21 Places You Have to Visit in Cuba
Quality rum, fine cigars and endless salsa are just a few of the things that may attract you to the island of Cuba. Once a popular holiday destination for Americans in the 1930s, this retro capsule is a place where time seems to have stood still. Colourful colonial buildings, vintage cars and old fashioned cocktail bars decorate the cities, and there are so many beautiful beaches to explore.
Experience the magic of Cuba yourself and check out these 21 amazing places that you just have to visit.
1. Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
The most famous place in Cuba, and one that is a favourite for Hemingway fans. The Old Town in Havana was a regular haunt for the writer who bought a house near the city in 1940 and remained there for the next 20 years. A prolific drinker who enjoyed his rum, Hemingway spent his free time frequenting the bars of Old Havana. His favourite places to drink were El Floridita (try the famous Hemingway Daiquiri) and La Bodeguita Del Medio (try the famous Mojito).
A beautiful colonial town, with just as much wonder and excitement as the capital but with a slower pace of life. Things are a lot more relaxed in this UNESCO listed site, and the stunning colonial buildings and vintage cars make it a quintessentially Cuban experience. The famous square is a must-see and is dedicated to national hero, José Martí. He was a Cuban poet who died in battle against the Spanish in 1895, and this commemorative square is one of the very few places in Cuba where you’ll find free WiFi.
3. Varadero Beach
A hugely popular resort town, Varadero is great for families, couples or backpackers alike. It’s home to perhaps the most “touristy” strip in Cuba, but there are plenty of other things to see here. Classic car tours will give you some insight into how these vintage beauties got here in the first place, and there’s a fantastic nature trail by the Varahicacos Ecological Reserve. The entire peninsula (stretching 20km) is lined with all-inclusive hotels and managed beaches. For spas, golfing and nightlife, you simply can’t go wrong here.
4. Cayo Coco
This tropical island in the Jardines del Rey archipelago is known for its stunning white-sand beaches and coral reefs. For beach bums, divers and snorkelers, Cayo Coco is simply heaven. Like Varadero, this island is also dotted with all-inclusive resorts. But nature lovers will also be in their element here. The island with its many lagoons and marshes is perfect for birdwatching, including the spectacular colony of pink flamingos that are often seen out in the water. This colony is amongst the largest across the Americas, making it well worth the journey from the mainland.
5. Cayo Guillermo
Cayo Guillermo is another popular island in the Jardines del Rey archipelago. The clear and shallow waters make it ideal for swimming, and the magnificent sand dunes offer a spectacular backdrop for sunbathing or beach picnics. Located just offshore is a large ribbon of coral reef, where divers will find a rich array of colourful marine life. Top dive sites to check out can be found surrounding the tiny island of Cayo Media Luna.
Far off the tourist map, many say that Baracoa is Cuba’s best kept secret. Set on the windy side of the Cuchillos del Toa Mountains, this is one of the island’s most isolated towns. It’s also the country’s oldest, making it a journey back in time to the Cuban coastline in its glory days. Other than the azure seas and wild beaches, there’s also an interesting mix of fertile forests and a semi-desert. This is a landscape like no other. No wonder Christopher Columbus sang its praises when he landed on the coastline in 1492, naming it the most beautiful place on earth.
Hurricane Matthew ploughed a path of destruction back in 2016, but the town is already on the mend. Don’t miss Baracoa if you’re exploring the north-eastern coastline.
7. The Malecon
Havana isn’t the sort of place you just pass through. This complex and colourful capital deserves your full attention and at least a week to see the sights. Backpackers who really want to get under the skin of this city stopover here for months on end. The Malecon is one of the spots where you’ll find many of these soul-searching travellers hanging out at sundown. A broad esplanade stretching 8km in length, it’s great for an after dinner stroll. Watch the classic cars whizz by, watch the fishermen seduce their evening catch, or simply watch the sunset.
8. Zapata Swamp
Located on the Zapata Peninsula in the southern Matanzas region, this reserve is seriously unique and special. It’s the largest wetland in Cuba (and also the Caribbean), and it’s considered to be the best preserved wildlife sanctuary in the Antilles. The main attraction is, of course, the big beasts lurking in the water – the crocodiles. But keen birdwatchers will also be able to spot the Zapata wren, Zapata rail, and the Zapata sparrow.
9. Santiago de Cuba
Considered to be the “most Caribbean city” in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is unique to the rest of the island and is known for its distinctive Afro-Cuban community. If you’re only heading to a handful of towns while you’re here, make sure this place is high up on the list. As the second largest city in Cuba, there’s plenty to see and do. But the most famous event has to be Carnaval – a huge event that takes place every July with an explosion of colourful cabaret outfits, rhythmic drum beats, salsa and dancing.
The town itself is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with colonial architecture dating back to 1515. If you’re not here for long, take a walking tour to see as many sights as possible.
