Cuba is absolutely brimming with history, culture, and mystery – if you know where to look. Sure, everyone knows about Havana, Varadero, and even Viñales, which are all definite must-sees for anyone visiting Cuba, but there’s also so much more to the little country that sits off the south coast of the USA.
Wander along cobbled streets in little towns listening to live music, take pictures next to the vintage cars that dot every street, and go on a hike through one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Here are 31 places in Cuba you need to visit…
As the capital city, Havana is probably the obvious choice when you’re looking for where to visit in Cuba. But that doesn’t mean it should be avoided, just because it’s obvious. It’s sophisticated, cosmopolitan, with a great nightlife, and a square of the houses of the four richest families in Cuba – definitely not one to miss. It’s the best place in the world to watch cigars being rolled by hand in small factories or to taste local rum fresh from a distillery.
Old Town Havana
Havana and Old Town Havana are not the same thing, trust me. Old Town may be full of tourists, but it’s certainly a place of enough beauty to warrant the business. Wander through the charming little streets to discover stunning squares, churches, and buildings, all complete with that distinctive old school Havana architectural style.
This charming little town can be found on the Hicacos Peninsula, complete with miles of coastline to enjoy the views offered by the Atlantic Ocean while sunning yourself on the white sandy beaches. It’s not just the beaches that appeal; there’s also the Parque Josone, filled with botanical gardens, lakes, and wildlife, as well as various different music experiences in local bars.
Jardines Del Ray
Connected to the mainland by a series of bridges, the Jardines del Trey archipelago is a chain of islands that include Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Paredon Grande, and Cayo Romano. The first hotel wasn’t built here until the 1990s, but despite the fact that the chain is still relatively undeveloped, it’s still home to some of the most beautiful and popular beaches in all of Cuba.
This little town has always sat in the shadows of its more famous neighbours: Varadero and Havana, but it deserves just as much love as the bigger cities get. Most people forget about Matanzas, which means it’s pretty lacking on the tourist front, and it’s full of unique, fun things to do: wander around the charmingly relaxed town centre or take a chicken bus ride to the local beaches. There’s even a train to Havana that runs through the scenery and local villages of Cuba.
Santa Clara was the final battleground of the Cuban Revolution, which you can learn all about at the local mausoleum, museum, and statue dedicated to Che. The town square even has a hotel that still shows bullet holes from the battles that took place there. The entire city is centred around the revolution, with Revolution Square and Revolution Café in the centre, but if that’s not your deal then head to El Gabernero for great food in an old colonial house.
Known as the labyrinth city of Cuba, Camagüey is very much a love it or hate it city. Completely unique, and something totally different, the city was built in a medina style to keep away attackers who would inevitably get lost. The centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s full of tiny alleys and art parlours and galleries built next to colonial buildings.
Just an hour away from Havana, Playa Jibacoa boasts the title of one of the best beaches in all of Cuba – and rightfully so. It’s still pretty hidden away from the tourist traps, and there are no public buses that run to the beach – you can only get there by car. Thanks to this, you’ll pretty much have the beach to yourself. Enjoy.
Caguanes National Park
Another UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this national park is perfect for eco and adventure tourism. It’s here you can find Caguanes Cay, Cienaga swamp, Guayaberas, and Piedra Cays. Plus, it’s the perfect spot to go caving, with 79 coastal caves to enjoy.
Found in the Jardines del Rey archipelago, Cayo Coco was the setting for two of Hemingway’s novels: Islands in the Stream, and The Old Man and the Sea. This is thanks to its idyllic beaches and relatively isolated location, which are both the main reasons to visit.
Often referred to as Cuidad del Gallo, which translates to City of the Cockerel, and comes from a “cocky” colonial official in Morón. The city’s museum of archaeology and history has an excellent view of the city from its rooftop, while the 1923 railway station is a must-see destination for anyone who loves a bit of history.
Baracoa was the first capital of Cuba, founded in the early 16th century by Diego Velazquez. The city still retains a lot of its colonial architecture, and it is isolated from the rest of the country in the Guantanamo Province. It’s this isolation that’s allowed Baracoa to remain authentic and relatively untouched.
Santiago De Cuba
A coastal city that is known for its colonial history, Santiago de Cuba was founded by the Spanish during the 16th century – like much of Cuba. Head to the heart if you want to see historical Spanish architecture, but the absolute best spot in the city is the rooftop bar of Hotel Casa Granda, which overlooks the square and looks straight at a stone angel on top of the cathedral across the street.
Literally just a collection of picture-perfect beaches about 30 miles outside of Holguin. And what more could you ask for? Guardalavaca has more of a local atmosphere than Varadero, but it’s just as beautiful and comes with some of the richest waters and healthiest coral reefs in the country.
Known as Cuba’s “City of Squares”, Holguin is an industrial city first and foremost – but don’t let that put you off. Thanks to its history, there are numerous historical plazas such as the Parque Calixto Garcia – so named after the general who liberated the city from the Spanish in 1872. There’s also plenty of small museums, and a vibrant culture that is pretty much everything you would expect from Cuba.
