With so many things to do in Cuba, you really will have troubles picking what to do and where to go. In fact, you should consider spending two weeks there as a minimum to take in just a fraction of what it has to offer.
To be fair, Cuba is the kind of place that is better the second time around, when you can go in knowing exactly what to prepare (though I have a number of travel tips ready for you that will help you with that!). In fact, no matter how much you prepare for it, this is a country that will inevitably surprise you – both in a good and in a bad way, actually (you may have read my post where I describe my experiences with local people in Cuba).
Anyways, if you have limited time in the country you should carefully select what you want to experience. Which is why I have selected the things do do in Cuba you really should not miss, and put together some tips to help you make the most of your time in the country.
The Best Things To Do In Cuba
Explore Havana Vieja
Havana, in the Artemisa and Mayabeque province, is where most travelers start their trip around Cuba. The capital of the country, it offers an incredible range of activities – so I recommend spending at least 2 full days there. This will give you the opportunity to get over jet lag if you are coming from the other side of the world, and to get acquainted with the local culture.
This is a city of paradox: right next to the recently restored Capitol building, there are apartment buildings that are either falling apart or must have been lined up for restoration such a long time ago that the scaffolding is completely covered in ivy.
Needless to say, visiting Havana Vieja is one of the unmissable things to do in Cuba. The old city is UNESCO protected, and where most attractions are located. Places you should not miss include:
MUSEO DE LA REVOLUCION – Housed in the neoclassical Presidential Palace, it will give you lots of insights into the most recent history of the country with its collection of artifacts that will take you through the most difficult days of the 1950s revolution. Make sure not to miss the exhibits that focus on the independence wars against Spain, and on the communist reconstruction of Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s;
PLAZA DE LA CATEDRAL – Where the most beautiful church in town – the Baroque Cathedral of Havana (Catedral de San Cristobal), one of the eleven Catholic Cathedrals in Cuba, is located;
PLAZA DE ARMAS – Where you will find a lovely used books market;
PLAZA VIEJA AND THE REAL FABRICA DE TABAGOS PARTAGAS – The square is home to the18th-century Casa del Conde Jaruco, famous for its stained-glass windows. The Fabrica de Tabagos is where you can learn everything about Cuban Cigars. Close by, you should climb the tower of the camera obscura for incredible views of Havana.
MUSEO NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES – With an incredible array of pieces of modern and contemporary art, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana boasts a collection of Cuban and international art spread across two buildings – the 1920s Manuel Bustos-designed Palacio del Centro Asturiano, where you will find impressive works by European artists, as well as pieces from Egypt, Rome and Greece as well as from other places in the Americas. The other building – the Rationalist-style Palacio de Bellas Artes – has more of a focus on Cuban Art.
Havana Vieja is perfect for a simple stroll too, and it’s where you’ll also find a number of lovely small local restaurants and bars serving excellent cocktails (more about that in a bit).
Visit the Parque Historico Militar of Havana
For a glimpse into the country’s past, one of the best things to do in Cuba is spending some time in Havana’s Parque Historico Militar. This is made up of actually two fortresses – El Morro (technically the full name is Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro) and the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (which is where the Cañonazo de las nueve ceremony takes place every night).
El Morro dates back to the late 16th – early 17th century, when it was built for defensive purposes to warn the city of the arrival of pirates. There’s a lighthouse there that was built in the 19th century too.
The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña was completed in 1774 and was used by Batista’s regime as a prison, and by Che Guevara as his headquarters.
See the Cañonazo de las nueve in Havana
The ceremony of “el cañonazo de las nueve” takes place each night at 9:00 pm, in Havana’s fortress of La Cabaña, which was completed by 1774 and made Havana the most fortified city in the “new world”. During the ceremony, soldiers dressed in the traditional costumes of the 18th century, shoot the cannon as a warning to close the doors of the walls surrounding the city, in order to protect it by the pirates and by the army of enemy countries.
