Where are the best places to go in Cuba? There’s heady Havana and time-warped colourful colonial towns, and locals playing chess in pretty town squares. There are soft sands and sunshine on beautiful beaches, snorkeling in crystal clear waters, and stunning inland scenery. All infused with sensual salsa and the sounds of infectious Cuban beats, and the waft of handrolled cigars. Cuba is intoxicating in its energy, its beautiful landscapes, its jumble of the old and the new – and figuring out just where to go in Cuba isn’t easy. We’ve travelled the length and breadth of this Caribbean island to give you some pointers and inspiration for your trip.
Continue reading to find out more about...
If you’re wondering where to visit in Cuba, it’s fair to say no trip would be complete without a visit to the potent capital, Havana. A unique and personable metropolis characterized by a small-town atmosphere, its time-warped colonial core, Habana Vieja, is crammed with architectural splendours, some laced with Moorish traces and dating as far back as the sixteenth century. Elsewhere there are handsome streets unspoiled by tawdry multinational chain stores and restaurants. Urban development here has been undertaken sensitively, with the city retaining many of its colonial mansions and numerous 1950s hallmarks.
Best places to go in Havana
- Plaza Vieja This has become the most animated and alluring square in Old Havana, alive with the chatter and clatter of a great set of cafés and restaurants.
- Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes The best and largest art collection in Cuba, split between a lovely, bright Art Deco building and an austere Neoclassical one.
- Parque Morro-Cabaña It’s well worth the effort of crossing the bay to explore the nooks and crannies of this easily overlooked fortress complex.
- The Malecón Havana’s sociable seafront promenade comes alive in the evening.
Hotel Nacional This luxurious twin-towered hotel still embodies 1930s Havana glamour. A perfect setting for a mojito.
- Fábrica de Arte Cubano Nowhere quite symbolizes the direction in which Havana’s contemporary arts and culture is moving like this immense art centre and nightclub.
- El Cocinero With a new-wave Cuban menu assembled with flair, El Cocinero is redefining eating out in Havana.
- Gran Teatro Enjoy the world-renowned Cuban National Ballet in this stunningly restored cultural cathedral.
Old Havana with a view of the Malacón © Kamira/Shutterstock
Artemisa and Pinar del Río
To the west of Havana, the nature-tourism centres of Artemisa and Pinar del Río are popular destinations with day-trippers. However, they also offer more than enough to sustain a longer stay. The most accessible resorts here are Las Terrazas and Soroa, focused around the subtropical, smooth-topped Sierra del Rosario mountain range. But it’s the peculiarly shaped mogote hills of the prehistoric Viñales Valley that attract most attention, while tiny Viñales village is a pleasant hangout frequented by a friendly traveller community. Beyond, on a gnarled rod of land pointing out towards Mexico, there’s unparalleled seclusion and outstanding scuba diving at María La Gorda.
Best places to visit in Artemisa and Pinar del Río
- Baños de San Juan Perfect for picnics or a midday bathe, this delightful river haven above Las Terrazas also has a unique set of treehouses on stilts where you can stay the night.
- Hiking at Las Terrazas Guided hikes from here are the best way to delve into the stunning sierra.
- Viñales The unique humpbacked mogote hills, prehistoric caves and friendly vibe in the village all make this an unmissable stop-off.
- Finca Agroecológica El Paraíso Home-grown and -reared food, panoramic views and attentive owners make this eco-farm the best dining experience for miles.
- Cayo Jutías The popularity of this virtually untouched islet is growing, so catch it at its natural best while you can.
- Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás The most complex cave system in Cuba, plunging into a hillside on eight different levels and surprisingly easy to visit.
- Alejandro Robaina tobacco plantation An intimate and down-to-earth tour that vividly brings to life tobacco’s journey from seeding to cigar.
- María La Gorda One of the top places to go in Cuba for scuba diving and quiet solitude.
