Santiago de Cuba is often portrayed as a dangerous and licentious city, but this is far from the truth. This friendly colonial city is full of charm and should not be missed.
As the country’s second-largest city and the capital of the province of the same name, Santiago de Cuba is located in the Oriente, in the east of the island.
👉 Santiago de Cuba in a nutshell
👉 Weather in Santiago de Cuba
👉 Getting to Santiago de Cuba
👉 What to do in Santiago de Cuba?
👉 What to near Santiago de Cuba?
👉 Beaches in Santiago de Cuba
👉 The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
👉 The Captain’s top picks in Santiago de Cuba
💡 Planning Your Trip to Cuba 💡
🇨🇺 Visa: Before you depart, be sure to apply for your tourist card (which is your visa for Cuba). You can easily order your tourist card online through CubaVisa.
🛏️ Accommodations: To book your accommodations in Cuba, the Captain recommends Expedia. In Santiago de Cuba, the Captain especially recommends 2 casas particulares/B&Bs with very good value for money (Hostal Bellamar & Casa Colonial 1893) and one a little more upscale (Hostal Heredia).
📸 Activities: To book your activities, the Captain highly recommends Civitatis.
Santiago de Cuba in a nutshell
Founded in 1514 by the conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Santiago de Cuba quickly became the island’s capital, but later lost this status to Havana. Despite this, Santiago remained a dynamic city due to its strategic position as a port for trade and smuggling.
Santiago de Cuba has attracted migrants from all over the world, including French colonists fleeing Haiti in the early 19th century. They brought with them the secrets of coffee culture, which has since become an integral part of Cuban heritage.
Santiago de Cuba has been a multicultural city since its founding, and it’s this cultural fusion that gives the city its lively and distinctive character. It’s a city of exuberance and rebellion, with famous revolutionaries like Antonio Maceo and Frank Pais hailing from the region. Santiago de Cuba is also a symbol of the Castro Revolution, where Fidel and his comrades launched their first attack against the Batista regime.
The Weather in Santiago de Cuba
In terms of weather, Santiago de Cuba experiences two main seasons like the rest of Cuba: the dry season (late November – late April) and the rainy season (May – November).
During the dry season, temperatures are mild, while they can exceed 30°C/85°F during the rainy season. Precipitation is minimal during the dry season, but there are frequent and intense but short-lived showers during the rainy season. Regardless of the season, Santiago de Cuba enjoys a constant 8-9 hours of sunshine per day.
|January||20-28°C | 68-82°F||1.2 in||8 hours/day|
|February||20-29°C | 68-84°F||0.7 in||8 hours/day|
|March||21-29°C | 70-84°F||1.6 in||8 hours/day|
|April||22-29°C | 72-84°F||2.8 in||8 hours/day|
|May||23-30°C | 73-86°F||5.9 in||9 hours/day|
|June||24-31°C | 75-88°F||5.1 in||9 hours/day|
|July||24-31°C | 75-88°F||2.2 in||9 hours/day|
|August||24-32°C | 75-90°F||3.7 in||8 hours/day|
|September||24-31°C | 75-88°F||5.9 in||8 hours/day|
|October||23-31°C | 73-88°F||7.9 in||8 hours/day|
|November||22-30°C | 72-86°F||3.9 in||8 hours/day|
|December||21-29°C | 70-84°F||1.2 in||8 hours/day|
How to get to Santiago de Cuba?
The majority of tourists choose to land in Havana, Varadero, or Cayo Coco, but flights to Santiago de Cuba are also available. It can be an interesting option if you only plan to visit the eastern part of the country or want to explore the whole country from east to west.
If you are already in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is relatively easy to reach. You can take a domestic flight from Havana or other major cities, such as Cayo Coco. Viazul buses also connect Santiago de Cuba to the country’s main cities, but the trips can be very long. Alternatively, you can try to book a shared taxi with your casa particular, although there are far fewer shared taxis available in the east of the country. However, it’s easier to find bus seats than in the west.