The show is interesting, and the entrance ticket will also include a drink, which can be sipped while enjoying a beautiful view of Havana at night or wander about the various museums and art exhibition inside the fortress.
Ride a classic car
This is one of the ultimate things to do in Cuba! Classic cars are everywhere in Cuba, but for the chance to ride one Havana is definitely the best place. You will see them line up at the traffic lights, along with motorbikes that still have sidecars; and bici-taxi drivers that will hustle you to jump on.
These classic cars are often just “taxis particulares” (private taxis), so you can literally haul one to take you where you want (though make sure to agree on the fee before leaving). But if you want something a bit more official (and a better car, because some are simply rotten old), opt for a guided tour.
Go for a walk along Havana’s Malecon
Havana’s Malecon is a real institution. The 8 km (about 5 miles) of paved road along the sea that connects Havana Vieja with the Vedado is a favorite of locals, who especially enjoy it at sunset – though it’s beautiful at any time of day. Go there to spot them smoking cigars, having a drink of (cheap) rum, fishing, taking a romantic stroll or quite simply people watching. It’s also there that you’ll have the best chance to spot the vintage cars Cuba is famous for driving along.
Take care to notice the buildings along the Malecon as some of them are gorgeous, and make a small detour to visit the Callejon de Hamel, a good example of street art in Havana.
Stop by the Hotel Nacional of Havana
Along the Malecon, the Hotel Nacional is a beautiful neoclassic/art decò building which became famous in 1933 when, after the military coup of Fulgencio Batista, 300 army officers took refuge there hoping to receive the assistance of the US embassy.
In 1946, Hotel Nacional hosted the biggest mafia convention of North America. Now, it is just a beautiful building with wonderful ocean views, where locals go to celebrate important events (ie weddings) and tourists enjoy a drink.
Another reason to visit the Hotel Nacional is the Cabaret Le Parisien show, a Moulin Rouge style cabaret-style show actually similar to the more famous Havana-only Tropicana Club show, and that will transport you back to an atmosphere of the 1950s and that is actually unique in this part of the world.
Stay in a casa particular
A casa particular is literally a home-stay in Cuba. Most people who have a spare room will rent it out to tourists to cash a bit more money. Some casas are absolutely gorgeous, located in colonial buildings and with stunning interiors. I stayed in a beautiful one in the Vedado, in Havana; and an even better one in Santiago.
Booking a casa is not exactly straightforward. Many places take bookings via email or phone, but it often happens that you show up and the room is not available and they will accommodate you at a friend’s place nearby (usually just as good). Now, some places can actually be booked via Airbnb so that if you have a specific place in mind you can at least secure it.
Wander around Havana’s Vedado
To get away from the crowds of tourists in Havana, go to the Vedado, a residential area packed with incredible colonial homes and full of parks and gardens. Take care to visit the Parque Almendares, also known as Parque Metropolitana.
About 10 minutes drive from the Vedado you will also find the famous Plaza de la Revolución, one of the unmissable places to visit in Cuba. It’s a memorial square with an impressive 109-meter (357.6 feet) tower dedicated to José Martí, one of the heroes of the Cuban revolution.
That’s where you can also spot the massive portrait of Ernesto Che Guevara and his famous motto “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” right on the building of Cuba’s Ministry of Interior.
Check out Cristobal Colon Cemetery
In many cities, historic cemeteries are a treasure chest of incredible artworks by the most famous artists of the past. Havana is home to one of these historic cemeteries. Visiting Cristobal Colon Cemetery is definitely one of the most unique things to do in Cuba.
This is a massive cemetery of 141 hectares, there there are a whopping 800,000 graves adorned with beautiful statues, a fantastic example of Gothic style, as well as the tombs of some of the most prominent people in the country. The main gate was designed by Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso.
There is a small admission fee to access the cemetery, which you can reach on an easy car ride from Havana Vieja.
