Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is dripping with history, culture and a captivating mystique. Live music flows through the cobbled squares of Havana’s World Heritage-listed Old Town. Vintage cars still ply the streets and the beautiful old buildings in Cuba’s colonial towns evoke the feeling of a frozen country.
Cuba is also rich in natural beauty. This vast island has more than 5,000 kilometers of coastline, most of which is surrounded by beautiful beaches. Coral reefs glisten in the turquoise waters and Cuba’s lush landscape and sublime islands have hosted presidents; provided refuge for revolutionaries; and inspired writers from around the world, including Hemingway. With all this history and beauty, as well as fantastic diving and fishing, Cuba offers a depth and diversity that few Caribbean islands can rival.
1 Oud Havana (Old Havana)
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Habana Vieja or Old Havana is a well-preserved piece of Cuban history. Strolling through the cobbled streets and looking up at the grand Baroque and Neoclassical buildings, it’s easy to imagine what life in Cuba would have been like 200 years ago. Extensive renovations are now breathing new life into the historic buildings. Major attractions here include thePlaza de la Catedral, home of the Cuban BaroqueCatedral de San Cristobal.Castillo de la Real Fuerza; and the military fortress,Bodeguita del Medio; the legendary Hemingway restaurant and hangout,
Also in the old town, Plaza Vieja is one of Havana’s most lively meeting places. The main building of note here is the 18th century Casa del Conde Jaruco, with beautiful stained glass windows on the first floor. Close by, theCamera Obscura offers fantastic views from its 35 meter high tower. Allow at least a day to explore the old town and more if time permits.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Havana
Varadero is one of Cuba’s most famous beach destinations and home to one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. It stretches along the Hicacos Peninsula, which juts out against the sea on the north coast, where a drawbridge connects it to the mainland. More than 50 hotels stretch across this popular palm-lined strip and the beautiful white-sand beaches attract visitors from all over the world. Highlights includeParque Natural Punta Hicacos (Parque Natural de Varaderos), a nature reserve with a beautiful beach and the two caves,Cueva de Ambrosio and Cueva de Musulmanes.
Also in Varadero, the peacefulParque Josone is home to lush flower gardens, a restaurant, a swimming pool and a small lake where visitors can floating around in rowboats. Northeast of Varadero, Cayo Piedra Underwater Park is a popular diving and snorkeling area where underwater explorers find shipwrecks and shimmering schools of brightly colored fish. In addition to diving and snorkeling, other popular things to do include deep-sea fishing, golfing, skydiving and day trips to cultural attractions.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Varadero
Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage city of Trinidad is like stepping back in time. The beautifully restored buildings and cobbled streets in the center exude an unusual colonial feel. Much of the architecture dates from the 17th to 19th centuries, when Trinidad thrived on both the sugar and slave trades.
Today Trinidad is one of the best cities to visit in Cuba, with the exception of Havana. You can enjoy the lively atmosphere on the cobbled streetPlaza 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 include theChurch and Monastery of St. Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco), with its distinctive bell tower; theMuseum of Colonial Architecture (Museo de Arquitectura Colonial); the art gallery at theCasa de Aldeman Ortiz; and thePalacio Brunet, a large house built in 1812 and still with original frescoes and marble floors.
East of Trinidad, on the way to Sancti Spiritus, the opulent World Heritage Site Valle de los Ingenios contains numerous remains and monuments from the 19th century, when sugar cane plantations and mills flourished. It is also a great place to drive or horse ride through the beautiful landscape of green sugar cane fields, palm trees and mountains.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Trinidad
Rimmed by glistening beaches, Guardalavaca, in the Holguin province, is quieter and more remote than Varadero. Lush foliage borders the extensive beach edge, providing plenty of shaded areas for those looking for some peace and quiet in the tropical sun. Divers and snorkelers can explore an abundance of marine life along the coral reefs.
