I will never forget my visit to Cuba, the magic of the place still lingers with me; the beautiful juxtaposition of old and new in the city’s, the stunning natural beauty and the breathtaking beaches and an extraordinary spirit like no other place on earth, are all unforgettable. Here are 20 of the best and most beautiful places to visit in Cuba…
Old Havana – one of the must-see places to visit in Cuba
Old Havana or ‘Habana Vieja’ is the beating heart of the city and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Here you will find amazing architecture spanning from baroque through neoclassical and arriving at iconic Art Deco and as you wander through the elaborate candy-colored buildings and bustling squares I challenge you not to fall in love with everything and everyone Cuban! The area consists of narrow streets flanked by tall historic buildings, some crumbling and almost derelict and others painstakingly restored to their original glory.
The four main areas to explore are Plaza Vieja, Plaza De Armas, Plaza De San Francisco, and Plaza de La Catedral but slowly the restored areas are edging toward the Malecon. Calle Obispo, which links Plaza de Armas with Parc Central dates all the way back to 1519 and is perhaps the most famous street in the city. Obispo runs between tall ancient buildings like a canyon and is lined with galleries, cafes, artisan and boutique stores, and cheap ice cream and pizza joints. It is home to several landmarks relating to Ernest Hemingway including Hotel Ambos Mundos and El Floridita Bar…expect queues!
The stretch between Calles Oficios and Mercaderes contains the oldest extant buildings in Havana! The best way to see it is just to stroll around and let your feet lead you, you’ll find wonderful artists collectives around the cathedral, an amazing Camera Obscura atop Edificio Gómez Villa in Plaza Vieja, and laid back bars and cafes where you can sit and watch the world go by in all its colorful glory! Numerous Art Galleries, Museums, historic hotels, and the impressive El Capitolio, seat of Cuba’s communist government. Also, look out for fantastic street art and vibrant street performers… be prepared for crowds!
Vedado – a residential area of Havana filled with gorgeous colonial buildings
I remember passing through Vedado on the way from the airport to Havana Vieja and the realization suddenly hitting me that I was in Cuba. Spectacularly ostentatious mansions from the 1800s lined the wide streets in all manner of pastel hues, palm trees sprung up in front gardens and kitsch 50’s cars drove by. Relaxed people meandered down the broad avenues and the sea sparkled in the near distance. Vedado is probably the best neighborhood to stay in and it’s the destination of choice for locals who want to enjoy the eclectic nightlife as well as tourists hoping to explore some of the city’s most iconic places from the notorious mid-20th-century era when American gangsters and movie stars would flock to the casinos and grand hotels in the area.
Vedado is also home to Coppelia, the ice cream cathedral dreamt up by a young Fidel Castro that continues to thrive despite an often ailing dairy supply and other shortages. It’s an amazing building, a sort of tall circular modern glass structure capable of serving 1000 customers at a time, despite this you can expect a long snaking queue to get in! La Rampa, or 23rd Street is the place to head for nightlife, lined with clubs, bars, cinemas, and Cubans sipping rum you’ll be spoilt for choice, but expect lots of dancing!
At the bottom of La Rampa, where it meets the Malecon you’ll find buskers, loved-up couples, and groups of folk relaxing on the sea wall, just catching the vibe. On the Vedado stretch of the waterfront, there are outdoor salsa clubs (women be mindful of amorous locals), beaches, grand hotels, including the iconic Hotel Nacional, piano bars, amazing terraces, and innovative restaurants…all within a 5 min cab ride from Old Havana.
The Malecón – a popular evening hangout and one of the best places to visit in Cuba
The Malecon is the long stretch of esplanade that stretches from old Havana, through Central Havana and Vedado, and finally ends at the mouth of the Almendares River. A day should not pass without at least one stroll along this beautiful waterfront, where Cubans and tourists alike gather to sit along the sea wall for rest and contemplation. Daytimes bring wonderful views of the fortress and iconic lighthouse at El Morro as well as the amazing buildings that run along the length of the sea wall and offer a fine reflection of the grandeur and faded glamour of the city.