Things to do in Santiago de Cuba
Located in the heart of Santiago de Cuba’s historic district, Céspedes Park is a popular meeting place for locals. The park is named after the famous Cuban independence leader Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. It’s surrounded by colonial buildings where people gather to chat, stroll or enjoy music.
Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
On Céspedes Park, visitors can also find the magnificent Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. The cathedral has been destroyed multiple times by earthquakes and pirates over the centuries and had to be rebuilt. It was recently restored to its neoclassical style from 1922, which is equally impressive both inside and out.
Casa de la Trova
The oldest in the country, the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba is a temple of traditional Cuban music. Musicians perform there from late afternoon, and many famous figures of Cuban music, such as Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa from the Buena Vista Social Club, have passed through its doors. In the evening, the Casa de la Trova is also a popular spot for Cuban dance enthusiasts.
Balcony of Velázquez
For a beautiful panoramic view of Santiago de Cuba, head to the Balcony of Velázquez! The balcony is located on the site of a 16th-century fortress built to defend the city and offers a stunning view of the Tivolí district. The venue also hosts theater performances and cultural events.
The Tivolí district was created by French immigrants fleeing the revolution in Haiti in the late 18th century. It is a maze of steep streets where it’s pleasant to stroll. The district’s name comes from a French café-concert that was popular at the time. Visitors can’t miss the famous Padre Pico stairs or the Museum of Clandestine Struggle, which tells the story of the revolutionary struggle against Batista’s regime.
The Museum of Clandestine Struggle
The Museum of Clandestine Struggle is situated in a beautiful colonial-style mansion and showcases the history of the 26th of July Movement, named after the attack on the Moncada Barracks. This museum focuses on the young revolutionary, Frank País, who was assassinated in 1957. It should be noted that the information provided in this historical museum is somewhat biased, like in all historical museums in Cuba, and should be taken with a grain of salt. For those who wish to learn more about Frank País, they can also visit the Casa-Museo Frank País. The admission fee for the museum is 1 CUC per person.
The Emilio Bacardí Moreau Museum
The Emilio Bacardí Moreau Museum is housed in a grand building with a Greek-style facade and displays archaeological and historical collections, as well as works by Cuban artists like Wifredo Lam, René Portocarrero, Federico Martínez Matos, and Alberto Lescay. The museum’s entrance fee is 2 CUC per person, and it was founded at the end of the 19th century by the then-mayor, Emilio Bacardí Moreau. The Bacardí name might sound familiar because the father of Emilio Bacardí Moreau created the Bacardí brand in 1862.
The Moncada Barracks
The Moncada Barracks, famously known for the failed attack by Castro and his troops on July 26, 1953, is another historical attraction. This attack marked the beginning of the Cuban revolutionary movement known as the M26. The building still has visible bullet holes on its facade and has been converted into a school, with the July 26th Historical Museum located inside.
The Abel Santamaría Historical Park
Abel Santamaría, one of the earliest supporters of Fidel Castro, participated in the attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. He led a small group of fighters and was assigned to capture the Civil Hospital Saturnino Lora just a few miles from the barracks. But this initial attempt to overthrow Batista’s regime failed, and Santamaría was imprisoned, tortured, and then executed in prison. Fidel Castro was tried in the nursing school of the hospital and gave his famous speech “History Will Absolve Me.”
Today, the park is named after Santamaría, who became a revolutionary martyr. A monument commemorates him and the independence hero José Martí. The Abel Santamaría Museum, which tells the story of the assault on the barracks, is also located in the park.
The Revolution Square, which opened in 1991, is impressive in its grandeur. A gigantic 16-meter statue of Antonio Maceo, created by Santiago artist Alberto Lescay, stands in the center of the square. The famous independence hero is depicted on horseback with his arm raised, surrounded by 23 machetes representing Cuban independence. Under the monument, you’ll find the Memorial to Antonio Maceo, which tells the story of the man whom Cubans call the “Bronze Titan.”
Santa Ifigenia Cemetery
While visiting a cemetery may seem unusual, the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is definitely worth a visit. Located to the west of the city, it was created in 1868 to bury victims of the War of Independence and a yellow fever epidemic that hit the country in the late 19th century. It now contains around 8,000 graves, including those of many famous Cubans.