Day trips from Guardalavaca including jungle adventures, sailing trips and tours of Santiago de CubaCayo Naranjo< /span> is another option for a day trip from Guardalavaca, with its native Indian cemetery and a recreated Taino Indian village.Chorro de Maita, offering close-up encounters with these gregarious talking creatures. Dolphinarium with the popular includes much of the coast and three islands, includingBahia de Naranjo. West of Guardalavaca,
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Guardalavaca
5 Paradise Beach, Cayo Largo del Sur
In a country known for its beautiful beaches, Playa Paraíso (Paradise Beach), on the island of Cayo Largo del Sur, is one of the best in Cuba. This sublime beach of powdery white sand and baby blue sea skirts the sheltered western edge of the island and merges with the equally delightful Playa Sirena. The islandCayo Largo del Sur is truly a sun seeker’s destination with a typically dry, sunny climate and few tourist attractions in addition to beautiful beaches and many hotels and resorts .
Accommodation: Where to Stay on Cayo Largo
6 Cayo Coco
Another of Cuba’s idyllic beach destinations and one of the most isolated Cayo Coco in Hemingway’s novels, Islands in the Stream and The old man and the sea, along with nearby Cayo Guillermo . As part of Jardines del Rey, the combined archipelago of Sabana- Camaguey, Cayo Coco is connected to the mainland by a bridge, although most visitors arrive by plane.
Sun-drenched beaches are the main attraction. Playa Los Flamencos, on the Atlantic side of the island, is a highlight with its five kilometer long beach of sun-bleached sand, while the quiet and undeveloped a> offers a peaceful nature trail. The island also offers excellent birdlife.Playa Prohibida
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 range of all-inclusive resorts.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cayo Coco
7 Viñales National Park (Viñales Valley)
The UNESCO World Heritage Site Parque Nacional Viñales is a beautiful green valley in the Sierra de los Organos, north of Pinar del Rio. Steep limestone hills called mogotes cut through the valleys, creating a dramatic landscape. The valley floors in the Parque Nacional Viñales are agricultural areas where tobacco, fruits and vegetables are grown. For outdoor enthusiasts, the park offers fantastic walking and horse riding in the hills. The charming town of Viñales is an excellent base for exploring the area. Tour companies also offerdays out 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 Guantanamo Province, 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 town still has a remote feel. Today, visitors come here for the charming colonial architecture and lush landscape, where waterfalls and beautiful beaches provide a cool counterpoint to the steamy jungle. The flat-topped peak ofEl Yunque sits aboard all this tropical beauty and invites hikers to take the guided ascent to the 589-meter peak . The hill is a UNESCO biosphere reserve where rare birds and plants thrive.
To really appreciate the spectacular scenery, take a drive around the bendThe La Farola highway, a 49 kilometer stretch from Baracoa over the mountains toCajobabo. TheMuseo Municipal is also worth seeing. Housed in the Fuerte Matachin military fortress, it gives a glimpse of Baracoa’s fascinating history and the fortress 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. If you are adventurous, you can rent a bike in Baracoa and train here. Flights to Baracoa often depart from Havana.
9 From Malecon, Havana
From Malecon, Havana
Designed in 1901 and partly built in 1902 and afterwards, the Malecon is Havana’s famous boulevard. A stroll along here offers a walk through the city’s history. The promenade runs seven kilometers from theHabana Vieja quarter to theVedado central business district. Along the way you will find an assortment of well-preserved 20th-century buildings representing a mixture of architectural styles including Art Deco and Neo Moorish. Painted in pastel pink and yellow, the buildings are a photographer’s delight, especially in the golden glow of dusk. People watching is a favorite pastime here. Young lovers stroll hand in hand, local fishermen throw their lines and children clamber along the sea wall.
10 Che Guevara Mausoleum, Santa Clara
Che Guevara Mausoleum, Santa Clara
If beach towns and resorts all seem the same, Santa Clara, the famous site of the last guerrilla battle led byChe Guevara in 1958, will adding some depth to a Cuban itinerary. Che’s body was laid to rest here, and his mausoleum (Mausoleo del Che Guevara) and monument, theMemorial Comandante Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, are the city’s major attractions. Etched on the bronze statue of Che Guevara inPlaza de la Revolucion is his last letter to Fidel Castro, while the mausoleum lies beneath.
Adjacent to the monument, the Museo Historico de la Revolucion exhibits a number of Che’s personal items. Che fans should also see the poignantMonumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, a small museum with box carts and the site of the last battle between Che Guevara and the Batista troops.