Viñales valley © Zaruba Ondrej/Shutterstock
Varadero and Mantanzas
There are beach resorts the length and breadth of the country but none is more complete than Varadero. This is the country’s long-time premier holiday destination, two hours’ drive east of Havana in Matanzas province. Based on a highway of dazzling white sand that stretches almost the entire length of the 25km Península de Hicacos, Varadero offers the classic package-holiday experience. For the tried-and-tested combination of watersports, sunbathing and relaxing in all-inclusive hotels, there is nowhere better in Cuba. On the opposite side of the province, the Península de Zapata, with its diversity of wildlife, organized excursions and scuba diving, offers a wealth of different possibilities. The grittier Cárdenas and provincial capital Matanzas contrast with Varadero’s made-to-measure appeal. But it’s the nearby natural attractions of the Bellamar caves and the verdant splendour of the Yumurí Valley that provide the focus for most day-trips.
Best places to visit in Varadero and Mantanzas
- Varadero beach Walk or run for miles on the golden sands of Cuba’s most famous beach, then cool down in the shallow turquoise water.
- Mansión Xanadú Sleep, eat or drink in opulent style at one of Varadero’s most alluring addresses.
- Learn to kitesurf in Varadero One of the best places in Cuba to learn to kitesurf is at the Varadero Kitesurf School.
- Hershey train It may be slow and unreliable, but this dinky electric train passes through some beautiful scenery.
- Cuevas de Bellamar Descend over 50m underground into these awesome underground caves and along 750m of atmospheric passageways.
- Río Canímar boat trip Enjoy the Cuban countryside on a fun-packed cruise up this broad, tree-lined river.
- Diving at the Península de Zapata The flooded caves and coral reef here offer the best dive sites in the province.
Varadero beach © Junki Asano/Shutterstock
Trinidad and Sancti Spíritus
Travelling east of Matanzas province, you’ll take either the Autopista Nacional or the island-long Carretera Central. Public transport links become weaker here and picturesque but worn-out towns take over from brochure-friendly hotspots. There is, however, a concentration of activity around the historically precious Trinidad. This small colonial city is brimming with symbols of Cuba’s past, which attracts tour groups and backpackers in equal numbers. If you’re intending to spend more than a few days in the island’s centre, this is by far the best base. It is within short taxi rides of a small but well-equipped beach resort, the Península de Ancón, and the Topes de Collantes hiking centre in the Sierra del Escambray.
Sancti Spíritus makes a good stopover between Havana and Santiago. Although there are fewer obvious sights and less in the way of entertainment, it has plenty of historic interest. It also has fewer tourist numbers than some of the more popular cities in Cuba.
Best places to visit in and around Trinidad
- The Trinidad towers Scale the winding wooden staircases in the towers at the Museo de la Lucha Contra Bandidos and the Museo de Historia Municipal. You’ll get the best views of Trinidad, framed by coastline and mountains.
- Horseriding Take a ride to the outskirts of Trinidad, in the foothills of the Escambray mountains, and enjoy the beauty of the area from the saddle.
- Casa de la Música The standout live music venue in Trinidad, offering big-band salsa and traditional Cuban music most nights.
- Playa Ancón One of the biggest and best beaches on the southern coast of Cuba.
- Train ride to Manaca-Iznaga Enjoy an hour-long ride from Trinidad in a charming old wooden carriage.
- Trekking at Topes de Collantes This beautiful national park in the steep, forested slopes of the Sierra del Escambray has some excellent hiking trails.
View over the city of Trinidad © rphstock/Shutterstock
Provinces of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara
The provinces of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara offer a low-key vibe in their capital cities of Cienfuegos and Santa Clara. They may lack cosmopolitan sophistication, and the nightlife and restaurant scenes are nothing to write home about, but they are attractive cities nonetheless. They also have excellent accommodation options. Laidback Cienfuegos, next to the placid waters of a sweeping bay, is sprinkled with colourful architecture, including a splendid nineteenth-century theatre.
Lively Santa Clara is best known for its Che Guevara connections. But it also has excellent music and theatre events and one of Cuba’s most gay-friendly music and performance venues. You could base yourself here and take easy excursions to some of the most picturesque beaches in the country, such as on the northern cays of Villa Clara.
