Best things to do in Cuba
Find out more about those top places in Cuba
Havana is one of the Caribbean’s true hidden gems with the faded grandeur of its crumbling architecture, the vibrancy of its street life and unrivaled history. Latin America’s colonial history is showcased in Havana’s Old Town, which was founded in 1519 and is packed with baroque cathedrals, enchanting plazas and crumbling Spanish tenements. However, Havana is not a museum piece. Instead, it is above all a dynamic city with even the most tourist friendly areas doubling up as residential neighborhoods where people socialize on street corners, play football in the plazas and shout conversations from block to block. The vibrancy of Havana is best seen strolling the dazzling pastel colored promenade, known as the Malecón, where the whole city seems to gather in the sun-drenched evenings for food, drinks, dates, sports and more.
Havana’s iconic seafront drive, known as the Malecón, is one of Latin America’s most evocative locations. The strip is at its most charming in the evening, as locals come to date, drink, party and play sports as the sun sets across the Caribbean Sea. However, more than just the city’s vibrant heart, the Malecón is also an architectural wonderland with a delightful assortment of crumbling colonial-era townhouses and art-deco hotels that ooze faded grandeur.
Havana Vieja, the city’s old town, is a must-see for anyone visiting the island of Cuba. Unlike most historic centers across the world that sometimes seem removed from the beating heart of the city, the Cuban capital’s is undoubtedly still a vibrant urban community. Highlights of the old town are the 18th century cathedral, which was until 1898 the resting place of Christopher Columbus, the ever-buzzing Plaza Vieja and Castillo del Morro, which is perched above the lashing waves. For the best experience, take a guided walking tour.
Designed by the French urban planner Jean Claude Forestier, the gigantic Plaza de la Revolución is the centerpiece of Havana’s once-futuristic new town. While the concrete tower blocks and 1950s administrative buildings may now look dated, the plaza is worth exploring for its iconic murals of Che Guevara, which bedeck the Ministry of Interior, and those of other revolutionary heroes.
Nestled in the unassuming neighborhood of Jaimanitas is one of Havana’s true hidden gems: Fusterlandia. The project is the brainchild of the famed surrealist artist José Fuster, who has transformed the streets around his home into a massive version of Barcelona’s Park Güell. Colorful tiles and surreal sculptures coat every surface from rooftops to bus stops and everything in between – you really have to see it to believe it.
One of the largest cemeteries in the Americas, Havana’s Nécropolis Cristóbal Colón is a treasure trove of religious sculptures and ornate marble mausoleums. Guided tours of this spectacular cemetery are available or for more intrepid visitors maps can be picked up that will let you navigate your way through this city of the dead to the gravesites of famous artists, Spanish colonists, film stars, politicians and revolutionaries.
Housed in the grandiose former presidential palace, the Museo de la Revolución is Havana’s foremost museum. While the exhibits may be tinged with propaganda, they tell an often inspiring and emotional narrative of how the Cuban people, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, overthrew the brutal regime of Fulgencio Batista. Guided tours of the museum are available that explain its highlights, including the yacht used by Castro and 81 other revolutionaries to sail to Cuba and military relics from the Bay of Pigs.
Likely the most imposing Spanish colonial fortification in the world is the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. Set atop the rocky eastern side of Havana’s harbor, the fortress was built in the 1760s to prevent British invasions of the city and has been subsequently used as a military prison and as a bloody execution site for enemies of Batista’s regime. Today, the complex has been restored and guided tours of this hulking colonial-era fortress are easily available.
One of Havana’s most famous former residents is the American author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in the city between the 1940s and 1960s. Regular Hemingway themed tours of the city are available that more often than not culminate at his former villa, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works. While visitors are not allowed inside the house, there are plenty of open windows and viewing platforms that give you a glimpse inside the life of one of the 20th centuries greatest authors.
