Santiago de Cuba: Ultimate Travel Guide
The eastern capital of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is an exuberant city steeped in a rich cultural history and home to the best of all things Cuban. While Santiago is at the forefront of all things Cuban – music, religion, culture, and traditions – it somehow always tends to sink into Havana‘s shadow. It’s about time for Santiago to get its well-deserved moment in the sun.
Our ultimate guide to Santiago de Cuba includes all our favorite things to do and see in Cuba’s second city, plus how to get here and where to stay. Far too few travelers visit this pulsating city and get to see all that this fascinating corner of Cuba has to offer, and learn how it made Cuba what it is today; here is how to do it right.
This post contains affiliate links that may reward me monetarily or otherwise when you use them to make qualifying purchases – at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, please read our disclosure policy.
Santiago de Cuba
The often blistering-hot capital of the eastern side of the island, Santiago de Cuba is a city unlike any other in Cuba. From Santiago, Cuba’s most important musical and political movements have been birthed, including rhythms like son, trova, and bolero, along with Cuban independence from Spanish and the very first twangs of the Cuban Revolution. Santiago is truly bursting with energy and inspiration, and you’ll feel it the second you arrive.
Come to Santiago to get to know another side of Cuban culture. Much more heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean traditions than the rest of Cuba, here you can experience firsthand some of the religious, cultural, and musical traditions that have become so important across Cuba.
Plus, as the birthplace of the very best of Cuban music, Santiago is the place to party. Don’t expect parties in the streets all night long, though you will find a fair share of local celebrations and events, including an array of celebrations from the various syncretic Afro-Cuban religions so widely practiced here.
To experience Santiago in all of its musical glory, head to Calle Heredia, home to Casa de la Trova as well as a handful of other bars and clubs with festive live music almost every night of the week. Whether you want to hit the dance floor or just sip on a local Santiago rum and enjoy the tunes, you’ll be in great company.
What is Santiago de Cuba Known For?
Santiago de Cuba is best known for its historical and cultural contributions to Cuba as the birthplace of some of the country’s most important religious, cultural, and musical tendencies. It isn’t just famous for one thing – in many ways, it’s famous for making Cuba everything it is today.
Here you’ll find historical architecture like the impressive Spanish colonial fort Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, as well as religious sites like the famous Basilica de la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, which welcomes pilgrims from around the world, and even popes! See the Moncada Barracks, where the Cuban Revolution began, before learning about Afro-Cuban religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions, felt more strongly here than anywhere else on the island.
Is Santiago de Cuba Worth Visiting?
Santiago de Cuba is absolutely worth visiting! While many travelers tend to stick to western and central Cuba with destinations like Havana, Varadero, Viñales, and Trinidad, eastern Cuba and particularly Santiago de Cuba have a totally unique experience to offer.
Plus, Santiago de Cuba is the perfect base from which to explore all that this side of Cuba has to offer. Head to Pico Turquino in the Sierra Maestra Mountain Range, visit Cuba’s eastern tip at the Punta de Maisi, visit charming Baracoa, and explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site Alejandro de Humboldt National Park.
Are There Beaches in Santiago de Cuba?
Santiago de Cuba isn’t known as a major beach destination in Cuba; Cuba’s northern coast has most of the country’s truly enviable beaches, with the notable exception being Playa Ancón just outside of Trinidad.
However, that doesn’t mean that Santiago de Cuba doesn’t have its fair share of places to enjoy the sun and sand. Favorite beaches near Santiago include Playa Bueycabón, Playa Damajayabo, and Playa de Siboney – expect a mix of fine and pebbly sand at all these spots, though they’re quite popular with locals. You’ll have an excellent day at any of these spots!
Things To Do in Santiago de Cuba
Explore Historic Santiago
While Old Havana gets all the glory as the charming historic capital of Cuba (with Trinidad a close runner-up!), Santiago de Cuba is nothing to scoff at. The historic center of town has its own fair share of charming baroque architecture, historic buildings, and ornate churches, enough to keep you occupied for at least an afternoon.
Santiago’s historic center is relatively compact and easy to navigate (though there are a fair number of hills), so it’s easy enough to throw together a self-guided walking tour if you start at Plaza Cespedes and trace a route towards Plaza de Marte. Or, go for an affordable guided tour of the city – they’re quite affordable and hit all the major sites, with much less walking included.
History lovers should definitely visit the Barracks at Moncada, where in 1953, Fidel Castro and his band of rebels first tried to launch the Cuban Revolution; while the attempt failed, it was an important first hint of things to come.
Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
Historic Santiago de Cuba’s most impressive building is the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, a towering church that stands elegantly over Parque Cespedes. While the church had to be partially rebuilt after an earthquake in the late 1800s, it’s as impressive as ever; make sure to visit the beautiful inside before or after a service.
Visit the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca
One of the best things to do in Cuba is to visit Santiago de Cuba’s imposing Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, also known as El Morro; it puts the “morros” of Old Havana and San Juan, Puerto Rico to shame. A visit to this historic fortress is one of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba, and arguably’s the city’s most recognizable monument.
Lauded by UNESCO as the “best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture” in its World Heritage Site designation, this fortress is an impressive one to behold, though the views from its walls might be even better.
