Top 10 things to do in Santiago de Cuba

Visiter Santiago de Cuba

Off to Cuba? After Havana and Santa Clara, don’t miss Santiago de Cuba: here are 10 must-see things to do!

For some, Cuba symbolizes the socialist revolution embodied by the iconic Che Guevara, more than half a century of struggle against the capitalist order, a timeless place unique in the world. It was in Santiago de Cuba that, on July 26, 1953, brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro and their men attacked the Moncada barracks, the starting point of the Cuban revolution. For others, Cuba is a dictatorship. But whatever one thinks, Cuba is not as protectionist as it used to be: its recent opening to world tourism has made it a new favorite destination for travelers. Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s second-largest city after Havana, with an estimated population of 510,000 or 515,000 (2018). Situated at the head of a bay between the Caribbean Sea and the Sierra Maestra, Santiago de Cuba was founded in 1514 by the Spanish conquistadors, and took off in the 17th century thanks to its strategic position.

Are you visiting Santiago de Cuba and don’t know what to do? Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s most emblematic city, so there’s no shortage of things to do. Here’s our rundown of the 10 things to see and do in Cuba’s second-largest city.

1. The historic center

Exuberant, rebellious, multicultural and the cradle of the Cuban revolution, Santiago de Cuba is a city rich in history and color. Start your tour of the city center at Parc Céspedes, named after Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a historic figure in Cuban history. Climb to the top of theCasaGranda hotel for a panoramic view of the city. Locals love to meet up, chat, stroll and listen to music.

The center is made up of typical colonial-era buildings, and in fact concentrates a number of monuments and museums worth visiting: the Velázquez balcony, the Velázquez house, the Carnival museum – the Santiago Carnival, held in the second half of July, is the most colorful and lively in the Caribbean – and the underground wrestling museum.

2. Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption

basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Santiago de Cuba

Photo credit: Flickr – Johan Siegers

What to do in Santiago de Cuba Located to the south of the main Plaza Céspedes, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption) is one of the city’s must-see Catholic cathedrals. It stands on the site of Santiago’s first chapel, built in 1514. It was destroyed several times by earthquakes and the ravages of piracy. The current version of the building dates from 1922.

3. The French Quarter

Padre Pico Steps, Tivoli, Santiago de Cuba

Photo credit: Flickr – csw27

In 1804, fleeing Saint-Domingue following Haiti’s independence, French colonists landed in the port of Santiago de Cuba. They created the Tivolí district, named after the café-concert they set up there, which proved a great success with the local population. The Tivolí district is a maze of steep alleyways, including the Padre Pico staircase. A must-see when visiting Santiago de Cuba.

4. Diego Velazquez House

Built in the early 16th century for the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (1465-1524), the Velázquez House is a must-see museum, with mahogany, cedar and ebony furniture dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. If you don’t know what to do in Santiago de Cuba, take a stroll through the patios and courtyard of the house, admiring its superb terraces.

5. Santiago’s museums

Musée Emilio Bacardi, Santiago de Cuba

Photo credit: Flickr – cnpc cuba

As is often the case in Cuba, Santiago’s museum heritage is extensive. Be sure to visit the Museum of the Revolution and the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle. The latter traces the history of the July 26 Movement, known as M-26-7, evoking the lost attack by the Castro brothers and their accomplices on the Moncada barracks (Cuba’s second largest military barracks under the dictatorship of F. Batista). The museum traces the life of F. País, a Cuban revolutionary assassinated by the police at the age of 22 in 1957.

The Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum, founded in the late 19th century, houses archaeological, historical and objets d’art collections. It features works by Cuban artists such as Wifredo Lam, René Portocarrero, Federico Martínez Matos and Alberto Lescay.

6. Santa Ifigenia cemetery

Why go to the cemetery when you come to visit Santiago de Cuba? Now there’s a crazy idea! A Cuban necropolis founded in 1868 to bury victims of the War of Independence and a yellow fever epidemic, the Santa Ifignia cemetery was declared a national monument in 1979. Several great figures of the Cuban revolution and struggle for independence are buried here, including Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819-1874), José Martí (1853-1895), Frank País (1934-1957) and Fidel Castro (1926-2016).

7. Moncada barracks

We’ve already mentioned it: if you love Cuban history, the Moncada Barracks is a must-see when visiting Santiago de Cuba. It was here, on July 26, 1953, that the Castro revolution began. The assault was a bitter failure, and most of the revolutionaries were killed, tortured and/or executed by Batista’s army. This bloody day is considered the beginning of the Cuban revolution. The facade is still riddled with bullet holes. The barracks have now been converted into a school and a museum: the Museo Histórico 26 de Julio (July 26th Historical Museum).

8. Baconao Park

Parc de Baconao, Santiago de Cuba

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons – rdmazo

Baconao Park lies to the east of the city. It is an 80,000-hectare biosphere reserve, recognized by UNESCO since 1987. You can’t visit Santiago de Cuba without spending a day exploring this national park, where you’ll find the famous Gran Piedra (Great Stone), life-size reproductions of dinosaurs and a botanical garden, Jardin Ave de Paradiso. The park is also home to an automobile museum, with over 2,500 model cars.

9. El Castillo del Moro

Castillo del Moro, Santiago de Cuba

Photo credit: Flickr – Adam Jones

Located to the south of the city, the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (San Pedro de la Roca Castle) fortress is a building of great architectural value, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. The castle was used to defend Cuba’s southern coast during the Spanish colonial period.

10. Caridad del Cobre Basilica

Basilique Caridad del Cobre, Santiago de Cuba

Looking for one last thing to do when visiting Santiago? Located some twenty kilometers northwest of the city, this Catholic edifice – the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity – is a place of pilgrimage for Cubans, and owes its name to the open-cast copper mines exploited by the conquistadors in colonial times.

How to get to Santiago de Cuba

From France, mainly Paris-Orly, there are several ways to find a flight to Cuba: on average, allow around 30 hours for the flight, including one or two stopovers in the USA. Santiago de Cuba-Antonio-Maceo airport serves Miami, Rome, Paris, Toronto and other Caribbean destinations. If you’re already in Cuba and want to get to Santiago de Cuba, Viazul (a bus network) operates three daily services between Havana and Santiago.

Once you’ve arrived in Santiago de Cuba, all you have to do is get to the city center. The airport is located 7 kilometers southwest of Santiago de Cuba, so you’ll have several options to choose from:

– Cabs or transfers (shared or private) operated by private companies: expect to pay around 10 dollars a trip.

– Car rental: at the airport, you can rent your own vehicle for your stay. It’s a great way to be autonomous and explore the surrounding area with greater freedom of movement.

Where to stay in Santiago de Cuba

To find a place to stay and visit Santiago de Cuba with peace of mind, we recommend targeting the historic center, close to the city’s most popular streets (Calle Heredia and Calle Enramada). For greater comfort, aim for the Vista Alegra district, an upscale neighborhood north of downtown. When it comes to pied-à-terre, there’s plenty to choose from: apartments, hotels, bed & breakfasts, casa particulars… It all depends on your expectations and your budget. Whatever you’re looking for, take a look at this hotel comparator to find the best deals around, or spend some time on Airbnb to find a typical or even… atypical pied-à-terre.

Map of hotels and accommodation – Cuba