You’ll see virtual ruins nestled between perfectly restored 18C mansions and grand hotels standing shoulder to shoulder with brutalist communist architecture. By far the most romantic time for a stroll along the Malecon is as the sun sets and sinks below the water, throwing everything into fiery orange relief. This is the time of day when many Cubans venture out and sit along the wall (affectionately known as the world’s longest sofa) to eat, drink rum, dance, and relax. The Cuban spirit is encapsulated in those hours; joyous, passionate, artistic, and exuberant!
We hired a driver in an amazing 50’s car and took a drive along the Malecon end to end and watched as the fire of the setting sun was replaced by the twinkle of street lights and the daytime fishermen, divers, sunbathers gave way to the evening’s merriment. Unforgettable, unmissable…book your flight now!!
Hotel Nacional de Cuba – a historic Spanish eclectic style hotel to explore in Havana
Probably the most famous hotel in Havana is the iconic Hotel Nacional, which perches above the waterfront in Vedado like a grand and beautiful bird. It is probably the greatest surviving example of the Al Capone era, an opulent relic of a glamorous but questionable time when American gangsters took over the city, opening casino clubs and hotels through which to launder money and supply contraband.
However questionable our picture of Havana today was shaped by that era and it holds much romantic appeal as a visitor. A stay here might set you back a considerable sum but you can wander in and explore the ground floor halls at any time. The splendid walls and chequerboard marble floor are lined with hundreds of pictures from the 1950’s golden era. It’s great to stroll along and spot famous gangsters, musicians, and Hollywood stars in the substantial gallery of black and white photographs! Hotel Nacional is also an excellent place to enjoy a Mojito, out on the palm-fronded terrace overlooking the ocean with strains of music drifting past or if you’re lucky, a serenade from a band of Cuban Mariachis.
I suggest you put on your best summer threads and head there for a late afternoon cocktail hour, as your drinks are brought by smiling immaculately dressed waiters you can imagine for a moment that time has warped and a young Marlon Brando might walk in at any moment and flash you an irresistible movie star smile!
Trinidad – a beautiful colonial city and world heritage site
A trip to Trinidad is like a trip back in time, the immaculately conserved buildings that flank colorful squares and cobbled streets date back to the 18th and 19th centuries when the city thrives on the sugar trade. A dedicated UNESCO World Heritage site, the Plaza Mayor is now an open-air museum of Spanish Colonial architecture.
In the evening it transforms into a Casa De Musica and Cuban musicians play at the top of the steps that lead down to the square. If dancing is your thing then you must also check out Discoteque Ayala; named after a notorious 18th Century serial killer this subterranean club in a cave just a few minutes out of the city center is probably one of the most unusual clubs in the world! All is quiet until you descend the steps of ‘La Cueva’ and walk through a rocky tunnel, suddenly you find yourself in a huge cavern with lights and screens and thousands of people dancing to an eclectic mix of top 40 and dance music!
Another interesting nightspot is La Casa de la Cerveza, a bar situated in the ruins of an old church that serves an amazing selection of world beers! From the center of Trinidad you can easily hike out to some other top spots such as Valle de Los Ingenios, a series of three interconnected valleys that were the epicenter of sugar production from the late 18th century until the late 19th century, the valleys are now also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Other great trips are the fern fronded falls of Sierra del Escambray and the pristine white sands of Ancón Beach—Playa Ancón. Situated on a little Islet close to the city the beach is studded with little grass shelters called Palapas which offer shade as you lie and absorb the azure blue water and unspoilt sands stretching out ahead of you.
Vinales National Park – one of the most stunning places to explore and where the tobacco grows
The picturesque Viñales, located within the Parque Nacional de Viñales one of the most fascinating places in all of Cuba. The valley is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site due to its unique landscape and links to the colonial past. The town of Vinales is humble and beautiful, just a little stretch of faux colonial one-story houses nestled in tobacco fields and overlooked by oddly shaped rocky outcrops.