A few small museum exhibits are on site, though the real joy is exploring the many rooms and chambers around the fortress, many complete with cannons and other artifacts, and basking in the incredible views of the harbor and surrounds.
Go Wreck Diving (or Snorkeling!)
While Santiago de Cuba isn’t particularly known for its beaches, it does boast its fair share of underwater treasures. For a unique and unforgettable excursion from Santiago, consider signing up to snorkel or dive at the nearby Almirante Oquendo Shipwreck.
Sunken during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba during the Cuban War of Independence, it currently sits in under 30 feet of water, making it a great destination for easy dives and snorkeling. It’s quite a large ship, and there is plenty to explore, with great visibility. You’ll see an incredible array of colorful corals, fish, and more. Snorkeling and diving excursions usually start in the morning, and operators provide all the gear you’ll need for the experience.
Visit the Basilica of La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre
The most important religious destination in Cuba is the Basilica of the Virgin of La Caridad del Cobre, located just outside of Santiago de Cuba, the Basilica commemorates several miraculous apparitions of a statue of the Virgin Mary in Cuba during the colonial era. It’s a destination important to Catholics and has played host to several popes, including Pope Francis and the recent Pope Benedict.
Even if you’re not Catholic, the Basilica is extremely impressive and imposing, both inside and out. The long, wide staircase leading up to the church gives it grandeur, and even just the views of the lush mountains surrounding it are stunning. A symbol of Cuba and easily accessible from Santiago, it’s a site not to be missed.
You can easily arrange to take a taxi – private or shared – from Santiago de Cuba to the Basilica, though you’ll also find day trips to the monument, which split the day with some other nearby destinations to Cuban independence. It’s an easy and enjoyable way to make a day out of the trip!
Take a City Tour in a Vintage Car
Havana and its endless malecón sea wall are best known for their vintage American car tours, though Santiago is also a great place to catch a ride in one of the many lovingly-restored classic rides Cuba is so known for.
While you can always find drivers on the street willing to take you on a tour of the city, we generally recommend asking at your accommodations for recommendations – they’re certain to have a fair and reasonably-priced connection for this most Cuban of travel activities.
Don’t think about traveling to Cuba without a good VPN (Virtual Private Network). Using a VPN while connecting to the internet is an easy way to keep your personal information safe from hackers and trackers. We’ve used NordVPN for years and couldn’t recommend it more – it’s a must for safety online, especially in Cuba.
Where To Stay in Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is home to just a fraction of the hotels and resorts of Havana, meaning that the accommodations in town are mostly in the form of small boutique hotels and guest houses. There is a Melia Santiago de Cuba in town with a nice rooftop pool, but it’s in desperate need of renovation; we always recommend staying in local-owned guesthouses or smaller hotels anyways, and Santiago is just the place for it.
These are some of our favorite spots in Santiago de Cuba to choose from, the smaller, local-owned hotels and guesthouses alike.
Casa Colonial 1893
If you’re looking for historic charm, Casa Colonial 1893 is the best place to find it in Santiago de Cuba. With high ceilings, original woodwork, and antique furniture, it’s a true stunner, and in the heart of historic Santiago, you couldn’t ask for a better location. Rooms don’t have as much charm as this boutique hotel’s common areas, but they’re clean and comfortable.
You’ll love the shaded patio for breakfast; though not included in the room rate, breakfast is well worth it here!
Hostal Heredia is a renovated boutique hotel with internet access, close to everything, with comfortable, clean rooms, and with friendly staff – it checks off so many boxes on your list that it almost feels like a bit of a unicorn. The covered eating area and manicured garden are perfect for enjoying morning coffee or an evening drink.
You won’t find any of that classic or historic Cuban charm here, but with its location in the heart of the historic area of the city, it’s just outside your doors.
Hostal Raul y Kathy
It’s all about the views at Hostal Raul y Kathy. This guest house boasts incredible views of the city and surrounding mountains from its rooftop terrace and cafe – you’ll have trouble pulling yourself away. Rooms are simple but comfortable and clean, and the hosts (Raul and Kathy themselves, of course!) are exceedingly friendly.
This is where we’ll be staying when we’re back in Santiago, if that’s a good enough seal of approval for you!
Don’t head out on your adventure without comprehensive travel insurance! Good travel insurance may cover lost or stolen gear, medical emergencies, delayed or canceled flights, and more. Check out the policies available from World Nomads or compare plans using Visitors Coverage.
Getting to Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba has an international airport that is quite well served with flights from the United States, Latin America, and even some cities in Europe. Of course, flights from Havana are a popular option for travelers looking to explore Cuba beyond Havana.
Santiago de Cuba is also well connected to the rest of the island via highway and has frequent buses to cities and towns across the province, region, and country. You’ll find tons of options for hiking excursions in the nearby Sierra Maestra, visits to Baracoa, and even excursions to Cuba’s northern coast, including Holguin and nearby the endless cays with their pristine beaches.
Keep in mind just how large Cuba is before planning on taking a bus, or even a private car, across the island; for example, the ride from Santiago de Cuba to Havana takes almost 15 hours.