It may be famous for cigars, rum, package holidays, and Che, but the Caribbean’s largest island is also one of its most mystical, magical, and up until recently, most mysterious—since decades of tourism restrictions have prevented travel to and from the dilapidated state. However, now that all major bans have been lifted, globe trotters of all sorts can now cruise over to a faded but grandiose land that drips with history, culture, and natural beauty—for the first time in forever.
So what are you waiting for? It’s time to jump on this chance to check out the famed home of the famed Tropicana! With more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline-- much of it rimmed by dazzling beaches, glimmering coral reefs, as well as lush countrysides that have inspired writers, provided refuge to revolutionaries, and even played host to some high political dignitaries in the past. The entire country truly evokes the feeling of having been frozen in time, with live music wafting through the cobbled towns, vintage cars rolling along the streets, and the gorgeous colonial buildings of its age-old cities still standing tall even in the twenty-first century. Modern Cuba promises to be like nowhere else you have ever visited. It is architecturally magnificent, culturally rich, economically poor but strangely inviting—a truly unique and diverse country that offers tons of places for travelers to fully experience the essence of Cuban culture. Here are the eight most popular places to visit on your Cuba vacation.
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Best Places to Go in Cuba
1. Havana (Old Havana)
A UNESCO world heritage site, this Cuban capital city just happens to be its spiritual heart. Sure, it’s home to some of the best Cuban cigars and Havana rum, but it also remains in superb condition (even after all that revolutionary history!), with every street corner boasting live jazz musicians, European style Baroque and neoclassical buildings, pastel colors, as well as cafes and bars to laze away summer afternoons at. The array of artisan and outdoor markets are awesome spots to fill up those fanny packs with good old Cuban goods, and the nearby Plaza de la Catedral, home to the Cuban Baroque Catedral de San Cristobal, or the legendary restaurant and Hemingway hangout, Bodeguita del Medio are also great places to check out. Did we mention there’s a military fortress called Castillo de la Real Fuerza and a camera obscura offering fantastic views from a 35-meter tower?! Super rad.
Plus, there’s also that shabbily magnificent Malecón, eight kilometers of sand and sea that stretches the breadth of the city from Havana Vieja (“Old Havana”) to Miramar. It serves as an ultimate space for thousands of romance-loving habaneros to canoodle at-- as well as the perfect spot to take in the sunset with a bottle of Havana Club. So stroll through those well-preserved cobbled streets and explore to your hearts desire with the likes of local fisherman, young lovers, and Cuban kiddoes-- all within a uniquely personable metropolis that’s characterized by a true small-town atmosphere.
Modern travelers will delight in this sleepy old town. It’s hypnotic and soporific, a dizzying place to roam freely through a perfectly preserved 1850s-era sugar town featuring time-warped sidewalk streets that have the power to enchant with their rows of grand colonial mansions, exciting live music scenes, and easily accessible countrysides nearby. It’s also a tried and true real working town, and today, is one of Cuba's most popular tourist spots. Foreigners literally pack into the quaint cobblestone streets to soak up the lively ambiance of sights such as, the city's central square, Plaza Mayor, or the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco), with its distinctive bell tower. Art aficionados should head towards the Museum of Colonial Architecture (Museo de Arquitectura Colonial), the art gallery at the Casa de Aldeman Ortiz, and the Palacio Brunet, a mighty fine home-stay that was built in 1812 and still features all of its original frescoes and marble floors.
This really is the Cuba of your dreams, where pastel pinks and yellow, retro Cadillac cars, thriving bar scenes, and salsa dancing will have you spinning until the early dawn. Eastward, on the road to Sancti Spiritus, there’s also the lush World Heritage-listed Valle de los Ingenios, a 19th century relic and monument-filled space that’s superb for breathing in a beautiful scenery of green sugar cane fields, palm trees, and mountains.
Those looking for another famous UNESCO World Heritage valley spot need to go to the Parque Nacional Vinales, a gorgeous, verdant valley in the Sierra de los Organos just north of Pinar del Rio. It’s chock full of mogotes (i.e. steep limestone hills) that bypass the lush surrounding areas, creating not only a dramatic landscape, but awesome spots for outdoor enthusiasts looking to do some hiking and horseback riding in the hills. It’s also a supremely agricultural region, where valley floors offer an abundant amount of locally-grown tobacco, fruits, and vegetables.
The nearby town of Vinales is also a nice space for exploring, especially since it offers little to no traffic, as well as a relatively flat surrounding terrain-- perfect for cycling! There really is no better place to experience a quintessential rural environment in Cuba. So hop onto those two wheels and take a tropical Tour de France amidst some of the most spirit-lifting viewpoints you’ll ever come to see.
