Top 10 Things To See in Cuba (Including Some You Probably Never Heard Of!)

things to do in cuba

Freelance writer Sofia R lived in Cuba for 1 year. In this article she shares her favourite things this magical island has to offer.

Cuba is known for its dreamy and idyllic beaches, but it’s also a vibrant country with a charming population and unique cities that are rich in both history and culture. Let’s just say that Cuba has more to offer than I had imagined during that long, tiring flight the brought me to José Martí International Airport, located 15km away from Cuba’s capital of Havana. Every wise traveller knows that, no matter how prepared you are in advance of your trip, reading about the destination and actually being there are two different things.

But one thing is sure; you will fall in love with Cuba and its many attractions. Here are some of my favourites.

1. Cuban local art

In Cuba, Street Art is omnipresent. It’s not only a form of artistic expression and creativity; it’s also a way of expressing inequalities, revolting truths and abuse of power through art. As expected, Ernesto Guevara, who remains an emblematic figure of Cuba, can be seen painted all over the country. Cuba street art is colourful and rich and full of hopeful, idealist messages from the Cuban youth. No matter where you are at Cuba, you will eventually stumble across original, colourful and extravagant art. If you are just as lucky as I was, you will even witness the Cuban artists in action; drawing and painting in an almost religious way their hopes and their indignation.

Don’t disturb the artists! They will politely make you understand that this moment is too sacred to talk. To Cubans, artistic expression is holy; “They will go to great lengths to reach a form of purity in their art” once told me an old Cuban man who made artisanal ceramic dishes. Every color is carefully chosen, every shape, every word, and every curve of their art has a meaning. The local craft perfectly illustrates that holy authenticity; every piece is unique in its own very way. I remember witnessing an artist creating his piece with such a passion, totally disconnected from the crowd, in a state of ecstasy and poetic control.

I remember thinking “ This is what the artistic flow people talk about must look like! “. In Cuba, art is a religion that naturally invites you to appreciate it. No matter how artsy you are, you can’t be indifferent to the local art and the vast community of artists and artisans that religiously dedicate their lives to their creations. No matter how sensitive you are to art, the local art in Cuba will awake a part of your soul you probably didn’t even know existed!

2. Trinidad

What first struck me with Trinidad was the Spanish colonial architecture. With their yellow, blue, pink or green pastel colours, the small houses of Trinidad are uniquely beautiful. On the paved streets, children usually play football while adults are discussing together in front of their houses or playing dominos. Everybody seems to know each other in Trinidad and the city is filled with Cuban music. Trinidad seems to be a city out of time. The charming atmosphere of the city and its rich architectural heritage makes it uniquely attractive. In Trinidad, people are overly generous and welcoming and will gladly invite you for a drink or a meal. Their dishes are as colourful as their houses, and the drinks are simply delicious.

There is a lot to do and visit in Trinidad, from the morning market in Casa de la Trova to the parc Topes de Collantes, you can’t get bored at Trinidad city. The highlight of my time at Trinidad was the discovery of a Canchànchara (honey liquor bar) to taste a cocktail based on honey. La Canchànchara is a cocktail with honey, lemon, water, ice and aguardiente that any tourist must try. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover two lively and fun places where traditional and authentic live music is played; La Casa de la Trova and La Casa de la Mùsica. Two unique, traditional and authentic places that you must see if you visit Trinidad.

3. Havana

Havana is the capital of Cuba. This animated and colorful metropole with over two millions inhabitants is a must see. The memories I have from this city are the opposite of the peaceful atmosphere of Cuban beaches – it’s a buzzing, lively and exciting city where everything can happen. The city is unique with its old American cars that decorate the streets. The principal activity to do in La Havane is to walk and enjoy the vibrant atmosphere, noises, smells, and sights of the city. Your first time in the city will be a memorable experience that is for sure. At least, it was for me! From the very moment I arrived to Havana, all my senses suddenly seemed amplified. With its many hidden treasures, small authentic shops, restaurants, bars, it is not a place you could call boring!

If you are an amateur photographer, Havana will offer you one of the best playground you could ever dream of! One of the best moments I had here was during an evening out in Havana Centre in La Guarida. When you enter the monument and go upstairs, you end up on a rooftop that has a breathtaking view on the city! From above, Havana seems like an ocean where waves of lights and agitation illuminate the horizon. It’s a sublime sight that will awaken all your sense. On the rooftop, you can also eat delicious dishes, especially rich chocolate and traditional desserts.

4. Havana Vieje

With more than 1000 historical building, Havana Vieje is probably one of the oldest and most complete colonial locations. Just like an inhabited museum, Havana vieje is full of rich castles, cathedrals, palaces and other ancient important monuments. Some of the most beautiful buildings have been transformed into museums, hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. With its small streets and its colonial charm, Havana vieje is truly unique. Plaza vieje is the most touristic and animated place of Havana vieje, where you can shop gifts and souvenirs for your loved ones.