Once a trading post for sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee, it’s now known as the Pearl of the South thanks to its beautiful bay – Bahia de Jagua. Founded by the French rather than the Spanish like much of the rest of the island, the city is a must-see for anyone who appreciates mid-century modern architecture.
Trinidad De Cuba
One of the most historic towns in Cuba, Trinidad’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site and is only accessible on foot or horseback. Trinidad is home to a colonial convent that now houses the Museum of the War Against the Bandits, as well as the Plaza Mayor where travellers can shop for handicraft souvenirs.
Cayo Largo Del Sur
A small island off the mainland, Cayo Largo del Sur is the place to go if you’re looking for spectacular, uncrowded beaches. The island is home to countless beaches that are perfect for kicking back and unwinding as you soak up the sun – including the biggest beach, Playa Sirena. There’s also swimming, snorkelling, surfing, kayaking – you name it, you can do it here.
Sure, Rancho Luna doesn’t have the same white sandy beaches and crystal blue seas as Varadero, or Guardalavaca, but it has something infinitely better. Rancho Luna is one of the best places to stay at Casas Particulares, where the food is infinitely better than at any big hotels and resorts, and it’s also home to some of the best diving in Cuba. Plus, the beaches are pretty much bare of people, so you’ll likely have them all to yourself.
La Isla De La Juventud
Perfect for anyone who wants to really stray from the beaten track, La Isla de la Juventud is a little slice of land south of the main island of Cuba. The only way to reach it is either by a three-hour boat ride, or by plane if you can find one, but it’s full of unspoilt beaches, rich water, and tales of pirates and sunken treasure.
Otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs, Playa Giron is famous for being the landing site of US-sponsored counter-revolutionary exile militia in 1961. Here you’ll find the Museo Giron, which contains tanks, planes, and other artefacts from the conflict. It’s not all history though; if you like the ocean, check out the diving and snorkelling scene while you’re here.
Found on the island of Cayo Largo del Sur is one of Cuba’s best beaches, hands down. Known as Paradise Beach, it’s nothing more than a stretch of powdery white sand and crystal-clear blue seas. But really, what more could you want?
Sierra Maestra is a massive mountain zone that runs pretty much the entire length of southeast Cuba and rises vertically from the Caribbean Sea. It’s pretty much all been left untouched by tourists, thanks to their pretty difficult hiking routes. Plus, these mountains were once home to the base of Fidel Castro and his Rebel Army from 1956-1958 during the fight to topple Batista.
Bayamo is the second oldest colonial city in the country, and it once served as the headquarters of the war for independence from Spain. Thus, it’s seen as the birthplace of Cuban nationality, and each October the city hosts La Fiesta de la Cubanía, celebrating Cuban culture and tradition.
Topes de Collantes
Near Trinidad de Cuba, Topes de Collantes national park is made up of six different parks: Altiplano Topes de Collantes, El Cubano, Guanayara, Codina, El Nicho, and Cayo Las Iguanas. Thanks to this, a trip to the national park is a day full of a lot of different activities. From the picturesque El Nicho Waterfall, and the caves of El Nicho Mountains, to the medicinal mud baths, orchid gardens, bamboo groves, and cave swims, there’s literally something for everyone.
Viñales might be absolutely tiny, but don’t underestimate it. It’s here where the best tobacco is grown for some of the biggest cigar companies, and the valley is surrounded by mountains. According to local history, it was Castro’s favourite place on the island, with there are boundless opportunities for the adventurous traveller.
Maria la Gorda
One of the best diving destinations in all of the Caribbean, Maria la Gorda is a big hit with scuba divers and ocean explorers alike. A small town on the far western tip of Cuba, this little town’s appeal is in the rich and vibrant underwater marine life.
Las Terrazas is for anyone who wants to get fully immersed in the local nature and communities that dot the Cuban landscape. A tiny community of only 1000 people is right next to a nature reserve just an hour from Havana, which covered 5000 hectares of reforested land planted on terraced hills and has been a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1984. It may be open to tourists, but that doesn’t change the fact that this sleepy little community has a sense of complete peace surrounding it.
Playa Jutias is in a great location, making for a perfect little day trip from Vinales if you don’t fancy basing your whole stay here. With beautiful clear water, white sandy beaches, and a very relaxed atmosphere with minimal tourists, it’s a great beach day.
Parque Nacional Viñales
Otherwise known as Valle de Viñales, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a beautiful, luxuriant valley in the Sierra de los Organos. Complete with steep limestone hills with a slice through the valleys creating a dramatic backdrop. The valley is an agricultural area where tobacco, fruit, and vegetables are all grown, and thanks to the steep hills it’s the perfect spot for hiking and horseback riding.
Peninsula de Zapata
Otherwise known as the Zapata Swamp, this little wetland (well, the biggest in the Caribbean, but who’s keeping score) is a paradise for bird watchers and nature lovers. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Peninsula de Zapata is home to about 150 different species of birds, and it’s very common to spot some crocodiles.
It’s probably impossible to tick off all these places in one big road trip. I mean, you could try, but that would be one hell of a road trip for sure. Nevertheless, there’s enough here to get you started, and keeping you coming back to Cuba again and again. Trust me, you’re going to want to.