Stray dogs roam lazily through the streets and the locals are mellow and friendly. There are wonderful Casa Particulares to stay in that serve up gorgeous food, often freshly made from homegrown ingredients. Don’t expect the Ritz, instead it’s more like a little home from home, down to Earth, and comfortable! We stayed in Villa El Habano and thoroughly enjoyed a warm welcome, delicious breakfast and dinner, and a fantastic ride into the tobacco farms organized by our hosts. The epic ride included a stop-off for a communal cigar smoke and a venture into one of the area’s many caves, this one culminated in an underground ‘piscina.’
Also don’t miss a trip out to Caya Jutías, a tropical paradise named after a local rodent where you can sunbathe, snorkel, kayak and enjoy island cuisine. Other things to look out for in Vinales are the Museo Paleontológico which has a Botanical Garden where you’ll find tropical flowers and trees and maybe see some curious wildlife such as hummingbirds, parrots, and other indigenous birds. Perhaps one of the area’s most splendid sights is the Mural de la Prehistoria, painted in 1961 by Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo on a rocky side of the mountain Mogote Dos Hermanas. You can get to Vinales easily from Havana by coach and I thoroughly recommend you make the trip!
Bay of Pigs – the site of the failed Cuban invasion
Synonymous with the failed US invasion in 1961 that was the precursor to the suspense-ridden Cuban Missile Crisis, The Bay of Pigs sits to the south of the island. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine this small patch of sea and sand was nearly the starting point of WW3! Exquisitely colorful coral, natural sponges, and triggerfish now draw divers galore to this beautiful and remote beach.
The deliberately sunk wreck of the Jaruca is also popular with divers and for the really adventurers the apparently bottomless El Cenote provides a thrilling challenge! History buffs can enjoy finding out about the Bay of Pigs invasion and its ramifications at the nearby Playa Giron. On the east coast of the bay is Playa Larga which has an inland cave known as Fish Cave where freshwater fish swim in and shelter from the open ocean.
Península de Zapata National Park – the largest wetland in Cuba
Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata or Zapata National Park lies to the south of the Island, close to the famous Bay of Pigs. It is the largest national park in the country and incorporates important ecosystems that range from mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reef barriers, and deep reefs to the Cazones Gulf, a spectacular underwater canyon region where one can find some rare fish!
All manner of animals can be found within the confines of the park including flamboyant flamingos, the Cuban Bee Hummingbird, ostensibly the smallest bird in the world, the Pygmy owl, the Cuban parrot,
and crocodiles, yes crocodiles! If you are a fan of these prehistoric reptiles then visit the Boca de Guama crocodile breeding center nearby, it’s a bit touristy but definitely worth it! Adventure lovers might consider exploring the remarkable mangroves in a kayak and there are also plenty of hiking and biking trails to choose from. Whilst there visit the reconstructed Taíno village, with its fascinating grass-rooted huts, some on stilts over the water.
Playa Esmeralda – an idyllic beauty spot to explore
With the well-deserved accolade of being one of the 10 best beaches in the Caribbean, sun worshipers must not miss Playa Esmeralda and its 900m stretch of white sand. Situated near the historic city of Holguín in the Ciego Caleticas Estuary, the beach is defined by its cleanliness, warm intensely green waters, and the amazing tropical foliage that covers the protective cliffs and hillsides.
Recently Playa Esmeralda has been appropriated by the Spanish chain Meliá which has two all-inclusive hotels in the area. Thankfully all beaches in Cuba are public, so although they might claim it they can’t officially keep people out! However, If you do choose to stay in one of the Meliá Hotels you will be able to access the wide range of water-based activities on offer such as Catamaran tours, kayaking, snorkeling, and diving.
Cayo Coco – known for its white-sand beaches and coral reefs
Cayo Coco and its neighbor Cayo Guillermo provided the backdrop for Hemingway’s novels Islands in The Stream and the iconic Old Man and The Sea. The Island is linked to the mainland by a 27-mile causeway across Bahía de Perros (the bay of dogs).