As you walk through the cemetery’s alleys, you’ll see the tombs of legendary independence heroes Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and José Martí. Guards change every half-hour and always watch over the latter’s grave. It’s a unique sight!
The Castro revolutionaries who died in combat during the attack on the Moncada Barracks are also buried in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, as are Frank País and his brother Josué.
The tomb of former city mayor Emilio Bacardí Moreau is also located here.
Music lovers will also pay their respects at the grave of famous Cuban musician Compay Segundo.
What to do near Santiago de Cuba?
To visit the famous Basilica of Nuestra Señora del Cobre, head about twenty kilometers west of Santiago de Cuba! Every year, many pilgrims come here to pay tribute to the “Cachita,” the Virgin of Charity.
La Gran Piedra
Located 25 kilometers / 15 miles from Santiago de Cuba, La Gran Piedra is a mountain range known for the huge rock that crowns its summit. The Isabelica Coffee Plantation, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is also worth a visit!
San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle
San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle (not to be confused with El Morro Fort in Havana) is a military fortress located at the entrance of the bay of Santiago de Cuba. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-visit for any traveler visiting the capital of the Oriente.
Located 75 kilometers / 45 miles from Santiago de Cuba, the town of Chivirico itself doesn’t have much to offer, but the road from Santiago de Cuba to Chivirico is worth the detour.
Hiking trails (not recommended for beginners!) depart from Chivirico and lead to the discovery of the Sierra Maestra.
Chivirico’s surroundings also include some beaches where you can take a refreshing swim.
Pico Turquino National Park
The park gets its name from Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest peak (1,974 meters / 6,476 ft. Pico Turquino National Park is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful parks in Cuba.
Numerous hikes of varying duration and difficulty crisscross the park to the summit, located 130 km / 80 miles west of Santiago de Cuba.
The most adventurous can choose a 2-3 day hike (starting from Santo Domingo or Alto del Naranjo in the Province of Granma). Those pressed for time can opt for a 4-hour hike (Province of Santiago de Cuba).
Regarding prices, expect to pay 15 to 48 CUC per person depending on the hike you choose. To prepare for your hike, you can inquire with the local agency Ecotur in Santiago de Cuba.
Note that in Cuban natural parks, every hiker must be accompanied by a guide.
Baconao National Park
Baconao National Park is a rather unusual place! Classified as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, the 80,000-hectare/200,000-acre park includes, among other attractions, an automobile museum, life-size reproductions of dinosaurs, and an aquarium! Eclectic, to say the least!
Cayo Granma is an islet located at the mouth of the Bay of Santiago de Cuba and accessible by ferry. On-site, the facilities are limited to a picturesque fishing village and a pretty church.
If you have time, why not take a trip there? But it’s not a must-see attraction in the region.
Beaches in Santiago de Cuba
While Santiago de Cuba is not particularly known for its beaches, there are still a few spots where you can take a swim near the city.
While these beaches may not be breathtaking, they are still great for diving. The most well-known beaches are Cazonal Beach and Siboney Beach in the Baconao National Park. Additionally, the beaches along the Chivirico road are known to be the most pleasant in the region.
The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba is the most famous carnival on the island, and possibly even in the entire Caribbean!
The people of Santiago de Cuba prepare for months for this event. The streets are filled with costumed processions and the sounds of the conga.
The Captain’s top picks in Santiago de Cuba
Accommodations in Santiago de Cuba
If you’re in need of a place to stay in Santiago de Cuba, Captain Ulysses highly recommends two casas particulares that offer excellent value for money:
For travelers with a slightly larger budget, the Captain also recommends Hostal Heredia. This accommodation features modern decor, a shaded terrace, a cozy bar/lounge, and excellent service. In short, it’s a very nice place to stay!
Restaurant in Santiago de Cuba
If you’re looking to try something other than the common dish of ropa vieja, then Rumba Café is the perfect spot for you! They offer a variety of international cuisine such as club sandwiches, spaghetti, and milkshakes that are sure to satisfy your cravings. It’s a great change of pace after a few weeks of traditional Cuban cuisine.