Cuba Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

With a unique blend of history, great architecture, eclectic natural reservations and amazing beaches, Cuba is the epitome of a fun vacation, any day of the year.
Cuba Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Though Cuba has a very tumultuous history that still follows it today, this Caribbean island should be on everyone’s must see list. This country is just a little over 90 miles from the United States of America, but, despite that, most tourists who choose Cuba as their vacation destination are from Canada and Europe, because of the strenuous diplomatic relationship between USA and Cuba.

However, that doesn’t mean this country has nothing to offer. In fact some of the most idyllic beaches in the world trim the shores of this island, and it’s not just us who claim that. Even Christopher Columbus stated that when he first arrived on the island in 1492.

Colonial cities like Trinidad and the capital of Havana give visitors a unique glance into the incredible world of 19th century wealthy sugar barons who transformed these colonial cities into great financial and cultural centers.

The memory of Cuba’s most famous son, Ernesto Che Guevara, can be spotted throughout the country, from the mausoleum where he was buried in Santa Clara to a myriad of museums spared throughout the country depicting his life and his bravery during the Cuban Revolution.

However, that is not the only part of Cuba’s history that is celebrated. The country used to be inhabited by many Mesoamerican Indian tribes long before Columbus set foot on this beautiful island, and parts of their culture and traditions can still be seen in many Cuban villages.

The tiny islands surrounding Cuba are a true paradise for any tourist and, for centuries, they have been a refuge for movie stars, revolutionaries, American mobsters and prolific writers who found inspiration on the dazzling beaches of Cayo Coco and Cayo Largo. Whether you choose one of the more luxurious beaches or the secluded, quieter stretches of sand, you’ll be able to enjoy a dream like vacation.

Cuba also boasts several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the historic center of Havana, where tourists immediately get a taste of the old city, thanks to the retro cars roaming the streets and the colonial architecture. Though there’s plenty to see on the streets of Havana, the best way to really experience the Cuban lifestyle is by savoring a good cup of coffee in one of the city’s many plazas, under palm trees, simply enjoying the hustle of the Old Havana.

Cuba is famous for many things, but when most tourists think of this nation, they think about well-crafted cigars. Cuba is home to a number of cigar factories, many of which still use traditional production techniques. Visitors can actually take a tour of these incredible places and learn more about how cigars are rolled, and how the tobacco is processed.

A peculiar place in Cuba is also one of the most popular touristic destinations in the country. Baconao is an eclectic park peppered with life size dinosaur sculptures, reconstructed Indian tribes, a botanic garden, a lagoon and even a car museum. With such a wide range of touristic attraction, the Baconao Park is very popular among tourists of every kind, particularly for families with children.

All in all, Cuba is a great choice for a once in a lifetime vacation. With amazing white sand beaches and turquoise waters, a remarkable history, welcoming locals and a true melting pot of cultures and influences, this small country offers its visitors an unforgettable experience filled with great music, delicious food and stories to last a lifetime.

1. Havana

The heart and soul of Cuba resides in the charming capital of Havana. The largest city in the Caribbean region, the Cuban capital is also the most important port and financial center in the country. Some of the most beautiful historical sites in Cuba can be found in the city, which also happens to be the country’s main touristic attraction, with over a million of tourists discovering Havana every year.

The best way to get around Havana is by hiring a taxi. Not only it will get you everywhere you want, you’ll also be able to travel around town in a beautiful retro automobile. However, in order to really explore the city you’ll have to just walk, especially through the Old Havana, the historical center which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is the best place to start your visit to Havana. The area represents the original part of the city and has some of the oldest and beautiful buildings in Cuba, including the breathtaking San Cristobal Cathedral, which is right in the middle of Old Havana.

There are eleven Roman Catholic cathedrals in Cuba, and this is one of the largest ones. The Baroque style cathedral was finished in 1777, and it was dedicated to San Cristobal or Saint Christopher.