From atop the causeway you can spot wild flamingos languishing in the shallow waters at its feet as well as enjoy the approaching view of Cayo Coco, which aside from a healthy handful of resorts is still fairly wild. You’ll find long and beautiful stretches of beach and brightly feathered flamingos in the island’s swamps and shallows.
You may also see the beautiful White Ibis bird after which the little island paradise was named. Off the north coast of Cayo Coco divers can explore a wonderfully unspoiled coral reef, said to be the largest in the Western hemisphere and second largest in the world! The reef is home to thousands of rare and magnificent fishes and marine life, a colorful little haven bustling below the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Maria La Gorda – considered to be one of the greatest natural treasures in Cuba
If you are a diving enthusiast then there really is no place better than Maria La Gorda located in the Pinar del Rio Province. The small diving resort is legendary and excepting the beautiful beach and a couple of restaurants, pretty much the only thing to do in the area! Legend has it the Cayo was named by pirates for a fair serving wench named ‘Fat Mary’.
When Mary died after many faithful years of service the pirates buried her under the tallest palm on the island along with a good horde of treasure as a mark of affection and respect. As yet the treasure remains buried but instead the Guanahacabibes Peninsula itself, where Maria La Gorda is situated, is considered one of the greatest natural treasures in Cuba. The area covers 50 000ha and forms part of the synonymous national park.
In 1987 the whole place was designated as a UNESCO world biosphere reserve. The coral world below the water surface and intact countryside around the coast are one the most beautiful areas you can see in the whole of the country.
Cayo Largo – one of the most stunning spots to explore in Cuba
The small resort island of Cayo Largo on the Isla- de-la-Juventud has captured many a heart, including that of Christopher Columbus, who visited on his way to San Juan. Here divers will be ecstatic to explore the pristine coral reefs riddled with colorful sea life and wildlife lovers, in general, will be drawn to some of the islands most unusual inhabitants: Every year hundreds of sea turtles lay their eggs in the soft white sands and dolphins swim in the turquoise waters.
By far the coolest sight is the beautiful Jurassic iguanas that roam freely about the island and even have their very own key, Cayo Rico can be explored by boat excursion. Playa Sirena, Playa Paraíso, and Playa Punta Mal Tiempo are a trio of stunning tropical beaches that are far enough away from the main resorts to feel remote and tranquil. A little slice of paradise with enough history and natural wonders to keep it interesting, this is a fantastic place to visit in Cuba.
Cayo Guillermo – a gorgeous tropical island in the Jardines del Rey archipelago
Cayo Guillermo is situated to the north of the mainland in an archipelago of islands known as the Jardins Del Rey, ‘The Kings Gardens’, named for the Spanish king Ferdinand The Catholic. The archipelago is completely uninhabited except for tourism, its lush vegetation, and crystal clear waters being the perfect escape from the mainland.
The resorts that occupy the Cayo can organize any number of activities for visitors, many cantering around the aquatics. Diving, Catamaran tours, snorkeling, sailing, and kitesurfing are all popular pastimes. Also just hanging out watching the light bounce off a dolphin fin and enjoying the sunshine on the beautiful beaches, which are among the best in the country.
A great way to while away a few hours is to take advantage of one of the local Ranchons, little beach bars with friendly service and tasty locally sourced food done on the grill that are scattered all about the islands outside of the all-inclusive resorts. Don’t miss the flamboyance of flamingos that have made their home in the shallows around the archipelago, the flash of pink is the final touch on what can only be described as tranquil tropical heaven.
Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve and El Nicho Waterfalls – a natural paradise, with multiple hiking trails
Stretching 80km across the Escambray Mountains in central Cuba Topes Collantes is overflowing with stunning rivers, waterfalls, canyons, and caves all fringed by lush and verdant tropical jungle. Of the five parks that comprise the reserve, by far the most popular is Parche El Nicho.
Here there are numerous short hikes that meander between swaying palms around translucent swimming holes and a series of cascading waterfalls, the largest of which tumbles into an amazing outdoor natural swimming pool. The El Nicho Falls are immensely popular with tourists and locals alike and it is a really wonderful experience to participate in this very Cuban pastime.
