Many visitors in search of what makes Cuba unique actually prefer the country's second city to the capital, even though Santiago is unpolished and has few grand examples of colonial architecture.
The Top Attractions
A major gathering spot day and night for Santiagueros, aggressive jineteros, and travelers alike, Parque Céspedes is a menagerie of eclectic architecture, to put it mildly. Its benches, tall shade trees, and gas lamps are ringed by colonial, 19th-century, and modern structures, including the ancient mansion of Diego Velázquez (see "Casa Velázquez"), as well as the handsome colonial governor's mansion (Town Hall), the baroque cathedral, and the city's oldest hotel, Casa Granda.
The Ayuntamiento, or Town Hall (also called the Palacio Municipal), a huge white building on the north side of the square with blue wooden grilles, was originally built in 1515. It was greatly renovated in the 1950s after an earthquake, but has retained its elegant colonial lines, balcony, and patio. Fidel Castro addressed the adoring masses here on January 1, 1959, after the rebel army had taken the city and announced the triumph of La Revolución.
Across the park, the early-19th-century Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is a massive, ornate, pale-yellow-and-white basilica with twin towers -- one of several churches to occupy the site since 1522. The frescoes on the arches and dome of the interior have been restored. Inside is a massive pipe organ, as well as the remains of the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez, although, since a 1678 earthquake, the whereabouts of those remains in the building are unknown. The graves of the first (Spanish) archbishop of Cuba and the first Cuban archbishop are clearly visible. The cathedral is open Tuesday through Saturday 8am to 12:30pm and 5 to 7:30pm, and Sunday 8 to 11am and 5 to 6:30pm.
Terrace with a View
The Balcón de Velázquez, at the corner of Heredia and Corona at the edge of El Tivolí district, is a marvelous lookout over red-tile rooftops of the city as it slopes down to the Bay of Santiago. Named for the Spanish conquistador who founded the city, the terrace was reconstructed in the 1950s and now is a site of cultural goings-on on Fridays; it has been said that the original terrace in this very spot was used by Velázquez himself to observe incoming ships in the bay. An escape tunnel once ran from the spot, protected by cannons, all the way to the bay. Admission is free, but you'll have to pay CUC$1 or CUC$5, respectively, if you want to take photographs or videos.
Bay of Santiago
Santiago's deep natural bay is one of the city's defining characteristics. The narrow entrance to the Bahía de Santiago, past the Castillo El Morro, stretches 8km (5 miles). During the Spanish-American War, the contingency of Spanish ships was huddled within the bay, and the Americans were perched on the coast waiting to ambush them.
Today, Santiago's marina is popular with European and (believe it or not) U.S. yachts. Visitors can book a 1-hour trip around the entire bay, scuba dive or kayak. If you just want to cross over to the fishing village on the tiny island of Cayo Granma for lunch, the ferry is CUC$5 round trip. For more information, contact the Santiago Marina, Calle 1 no. 4, Punta Gorda (tel. 22/69-1446; email@example.com).