion Cathedral is a landmark within the city of Santiago. There has been a cathedral on this site since the city's foundation in the 1520s, though a series of pirate raids, earthquakes and dubious architects put paid to at least three previous incarnations. The final cathedral we can see today was completed in 1922. The current construction, which boasts two neoclassical towers, is the place where the remains of first colonial governor, Diego Velazquez are buried. The church was restored both inside and out for Santiago’s 50th foundation anniversary in 2015.
5. Former residence of Diego Velazquez
Dip your feet further into colonial history by visiting the former residence of Diego Velazquez. The oldest house still standing in Santiago de Cuba, this arresting early colonial abode dates from 1522. Restored in the late 1960s, the Andalusian-style facade with fine, wooden lattice windows was inaugurated in 1970 as a museum.
6. Birthplace of National Hero Antonio Maceo
Known as the Bronze Titan, Antonio Maceo was one of the main generals who lead the independence cause in the island in the 19th century. Today his birthplace functions as a museum that honours the life of this great hero with exhibits showing highlights of Maceo’s exploits with photos, letters and a tattered flag that was flown in battle. Maceo is a symbol of bravery and determination for Cuban people and especially the pride of all “santiagueros”.
7. Loma de San Juan Monument
Loma de San Juan marks the spot of the Spanish-Cuban-American War's only land battle. Teddy Roosevelt supposedly led a fearless cavalry charge against the Spanish to seal a famous US victory on this small hillock, though this popular story has never been confirmed. Cannons, trenches and numerous US monuments, including a bronze rough rider, enhance the classy gardening, while the only acknowledgement of a Cuban presence is the rather understated monument to the unknown Mambi (Cuban Independence soldier).
8. Santiago’s Revolution Square
Santiago’s Revolution Square is located at the junction of two sweeping avenues and anchored by an eye-catching statue of dedicated city hero (and native son), Antonio Maceo, sitting on his horse and surrounded by 23 raised machetes. Underneath the giant mound, a small reverential museum contains information on his life. Other notable buildings bordering the square include modern Jose Maria Heredia Theatre and the National Bus Station.
9. Birthplace of poet Jose Maria Heredia
Jose Maria Heredia is one of the nation’s greatest Romantic poets. Today his birthplace is a small museum which illustrates his life and works (1803–39). Inscribed outside is Heredia’s most notable work, “Ode to Niagara”, in which the writer compares the beauty of Canada’s Niagara Falls to his personal feelings of loss and longing about his homeland. Like many Cuban independence advocates, Heredia was forced into exile, dying in Mexico in 1839.
10. Museo de Historia 26 de Julio (History Museum)
This museum used to be a police station before it was attacked by M-26-7 activists on November 30, 1956, to divert attention from the arrival of the tardy yacht Granma, carrying Fidel Castro and 81 others who sought to overturn Batista’s dictatorship. Today the yellow colonial-style building tells the story of this bloody and difficult underground struggle against Batista and his corrupted and violent government in the 1950s.
11. History of the Revolution at Cuartel Moncada
The first barracks on this site were constructed by the Spanish in 1859. Taking its name after war of Independence fighter Guillermon Moncada, the Cuartel (Garrison House), a large art-deco building completed in 1938, used to be Cuba's second-most important military garrison and is currently remembered for being the first try and fail to defeat Batista. The barracks were attacked on 26th July, 1953, when more than 100 revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro fought against the authorities.
After the Revolution, the barracks, like all others in Cuba, were converted into a school called "Ciudad Escolar 26 de Julio", and in 1967 a museum was installed near gate 3, where the main attack took place. Visitors can see the evidence of the struggle and be moved by the photographs of the 61 fallen.
12. Tivoli and Casa de las Tradiciones
Authentic Cuban rhythms swarm the air of this distinctive neighbourhood surrounded by the freshness of beautiful bougainvillea. Tivoli is Santiago's old French quarter, first settled by colonists from Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Overlooking the shimmering harbour, Tivoli is famous for its red-tiled roofs and hidden patios where old men gather to play dominoes and children play stickball.
This neighbourhood is also home to precisely one of the most important music venues in the country. The Casa de las Tradiciones is host to some of Santiago de Cuba's most exciting ensembles, singers and soloists who take turns improvising all kinds of genres from trova to rumba to guaracha.
13. Musical notes at Casa de la Trova
More quality music can be found in the charming "Casa de la Trova". After opening its doors 50 years ago, Santiago's shrine to the power of traditional music is still going strong. Prestigious artists like Grammy-winning Eliades Ochoa and his Buena Vista Social Club are frequent visitors.
14. Parque Alameda
Now the centre of Santiago’s seawall (Malecon), Parque Alameda is situated just below the Tivoli quarter. This narrow yet beautiful park adorns the dockside promenade opened in 1840 and redesigned in 1893. The north end features the old clock tower, aduana (customs house) and cigar factory. After renovation works were made in 2015 the park is filled with locals: adults accessing Internet though the Wi-Fi zone and children jumping in the playground.