Best places to visit in Cienfuegos and Villa Clara
- Finca del Mar and El Lagarto Cienfuegos has two of the best paladars outside of Havana, serving great, simple food in splendid bayside locations.
- Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos Lose yourself amid bamboo cathedrals and countless varieties of palm trees.
- Parque El Nicho Walk to the picturesque El Nicho waterfalls and pools in the Sierra del Escambray.
- The Jagua ferry Enjoy the laidback pace of local life on the slow chug across the bay from Cienfuegos, taking in city views and the distant mountains.
- Parque Vidal The main square in Santa Clara is among the most vibrant in Cuba.
- El Mejunje This unusual music and arts venue in Santa Clara has an entertainingly diverse programme and a welcoming vibe.
- Remedios Historic Remedios is one of the best-kept small towns in Cuba, with a delightful, leafy central square and a fabulous choice of places to spend the night.
- The northern cays The journey to these remote, beach-blessed islets – along a 50km-long causeway skimming above clear waters – is reason enough to visit.
El Nicho waterfalls in the Sierra del Escambray © ccastet/Shutterstock
Provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila
The romantic and ramshackle Camagüey, the most populous city in Camagüey province in the central part of the island, is a sightseer’s delight. It fully merits its UNESCO Heritage Site award, with numerous intriguing buildings and a half-decent nightlife. In the north of the province, the smaller, rather remote resort of Santa Lucía is a much-promoted though less well-equipped option for sun-seekers. And there’s an excellent alternative north of here in tiny Cayo Sabinal, with long empty beaches and romantically rustic facilities.
Modest Ciego de Ávila, a workaday city in its namesake province, will appeal to anyone looking to escape the tourist limelight without having to work hard to find a memorable and comfortable place to stay.
The luxurious and expanding resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, off the north coast of Ciego de Ávila province, feature wide swathes of creamy-white beaches. The tranquil countryside nearby, with its pretty lakes and low hills, is best enjoyed from the small town of Morón, the most popular base for independent travellers in the province.
Best places to visit in Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila
- Laguna La Redonda This idyllic lake is perfect for an afternoon of bass fishing or simply messing around in boats.
- Loma de Cunagua The lone high ground in an area of unremittingly flat farmland, this 364m hill is a favourite with birdwatchers.
- Diving the coral reefs Two of the longest coral reefs in the world can be found on opposite sides of Ciego de Ávila, at the Jardines del Rey and the Jardines de la Reina.
- Playa Pilar A gorgeous beach on Cayo Guillermo’s western tip, named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht.
- Hotel Colón Almost a museum in itself, this beautiful 1927 hotel in the heart of Camagüey has been artfully renovated, preserving its eclectic mix of styles.
- Cayo Sabinal Cayo Sabinal’s isolated white sands, woodland and wildlife make for the perfect island retreat.
Ignacio Agramonte Park, Camagüey © Alexandre G. ROSA/Shutterstock
The northern Oriente
The amiable city of Holguín is the threshold to the province of the same name, containing the biggest concentration of pre-Columbian sites in the country. On the northern coast of Holguín province, Guardalavaca (together with the neighbouring playas Esmeralda, Pesquero and luxurious Turquesa) is one of the country’s liveliest and most attractive resorts. It is spread along a long and shady beach with ample opportunities for watersports.
Forming the far eastern tip of the island, Guantánamo province is best known for its infamous US naval base. But the region’s most enchanting spot is the jaunty coastal town of Baracoa. Isolated from the rest of the country by a high rib of mountains, this quirky, friendly town freckled with colonial houses is an unrivalled retreat popular with long-term travellers. It also offers ample opportunities for revelling in the glorious outdoors.
Best places to visit in the northern Oriente
- Guantánamo’s musical heritage Search for Haitian heritage and the musical tradition of changüí in Guantánamo.
- Baracoa This vibrant small town set on Cuba’s southeastern tip is surrounded by some of the country’s most breathtaking mountains, rainforest and countryside.
- El Yunque The easily scaled El Yunque near Baracoa is as famous for its mention in the 1492 log of Christopher Columbus as it is for its rare orchids and ferns.
