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While it lacks the sprawling metropolis and international fame of Havana, Santiago de Cuba competes for the title as the island nation’s number one city. When you dive into each of the categories that embody Cuban culture — live music, dance, delicious food, Caribbean beaches, formative history — you quickly realize that Santiago de Cuba has an answer for each and every type of traveler. In many ways, it packs as much cultural and adventurous punch as many other Caribbean cities, without all of the chaos. Here are the seven reasons why you need to visit Santiago de Cuba, and why it certainly deserves a spot on your bucket list.
Plaza de Revolución
For both history buffs and the curious uninitiated, Plaza de Revolucion is one of the best places to learn about Cuba’s past. It’s been the site of numerous speeches delivered by Fidel Castro and his contemporaries, it’s where the Pope celebrated mass during his visit to Cuba in 1998, and it’s where many protests have taken place over inequality, democracy, and civil rights. Be sure to visit the monument dedicated to General Antonio Maceo, a 19th-century war hero who is integral to the island nation’s history.
People Watch in Parque Céspedes
Parque Céspedes is a central square that, after centuries of pirate attacks, earthquakes, revolutions, and hurricanes (most recently Hurricane Sandy), has undergone some sweeping changes. The park is nonetheless full of character, and serves as a great central meeting spot. Grab a juice or a coffee and park yourself on a bench to people watch for an hour or so. Once you’re ready, mosey over to the Casa de Diego Velázquez and the Catedral de Nuestra de Señora de la Asunsión — both of which lie on its perimeter.
Get Lost in Barrio el Tivolí
Barrio el Tivolí is one of those idyllic little quiet neighborhoods with colorful decrepit houses, kids playing in the streets, old men playing dominoes, and picture-perfect staircases around every corner. It’s a waterfront district just south of Parque Céspedes and is a great place to keep your maps tucked away and get lost for a bit. Before you take this mentality to every part of the city, give a read through our article, Is Cuba Safe?
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Visit a Music Venue
It won’t take long for you to stumble across some live music in Santiago de Cuba, with little three and four-member troupes pouring their sounds out of cafes and down from balconies. If music is one of the reasons pulling you to Cuba, be sure to visit the Casa de la Trova. Santiago de Cuba is the birthplace of son, the romantic, passionate genre that eventually gave rise to salsa. Casa de la Trova hosts legendary musicians on the regular, and it’s open from the morning until the wee hours of the night. Also be sure to check out Casa de las Tradiciones for another great ambiance to spend an evening.
Find the Best Views
If you have some time to kill in the city, an easy option for entertainment is to head upwards and get some perspective. There are a few great spots within the city where catching a few is really convenient.
First, head over to Hotel Casa Granda, located right on the Cespedes Square, and take the elevator up to the 5th floor. Up top, you’ll find an incredible rooftop patio with 360-degree views of the city. Grab a mojito and soak it in for a bit. Additionally, there’s a rooftop patio with a panoramic view at the top of the Melio Hotel where you’ll have views of the mountain range in the distance.
Go to the Festivals
Most Caribbean and Latin American countries have their own unique versions of Carnaval (or Carnival) festivals — most of which date back to pre-Columbian indigenous traditions — but the Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba is one of the largest and most authentic of the bunch. Visit in July to see the community spill out into the streets with fantastic costumes, delicious food, and non-stop music.
The Festival del Caribe (also known as the Fiesta del Fuego), which takes place in the first few weeks of July, is another great exhibition of Cuban culture that boasts an array of performances, workshops, parades, and street activities. On the final day, everyone goes to the beach to burn a massive wooden demon (La Quema del Diablo) and rid themselves of all the evil on the island. For tips on how to best make use of transportation on the island, check out How to Get Around Cuba.
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Sip on World-Class Rum
Rum is undoubtedly the most culturally significant drink in Cuba, and Santiago de Cuba is home to the original Bacardí factory that was built back in 1862. The Barcardí family became so enmeshed with the local government that the founder’s son became the city’s mayor, and he constructed the Bacardí Museum shortly after.
The museum is one of the country’s oldest and most eclectic. Pay a visit for an exceptional rum and to learn about how the drink ties in with the history and culture of Cuba. There’s also an extensive vintage weapons collection, vintage artifacts from the Bacardí family’s travels, and weirdly enough, the only Egyptian mummy on the island.