There are families with children of all ages taking a cool dip in the shady pools and enjoying the refreshing tumbling water, picnicking, and chilling out with friends. A perfect place to Cool off away from the hot sun and enjoy probably the best wild swim in the whole country.
Santa Maria Beach – named as the second-best beach in the world!
Situated on Cayo Santa Maria, a small island just off the north-central coast and only 20km outside of Havana, Santa Maria Beach has been voted Best Beach in the Caribbean and second-best in the world! It’s easy to appreciate why Santa Maria has earned these accolades, it’s truly a little slice of paradise.
The undulating waves lap gently against the pristine shoreline in all shades of blue, flanked by a vast stretch of pure white sand that feels so soft as it runs between your fingers you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming! The waters are so clear that you barely need a snorkel to enjoy the colorful fish darting around beneath the surface and it’s possible some days to see dolphins close up too!
Tall green palms sway in the gentle breeze providing shade for overheated beach-lovers and sailboats bob gently on the water creating an idyllic and peaceful scene perfect for relaxation and recuperation.
Cayo Saetia Island – an idyllic uninhabited island
The heavily forested island of Cayo Saetia is located in the Holguin province of northern Cuba. 42km sq of the Cayo are a dedicated nature reserve that nurtures a host of diverse ecosystems and provides a home for imported plants and a collection of exotic animals. Giraffes, Zebra, Antelopes, Water Buffalo and White-Tailed Deer roam freely around the reserve and colorful parrots occupy the skies.
One of the favorite excursions to take on Cayo Saetia is the photographic safari, which takes you up close and personal with the animals. Also popular are catamaran trips out towards the Bay of Nipe, the largest bay in Cuba and snorkeling in the clear turquoise water around the island. Rich in vegetation which includes mangroves and wild orchids, the island is a lovely shady retreat away from the bustle of the city.
There isn’t a lot of accommodation on Cayo Saetia due to it being protected for nature, however, Hotel Villa Cayo Saetia is pleasant and comfortable and can provide food, excursions and a place to lay your head.
Camaguey – Cuba’s third-largest city and the most sophisticated after Havana
Still a relatively hidden gem Camagüey is Cuba’s 3rd largest city and although smaller it has plenty of beautiful sites within it to rival Havana and Trinidad. Although the city was founded much earlier, in the 15th Century, what comprises the old town today dates back to the 17th Century, when it was rebuilt after a fire. Perhaps one of the most exciting things about Camagüey is the design of its historic streets, which are laid out like a literal maze to dissuade attackers and make it hard for them to move around once through the gates.
Narrow alleyways wind between beautiful architectural treasures, ending in strange places and making you constantly change direction. The old town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its integral role in early Colonisation by the Spaniards and in the development of agriculture. There are some seriously beautiful churches to explore as well as amazing plazas and Casino Campestre, the largest urban park in the country.
Don’t miss the spooky catacombs and solid silver ‘santo sepulcro’ of Inglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced. Try La Cava Restaurant & Wine Cellar for an amazing array of wines from around the world and local ones too, perhaps buy a bottle and take it up to the leafy Parque Ignacio Agramonte. Finally, as you amble around the old streets, be sure to visit the extraordinary Plaza San Juan de Dios, with its artistically crumbling pastel-colored buildings, quirky sculptures, and an assortment of lively bars and cafes.
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park – an outstanding element of Cuba’s National Protected Areas System
A dedicated UNESCO Heritage Site, Alejandro De Humboldt National Park is located in the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa Mountains on the North Coast of Eastern Cuba. It is the largest and best-preserved of Cuba’s forested mountain ecosystems and is probably the most important protected area in the country. It encompasses almost 70, 000 hectares of natural wonderland, including forests, mountain ranges, and marine areas.
The park has a fascinating archeological history too, excavations have discovered that although it’s been largely uninhabited, at points over time it has provided refuge for numerous runaway slaves. The park is remote and incredibly humid, so rather than striking out alone organized hikes are recommended. Make sure you are prepared for thick foliage, unsteady terrain, and river crossings. One of the most popular hikes is a 6-mile excursion along the banks of the Park’s numerous waterfalls; The highlights of this trek are the awesome Santa Maria waterfall which crashes down from a height is 25 meters and the El Maja waterfall where you can take a wild swim in the sheltered pool, usually very welcome after the humidity of the hike.