The historic center is surrounded by several fortress and castles, including San Salvador de la Punta, in the bay of the city, and La Cabana, which is one of the largest fortress complexes in America. On the western part of the harbor, visitors can spot the Castle of the Royal Force, a star shaped fort originally built to defend the city against pirates. This is one of the oldest forts on the continent and it houses a great maritime museum.

However, the largest and most striking edifice in the harbor is, without a doubt, the Morro Castle, right on the opposite side of the harbor from the historical center. Initially, it was built in 1589, but it was partially destroyed several times throughout the centuries while it was conquered by the Spanish and British.

After so many old buildings, the best way to take in the entire harbor is by taking a stroll on the Malecon, a 5 miles long esplanade along the coast of Havana. On this avenue you’ll find several popular monuments, but also many shops and restaurants.

Cuba is mostly known for its cigars and rum, and what better place to find out how exactly cigars are being made than right here in Havana. There are several cigar factories that are also opened for visitors, though the oldest one, Partagas, was closed down in 2011. However, tourists can pick from a number of similar factories including La Corona or the Romeo y Julieta Factory. Unlike other cigar factories in the Caribbean region, the cigar makers in Cuba make the entire product themselves in the same place. Even if you are not a smoker, these factories are well worth the trip, not just for the intoxicating smell, but also to find out the difference between the types of cigars and see firsthand the craftsmanship of the workers here.

The city of Havana also houses several great museums, from the classical ones to the more unconventional ones. Among the ones that should not be missed is the Revolution Museum which showcases the lives of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and celebrates the Cuban’s struggle for independence. Another popular museum in the Napoleonic Museum which houses the largest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia in America, while Ernest Hemingway’s home was also turned into a museum, where tourists can admire the famous author’s books and pet graves.

After so much history and beautiful buildings, the best way to unwind is spending some time at the beach. Cuba is famous for its incredible beaches, and of course, Havana boasts a large beach about 30 minutes from the historic center. The long stretch of sand rimmed with palm trees is the perfect place to relax, especially for tourists who can’t visit other more remote beaches in Cuba. Depending on how you like to spend your time by the sea, there are several sections, some filled with restaurants, hotels and shops, and other quieter and more secluded.

2. Guardalavaca

On the northern shore of Cuba, the small touristic town of Guardalavaca welcomes its visitors with gorgeous wide beaches and warm waters. This sleepy little town is the epitome of an exotic vacation by the beach, with very little distractions. Most tourists who end up in this area are usually in search for some quiet time in an idyllic surrounding, rather than an adrenaline filled vacation.

The beaches of Guardalavaca are also great for snorkeling and diving, as the waters are, most of the time, warm and calm. Those who love to explore the underwater world can do so along the coral reefs.

The name of the town, Guardalavaca has always sparked some inquiries, if not laughs. In Spanish the name means “guard the cow” though it is believed it derived from the word Guardalabarca which means guard the boat. The wide, quiet area has always been a target for pirates and the Bahia de Naranjo, a secluded bay connected with the sea by a small inlet, near Guardalavaca, has been a reliable way for the locals to hide their ships from the pirates.

However, despite is funny name, Guardalavaca is the best resort in the eastern half of the island. In fact, when Cristopher Columbus debarked here in 1492, he declared it the most beautiful land he has ever seen.

Though it’s small and quiet the town of Guardalavaca has plenty of beautiful sights apart from the beaches. The rolling hills sprinkled with palm trees, cattle and sugar-cane fields where tourists can take horseback-riding trips are reason enough to visit this part of the country.

If the bucolic landscapes and gorgeous beaches, like Playa Pesquero and Playa Esmeralda, are not enough, then a little piece of local history will definitely raise your curiosity. No too far from Guardalavaca, tourists can explore one of the most important pre-Columbian archeological site in the Caribbean region, a 15th-century Arawakan Indian village and a burial site.