11 National Museum of Fine Arts
If you are an art lover, don’t miss Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts), with its extensive and impressive collection of international and Cuban art. The collection is housed in two buildings and includes works from ancient times to the present day. The restored Spanish Renaissance Palacio del Centro Asturiano is clad in luxurious Italian marble and designed by Manuel Bustos in the 1920s. It showcases international art, including works by European Masters; ancient art from Greece, Rome and Egypt; and works from Asia, the United States and Latin America. The Spanish collection in particular is a highlight.
The striking marble sculpture, ‘Form, Space and Light’, greets visitors at the entrance to the second location, which dates back to 1959. This Rialist building in Palacio de Bellas Artes showcases a thought-provoking collection with an emphasis on Cuban art from the 17th century. century to the present, including sculptures, prints and paintings.
- Palace of Fine Arts: Trocadero Street e / Zulueta y Monserrate, Oud Havana
Palace of the Asturian Center: San Rafael, e / Zulueta and Monserrate, Oud Havana
12 Castle of San Pedro del Morro, Santiago de Cuba
San Pedro del Morro Castle, 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 Santiago Bay, about 10 kilometers southwest of Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city. High atop a cliff, the structure was designed in 1587 but took decades to build and was finally completed in the late 17th century. It was originally intended to protect against pirate attacks, but also served as a prison in the late 17th century before being converted back into a fortress. Today you can explore the many different levels of the fortress, learn about pirates and the history of the fortress in the small museum and enjoy impressive views over the bay.
Other cultural highlights of Santiago de Cuba include theDiego Velazquez Museum and Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia< /span> is a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve where you can visit coffee plantations, wander through beautiful botanical gardens and enjoy stunning 360-degree views of the mountains and sea from the 1,234-metre-high summit of Gran Piedra, a large volcanic rock. Parque Baconao, home to the remains of some of Cuba’s most famous military figures. Less than an hour from the city by car,
13 Zapata Peninsula (Ciénaga de Zapata)
The Zapata Peninsula is a paradise for birdwatchers and nature lovers. It is a remote, sparsely populated region of Cuba with varied 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 around 150 different species of birds, including moorhens, parrots and herons. Crocodiles are also common. Part of the peninsula is a designated nature reserve, theGran Parque Natural de Montemar, where you can see some of these creatures in their natural habitat. a>
At the mouth of the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos) isPlaya Giron, the famous site of the Bay of Pigs Invasion from 1961. You can explore this fascinating history with the little oneMuseo Giron. At the top of the Bay of Pigs, Playa Larga is home to a long beach with lush vegetation. Avid divers can explore the underwater creatures at various dive sites here along the reef.
Boca de Guama is the tourist center of the peninsula, and its main attraction is theCriadero de Cocodrilos, a crocodile farm. Nearby, atLaguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake) isHorizontes Villa Guama, a rustic tourist resort designed as an Indian village that can only be reached by boat.
14 Parque Historico Militar, Havana
Military Historic Park, Havana
TheParque Historico Militar includes two of Havana’s famous fortresses: theCastillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, also known as El Morro, andFortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. El Morro stands across the bay from Havana and was built in the late 16th century and early 17th century to ward off pirates, and looks much the same as it did back then. The lighthouse was replaced by a stone one in the mid-19th century, but the original lamp still shines into the sea. You can ascend to the top of the fortress to admire impressive views of the ocean and the city.
A short walk from El Morro, Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, built in the 1770s, was the largest fortress the Spanish ever built, and also the most expensive. The fortress became a military prison during the Batista regime and was later used as the headquarters for Che Guevara after the revolution. You can explore the museums here, which trace the history of this fascinating fortress, but the most popular time to visit is at night when actors dressed in 19th century costumes performCeremonia del Cañonazo, a fireworks ceremony at 9 p.m.
15 Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial), Havana
Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial), Havana
Because of its important place in Havana’s history, the Plaza de la Revolucion deserves at least a brief stop, if only to catch the events that took place here. Castro gave speeches in this large square, sometimes attracting more than a million people to. 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-high gray tower, a monument 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 theJose Marti Memorial, which contains a museum about Marti. Go up the tower for fantastic views of Havana. Opposite the monument, the famous gigantic portrait of Che Guevara adorns the building of the Ministry of the Interior.