10. Cayo Largo del Sur
Bright pink flamingos, gorgeous sea turtles, cute iguanas and beautiful pelicans are the main residents of this resort island. But if the spectacular wildlife isn’t enough to draw you in, let the peace and quiet be your reason to visit Cayo Largo. Located in the south, this tranquil island is a little slice of paradise for honeymooners, couples, or backpackers looking to escape Havana’s hustle and bustle. There are over 30 great dive sites and fishing is also excellent, so you’ll always find something to do.
11. Parque Josone
This beautiful park in the resort town of Varadero is a pleasant escape from the tourist beaches. It’s well-maintained and features a number of amenities and attractions, making it an ideal meeting point for solo travellers or for families travelling with children. The peaceful park is home to colourful flower gardens, a small lake with rowing boats for hire, and a swimming pool that is safe for all ages. There’s also a café and restaurant for grabbing some lunch or for simply watching the world go by.
12. Cayo Santa Maria
A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and also an up-and-coming travel destination that most tourists don’t know about yet. This island off the northern coast is home to the best wildlife in Cuba, including birds such as herons, cormorants, and a colony of pretty pink flamingos. Other reasons to come here are the gorgeous beaches and excellent water sports.
Cayo Santa Maria is also a top scuba diving and snorkelling destination. The sites promise warm, clear waters and a lovely array of coral gardens, caves, gorgonians and sponges, underwater escarpments, and fish of all sizes and colours.
Get the best of central Cuba with a few nights in Trinidad. Walk the cobbled streets of the colonial Old Town, marvel at the many old buildings and neo-Baroque Plaza Mayor, discover the haunted mansion that houses the Museo Romántico, and learn about the Cuban sugar plantations at the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial.
You’re worlds away from the tourist seaside resorts here. But for a beach escape, hire a bike and cycle to Playa Ancon. This thin ribbon of white sand beach is considered to be the finest sliver of sand in Cuba’s south coast.
Not too far from where Christopher Columbus first landed, this pretty little resort holds a special place in local history. In 1492, he proclaimed about the island, “The most beautiful land I have ever seen.”
Visit all the beaches in the area, including Esmeralda and Pesquero, and you’ll understand why Christopher Columbus loved this place so much. Although rather sleepy and much quieter than other popular towns in Cuba, there are still some nice hotels and restaurants to choose from.
15. Chorro de Maita
Also close to Guardalavaca is an early colonial archaeological site called El Chorro de Maita. This unique attraction dates back to the early 16th Century and features excavated indigenous houses and an old cemetery. There are dozens of preserved human remains within this ancient settlement, making it a must-visit site for history lovers.
16. Parque Nacional Vinales
The Vinales Valley is a fantastic area for hiking and cycling. Encircled by mountains and decorated with rocky outcrops, this UNESCO World Heritage Centre has a unique landscape. Yet it’s just a few hours from the noisy city of Havana. The mogotes, caves, and tobacco fields are all worth visiting, and a number of cool hanging restaurants will provide you with amazing views as you dine.
The town itself, Vinales, has a number of bars, shops and restaurants. Nightlife isn’t quite as lively as you’ll find in the capital, but you won’t have to go far to find a decent Mojito.
17. Castillo de San Pedro del Morro
An incredible fort that sits on top a 60-metre-high promontory, inviting you into Santiago Harbour. Located close to the city of Santiago de Cuba, it’s a must-visit for anyone staying there. The castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, and has been well-preserved since its days of warding off pirates. Get up to the upper terrace to experience the mind-blowing views of Santiago’s coastline and the Sierra Maestra in the distance.
18. Playa Giron
Experience the breath-taking views at the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos). This area is the famous site where the 1961 failed military invasion of Cuba took place. The U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro, but were badly outnumbered by Castro’s troops. Today, the bay is visited for its beautiful beaches and magical underwater wildlife. It’s a diver’s paradise, and Playa Giron is one of the most well-known beache/village areas to visit.
19. Parque Historico Militar
Two of Havana’s famous fortresses are found inside the Parque Historico Militar. The Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (also known as El Morro) and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana adorn the entrance to the bay and have been well-maintained since their erection in the 16th and 17th centuries. Built to defend the city from pirates, these battlements offer a great vantage point. Pack your camera and some comfortable shoes, and march to the top of the fort for stunning views overlooking the ocean and the city.
20. Santa Clara
Dubbed Cuba’s most revolutionary city, this regional capital in central Cuba has deep historical links to Che Guevara. He liberated the city from the Batista regime in 1958 and the event is honoured by the mausoleum, bronze Guevara statue, and the Museo Histórico de la Revolución. Inside the museum, you will find numerous artefacts to commemorate his life. For hard-to-find free WiFi connection, pop to the central square.
21. Caguanes National Park
Located in the Yaguajay Municipality of the Sancti Spíritus Province along the north coast, this park is a great destination for ecotourism. Listed as a UNESCO site, the park consists of Caguanes Cay, Ciénaga Swamp, Guayaberasand, and the islets of Piedra Cays. With such a diverse and interesting landscape, Caguanes National Park is worth the trek from Havana. A great place to stay nearby that’s off the beaten track is the city of Moron, a place with fab vintage cars and a chilled vibe for travellers of every kind.