Have a cocktail, the Cuban way
The most famous Cuban cocktails are the mojito and the daiquiri. You will find them pretty much in any good bar in the country, but if you want to go all classic, have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio and a daiquiri at Floridita – must like Hemingway would recommend. I especially liked El Floridita: the retro atmosphere there is unique, and the daiquiris fabulous!
Wander around Santiago de Cuba
Santiago, in the Santiago de Cuba province, is as Caribbean as it gets. This is the second largest city in Cuba, perhaps the hottest one and a city of tricks and trouble that may make some fall in love and others run away as fast as possible (that was my case!). It is also the Cuban capital of music, architecture, literature, people and politics, and for this reason one of the most interesting places to visit in Cuba.
The main attraction in town is the Parque Céspedes: it is lively, musical and surrounded by historic buildings and museums. Not far from it, in Calle Eredia, you will find the Casa de la Trova, a sanctuary of traditional music hosting artists such as Eliades Ochoa, who became famous thanks to Buena Vista Social Club.
In Santiago, you should also check out the Diego Velazquez Museum and the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, where some of the most important members of Cuba’s army are buried.
10 km (6.2 miles) southwest of Santiago, at the entrance of the Bay of Santiago another place you should check out is the Castillo del Morro – also known as the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, designed by Battista Antonelli in 1637 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. The castle was meant to be a fortress against pirate attacks, but also served as a prison. Inside, you’ll find a small museum that shed lights into the history of the area, and the views from there are impressive.
Go to La Gran Piedra and Parque Baconao
For a fun day trip from Santiago go La Gran Piedra, a mountain range whose climate is pleasantly cooler than that of the city and where there are some old bust still functioning coffee plantations. From the parking lot where you will be dropped off it’s 459 steps to get to La Gran Piedra. Once there, you can admire the views of the Caribbean sea and then head to Cafetal La Isabelica for a coffee tasting experience.
On the same day, you can also visit Parque Baconao, a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve home of coffee plantations and botanical gardens. It’s a pleasant place to visit for a walk!
Visit the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre
About 20 km (12.5 miles) from Santiago, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre is a truly unique church. The road taking that goes there is stunning, but the highlight is actually inside the church, where you can see the tiny statue of the Virgen de la Caridad, which according to legend was found floating on the waves in the Bahia de Nipe in 1612.
Discover the secrets of Baracoa
Baracoa, in the Guantanamo Province at the Southwestern tip of the island, is one of the lesser known places to visit in Cuba. But trust me, once you visit it, you will remember.
The city, founded in 1511, is quite isolated from the rest of the country: La Farola (the lighthouse road), is the only road connecting Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba and the rest of the country. Built in 1964 thanks to Fidel Castro, the view from it while crossing the hills and the forest on the bus ride is spectacular.
Baracoa is really small and it can be visited in a couple of hours. It is pretty, if only a bit beaten up by the weather – this is the wettest region in the country, and it literally rains every day. Make sure to go for a walk along the Malecon and then stop in the historic center for a taste of chocolate in one of the many places in town – it’s completely different from the smooth texture you may be used to, but it’s actually really good.
Another attraction you should check out is the Museo Municipal, housed in the Fuerte Matachin military fortress. It’s a good place to learn more about the history of Baracoa, and the views from there are stunning.
Make sure to read my post What To See And Do In Baracoa.
Hike El Yunque
For one of the most fun things to do in Cuba, make sure to hike El Yunque, located in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This mysterious mountain that towers over Baracoa with its 589-meters (1932 feet) above sea level flat top can actually be seen from Baracoa itself.
You will need to hire a guide for the hike (they are available at the entrance of the park), and wear proper hiking boots as the terrain is muddy and very slippery due to the frequent rains. Make sure to also bring a swimsuit as at the end of the hike there is a chance to go to some very beautiful waterfalls with some lovely natural pools.
Check out my post The Best Hikes In Cuba.
