A First-Timer’s Guide to Santiago de Cuba: What to Know

First time in Santiago de Cuba? Claire Boobbyer shares her tips on how to navigate the city and find the best local experiences, places to stay and eat.


Photo © iStock/mbbirdy

You’ll need a couple of days to really feel the Caribbean rhythm and sway of Cuba’s lively second city. 

Our local insider, Claire, has all the information you need to navigate the heat and hustle of the city, so that you’re ready to explore the best things to do, and take day-trips out to nearby secrets.

Where to Stay in Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba has a good number of hotels and a greater number of top B&Bs.

Slow to respond to Cuba’s tourist boom, the city has only just opened two renovated historic center hotels – the Imperial, and the Gran Hotel – to add to just a handful of other city center hotels including the tired Casa Granda on the main park, and the charming, small San Basilio. 

There are a handful of hotels off the city center, the most upmarket being the modern Melia Santiago de Cuba, with its lovely pool.

Filling the gap are a range of very good casas particulares (Cuban homestays) in the historic center including Roy’s Terrace Inn, the Casa Terraza Pavo Real, and Hostal Girasol

Best Places to Eat in Santiago de Cuba

The best places to eat in Santiago have only emerged in the last few years, due to new private business laws.

The top historic center spot is St Pauli for fresh, creative dishes; Rumba Café for comfort food and refreshing drinks; and off-center El Palenquito for delicious BBQ food.

Getting Around Santiago de Cuba

Getting around Santiago de Cuba requires a little know-how. 

The historic core is for walking. To get further afield, there are taxis hanging out on street corners (they will find you first). Negotiate the price before you get in. Picking a taxi up away from the main hotels will be cheaper.

Trucks also run between the center and the upmarket Vista Alegre district.

To travel along the bay front to the train station, or to the bus station, there are horses and cart – which you’ll pay for in local pesos.

Hiring a car is not recommended just to get around the city due to the tight streets, one-way systems, cost, and lack of availability.

Local Experiences in Santiago de Cuba

Get the most out of your trip to Santiago by seeking out local experiences.

Finding out what’s on is notoriously difficult.

But, your best bet is to consult Noticias de Cantiago de Cuba for the weekly cultural calendar (cartelera cultural).

You might also want to time your trip around some of the city’s best annual musical and cultural events: The International Trova Festival Pepe Sánchez, held in March; the Son Festival in October, the annual Festival del Caribe in July, the action-packed July Carnaval with its parades and congas, and the International Choir Festival in December.

Also look out for dance performances by Tumba Francesa, Ballet Folklórico de Cutumba, and Ballet Folklórico de Oriente.

For true cultural immersion, sign up to the courses on offer at the Casa del Caribe, the city’s cultural tour de force.

One way of getting the insider groove is to organize music or dance classes through cultural agency Paradiso, or arrange classes on the ground through your B&B.

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