Introduction to Santiago
Santiago de Cuba makes for a very interesting contrast to the better known sites of Havana. As Cuba's second largest city, Santiago has a lot to offer and is probably the most diverse place on the whole island. Geographically Santiago is closer to Jamaica and Haiti than Havana and this is clear in the afro-cuban influences that resound in every aspect of life within the city. It is the birthplace of Cuba's musical mélange as well as the site from which Castro inaugurated his Nationalist revolution.
The historical centre is a good place to begin your exploration of Santiago de Cuba. The streets surrounding Parque Céspedes are crammed with museums, market stalls and interesting little finds. The park itself (which looks alot more like a plaza), is always filled with Cubans sitting on benches and watching the world go by. You can't miss the Ayuntamiento (town hall) with its dazzling white walls, bright blue window frames and balcony from which Castro made his famous victory speech on January 1st 1959. The magnificent Catedral de nuestra señora de la asunción dominates one side of the park. Whilst the building which remains today was not erected until 1818, it marks the spot where Cuba's first ever cathedral was built in 1522. There is also Diego Velazquez's house which contains a pretty museum of Cuban artefacts. On the opposite side of the square is the impressive Hotel Casa Granda, which has a beautiful roof terrace from which you can sip a mojito and enjoy an elevated view of the city.
The Tivolí district is another lovely area with tons of things to do and is especially hot on museums. Here you can learn about many aspects of Cuban culture, from the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina, which outlines the pre-revolutionary struggle, to the Bacardi Rum factory.
Rather than being beautiful, Santiago is a somewhat gritty city and pollution levels are high. The pace of life may take some getting used to, but the longer you stay the more at ease you will become with the daily rhythms of this thriving metropolis. It feels like a very real place, defunct of pretences for tourists and full of true Cuban life puctuated by its historical, musical and social stories. If you can be here for the July carnivals it is an even more fantastic experience, however, the city buzzes with life and tantalising excitement at any time of year.
Ready to find out more? Keep reading our Santiago de Cuba travel guide for more information on this spectacular city and the surrounding areas.