Relax in Playa Maguana
Surely, one of the things to do in Cuba is enjoying a proper day at the beach. You won’t have troubles finding a good one pretty much anywhere you will be, but Playa Maguana, just 20 km (12.4 miles) from Baracoa, is certainly one that you will love. Picture a long, white, sandy beach and the coral reef that can be reached just by swimming!
Head over to my post The Best Beaches In Cuba.
Bike to the Boca de Yumurì
Baracoa is known as the city of 29 rivers – so you will want to visit at least one! For a nice day trip out of town, rent a bike and follow the coastal road all the way to the Boca de Yumurì. It’s a 30 km (18.6 miles) ride from town and you will also pass through the famous Tunel de los Alemanes (German Tunnel) on your way there. The canyon is 180 meters deep. Once there you can rent a pedal boat to explore the river.
Enjoy the delicacies in Baracoa
Baracoa is the gourmet capital of Cuba. Food here is simply heavenly and you shouldn’t leave without having tried the famous local lobster, shrimps or octopus in coconut sauce, best if eaten at Nilson’s Paladar, in Flor Combret 143 (he also rents out some rooms). Eating local food is easily one of the best things to do in Cuba.
Make sure to read my post A Guide To Cuban Food.
Get lost in Camagüey
Camagüey, in the Province of Camagüey, is a labyrinth. Some people love it, others hate it. But all leave with a strong impression of it.
The city was built in a medina style to keep away attackers who would get lost, and lost you’ll get, no matter how good a map you keep. Camagüey city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008, it is packed with art galleries. It is crowded and at times messy, but interesting nonetheless.
Make sure to read my post A Short Guide To Camaguey Cuba.
Check out the beaches in Varadero
While I would not recommend a trip to Cuba where you only spend time in Varadero, there are many good reasons why this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, aside than the many hotels and resorts right on the beach.
Located in the Peninsula de Hicacos, Varadero is home to some of the best beaches in the country – just picture fine, white sand and clear waters perfect for snorkeling and other water sports.
One of the unmissable places to visit here is the Parque Ecológico Varahicacos, where you’ll find the Cueva de Ambrosio and Cueva de Musulmanes, two beautiful caves. Parque Josone is another interesting attraction.
Fall in love with Trinidad
Trinidad, in the province of Sancti Spiritus and by the Sierra de Escambray (Escambray Mountains), is perhaps the most popular place to visit in Cuba other than Havana. Founded in 1514, this beautiful city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a very well preserved example of a colonial architecture, it will give you the impression that time here has stopped in the 19th century.
Trinidad used to be the commercial heart of Cuba, where huge wealth was accumulated. No cars can get into the city centre (just donkeys and horse carriages), so it is lovely to wander around the many shops and painters’ studios. This is the best place to grab some souvenirs to bring home.
There are many things to do in Trinidad, which is packed with museums and places of interest. The starting point of your visit should be Plaza Mayor, where you’ll find the Museo Historico Municipal and the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad.
Not far from the Plaza Mayor, make sure to check out the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad – one of the prettiest churches in the city, as well asa the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, where you can walk up the bell tower for great views. Other places you should visit in Trinidad are the Palacio Brunet, a colonial home built in 1812 where you can still admire the frescoes; the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial; and Casa Aldeman Ortiz art gallery.
If you’d rather go without a plan, even just a walk around town is lovely, as it goes through pretty cobbled streets, colonial buildings so well preserved that some even have original furnishings, and balconies decorated with beautiful flowers.
Among the things to do in Cuba there is dancing salsa – and you can definitely give it a try in Trinidad. Live music is literally played at every corner, and in the evening locals and tourists all gather for drinks, dancing and chats on beautiful staircase next to the cathedral. You may also want to check out Disco Ayala, where you literally find yourself dancing in a cave. It’s quite a unique experience!
Not far from Trinidad you will also find Playa Ancon, a lovely beach you can reach on a short taxi ride or even by bike.
