What to see in Cuba? This is certainly not the collective imagination’s idea of a tropical island. 109,000 square km and 3,700 km of coasts where 11 million inhabitants live! It’s always a fascinating place that catalyses tourists of every age group thanks to its history, traditions and ancient culture.
When I arrived in Cuba, on a sultry evening in August a few years ago, I had numerous expectations. First of all was to immerse myself in a firm place, beholden to a past that I had not experienced yet still intrigued me endlessly! And so it was: the decadent beauty of Havana, the secluded beaches of Cayo Largo, the Casas Particulares (the detachment from Western logic where everything must be booked/planned is remarkable), but above all, what struck me was the lethargic pace of a society that, with its strengths and weaknesses, does not run as fast as we usually do.
You will encounter this and much more on your journey. Let’s discover what to see in Cuba together, among natural wonders and more!
What to see in Havana
Havana is the principal city in Cuba. It is the capital and consequently its political and administrative centre. Founded 500 years ago where today Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is located, it has expanded all around to accommodate around 2.2 million inhabitants over the centuries. I recommend staying in Havana for a few days since there are countless tourist attractions. Here is a list of not to be missed things to see in the capital of Cuba.
- Habana Vieja. Sit in Plaza Vieja and admire the colonial buildings or stroll through the narrow streets and ancient buildings. Arrive at Plaza de la Catedral, enter the church to find relief from the heat and then buy souvenirs at the Plaza de Armas markets. Visit the Convent of San Francesco d’Assisi which is now a museum and don’t miss the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, the historic company that produces the famous Cuban cigars. End the day with a mojito where it was invented: at the Bodeguita del Medio!
- El Malecón. It’s definitely the most famous street in Havana. It is actually called Avenida de Maceo. It is 8 km long and since the beginning of 1900, it has been the meeting place of Cubans who fish, walk and talk whilst strolling along the seafront. A highly evocative place for anyone who wants to let their hair down, be drawn into the slow Cuban life or go looking for the perfect snap.
- Plaza de la Revolucion. It is located in the new part of Havana in front of the José Martí Memorial. This square is characterised by the 30-metre mural by Amalia Pelàez, which depicts Ernesto Che Guevara and the famous slogan “Hasta la victoria siempre”. This work is painted on a façade of the Ministry of the Interior.
What to see in Viñales
If you have embarked on this journey, I imagine it is not to drink mojitos to the good health of Hemingway for the entire holiday! So after a few days in Havana, put together your backpack and go on an adventure to the west where there is the fantastic Viñales Valley. In Cuba, you can get around mainly by public taxis or regular buses. Contrary to what you’d expect, buses are comfortable, equipped with air conditioning whose tickets are snatched up because there are very few daily rides). Both vehicles are part of the collective imagination on the island and are to all intents and purposes among the things to see (and do) in Cuba.
Once you arrive in Viñales, find a private house to stay in. The village lives off tourism, so finding the famous blue symbol (Arrendador Divisa) is fairly simple!
The valley is the perfect place to regenerate amid nature: hiking, climbing and horseback riding. Stop at the information point where you can book tours and activities. If you do not find a place, no worries. The locals always know someone who can slip you in or arrange a last-minute tour! The main attractions are the cultivation of rice, sugar cane and tobacco.
Stop in Viñales for an extra night to plan a day trip to Cayo Jutias. Mainly frequented by locals and just an hour and a half away by car, it is a relaxing place as well as a typical Caribbean beach.
What to see in Trinidad
Trinidad is one of the most visited cities in Cuba. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 and a place where time seems to have come to a standstill! These reasons would be enough to include it among the unmissable things to see in Cuba, but it does not end there. Walking in the old town will take you back to the 19th century, with its colonial buildings, cobbled streets and the relaxed pace of local families. These are the mandatory stages of your visit to Trinidad.
- Plaza Mayor. This is the heart of the town, where the church of the Holy Trinity is located. All around the square you will find restaurants, craft shops and art galleries.
- Museo de Historia Municipal (Palacio Cantero). It is in all respects an authentic example of a colonial house that has remained intact since the 1800s. Go on, climb the tower for a splendid view of the city!
- Casa de la Musica. After dinner in one of the typical restaurants, prepare for an evening of music and dancing according to Cuban tradition.
- Playa Ancon. Retreat to this beach in the hottest moments of the day, just about ten kilometres from Trinidad.