One of Cuba’s most famous beach destinations, this blissful palm-fringed stretch along the Peninsula de Hicacos (which juts into the sea off the north coast where a drawbridge connects it to the mainland) boasts more than fifty hotels, bunches of magnificently white-sandy shores, and tons of foreign travelers roaming about each and every day of the year. Hotspots include a nature reserve with a pretty beach, or Parque Natural Punta Hicacos (Parque Natural de Varaderos), two massive caves to explore (Cueva de Ambrosio and Cueva de Musulmane), and the ever so peaceful Parque Josone, which is home to lavish flower gardens, swimming pools, restaurants, and its own small lake where visitors can paddle about in rowboats.
Just a bit further north and east, there’s also Cayo Piedra Underwater Park, a more than popular diving and snorkeling area where underwater explorers can find gleaming shipwrecks among glimmering schools of brightly colored fish. There are even ample opportunities to engage in some excellent deep-sea fishing, golfing, and skydiving-- if you happen to be looking for more of an adrenaline rush.
Trinidad5. Cayo Coco
Another one of Cuba's idyllic beach destinations, it’s also one of its most isolated seashore spaces. However, that doesn’t make it any less well-known to the public, as it has starred in two major Ernest Hemingway novels, including Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea (along with nearby Cayo Guillermo). The tropical island is just off of central Cuba, and is part of the Jardines del Rey chain (the combined archipelago of Sabana-Camaguey)—it’s also connected to the mainland by a bridge.
Most travelers choose to arrive to this paradise by air though-- and once having arrived, they often flock straight towards the array of sun-splashed beaches such as Playa Los Flamencos on the Atlantic side of the island, which offers five full kilometers of sun-bleached sand. Other choose the more quiet and undeveloped Playa Prohibidad, which even has its own peaceful nature trail to check out. Animal lovers will adore the El Baba Nature Park, where crocodiles, turtles, birds, and even fancy flamingoes can be found. What’s more is that the entire area is connected by a causeway to Cayo Guillermo, which also boasts a bevy of beautiful beaches such as the ravishing Playa Pilar—not to mention a whole string of all-inclusive resorts. No wonder Hemingway loved himself some Cuba!
Spicy food and culture unite at this far away easternmost limb of the Guantánamo province. Over all those hills, this small yet historically significant settlement has a weather pattern that’s often as fickle as its eccentric local populace-- who always have a desire to stand out from the crowd. It’s certainly a different slice of Cuba, where residents scale coconut palms, play kiribá, and savor an infinite amount of rich, spicy, and truly inventive Cuban treats such as the hot yet sweet cucurucho.
So get as far away from Havana as possible by taking a trip down to this chilled out town on the South East Coast where wining in the late morning, dining in the early afternoon, kicking back at a waterfall before dusk, and salsa dancing under a bright full moon is all in a day’s work. Make sure to sip up some mighty fine Cuban rum in between all those activities and to enjoy the fact that you’re staying in the oldest city in the country. With charming colonial architecture, lush countryside, stunning waterfalls, pretty beaches, steamy jungles, as well as flat-topped peaks such as El Yunque, Baracoa is a tropical beauty for sure. The hillsides have even been deemed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where rare birds and plants thrive. Seriously, nothing could be better than this.
Rimmed by glittering beaches, this beachy destination in the Holguin province is a much quieter and more remote area than Varadero. With lush foliage all along its sweeping strand of white sand beaches, there are more than plenty of shady spots on this coastal paradise to lay down and unwind at in the tropical sun. Divers and snorkelers will have a blast exploring the plethora of sea life along the coral reefs, while adventurers can busy themselves with local day trips trips offering sailing trips, jungle treks, and mesmerizing tours of Santiago de Cuba, or Chorro de Maita, where a native Indian burial area and a recreated Taino Indian village can be found.
Party people can unite at this nightlife hotspot which promises to be everything that Cuba isn’t. Filled with a daring and unique blend of spontaneous students, wild intellectuals, as well as loads of luxurious private home-stays stuffed to the tee with more antiques than even a local museum, this trendy capital city of Villa Clara is the place to experience some edgy youth culture, insatiable revolutionary spirit, and unstifled artistic creativity-- all within a typically totalitarian country.
What’s more is that it offers Cuba’s only drag show at Club Mejunje, a beauty pageant for transvestites, as well as the nation’s best rock festival, Ciudad Metal. Plus, you can always hang out for a while with the enthusiastic students at the most prestigious university in Cuba outside of Havana, or at La Casa de la Ciudad. Both have long associations with Che Guevara, whose liberation of Santa Clara in December 1958 marked the end of the Batista regime. Viva a revolucion!
This article was written by Pamela Chan.