Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is also called the cultural capital of the country or Cuba’s pounding heart. It is the second largest city after Havana, however, located in a more breathtaking scenery: from one side Sierra Maestra mountains tower over it, from the other the azure Caribbean washes its shores. This place is so rich with culture and history that everywhere you go there is something worthwhile seeing. In the city first conquered by Fidel Castro’s guerrilla army in 1959 famous streets, squares, museums, and memorials abound between houses and places with history. Shady gardens, parks, and cemeteries offer refuge, impressive churches and cathedrals keep guard, while even some fountains and balconies have a story to tell. Noisy, but passionate, Santiago is the birthplace of nearly every Cuban musical genre. It is here that African rhythm first encountered Spanish tradition to give birth to an inimitable Cuban style. So, apart from rum, both music and the revolution were born here.
Things to see and do in Santiago de Cuba
From the many, many museums choose to visit Cuartel Moncada (Moncada Barracks), Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano, Museo de Lucha Clandestina, Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardí Moreau and immerse yourself in the past. All of these places preserve and are ready to show you a few pages of Cuban history.
Moncada Barracks is worth your time because it is a lovely art-deco building famous for the Fidel Castro-led putsch against Batista. Another museum dealing with the early days of the revolution and underground movement against this ruler is Museo de la Lucha Clandestina (the Museum of Clandestine Struggle). Located in a yellow colonial-style building it shelters collections of Molotov cocktails, bloodstained shirts and anything that can capture the atmosphere of that past. You surely want to see the oldest house still standing in Cuba, so go to Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano. You will see furnishing as well as decoration starting from the 16th to 19th centuries. Observe the Turkish-influenced two-way screens where you can gaze out and not be seen.
Jardín de Los Helenchos and Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia
Following the tours in some or all of the museums, air your thoughts in the psychedelic-colored Jardín de Los Helenchos or the Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia. The garden welcomes you with a 3000 square metre-promenade (32,2 square feet). Breathe in the fresh air, delight in the psychedelic bloom of its flowers or sit and rest on one of the shady benches in its center. It is only two kilometers (1.2 miles) from downtown. Saint Ifigenia Cemetery is another peaceful place. Approach it by a horse-drawn cart starting from Alameda Park. It is the final resting place of many historical figures, including Fidel Castro. The mausoleum of the Cuban national hero José Martí is notable too, with an impressive changing of the guards every 30 minutes.
Fortresses and churches
Apart from museums and gardens, some of the fortresses and churches need to be visited. I recommend Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (San Pedro Fort), which is a beautiful Unesco World Heritage Site with a cannon firing ceremony and actors dressing up in Mambises regalia to entertain you.
Catedral de la Nuestra Senora de la Asunción is the most important church in Santiago. Built on the site of an earlier, 1520 cathedral, this religious place is breathtaking both inside and out.
Rhythm and music envelop Santiago de Cuba, creep into and emanate from all its sensuous crevices. Apart from the streets, where music is flowing and ongoing, there are two notable places you can go if you want to be delighted by sound. The music halls of Santiago are the heart and soul of the city. The first and most iconic venue you must visit is Casa de la Trova. Located just off the main square, this musical heritage site has a welcoming allure and a nightclub vibe. Mentioned in poems, novels, and magazines, this hub has become an institution, a monument of Santiago nobody wants to forego. Casa de la Tradiciones is a less formal music hall converted from a colonial house in the Tívoli neighborhood. Called “La Casona” by locals this artsy place offers live music as well as an opportunity to dance. It colorful repertoire changes every day: boleros, son traditional, trova, folklore, poetic circles and expositions of fine art.
When hungry in Santiago de Cuba, the two top places to dine in are Roy’s Terrace and St Pauli. Roy’s Terrace Inn Roof Garden is an extraordinary restaurant. Polite and caring waiters cater to you on the flowery rooftop lit by candlelight, while you enjoy top-notch homemade Cuban food. Order fish, chicken or pork served with sides such as crispy tamale or sautéed eggplant.
Blackboard menus and glass-wall kitchen are the mark of St Pauli restaurant where I recommend the characteristic cocktail glass gazpacho, pulpo al ajillo (octopus with garlic) or pineapple chicken fajitas.