- Gibara This picture-perfect coastal town 35km north of Holguín is the ideal base for trips to the geologically rich Cavernas de Panadernos, one of the region’s treasures, and hosts a unique film festival in April.
- Playa Guardalavaca With over 1.5km of sugar-like sand, this beach is the crown jewel of Northern Oriente’s coastline.
- Cayo Saetía White sands and coral reef against a backdrop of savannah wilds – complete with roaming ostrich and zebra – make for a fantastic juxtaposition in the northern Oriente.
View of Baracoa © Autumn Sky Photography/Shutterstock
Santiago de Cuba province
Santiago de Cuba province, on the island’s southeast coast, could make a holiday in itself. Its sparkling coastline is fretted with golden-sand beaches, such as Chivirico, while the undulating emerald mountains of the Sierra Maestra are made for trekking. Then there’s Santiago, the home of traditional Cuban music and the country’s most vibrant and energetic city after Santiago. Host to Cuba’s most exuberant carnival every July, when a deluge of loud, sweet and passionate sounds surges through the streets, you can hear some of the best Cuban musicians here year-round. Trekkers and Revolution enthusiasts will want to follow the Sierra Maestra as it snakes west of here along the south coast into Granma province, offering various revolutionary landmarks and nature trails.
Best places to visit in Santiago de Cuba
- Santiago’s summer festivals The city’s musical joie de vivre is summed up in a cacophony of salsa, trova, conga and fabulous costumes at its double summertime fiesta bill.
- Museo Emilio Bacardí Moreau Based on the private collection of the son of the Bacardí empire founder, this cornucopia of artefacts in the city of Santiago is as precious as it is eclectic.
- El Castillo del Morro San Pedro de la Roca An impressive seventeenth-century stone fortress, built on a cliff outside Santiago to ward off pirates.
- Hotel Casa Granda Presiding over Santiago’s main square, the reception-level terrace and the rooftop bar of this historic hotel are perfect spots to soak up the city life.
- Santiago’s Casa de la Trova An atmospheric music house thrumming with authentic Cuban sounds.
- Comandancia de La Plata A trek through verdant peaks of the Sierra Maestra to the rebels’ mountain base brings the 1959 revolution to colourful life.
- Playa Las Coloradas The site where the Granma yacht deposited Fidel, Che and the other revolutionaries at the inception of the struggle is both a historic and scenic pleasure.
View from Castille del Morro, Santiago de Cuba © corlaffra/Shutterstock
Isla de la Juventud
Lying off the southern coast of Artemisa province, the Isla de la Juventud is an inconvenient three-hour ferry ride or a forty-minute flight away from the mainland. However, its remoteness is part of its appeal and it feels even more time-warped than the rest of the country. Easily explored over a weekend, the island promises leisurely walks and some of the best diving in the country. It also has a personable, low-key capital town in Nueva Gerona. In the same archipelago is luxurious and anodyne Cayo Largo, the southern coastline’s only sizeable beach resort.
Best places to visit in Isla de la Juventud
- Sierra de las Casas The short, easy and enjoyable trek up these low hills rewards with some of the best views over the Isla de la Juventud.
- Museo Presidio Modelo Take in its forbidding atmosphere and grim but compelling history on a walk around the huge ruined cell blocks of the “Model Prison”.
- Diving at Punta Francés One of the premier diving areas in Cuba, with over fifty dive sites – from shipwrecks and caves to coral walls and tunnels – and some stunning marine life.
- Cuevas de Punta del Este These atmospheric caves, once home to the Siboney people, hold significant examples of early pre-Columbian art. The nearby beach completes a day-trip.
- Playa El Francés With its silver sands and limpid waters, this is the best beach on Isla de la Juventud, beautifully located on a remote peninsula.
- Boat trips from Cayo Largo Hop on a catamaran or a yacht to the outlying cays around Cayo Largo to see the iguana colonies and snorkel at coral reefs and deserted beaches.
Cayo Largo © MasterPhoto/Shutterstock
Top image: View over the city of Trinidad © rphstock/Shutterstock