Another bonus to an organized hike (which usually aren’t my cup of tea) is that the knowledgeable guides are able to point out the rare and amazing endemic plants and animals including the world’s smallest frog (Monte Iberia eleuth), the Cuban Racer snake and the Cuban Solitaire with its unique song. Refreshments are available at Playa Maguana along with a much-needed swim. The roads through and around the park are really terrible, so it’s probably not wise to try and navigate it yourself… there are hire cars and excursion vehicles available if you are not much of a hiker.
Baracoa – a city that is one of Cuba’s best kept secret
The original capital city of Cuba, Baracoa is situated on the Bahia de Miel in the Guantánamo Province at the Eastern tip of the mainland. It is a humid and heavily forested area fairly close to Alejandro de Humboldt Park and the famous US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay.
Due to its remote location, it has remained relatively free of tourists, which is just how we like it! To reach the city you have to brave the winding mountain route of Santiago de Cuba, in itself not for the faint-hearted! Once there you will be rewarded by a truly authentic Cuban experience. There are no fancy monuments to tour in Baracoa, instead, you can enjoy the crumbling colonial-style houses and dirt streets lined by palm trees that give out on to truly breathtaking views of the surrounding bays and mountain ranges and in particular the famous El Yunque or ‘Table Mountain’.
The locals will be curious as they sit out on the streets taking in the air, playing cards, and chatting but they will also be friendly and you won’t have to contend with the tours and good-natured hustlers that mar the experience in Havana and Trinidad. Baracoa isn’t grand but it’s real, if real is what you want then make sure this ancient city goes on your itinerary!
Jardines de la Reina – an underwater paradise
Jardines de la Reina was named by Christopher Columbus for Isabella, queen of Spain. Nowadays the stunning archipelago in the Caribbean Sea to the south of Cuba is one of the largest protected areas in the country. The magical marine reserve is well known to divers as the coral reef is apparently as healthy as it was back in the 1500s and a bit of an ‘underwater Eden’.
As you’d expect the marine life here is outstanding, with coral gardens teeming with colorful fish, not to mention a variety of sharks, sea turtles, and crocodiles! On dry land, the Jardines de la Reina is full of beautiful beaches, quiet coves, and sheltered bays with Cuba’s signature fine white sands and azure waters. Being a protected area, diving passes are limited and tourism nods firmly in the direction of eco, respecting and preserving the unique natural habitats that thrive there.
Varadero – a peninsula of golden beach and a major tourist resort
Probably the most famous resort in Cuba, Varadero has been drawing crowds since the late 1870s. Along with Havana, it has hosted many stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood and Al Capone himself was a fan. Varadero’s allure comes mainly from its 20km of sandy beaches overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the easily accessible virgin cays off its shores. There are also several museums and Reserva Ecológico Varahicacos, a protected network of caves that display drawings and symbols that are over 3000 years old! It’s highly developed with much of its waterfront taken over by great big all-inclusive hotels of varying ranks. Some are very luxurious and beautiful, others are rather grey and austere looking.
The beaches are breathtaking and the sunsets are sublime but just be aware that it’s incredibly touristy! Favorite activities are catamaran tours out to the cays (small islands), which can be lots of fun as well as snorkeling, scuba diving, and water sports. Most of these can be arranged through your hotel. This is not a place for folks who like things non-mainstream, this is big business hotel life surrounded by foreigners being waited on by Cubans, yes the beach is beautiful, as are the Cays but authentic Cuba it is not!
It is impossible not to fall in love with Cuba and its people, there is really nowhere else in the world that’s comparable. Brave, colorful, independent of spirit and infused with sunshine and joy it is the perfect country to visit for relaxation, restoration….and the dancing of course! I hope you enjoy this truly extraordinary country just like I did!