Cuba’s sizzling eastern capital city of Santiago de Cuba is one that too few travelers take the time to visit. Overshadowed by the charm of Trinidad, the vibrant energy of Havana, and the pristine beaches of the cays, this dynamic destination often gets the short end of the stick – and it’s a shame.
Travelers who make it to Santiago de Cuba will wonder why Santiago de Cuba is still an infrequent addition to many Cuba travel itineraries. With so many things to do in Santiago de Cuba, ranging from exploring the city’s historic center to visiting pilgrimage sites and wreck diving in the Caribbean Sea, it’s a highlight for any visitor.
Looking for the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba? Here are our top picks for every time we visit this enchanting city in Cuba.
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Things To Do in Santiago de Cuba
1. Visit the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca
The most famous attraction in Santiago de Cuba is the city’s impressive fortress, known as the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. This Spanish colonial fortress is one of Cuba’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites; in its UNESCO designation, it’s lauded as one of “the most complete, best-preserved examples of Spanish-American military architecture.”
With its maze of rooms, cells, buildings, and hallways, you’ll have plenty to see and do on your visit. One of the most interesting parts of the structure is its Museo de Piratería – or, Museum of Pirates – which documents much of the pirate history and lore of the Caribbean.
However, perhaps the most impressive part of a visit to the fortress is the incredible city and harbor views from its bastions. Lifted high above the waters of the harbor and ocean, this site offers the best views in the entire city, making a visit one of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba even if you aren’t a history buff.
Try to plan your visit for around sunset. Not only are the views even that more impressive, but you’ll get to see the cañonazo ceremony, much like that in Havana.
Read More: 25 Best Things To Do in Cuba
2. Explore Santa Ifigenia Cemetery
Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is the final resting place of some of history’s most famous Cubans, making a visit one of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba, and one of the most popular.
Notably, this is where the ashes of Fidel Castro are buried. You’ll also find the tomb of José Martí, one of Cuba’s most important thinkers and founding fathers; his imposing tomb is surrounded by at least three guards at all times. Other famous residents include Compay Segundo, one of Cuba’s most famous musicians, and Emilio Bacardí, founder of Bacardí Rum.
Every half hour you can watch an impressive changing of the guard ceremony, which makes for an interesting addition to a tour of the cemetery.
3. Swim Among Shipwrecks
While Cuba has its fair share of shipwrecks that divers can explore, one of the most interesting destinations for wreck diving in Cuba is the Almirante Oquendo in the waters outside of Santiago de Cuba.
This Spanish warship sunk during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba as part of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and remains a beautiful and relatively easily-accessible wreck just 100 meters offshore. The dive is a relatively easy one as the ship sits in just 13 meters of water at its deepest point, making it a wreck that even less experienced divers can enjoy.
Guided scuba diving excursions to the Almirante Oquendo are well done, with dives lasting about two hours and transportation to and from the city included. It’s a great way to see a whole other side of Santiago de Cuba, and an important part of the city’s history.
4. Explore Old Town Santiago de Cuba
While it may not be as renowned as Old Havana and Trinidad, the historic heart of Santiago de Cuba has plenty to see and do. It’s the most popular part of the city for travelers to visit, and it’s worth spending some time exploring while you’re in town.
These are some of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba and the city’s historic heart. Whether you go for a guided tour of Santiago de Cuba or explore on your own, you’ll love what you find.
Parque Cespedes is the central plaza in Santiago de Cuba, meaning that you’ll probably want to start any self-guided walking tour through Santiago from this central point. The square is surrounded by charming buildings, and you’ll often find live music at all hours of the day.
Casa de Diego Velazquez
While Baracoa was the first city founded in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is home to the oldest house on the island. Built in 1522, Casa de Diego Velazquez is the former residence of the governor of Cuba, home to Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, who founded many of Cuba’s most important cities, including Havana.
Visitors can tour the painstakingly restored rooms and hallways of the historic building, which are filled with gorgeous antiques and decorative items from the period.
Located within Parque Cespedes, the Ayuntamiento – City Hall – is one of the most important and impressive buildings in historic Santiago de Cuba. While the building has undergone a number of renovations and reconstructions after damage by earthquakes, it maintains much of its original design.
The Ayuntamiento building has been home to countless historic events that have shaped Cuba; it’s perhaps best known as the place where Fidel Castro gave his first speech after the victory of the Cuban Revolution.
Recommended: Guided Walking Tour of Santiago de Cuba
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5. Set Out for Pico Turquino
If you’re an adventurous traveler, get off the beaten path in Santiago de Cuba and set out to summit Pico Turquino, the highest mountain in Cuba.
Deep in the heart of the Sierra Maestra mountain range west of the city, Pico Turquino is a lush, forested peak that makes for a moderately challenging climb. Ocean views and rainforest flora and fauna make this one of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba – by far!
Pico Turquino isn’t only accessible from Santiago de Cuba; many travelers visit via Holguin by entering the surrounding national park from the north side to summit the mountain. For many travelers, visiting via Holguin has a big advantage: it makes it that much easier to visit Comandancia de la Plata on the way to the summit.
Comandancia de la Plata is the former camp of Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries, which served as a base for launching attacks against the government prior to the victory of the Cuban Revolution. Today, visitors can check out Fidel’s former cabin, Che Guevara’s field hospital, and even the radio station the revolutionaries used to spread their message around the island.