Plan on spending at least two-three days in Trinidad and some time on a trip out of town to Cienfuegos, which is only an hour away by car. This town is known as the “Pearl of the South” thanks to its downtown that recalls French architecture. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to many attractions: Palacio de Valle, the Catedral de la Purissima Concepcion and its promenade.
What to see in Santa Clara
Santa Clara is an obligatory stop on any trip to Cuba, not so much for the beauty as for the significance it assumes from a historical point of view. This is where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara defeated the dictatorship in 1958, derailing a train full of Batista’s soldiers and weapons. This episode marked the triumph of the Cubans who entered Havana shortly after the victory. This is why a mausoleum was erected in Santa Clara and a bronze statue of Che Guevara was donated in 1987. Is that enough to put it on your list of things to see in Cuba? Inside the mausoleum are some remains of Che and the soldiers who were executed with him during the Bolivian revolution.
Apart from the mausoleum, this town offers the chance to enjoy the Caribbean rhythm. Stop in the fresh cool air of the Parque Vidal for an outdoor theatre or a concert.
Not far from Santa Clara, there is Remedios, one of the oldest towns in Cuba. Founded in the early 1500s, it is famous for its downtown and for the Museo de Agroindustria Azucarera, which tells the story of the slaves exploited in sugar cultivation. It is an authentic place in its simplicity, where you can serenely experience some relaxation, taste the traditions and easily reach the beaches along the east coast.
What to see in Santiago de Cuba
Certainly not on the everyday tourist routes, Santiago is almost 900 km from Havana, the usual arrival and departure point. It is located on the easternmost tip of the island overlooking the Caribbean Sea and close to the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Founded in 1500 by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, it preserves many buildings from the Spanish colonisation. It is also a milestone in Cuban history. In fact, the Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power began here in 1953. It has always been famous for its cultural liveliness, in particular for its music and carnival. Spend a few days in this beautiful town, here are the must-sees.
- Cathedral. Built in 1500, it is a Catholic church that was initially dedicated to Saint Catherine. It has been rebuilt several times due to earthquakes. The Cruz de la Parra is preserved inside, which is considered the only physical proof of Christopher Columbus’ landing on the island.
- Carnival Museum. Built in the 1980s to preserve the city’s cultural heritage. This is a unique place that tells the story of the carnival over the centuries.
- San Pedro de la Roca del Marro. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It is a fortress on the sea built to defend against pirate attacks designed by Antonelli in 1637.
- Diego Velazquez House. One of the oldest buildings in the city, it’s in Andalusian style and tells the story of the life of the island’s first governor.
More cayos for everyone! The best beaches in Cuba
With 3,700 km of coastline, you’ll be spoilt for choice to find the perfect beach for you! The sea and the beach life could not fail to be protagonists in our list of things to see in Cuba. So let’s see which beaches to visit in Cuba and where to dive for an unforgettable swim.
- Cayo Largo del Sur. There are two ways to get to this beautiful island in the middle of the sea: a one-hour flight from Havana or one of the many charter flights that arrive directly from Italy. There are only resorts (and you can count them on one hand) and almost all offer all-inclusive packages. It is the stereotype of the Caribbean island: white sandy beaches, crystalline clear water, palm trees and relaxation. Here you can forget about people and the chaos of the city.
- Cayo Santa Maria. It is also an island but can be reached by land thanks to a recently built road that connects it to Remedios. There are no private houses but rather hotels that can be booked even before departure.
- Varadero. The most famous seaside resort in Cuba, it’s a two-hour drive from Havana and a strategic point to visit the island. The city centre is Playa Azul, a beach of about 20 km along which all the resorts and entertainment spots develop.
What to see in Cuba in seven days
If you only have one week for your trip to Cuba, do not despair. There is enough time to discover the lion’s share of the wonders that I have told you. Here’s what to see in seven days:
- Cayo Santa Maria (or Varadero)
What to see in Cuba in 10 days
Having a few more days you can think of venturing to the farthest islands using domestic air links.
- Cayo Largo del Sur
Or by land to the southeast tip of Cuba.
- Santiago de Cuba
Set off to Cuba with us!
If you do not want to organise everything by yourself, we can help you by adding our friends! Come and discover the largest island in the Caribbean with our tour. All-round Cuba: with the rhythm of salsa from Havana to Trinidad: 12 days of music, mojitos and fun!