Animal enthusiasts can venture into the nearby Cayo Saetia, the largest hunting reserve in Cuba, where visitors and spot animals from the African savannah freely roaming the grounds.

3. Bayamo

Though it is not a typical tourist destination, the city of Bayamo, in the southern region of Cuba has many interesting monuments and sightseeing opportunities. And the best part is that tourists can admire everything Bayamo has to offer from a horse-drawn carriage, visitors’ favorite middle of transportation here. Though Bayamo is not a large city like Havana, and it is located deep in the country far away from the shore, it still has many ways to entertain tourists.

The city dates back to 1513 and for centuries it was the most important commercial and agricultural center in Cuba. Today the city boasts several monuments which commemorate the fights for salve freedom and it is also recognized as the birthplace of the Cuban revolution.

The most important building in Bayamo is the cathedral known by locals as La Catedral del Santisimo Salvador. This massive, 16th century building was rebuilt several times in its history and the simple white exterior doesn’t reflect the spectacular interior. Once you step inside the beautiful cathedral, you get to admire amazing murals and gorgeous baroque altar pieces.

The most famous resident of Bayamo is Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who is considered one of the founding fathers of the Cuban nation. Since he had such an important role in the country’s history, it’s now wonder most plazas and buildings were named after him. That is why tourists should not miss the opportunity to visit the house where Cespedes was born, which today is a museum in his honor. Here, visitors can find out more about the life of this famous Cuban planter who freed his salves and wrote the declaration of Cuban independence.

Another one of the city’s landmark which was named after Cespedes is Parque Cespedes, a peaceful park in the middle of the city, with palm trees and beautiful buildings and monuments around it.

Apart from its interesting history and its horse-drawn carriages, Bayamo is also the birthplace for the Cuban national anthem, La Bayames. The song was first performed in 1868 during the Battle of Bayamo, by Perucho Figueredo, who also wrote and composed the song. More than three decades later, the song was officially adopted as the national anthem of Cuba.

4. Cayo Largo

Cuba has no shortage of breathtaking beaches and it can be very difficult to pick just one. However, the beaches in Cayo Largo are certainly among the most beautiful ones in the Caribbean region, and a great vacation spot. The small resort island of Cayo Largo, or Largo Key, is only 16 miles long and less than 2 miles wide, but that doesn’t mean that tourists will not have plenty to do while vacationing here.

The two main beaches in Cayo Largo are Playa Paraiso and Playa Sirena. Both are great places for sun worshipers with long stretches of fine white sand and turquoise warm waters. Though there aren’t many monuments and historical sites on the island, the main activities for tourists are water related, from snorkeling am diving, especially along the reefs of Punta Frances, to fishing and sailing into the deep blue waters.

In fact, some of the best scuba diving sites in Cuba can be found off the shores of Cayo Largo and the nearby Isla de la Juventud. Here divers have the opportunity to discover an amazing system of underwater caves, steeps, valleys and walls covered with colorful gorgonians.

However, the small villages and beautiful landscapes offer great opportunities for hiking and exploring the surroundings. What is more, the lush island has a varied ecosystem with many species of flamingos, iguanas, bee hummingbirds and turtles. In fact, curious visitors can admire the amazing spectacle of baby turtles hatching and trying to make their way to the sea on most beaches in Cayo Largo.

Those in search for more secluded spots will be surprised to find a large number of deserted beaches with no facilities and very few people. What is more, Cayo Largo is one of the most popular spots for nudists particularly at the periphery of the resorts.

Another interesting landmark on this tiny island is La Yana, a tree that is thought to be over 600 years old, close to Playa Paraiso. Legend says this tree predates the arrival of Columbus on this island, in 1492, and it was used by pirates and corsairs as a guide when they picked the perfect spot to hide their treasures.