Trinidad is the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in Cuba where little has changed since the mid-1800s. During the 19th century, the town grew fabulously wealthy through sugar plantations in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios with a host of grand colonial mansions springing up across the townscape. Bedecked with the finest European furniture and painted charming pastel colors, Trinidad’s grand mansions are a highlight of any visit to Cuba. What is more, the entire town’s historic center of baroque churches, cobbled streets and atmospheric plazas was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Today, the town has maintained a relaxed pace of life and is one of the best places in the country to sample the melodic music of guajiros (country folk).
Located just off the spectacular Plaza Mayor is Trinidad’s Museo Histórico Municipal. Housed in a former colonial-era mansion, the museum houses numerous exhibits detailing how the town rose to prominence through sugar plantations that generally used to slave labor. For the best experience, make sure to climb the tower that provides breathtaking views over the pastel-hued town.
Within easy striking distance of Trinidad is the rugged terrain of the Topes de Collantes, a protected area within the majestic Sierra del Escambray. Organized tours to this remarkable landscape run daily from Trinidad and take you to some of the area’s star attractions, including Salto del Caburní waterfall with its tranquil pools for swimming.
Located in the northern reaches of Trinidad’s old town lies the evocative Plaza Santa Ana. For centuries the square was the site of a Spanish prison, which today has been transformed into the beating heart of the town’s cultural scene. The former cells are now home to artists’ studios, galleries and ceramic workshops.
Right in the center of the old town is the Plaza Mayor. Flanked by imposing colonial-era buildings, including a former baroque church that is now an architecture museum, the square is in many ways Trinidad’s living room and is the perfect place to grab a beer, unwind and people watch.
One of Trinidad’s more unusual museums is the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos, which details how the supporters of the right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista took to the Sierra del Escambray and fought a vicious guerrilla war against the revolutionaries. The museum focuses on how the local people resisted their campaign of terror and has various artifacts, including weaponry and maps.
Situated at the tip of the ruler-straight Hicacos Peninsula, which stretches from the Cuban coast towards the Bahamas, Varadero is Cuba’s premier holiday resort. While Varadero is not the place to go for authentic Cuban experiences, it is the ideal place to unwind after a tour of the country’s hidden gems. The resort town’s biggest draw is undoubtedly the seemingly endless stretch of pristine golden sand that connects it to the mainland, which forms one of the Caribbean’s most iconic beaches. The town itself is juxtaposed between faded colonial-era houses and gargantuan hotels, which have everything from entertainment, top-quality restaurants and organized boat trips to nearby coral reefs.
Undoubtedly the most unique attraction to be found in Varadero is the Cueva de Ambrosio. Discovered in 1961, this mammoth cave system is home to a plethora of pre-Columbian drawings that are etched onto stonewalls and are thought to be a form of solar calendar. Guided tours by torchlight are available and make for an unforgettable experience.
The perfect place for people watching is Parque Josone, where you can immerse yourself in Cuban culture. The immaculate gardens were the one time private reserve of the nearby Retiro Josone but were expropriated following the revolution and have remained in public hands ever since. Today, it is the perfect place to go boating on tranquil lakes and ride a mini-train around its many tree-lined paths.
The seas off the coast of Varadero are teeming with marine life and there is no better way to experience this than on a dolphin safari. Departing the town early in the day, these thrilling boat tours take you to the spots where you are most likely to see these remarkable animals.
One of the most enchanting day trips from Varadero is to the Yumurí Valley, which is one of Cuba’s most spectacular landscapes. As there is little to no infrastructure in the area, the best way to explore is via organized tours that take you Rancho Gaviota, where you can feast on a hearty Cuban meal, before taking in the sites of Puente Bacunayagua, Monserrate Heights and Bellamar Caves, which have impressive halls of stalactites and stalagmites.
One hour by boat from Varadero is the beguiling underwater world of Cayo Piedras del Nortre, where a variety of old ships, vehicles and even buildings have been deliberately sunk to the depths of the sea. On scuba diving and snorkeling tours you can explore this otherworldly marine landscape, which has become a haven for tropical fish.