The hot and exciting Caribbean city of Santiago de Cuba is an essential stop on any trip to Cuba.
As a former capital of Cuba, and key player in Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, it has many churches, museums, and landmarks, and its place in the musical history of the island is unrivaled.
Visiting key landmarks is a great way to learn about the city’s remarkable history. From the second city founded by the Spanish conquerors in 1515, through to its emergence as a key business center and its role in Cuba’s Castro Revolution, each chapter has left its mark on Santiago de Cuba.
The eastern city is also at the heart of Cuba’s extraordinary music history.
Casa de Diego Velázquez, home of Santiago’s first governor is a must-see. With its Moorish decoration and fine furniture, it’s said to be the oldest house in Cuba.
Located on the main Céspedes Park, it’s overlooked by the towering 19th-century cathedral and the attractively renovated colonial town hall.
The Spaniards defended the enormous bay of Santiago with the monumental 17th-century San Pedro de La Roca Castle, known as El Morro.
It now features a piracy museum and a sunset cannon firing ceremony.
Cayo Granma, where Santiago’s wealthy had their holiday homes, is a short sail away.
One of Cuba’s independence leaders, Antonio Maceo, is commemorated in a statue surrounded by 23 enormous upright iron machetes in the striking Complejo Monumental Antonio Maceo, which dominates the city’s Revolution Plaza.
In 1898 when the Americans stepped in to the Spanish-Cuban-American war — fought over Cuba’s independence from the Spanish realm — the last battle was fought at the San Juan Hill on the outskirts of the city.
It was here that Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders defeated Spanish troops.
Today the park features monuments and plaques.
Fast forward to the 1950s, and young rebel Fidel Castro, in an attempt to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista, attacked the city’s military barracks.
The July 26th 1953 assault failed, but Castro eventually fought his way to victory in 1959. The Moncada Barracks is now a detailed museum of the attack and the Castro-led guerrilla struggle from 1956-59.
The most famous resident of the ornate Santa Ifigenia Cemetery on the city’s outskirts is Fidel Castro, who died in 2016. His simple stone tomb is next to that of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, and mastermind of Cuba’s 1895-98 independence war; a changing of the guard ceremony is enacted at his mausoleum every 30 minutes.
Santiago de Cuba is also renowned for its rum and its music. The Bacardí family founded their rum factory here in the city in 1862.
The founder’s son Emilio Bacardí also became the mayor of the city, and established the Bacardi museum in the city centre in 1899.
This museum, with its exhibits of items belonging to Cuba’s independence leaders, and Peruvian mummies, is among the top things to see in the city.
Close by is the Museum of Rum in a beautifully restored 19th-century villa detailing the history of the liquor (with a free shot offered to visitors).
Combine rum with music by visiting some of the city’s top music venues — the Casa de La Trova, and the more intimate Casa de las Tradiciones in the French-influenced Tivolí district.
Reach this barrio via the city’s well-known long flight of steps, Padre Pico.
If you’re not in town for Carnaval, visit the Carnaval Museum and catch one of its daily music and dance events.
Strike out with these day trips from Santiago de Cuba to the best nature hot spots, coffee plantations, ruins, cultural sites, and beaches.
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.
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