5. Vinales Valley

In the northern tip of the island of Cuba, tourists who prefer outdoor activities can explore one of the strangest most beautiful natural areas in the country – the Visales Valley. The peculiar round shape of the hills and the orange soil that can be spotted among the lush vegetation makes this valley a popular destination for tourists who want to see more than just beautiful beaches. The entire valley looks more like a prehistorical landscape, mostly because of the “mogotes”, rounded hills covered with palm trees and vegetation, which look like boulders dropped out of the sky.

Visales Valley is actually a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is also popular for its high quality tobacco farms that can be visited by tourists. There are also a myriad of caves spread throughout the surrounding hill faces, making this place a great destination for hikers and rock climbing enthusiasts.

There area is over 50 square miles and it can be difficult to explore it alone. That is why there are several organized walking tours that lead tourists through the main roads through the valley. That way, visitors get to interact with locals and find out more about the ancient farming techniques they use.

However, adrenaline junkies can explore this wonderful land without assistance. Usually, visitors prefer to see Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas and Cuevas del Indio. In the western part of Visales Valley, the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas is the largest cave in Cuba. Tourists need special equipment in order to enter the cave, which is usually provided at the entrance, and once you step in you’ll discover an incredible system of galleries dispersed over eight levels.

Cuevas del Indio or the Indian Caves, are even more popular among tourists. Here visitors can take a boat tour and admire the art on the walls of the cave, made by the Guanajatabey Amerindians, who used to hide in these caves from the Spanish conquistadors.

If you stay long enough in the area, then you should take a trip to see the Mural de la Prehistoria, Cuba’s worst landmark. In the 60’s Fidel Castro, who loved Visales Valley, commissioned a mural showcasing prehistoric people, dinosaurs and snails, on a large cliff, a few miles from Visales. However, the actual mural is painted in bright colors, and is very distasteful, but it has become a popular landmark in the area, mostly thanks to the restaurants and shops nearby, where visitors can sample the traditional cuisine and do some souvenir shopping.

6. Santa Clara

Right in the middle of Cuba, Santa Clara, one of the most populous cities in the country, is mostly known for the mausoleum dedicated to those who lost their lives during the revolution, including Che Guevara.

However, the city has a long and interesting history. It was founded in 1689 by a few dozen people, most of them relocating from Remedios, a town on the northern coast of Cuba, frequently ravaged by pirates.

Thanks to its optimal position, in the middle of Cuba, Santa Clara is a very important link between the surrounding coasts. However, Santa Clara really became popular when Ernesto “Che” Guevara was buried here in a specially built mausoleum, alongside 16 of his fellow combatants killed during the Bolivian uprising.

The city was also the place where the last fight in the Cuban Revolution took place, during the final days of the year 1958. Then two guerrilla groups attacked Santa Clara, one lead by Camilo Cienfuegos and the other by Che Guevara. Most parts of the city were destroyed during those days, and by 31st of December Santa Clara was captured by Guevara’s army. The next day, president Batista fled the country and that final battle was considered the end of the Cuban Revolution.

A little over a decade later, Che Guevara was captured and executed, while trying to spur an uprising in Bolivia. The location of his remains was unknown until they were discovered in Bolivia and returned to Santa Clara in 1997, where he was buried in a mausoleum built especially for him. This important landmark is also one of the most visited places in the country. Near the mausoleum there is also a museum which showcases Guevara’s life and an eternal flame which was lit by Fidel Castro himself in Che’s honor. At the entrance, there’s also a 22-foot bronze statue of the famous crusader.

Another beautiful part of Santa Clara is the actual city center which is actually a park, known as Parque Vidal. Here, during weekends local troubadours enchant visitors and locals alike with their guitars. Some of the most beautiful building in Santa Clara line this palm tree filled park.

The city houses several other beautiful parks, including Parque del Carmen, dedicated to its founding fathers, Parque de los Martires and Parque del Tren Blindado, which is also a monument created in memory of the events during the Battle of Santa Clara, when Guevara’s men derailed an armored train sent by Batista using a bulldozer. The park is also a museum, and it has a live-sized sculpture of the train being derailed.

