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Second Largest, but Not Second Best: What to Do in Santiago De Cuba

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In 2009 a Dutch man eagerly booked a holiday to Sydney, Australia with his grandson—the holiday of a lifetime. He should have paid closer attention, since he had in fact bought plane tickets to the Sydney in Nova Scotia, Canada (this has apparently happened a number of times). Still, a holiday is a holiday. There are ten major cities around the world that are called Santiago (and countless smaller towns and villages), although if you should accidentally be sent to Santiago de Cuba instead of any of the others, you’re not going to complain. It could be the most enjoyable mistake of your life! It’s the second largest city in Cuba (after Havana), but it’s certainly not second in any other way.

There are many visitors who prefer the undemanding charms of Santiago de Cuba—a city that still offers vibrancy without being overwhelming (and let’s be honest, Havana can feel this way sometimes, in a fun way). When it comes to what to do in Santiago de Cuba, your only limit is how much time you’ve got. From the literal birthplace of the Cuban Revolution to an amazing array of delicious treats to sample, you’re not going to run out of things to do here.

So Cute, So Delicious

Animal lovers might feel a little squeamish when walking along Avenida Victoria de Garzón on a Saturday or Sunday. Those whole pigs roasting on spits are so cute… and yet so delicious. This is a traditional dish throughout the Spanish speaking world, and is called lechón. It’s just one of the the treats on offer when Avenida Victoria de Garzón turns into street food heaven on weekends.

The pigs are spitroasted over coals, giving the meat a smoky tang that is exuberantly delicious. You’ll probably want to buy the whole darn lechón, even if you are an animal lover. The prices vary from stall to stall, but it’s a good way to fill up your belly for the day without spending much at all. Avenida Victoria de Garzón is a definite inclusion on any list of what to do in Santiago de Cuba.

What to Do in Santiago De Cuba When You Want to Enjoy the View

You’ll be so full after the Avenida Victoria de Garzón food market that you might end up skipping dinner. But there’s always room for a drink. It’s Cuba, so you’re not going to have to search too far for a bar, but you need to check out the place with the best views in town. Go to the Hotel Casa Granda and head straight to the bar on the top floor.

The hotel originally opened in 1914, and retains an undeniable elegance. It’s a relaxing place to enjoy a drink above the buzz of the city, and there is fairly regular entertainment on offer (although the view is entertainment enough).

Where the Cuban Revolution Was Born

The Cuban Revolution reshaped the entire country, meaning that any list of what to do in Santiago de Cuba is not complete without a visit to the place where the revolution began. 26 July 1953 saw a small group of rebels (led by Fidel Castro) mount an attack on the Moncada Army Barracks in central Santiago de Cuba. The barracks are no longer standing (they were damaged in the subsequent battles that took place throughout the revolution) and the site was converted into a school in 1960, before becoming a museum.

The original attack could not be described as successful, but it kicked off the revolution which lasted until January 1959, when Fidel Castro claimed victory and the existing government were deposed. In a rather circular fashion, his victory speech was also given in Santiago de Cuba.

The Bacardi Legacy (Not Just the Rum)

The Cuban Revolution resulted in the nationalisation of a number of private companies, including Bacardi Rum (who then moved to the Bahamas before beginning production in Mexico and Puerto Rico). The Bacardi family has strong ties to Santiago de Cuba, particularly Emilio Bacardí (1844 – 1922) who was the manager of the company in addition to being mayor of the town. He left a considerable legacy in the form of the Emilio Bacardí Moreau Museum. The museum’s building opened in 1927 and has an expansive collection of arts and artifacts, both from Cuba and around the world.

There’s a particularly interesting Egyptian archaeology section, and the museum is simply a must-see when it comes to what to do in Santiago de Cuba. Incidentally, you can also visit the original Bacardi Rum Factory while in Santiago de Cuba, although of course actual Bacardi rum has not been made here for decades. It still makes rum, albeit different brands to the original inhabitant. The building itself is interesting to look at, and there’s a rather nice little bar where you can sample the factory’s output.

The Castle on the Cliffs

You’re going to have to head a short distance out of town to visit this item on our list of what to do in Santiago de Cuba, but you’re going to be delighted that you did. The Castillo del Morro in an imposing structure perched high atop the cliffs overlooking the water. This type of coastal fort is a common sight in Cuba, but the Castillo del Morro is arguably the prettiest. It was finished in 1700 (after a whopping 62 years of construction) and was designed to protect Santiago de Cuba from hostile forces approaching by water (and throughout Cuba’s history, there have been a few).

It was most recently used in a protective capacity in 1898 when the US attempted to capture Santiago de Cuba in the Spanish American War. It fell into disrepair over the next decades, before extensive restoration work was carried out in the 1960s. It’s a picturesque sight, looking much like a fairytale castle on top of the cliffs, which seems to contradict its often brutal history.

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