15. Lush greenery at Jardin de los Helechos
Jardin de los Helechos (Fern Garden) is an oasis of tranquillity amidst the buzzing and boisterous Santiago. Boasting 350 types of ferns and 90 types of orchids, this garden was once a private collection of Manuel Caluff, who donated it in 1984 to the Cuban Academy of Science, which continues to keep the 3000-square-metre garden in constant bloom. The benches located in the centre of the garden are a great place to relax and observe the greenery.
16. Academic ambiance at Universidad de Oriente
Founded in 1947, the Universidad de Oriente (UO) of Santiago de Cuba is the second most important University on the island. This landmark is considered one of the most prestigious education institutions in the country. Visitors can walk around and breathe in the academic ambiance.
17. Dinosaur discovery in Parque Baconao
A more child-friendly option is available at Parque Baconao. Situated 20 km from Santiago de Cuba, this large green area comprises 227 real-size sculptures of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals. Besides this impressive sight, the park also includes aquarium, a dolphinarium and a ground transport museum with more than 2.000 replicas of miniature vehicles.
18. Unparalleled vistas from La Gran Piedra
Not for the faint-hearted but a truly unforgettable experience. La Gran Piedra is 4452 steps up from the plain, nestled in one of the highest points of the mountain. Though the climb is difficult, the views from this point are well worth the effort. Situated at 1225 meters above sea level, amidst ferns and orchids, the great stone offers unparalleled vistas of the Sierra Maestra mountain range as well as the city of Santiago.
19. Beach break at Playa de Siboney
Only 14 km from the city centre, Playa de Siboney offers the perfect beach break. Boasting pristine waters and fine sand, this relaxing site is also a place of history, as it was once the stage of the Spanish-Cuban-American war and a Camp erected by Fidel Castro and his soldiers during the attack on the Cuartel Moncada.
20. Baseball passion at Guillermon Moncada Stadium
Whilst in Santiago, why not venture into enjoying a fine baseball game. Besides enjoying the sport in itself, travellers get the chance to know locals better and feel the passion with which the national sport is followed and supported in the Caribbean city.
21. Santa Ifigenia Cementery
Created in 1868 to accommodate the victims of the War of Independence and a simultaneous yellow-fever outbreak, the Santa Ifigenia includes many great historical figures among its more than 8000 tombs, notably the mausoleum of National Hero Jose Marti and final resting place of Fidel Castro. Peacefully nestled on the city's western extremity, the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia is second only to Havana's Necropolis Cristobal Colon in its importance and grandiosity. With walkways lined with huge palm trees, this peaceful mausoleum is well worth the visit for those who are curious about the island’s great historic icons.
22. Bacardi Rum Factory
One of Santiago’s main attractions is without doubt the original Bacardi factory. The site was founded in 1868 by Spanish-born Don Facundo who came up with the world-famous Bacardi bat symbol after discovering a bat colony in the factory's rafters. Though the Bacardi family fled the island post-Revolution, this construction is still used to produce rum. Cuban brands include Ron Caney, Ron Santiago and Ron Varadero. “Barrita de Ron Havana Club”, a tourist bar attached to the factory now offers rum sales and tastings.
23. Puerto del Rey Beerhouse
If rum isn’t really of your preference, a pint of chilled beer might be just what you need to fight off the incessant Santiago heat. This warehouse-style brewpub serves both dark and light beer and serves decent pub food, including popular "caldo del rey" (a broth with a pork-rib base).
24. Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre
High on a hill situated 20 kilometres northwest of Santiago de Cuba on the old road to Bayamo, is Cuba's most sacred pilgrimage site. The beautiful Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre was visited by Pope Francis just last year, during a stopover where he blessed the church and Cuba’s patron saint: La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity). In Santeria religion, the Virgin is syncretised with the beautiful orisha Ochun, Yoruba goddess of love and dancing, and a religious icon to almost all Cuban women. In the minds of many worshipers, devotion to the two religious figures is intertwined. Even for nonbelievers, a visit to the Virgin is a fascinating look in to local culture.
25. Partying at the Carnivals and Fiesta del Fuego
Though not a fixed spot, but rather an event that runs through the city’s main arteries, Carnival at Santiago de Cuba is a unique and wonderful experience that could count as a landmark. Between the 21st and the 28th of July, the city is covered with the colours of endless parades, dancers, floats, jugglers. It is a true way of mingling with locals and tasting Santiago’s Caribbean flavour.
Usually in August, Fiesta del Fuego also lights up the city. Many artistic activities go on simultaneously and on the last day people go to the beach for la “Quema del Diablo”, which consists in symbolically burning a big demon, which represents all the evil on the island.