7. Baconao Park

Dinosaur fans have the unique opportunity to discover a special park right on the southern end of the island of Cuba. The Baconao Park is an over 300 square miles park, not too far from Santiago de Cuba, which houses several eclectic touristic attractions including an open air display of life sized dinosaurs made out of stone and other prehistorical creatures, a botanical garden, an aquarium and a museum. This park can keep a visitor busy for days, no matter what are their interests.

Baconao Park has a very long history. Actually, the area which is now occupied by the park used to be inhabited since the aborigines. The area’s rolling hills served as refuge for immigrants from Haiti, who settled here and became coffee producers.

The Prehistoric Valley, inside the park, is a favorite among families with children. The valley includes a number of exhibits with life-size prehistoric men, dinosaurs and mammoths. Children love to run around and explore the sculptures made out of stone hidden in the lush vegetation.

Another popular attraction in Baconao Park is the Great Rock, 167 foot long volcanic rock which it is estimate to weigh over 63.000 tons. Tourists usually climb all the 450 stone steps which lead to the top of the rock from where they can enjoy breathtaking 360 degree views.

Car lovers will get the unique opportunity to take a closer look at over 2.500 replicas of small cars housed in the Museum of History of Terrestrial Transport, also located in Baconao Park. In the meantime, nature enthusiasts can explore the park’s lagoon which makes an interesting contrast with the large mountains surrounding the park. There visitors can have a seafood meal at a restaurant which is right in the middle of the lagoon. Nearby, there’s a reproduction of a Taino village.

Another lush area is the Botanical Garden, who was developed on an old coffee plantation. Today, visitors can admire but also smell the gorgeous gardens which also happen to be color coded.

Bocanao Park also houses several manganese and iron mines that are opened for the public, while birdwatchers can admire here hundreds of bird species.

8. Varadero

Varadero is one of the largest resorts in the Caribbean region, and one of the most exclusive, with an abundance of private hotels, high end restaurants, pristine golf courses and, of course, beautiful beaches. If you are interested in a glamorous vacation by the Caribbean Sea, then Varadero is the perfect choice.

The city is quite small and can easily be explored by foot, but tourists who choose hotels outside Varadero have two great options. They can either hire a romantic horse-drawn carriage or the more fun alternative the Coco Taxi – peculiar round motorized trikes which look more like an orange.

The most popular activity in Varadero is lounging by the beach and it’s no wonder, since the city has over 12 miles of beautiful white sand beaches. Most tourists who choose Varadero for their vacation destination prefer to just spend time at the beach and partake in the usual water sports like diving and snorkeling.

However, those who are interested in a little piece of history can explore the city center. Architecture buffs can admire a number of gorgeous mansions which used to belong to the Cuban elite, until the end of the Cuban Revolution when they were expropriated and turned into museums. The most interesting one is Villa Du Pont, the former residence of American businessman Irenee Du Pont. This ranch with a golden roof was built in 1928 but it was too expropriated after the revolution, and today is a golf club with the largest course in the country, a luxury hotel and restaurant. Whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, a visit to Villa Du Pont is a must, mostly for its rich interiors, decorated with mahogany furniture and bronze candelabras.

The most popular attraction in Varadero is right in the middle of the city – Parque Josone. This amazing place is filled with parrots, flamingos and palm trees. Every day vendors and musicians entertain passersby while children get to ride camels. The park boasts great botanical gardens, bridges and lakes, making Parque Josone one of the most romantic sports in the city.

Tourists have another interesting entertainment option in Varadero – the most famous cabaret in Cuba, Tropicana Matanzas. This 5 hour long opulent artistic production of music, dance, costume and history is by far the most mesmerizing show in Cuba.

Those who are not satisfied with simply lounging by the idyllic beaches can take a trip to the Saturno Cave. This impressive subterranean swimming hole is a great diving place thanks to its interesting rock formations and warm blue waters.

