Steeped in faded grandeur, Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest island, drips with history, culture, and a captivating mystique. Live music wafts through the cobbled squares in Havana’s World Heritage-listed Old Town, vintage cars still cruise the streets, and the beautiful old buildings of Cuba’s colonial cities evoke the feel of a country frozen in time.
Cuba also abounds in natural beauty. This vast island has more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline, much of it rimmed by dazzling beaches. Coral reefs glimmer in the turquoise waters, and Cuba’s lush countryside and sublime islands have played host to presidents, provided refuge to revolutionaries, and inspired writers from around the world, Hemingway among them. With all this history and beauty as well as superb diving and fishing, Cuba offers a depth and diversity few Caribbean islands can rival.
1. Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
A UNESCO world heritage site, Habana Vieja or Old Havana is a well-preserved slice of Cuban history. Strolling around the cobbled streets and gazing up at the grand Baroque and neoclassical buildings, it’s easy to imagine what life in Cuba was like 200 years ago. Extensive renovations are now breathing new life into the historic buildings. Major attractions here include the Plaza de la Catedral, home to the Cuban Baroque Catedral de San Cristobal; the legendary restaurant and Hemingway hangout, Bodeguita del Medio; and the military fortress, Castillo de la Real Fuerza.
Also in the Old Town, Plaza Vieja is one of Havana’s most vibrant gathering spots. The main building of note here is the 18th-century Casa del Conde Jaruco with beautiful stained glass windows on the first floor. Nearby, the camera obscura offers fantastic views from its 35-meter tower. Visitors should allow at least a day to explore the Old Town and more if time permits.
Varadero is one of Cuba’s most famous beach destinations. It stretches along the Peninsula de Hicacos, which juts into the sea off the north coast where a drawbridge connects it to the mainland. More than 50 hotels line this popular palm-fringed strip, and its magnificent white-sand beaches draw visitors from around the world. Highlights include Parque Natural Punta Hicacos (Parque Natural de Varaderos), a nature reserve with a pretty beach, and the two caves, Cueva de Ambrosio and Cueva de Musulmanes.
Also in Varadero, the peaceful Parque Josone is home to lush flower gardens, a restaurant, swimming pool, and a small lake where visitors can paddle about in rowboats. Northeast of Varadero, Cayo Piedra Underwater Park is a popular diving and snorkeling area where underwater explorers will find shipwrecks and glinting shoals of brightly colored fish. Besides diving and snorkeling, Varadero offers excellent deep-sea fishing, golf, skydiving, and day trips to cultural attractions.
Exploring the town of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is like stepping back in time. The beautifully restored buildings and cobblestone streets in the city center imbue a quaint colonial feel. Much of the architecture dates from the 17th to the 19th century when Trinidad prospered from both the sugar and slave trades.
Today, Trinidad is one of Cuba’s most popular tourist towns and the streets are often packed with foreigners. Travelers can soak up the lively ambiance of this charming city in the cobblestone Plaza Mayor, the city’s central square. Above the square stands the Neoclassical Church of the Holy Trinity (Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad). Other highlights are the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco) with its distinctive bell tower, the Museum of Colonial Architecture (Museo de Arquitectura Colonial), the art gallery at the Casa de Aldeman Ortiz, and the Palacio Brunet, a grand home, built in 1812 and still featuring original frescoes and marble floors.
East of Trinidad, on the road to Sancti Spiritus, the lush World Heritage-listed Valle de los Ingenios contains numerous relics and monuments from the 19th century when the sugar cane plantations and mills flourished. It’s also a great place to drive or horseback ride through the beautiful scenery of green sugar cane fields, palm trees, and mountains.
Rimmed by glittering beaches, Guardalavaca, in the Holguin province, is quieter and more remote than Varadero. Lush foliage fringes the sweeping strand of beach here providing plenty of shady patches for those seeking respite from the tropical sun. Divers and snorkelers can explore a plethora of sea life along the coral reefs.
Day trips from Guardalavaca include jungle adventures, sailing trips, and tours of Santiago de Cuba. West of Guardalavaca, Bahia de Naranjo encompasses a large slice of coast and three islands, including Cayo Naranjo with the popular Dolphinarium offering close-up encounters with these gregarious creatures. Chorro de Maita is another side trip option from Guardalavaca with its native Indian burial area and a recreated Taino Indian village.