Visiting Comandancia de la Plata is a true highlight and a fascinating addition to an already-impressive hiking experience. It’s worth going out of your way to experience this!
Read More: 5 Best Hiking Destinations in Cuba
6. Dance at Casa de la Trova
Santiago de Cuba is known as the home of Cuba’s most important dance and musical traditions, including salsa, son, and rumba. A trip to the city isn’t complete without experiencing some of these rhythms firsthand; it’s just one of those things to do in Santiago de Cuba that you can’t leave off your itinerary!
The best place for it is Casa de la Trova, a historic venue in the heart of old Santiago that has hosted all the best Cuban musicians at some point or another (and has the photos to prove it). While it can get a bit touristy, it’s a great place to start your exploration of Santiago’s music scene.
You’ll find live music and dancing most nights of the week, though Saturdays are particularly popular. From here, Cafe de la Cantante is another favorite worth visiting!
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7. Taste-Test at the Museo del Ron
While Havana Club is the most famous brand of rum from Cuba, the Santiago de Cuba brand is another popular favorite around the world, making the Museo del Ron (Rum Museum) one of the most popular destinations in the city.
Santiago’s Museo del Ron offers a great demonstration and explanation of the entire rum-making process that has made Cuban rum one of the world’s best. Everything from antique machinery and equipment to modern innovations are on display, and guides do a great job explaining everything as you explore this small museum.
The museum moved at the end of 2019 to a new location, now located within the factory itself, which makes for an even better visit. You’ll also have the chance to – of course! – taste the different kinds of rum on offer as well as see some rare vintage bottles.
8. Visit the Basilica de La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre
Located just outside of Santiago de Cuba, the Basilica de la Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre is one of the most important religious sites in all of Cuba. Visited by a number of religious dignitaries – including a number of popes! – as well as leaders from all over the world,
The church houses a venerated statue of the Virgin Mary, which is said to have been discovered by three young boys who encountered a storm on Cuba’s Bay of Nipe and were miraculously rescued after praying. Known as La Cachita, the Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre is known as the patron saint of Cuba.
While the basilica is a religious site, it’s a fascinating destination to visit whether or not you’re a believer. The mountainous location, surrounded by lush forested hillsides is gorgeous, and the church’s interior is stunning and makes for some fascinating people-watching – it’s one of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba.
9. Explore the Moncada Barracks
One of the most important sites in the history of the Cuban Revolution, the Moncada Barracks are one of the key attractions in Santiago de Cuba for visitors. Visiting these military barracks turned museum is one of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba, whether you’re a history buff or not.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro and a band of revolutionaries attacked the barracks, marking the first major event in what would become the Cuban Revolution. Castro and others were captured and jailed, then later exiled to Mexico, before returning to Cuba in 1956.
Today the exhibits at the Moncada Barracks offer a lot of history and insight into the role of the attack in the Cuban Revolution. This makes it a must-visit destination that will help you understand Cuba even better as you explore the rest of the country.
Make sure to come prepared with Google Translate downloaded on your phone to help translate the descriptions of the exhibits in the museum, which are exclusively in Spanish. The app’s image-to-text feature is great with this, which is why we say it is one of the best apps for travel to Cuba. Of course, you can always explore the museum with a guide as well.
Read More: 25 Best Things To Do in Cuba
10. Visit the Catedral De Nuestra Señora De La Asunción
While this gorgeous cathedral is a part of the historic center of Santiago de Cuba, we think it deserves a special note on this list. Facing Parque Cespedes, the light blue-gray Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is one of the most recognizable spots in Santiago de Cuba with its striking color and two domed towers.
This historic cathedral has been damaged by a number of earthquakes over the centuries, rebuilt better yet faithful to original plans each time.
The interior of the church is gorgeous, though the views from the towers overlooking the entire city might be even more impressive. Climbing the towers is one of the things to do in Santiago de Cuba that we most enjoyed.
Make sure to spend some time exploring the cathedral inside and out. While the building is generally closed on Mondays (though hours can sometimes be unpredictable), it is generally open and ready for visitors through the rest of the week.
Bonus: Hit the Beach!
Santiago de Cuba isn’t really a beach destination in Cuba – most of the very best beaches in Cuba are located on the island’s northern shore or on its pristine cays. However, that doesn’t mean that a trip to Santiago de Cuba can’t include some time spent at the beach!
These are some of the nicest beaches within day trip distance of Santiago de Cuba:
- Playa Bueycabón
- Playa Damajayabo
- Playa Juraguá
Each of these beaches is within about an hour or less of the city and is popular with locals, so check with your hotel or guesthouse host for the most up-to-date ways to travel.
If you’re looking to be truly wowed, head north to the province of Holguin for some of the best beaches in Cuba, including favorites like Guardalavaca, Playa Sirena, and Playa Esmeralda. Or, head further east to Baracoa and enjoy this historic city along with white sand Playa Maguana for a unique addition to your Cuba itinerary.
Read More: 12 Best Beaches in Cuba
Enjoy Santiago de Cuba
With much more to offer than just its music, culture, and history, Santiago de Cuba steps into its unofficial title as the eastern capital of the island and one of the most captivating cities in Cuba.
For most travelers, it will be a trek across the island to reach Santiago de Cuba, but what this city offers is a travel experience distinct from what you’ll find in the rest of Cuba. Add these things to do in Santiago de Cuba to your itinerary – you’ll gain so much from the experience that you’ll quickly see why so many visitors fall in love with Santiago.