Make sure to also read my post The Best Things To Do In Trinidad, Cuba.
Explore the Valle de los Ingenios
The surroundings of Trinidad are packed with sites of historical and natural interest. To get a better understanding of the history of slavery, head to Valle de los Ingenios, where an estimated 30,000 slaves worked on the sugarcane plantations at some point.
Visit the Manaca Iznaga, a former sugar cane plantation whose owner, Pedro Iznaga, was one of the richest men in Cuba thanks to the slave trade. The 44 meters (more than 144 feet) high tower was an observation point to check on the slaves. An interesting activity here is also riding the Baldwin Locomotive steam train.
There are more, smaller and lessers known sites too but it is better to hire a guide to get there.
Hike the Topes de Collantes
Hiking the Topes de Collantes is one of the most fun things to do in Cuba. The heat, the humidity, the thick vegetation make it for a rather tiring hike, but you can refresh with a swim in the freezing Salto de Caburnì natural pools.
To hike the Topes de Collantes you will have to join a guided tour departing from Trinidad. There are several agencies in town that will organize that for you.
Wander around Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos, in the Province of Cienfuegos, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so relaxed and breezy, and a good place to have break from the frenzy of the rest of the country.
The city was founded in 1819, right by the sea, which can be admired from El Malecon or from Punta Gorda. Not too far from the city, the botanical gardens are perfect for a chilling afternoon walk and for observing various plants, including various kinds of bamboos.
Head over to my post A Great Guide To Cienfuegos Cuba.
Visit the Cienaga de Zapata
Cienfuegos is a great starting point for many more places to visit in Cuba. Cienaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp in English) is a huge fen that homes some of the most varied ecosystems in the country. There are different kinds of vegetation, more than 150 species of birds and reptiles, including the criadero de cocodrilos (literally a crocodile farm) located in Boca de Guama.
Now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, in the Cienaga de Zapata you’ll also find a cenote – the Cuevas de lo Pesces – where you can go swimming for a small fee to admire the most incredible variety of fish; and the Gran Parque Natural de Montemar, a nature reserve perfect for birdwatching.
Go diving in the Bay of Pigs
It’s a fact that one of the best things to do in Cuba is diving, and few places in the country are as good for that as the Bay of the Pigs. Known locally as the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), you will be able to enjoy crystal clear waters and seeing the amazing coral reef.
Not a fan of diving? On the way back to Cienfuegos from the Bay of the Pigs you will find Caleta Buena, lovely cove perfect for snorkeling. There is an entrance fee, but this includes sun beds and all you can drink cocktails.
Other beaches in the area include Playa Giron, the actual spot of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and Playa Larga, a nice long beach.
The Bahia de Cochinos is known in history as the place where the Kennedy administration memorably failed to invade Cuba in 1961. To learn more about the invasion you can visit the small but interesting Museo Giron.
Swim in El Nicho
El Nicho is a series of beautiful waterfalls on the Rio Hanabanilla with lovely natural pools where you can go swimming. There is a a hiking trail that will lead you to the various swimming holes, jumping spots and caves. The water is cold, but so inviting! Visiting is easily one of the best things to do in Cuba.
There are various pools, the less crowded ones are on the left side of the street that separates the two sides.
Explore the Valle de Viñales
Valle de Viñales, in the Province of Pinar del Rio, is easily one of the most beautiful places to visit in Cuba – a great mix of a pretty yet tiny town, lovely country side, not too far beaches and tobacco and coffee plantations.
The main street has a cultural center facing the main square, a small souvenir market with lots of street food stalls (fried potatoes, churros, hand-baked pizza, and a piña colada stall right by the front of a house, baring a sign stating “aqui todo natural”, that makes the best piña colada in the world), and a few side streets which connect to the hills and countryside around.
It is pleasant to walk around: life is slow paced here.
Once in town, you will find an information desk right by the Viazul bus stop – it’s a good place to book excursions, but alternatively you can ask the owners of your casa particular.