5. Playa Paraíso, Cayo Largo del Sur (Paradise Beach)
In a country known for its beautiful beaches, Playa Paraíso (Paradise Beach), on the island of Cayo Largo del Sur, is one of Cuba’s best. This sublime strand of powdery white sand and baby blue sea skirts the sheltered western edge of the island and merges with the equally ravishing Playa Sirena. The island of Cayo Largo del Sur is truly a sun seekers’ destination with a typically dry, sunny climate and few tourist attractions besides beautiful beaches and many hotels and resorts.
6. Cayo Coco
Another of Cuba’s idyllic beach destinations and one of its most isolated, Cayo Coco starred in Hemingway’s novels, Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea along with nearby Cayo Guillermo. As part of the Jardines del Rey, the combined archipelago of Sabana-Camaguey, Cayo Coco is connected to the mainland by a bridge, though most visitors arrive by air.
Sun-splashed beaches are the prime attraction. Playa Los Flamencos, on the Atlantic side of the island, is a standout with its 5 kilometer strand of sun-bleached sand, while the quiet and undeveloped Playa Prohibidad offers a peaceful nature trail. Animal lovers will enjoy the El Baba Nature Park, home to turtles, crocodiles, and flamingoes, and the island offers excellent birding.
Connected by a causeway to Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo also boasts a bevy of beautiful beaches such as the ravishing Playa Pilar, as well as a string of all-inclusive resorts.
7. Parque Nacional Vinales (Valle de Vinales)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Parque Nacional Vinales is a beautiful, verdant valley in the Sierra de los Organos, north of Pinar del Rio. Steep limestone hills called mogotes slice through the valleys creating a dramatic landscape. The valley floors in the Parque Nacional Vinales are agricultural areas where tobacco, fruit, and vegetables are grown. For outdoor enthusiasts, the park offers fantastic hiking and horseback riding in the hills. Nearby, the charming town of Vinales is a great base for exploring the surrounding area. Tour companies also offer day trips here from Havana.
One of the highlights of eastern Cuba is beautiful Baracoa, the oldest city in the country. It was founded in 1511 in the province of Guantanamo and construction began on the first church here around that time. Cut off from much of the outside world until the 1960s when the La Farola highway was built, the city still has a remote feel. Today, visitors come here for the charming colonial architecture and lush countryside where waterfalls and pretty beaches provide a cool counterpoint to the steamy jungle. The flat-topped peak of El Yunque presides over all this tropical beauty, beckoning hikers to take the guided ascent to its 589 meter summit. The hillside is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where rare birds and plants thrive.
To really appreciate the spectacular scenery, visitors should take a drive down the winding La Farola highway, a 49-kilometer stretch from Baracoa over the mountains to Cajobabo. The Museo Municipal is also worth a look. Housed in the Fuerte Matachin military fortress, it provides a glimpse of Baracoa’s fascinating history, and the fort itself offers great views over the bay. About 20 kilometers northwest of Baracoa is one of the area’s best beaches, picture-perfect Playa Maguana. The adventurous can rent a bicycle in Baracoa and peddle out here. Flights to Baracoa depart frequently from Havana.
9. The Malecon
Conceived in 1901 and partly built in 1902 and beyond, the Malecon is Havana’s famous seafront promenade. A walk along here offers a stroll through the history of the city. The promenade runs 7 kilometers from the Habana Vieja quarter to the Vedado, the central business district. Along the way, travelers will find an assortment of well-preserved 20th century buildings that represent a mixture of architectural styles including Art Deco and Neo Moorish. Painted in pastel pinks and yellows, the buildings are a photographer’s delight, especially in the golden glow of dusk. People watching is a favorite pastime here. Young lovers saunter hand-in-hand, local fisherman cast their lines, and children clamber along the sea wall.
10. Santa Clara
When beach towns and resorts all start to seem the same, Santa Clara, in the province of Villa Clara, will add some depth to a Cuban itinerary. Rich in cultural attractions, Santa Clara is a vibrant university town and the famous site of the last guerrilla battle led by Che Guevara in 1958. His body was laid to rest here, and his mausoleum and monument, the Memorial Comandante Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, are the town’s big attractions. Etched on the bronze statue of Che Guevara in Plaza de la Revolucion is his final letter to Fidel Castro, while the mausoleum lies beneath. Adjacent to the monument, the Museo Historico de la Revolucion exhibits some of Che’s personal items. Che fans should also see the poignant Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, a small boxcar museum and the site of the final battle between Che Guevara and the Batista troops.