Another popular diving place is the Cayo Piedra Underwater Park, a submerged museum with a variety of military equipment and different vessels including a missile-launching boat, an airplane intentionally submerged and several yachts. Divers get to swim among these interesting relics alongside colorful fishes.

The Delfinario is another interesting option for restless tourists. Here they can play and even swim with dolphins in an enclosed saltwater lagoon.

9. Trinidad

A beautiful city in the heart of Cuba, Trinidad is the perfect destination for tourists who want to sample the actual Cuban traditions and culture. Established 1514, this city is mostly famous for tobacco processing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great vacation destination, for tourists who want something more than just beautiful beaches.

Flanked by the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the imposing Escambray Mountains, Trinidad has managed to keep its colonial charm, mostly because for over three centuries, this city prospered thanks to sugar trade. Today, cobbled stoned streets lead visitors among impressive architectural treasures from colonial villas to old churches with colorful bell-towers.

The best place to start exploring the city is right in its heart in Plaza Mayor. Most tourist landmarks are just a stone throw away form the main square while this gorgeous space offers much needed shade under tall palm trees. From there you can see Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, the largest church in Cuba. Though the sun bleached exterior is quite simple, the interior has vaulted ceilings and gorgeous altars made out of mahogany and cedar. This church is not only famous for its beauty but also for its near perfect acoustics.

Another distinctive church in Trinidad is the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, thanks to its striking green and yellow bell tower. Erected in 1813 by Franciscans monks, this church has a very tumultuous history. A couple decades after it was built, the building was turned into a parish church, and after that it housed a prison and at the beginning of the 20th century the building was partially demolished. Today, only the bell tower and a few outer buildings can be admired. The church is actually a museum – National Museum of the Struggle against Bandits – dedicated to the Cuban revolution. But the highlight of this building is the tower. Visitors who dare to climb all the way to the top will be rewarded with breathtaking views over the entire city and the surrounding mountains.

Those who want a closer look into the lives of the wealthy sugar barons who used to live in Trinidad should definitely visit Museo Romantico, housed in Palacio Brunet, a hard to miss building, thanks to its bright yellow hue. This beautiful example of colonial architecture houses several displays of objects owned by rich families in the city, including artwork, antique furniture and porcelain sculptures.

Architecture buffs must take a look at Palacio Cantero, built in the 19th century, which houses the National History Museum, but they should also explore the Museum of Colonial Architecture, a window inside the intricate details of Trinidad’s marvelous architecture.

10. Cayo Coco

Another heavenly part of Cuba can be found on an island right in the center of the country. Cayo Coco or Coco Key is also famous for its exclusive resorts and it was named after the white ibis, an indigenous bird which locals call Coco Bird.

Cayo Coco is famous not only for its idyllic beaches but also thanks to famous novelist Ernest Hemingway who put this island on the literary map with his novels “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Islands in the Stream”.

Just like most Cuban resorts, Cayo Coco is mostly popular thanks to its wide beaches trimmed with tall palm trees. However, unlike other exclusive resorts, the beaches here are a lot more secluded and quieter. In fact, Cayo Coco is connected by the mainland only by a 16 miles long, man-made causeway.

Though the area is mostly covered in swamps, there are several large hotels which offer tourists a complete package, including entertainment and several restaurants. Since there isn’t much to do on this tiny island, tourists usually enjoy lounging by the beach and admiring the exotic landscape. The most popular beach is Playa Los Flamencos, by the Atlantic Ocean, while Playa Prohibidad is a more secluded option.

Cayo Coco houses many species of animals and birds, and another popular pastime on the island is exploring the lush vegetation. In Baba Nature Park visitors can spot flamingos, turtles and even crocodiles, not to mention hundreds of other bird species.

If it’s too quiet, then you can take a page out of Hemingway’s book and try your hand at deep-sea fishing. You can hire a boat and try catching tuna, marlin, barracuda or sailfish. If you’re not an avid fisherman, you can simply bask in the beauty of the island, from the open waters.