Whichever way you decide to explore the valley, you will love it. Some prefer to hike it, others to go horse riding. I biked around, and I found it a great way to get closer look to the mogotes, isolated steep-sided residual hills generally having a rounded, tower-like shape and surrounded by nearly flat alluvial plains. During the tour you also get to see the Mural de la Prehistoria, meant to portray world history up until the age of humans on a rock wall.
When in Viñales, you will also have the chance to visit tobacco plantation and learn to roll a cigar – and you can even buy some to bring home.
Some tours of the valley also go to Los Aquaticos – you will need to hike up there to reach a tiny community of people who believe in the healing power of water. The view of the Valley from Los Aquaticos is breathtaking. Another place you should not miss for incredible views of the valley and mogotes is the terrace of the Hotel Los Jazmines.
Make sure to read my post A Great Guide To Viñales Cuba.
Spend a day in Cayo Jutias
Finally, is spending a day at the beach is one of the unmissable things to do in Cuba, you should head to Cayo Jutias, an easy drive from Viñales. It is a long, white and sandy beach, with mangroves growing wildly on it, reached through a lovely road that goes through a pedraplen (embankment). Once there, rent a sunbed and rest under the sun, go snorkeling or for a walk.
Snorkeling expeditions are quite budget friendly. They depart regularly from the shore and include all the necessary gears and a guide.
Relax in Cayo Coco
One of the best things to do in Cuba is definitely relaxing at the beach, and no place is better for that than Cayo Coco, one of the most beautiful islands off the mainland and part of the Jardines del Rey archipelago, in the Sabana-Camaguey province.
Here you’ll find plenty of bird watching opportunities and gorgeous beaches such as the 5 km (little over 3 miles) Playa Los Flamencos, facing the Atlantic; Playa Prohibida; and the Gorgeous Playa Pilar. With such pristine beaches, it’s no wonder that Cayo Coco was a favorite of Hemingway, who mentioned it in his Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea.
To get there, you can fly directly into the Jardines del Rey airport, or cross from mainland Cuba via a bridge. Cayo Coco is also connected to Cayo Romanes and Cayo Guillermo by a bridge.
Enjoy the tranquility of Las Terrazas
Las Terrazas, in the Sierra del Rosario, is an eco-village founded in 1968 with the purpose to re-forestate the region, and is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It’s a great place for birdwatching, and you will find lots of nice, easy hiking trails – though not really marked and for which a guide is necessary.
The best is probably the hike to San Claudio, which goes to the San Claudio waterfalls; whereas if you want to do birdwatching you should follow the Sendero la Serafina, which starts at Rancho Curujey.
You can actually visit Las Terrazas on a day trip from Havana, but to make the most of its quiet atmosphere, plan to spend a night there. There is a state owned hotel where you can sleep, and a very good restaurant.
Check out Che Guevara Mausoleum
To be completely fair, I wouldn’t normally add visiting Santa Clara in my selection of the best things to do in Cuba. Except, this is where you’ll find the monument dedicated to Ernesto Guevara – Che Guevara, the man that played a leading role in the Cuban Revolution. The location of the mausoleum is actually the exact spot where the last battle of the revolution – obviously led by Che Guevara – took place in 1958.
When the remains of Che Guevara were finally found in Bolivia, where he was killed, his body was finally taken to Cuba and he was buried here in Santa Clara during an official ceremony held on October 17, 1997. Right by the mausoleum, the Museo Historico de la Revolucion houses some personal items of Ernesto Guevara.
Make sure to also check out the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, a tiny museum right where the final battle between the troops led by Guevara and those still faithful to Batista took place.
If you are planning a trip to Cuba, these other posts will come in handy:
- How To Get A Visa For Cuba
- The Best Cuba Travel Tips
- How To Avoid Scams In Cuba
- What To Wear In Cuba
- What To Eat In Cuba