Santa Clara is also home to Teatro de la Caridad (circa 1885), one of Cuba’s few surviving theaters. Despite several renovations, much of the original interior, including the furniture, artwork, and décor, remains in its original condition.
11. Castillo de San Pedro del Morro, Santiago de Cuba
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Castillo del Morro is one of the best-preserved Spanish fortresses of the 17th century. It stands at the entrance to the Bay of Santiago, about 10 kilometers southwest of Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city. Perched high atop a cliff, the structure was designed in 1587, but took decades to build and was finally completed at the end of the 17th century. It was originally intended to protect against pirate attacks, but also served as a prison in the late 1700s before being once again converted into a fortress.
Today, visitors can explore the many different levels of the fort, learn about pirates and the fort history in the small museum, and enjoy impressive views over the bay. Other cultural highlights of Santiago de Cuba include the Diego Velasquez Museum and Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, home to the remains of some of Cuba’s most famous military figures. Less than an hour from the city by car, Parque Baconao is a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve, where travelers can tour coffee plantations, wander through beautiful botanical gardens, and enjoy stunning 360-degree views over the mountains and sea from the 1,234 meter summit of Gran Piedra, a large volcanic rock.
12. Peninsula de Zapata (Cienaga de Zapata)
A haven for birders and nature lovers, the Peninsula de Zapata is a remote, sparsely populated area of Cuba with diverse landscapes and one of the largest wetlands in the Caribbean. The Cienaga de Zapata, or the Zapata Swamp as it is affectionately known, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, home to approximately 150 different species of birds, including rare bandicoots, waterhens, parrots, and heron. Crocodiles are also common. One part of the peninsula is a designated nature reserve, the Gran Parque Natural de Montemar, where visitors can see some of these creatures in their natural habitats.
At the mouth of the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos) is Playa Giron, the famous site of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. Visitors can explore this fascinating history at the small Museo Giron. At the top of the Bay of Pigs, Playa Larga is home to a beautiful long beach backed by lush vegetation. Avid divers can explore the underwater wildlife at numerous dive sites here along the reef. Northeast of Playa Larga lies a large bird sanctuary and the International Bird Center (Centro Internacional de Aves).
Boca de Guama is the peninsula’s tourist center and its main attraction is the Criadero de Cocodrilos, a crocodile farm. Nearby, on Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake) lies Villa Guama, a tourist resort designed as an Indian Village that is only accessible by boat.
13. Parque Historico Militar, Havana
The Parque Historico Militar encompasses two of Havana’s famous fortresses: the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, also known as El Morro, and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. Presiding over the entrance of the Bay of Havana, El Morro was built in the late 16th century and early 17th century to fend off pirates and looks much the same as it did back then. The lighthouse was replaced with one of stone in the middle of the 19th century, but its original lamp still shines out to sea. Visitors can ascend to the top of the fort to admire the impressive views of the ocean and city.
A short stroll from El Morro, Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, constructed in the 1770s, was the biggest fort the Spanish ever built, as well as the most expensive. The fort became a military prison during the Batista regime and was later used as the headquarters for Che Guevara after the Revolution. Visitors can explore the museums here, which trace the history of this fascinating fort, but the most popular time to visit is at night when actors dressed in 19th-century costumes perform Ceremonia del Cañonazo, a cannon-firing ceremony at 9pm.
14. Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial), Havana
Due to its important place in Havana’s history, the Plaza de la Revolucion deserves at least a brief stop if only to absorb the events that transpired here. Castro delivered speeches in this vast square, attracting more than a million people at times. And in 1998, during a visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul II celebrated mass here.
In the center of the Plaza de la Revolucion stands a 109-meter gray tower, a memorial to the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti, while a large, white marble statue of him lies at its base. Below the statue is the entrance to the interior of the Jose Marti Memorial, which contains a museum on Marti. Visitors can ascend the tower for incredible views over Havana. Opposite the memorial, the famous giant portrait of Che Guevara adorns the Ministry of Interior building.