Cuban coffees are a unique sensorial experience and I had some of the best coffees I have ever tasted! When I timidly asked the waiter what was their secret, he confessed that they add a bit of cinnamon, which gives it that unique flavour. To this day, it has become one of my morning rituals to add a bit of cinnamon to my coffee ! And if you are a chocolate amateur, you must visit Museo de Chocolate ! You can enjoy delicious churros and all kind of authentic chocolates and chocolate fondue.

things to do in cuba

The Cuban Parakeet in endemic to Cuba.

5. La peninsula de Zapata

Nature and animal lovers will fall in love with La peninsula de Zapata. There are over 230 different species of animals, including birds, cranes, ibis and flamingo. It incredible animal diversity makes it a truly spectacular visual scene that will remain one of my most cherished memories of Cuba. If you are lucky enough, local inhabitants will help you take incredible photos with the animals! La peninsula de Zapata is now a protected zone and a part of Gran Parque Natural Montemar, previously named El Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata.

The peninsula is also a real playground for scuba divers and it is also known for its historical Bahia de Cochinos. A major part of La Peninsula de Zapata inhabitants work as Carboneros. If you discuss with the inhabitants, they will tell you that it’s hard work being a Carbonero, it doesn’t pay well and it makes their body ache. But what will strike you is that despite their struggles, the level of happiness and gratitude for what they have seems unshakable. More often that not, you will find that discussing with the locals is a humbling experience.

6. Cordillera de Guaniguanico,

La Cordillera de Guaniguanico is a mountain range of western Cuba that starts from west Havana to Pinar del Rio. With its vast and spectacular mountains inhabited by many protected species, It’s a must see for any nature lovers. The exceptional landscape of Guaniguanico is truly unique. The locals told me that the mountains were named “ Mogotes” due their shape. The most touristic attraction in Cordillera de Guaniguanico is to visit Cueva del Indo and Cueva de Jose Miguel, which are impressive caves that have formed in the mountainsides!

Many tobacco plantations surround the cordillera where the traditional methods of production give Cuban cigars their worldwide known reputation of quality and authenticity. The Tobacco farms are a must see. You can see how the workers harvest tobacco and transform it into the cigars we all know. If you are a cigar lover, it will probably be the highlight of your time in Cuba! They will show you a live production of cigars, and you can even roll up your sleeves and participate!

7. Les Jardines del Rey

Les Jardines del Rey is a 450km long archipelago composed of hundreds of islands and more than 2500 cays. It is part of Ciego de Avilla and Camaguey and is incontestably the longest of all the archipelagos near Cuba. Les Jardines del Rey offer and idyllic and dreamy escape for visitors. With its white sand beaches and crystal clear water, the archipelago is a little piece of heaven on earth. If you’re looking for a little change of scenery, Les Jardines del Rey will offer you just about that! All along the beach, you will find local Cubans selling you fresh drinks and delicious Cuban snacks. Many bars and restaurants surround the beach, from seafood to burgers, Les Jardines del Rey has anything you could dream of. At night, the Archipelago becomes highly animated, many clubs and celebrations take place there, and the local population will invite you to join them and enjoy the irresistible rhythms of Cuban music!

8. Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city of Cuba. With its African roots, it has its own unique atmosphere and is one of the most musical and vibrant parts of Cuba. With its colonial architecture, historic monuments and rich history, Santiago de Cuba attracts a lot of visitors every year. It is the hometown of Fidel Castro, and the place where he first started the revolution. One of the most colourful and exciting events in Santiago de Cuba is the July Carnival, an explosion of colours; music and culture that will make you fall in love with the Cuban culture and traditions. July is defintely the best time of the year to visit Santiago de Cuba!

9. Varadero beach

If you are looking for some relaxing time at the beach, go to Varadero Beach. It is located only 140km away from the capital Havana and it’s a popular location thanks to its sublime and idyllic beach. Varadero beach is over 20km long of white sand beaches. It is probably one of the whitest beaches I have ever seen in my entire life. With its crystal clear and calm sea, swimming in Varadero beach is a truly unique and peaceful experience. It’s also a great location to eat authentic and fresh seafood.

10. Vinales

Vinales is a charming small town located in the north-central Pinar del Río Province of Cuba, in the countryside. It is a Cuban village with sublime valleys and tobacco fields where authentic Cuban cigars are produced. It’s different from the vibrant Havana, but its small town charm and the kindness of its inhabitants will not let you indifferent! When in Cuba, it’s important to see what life is like outside the big cities. Vinales is only 3 hours away from Havana and on your way to you will see farmlands, and the beautiful countryside. You can also see the mountain range of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico.

The highlight of my time there was horse riding in the countryside. The rides took us through tobacco fields and bean fields, but also caves as well as rum and coffee production areas. You can also see how they make their authentic Cuban coffee beans and enjoy a quality drink of freshly made rum! And when it comes to Food, Cuban are real chefs! You will probably end up in El Campesino, like I did most part of my trip. Campesinos are small restaurant built in the back of privately owned houses. The meals often come with massive portions of beans, delicious fruits and vegetables.

Now you have an idea of how wonderful your next trip to Cuba could be! From artistic appreciation to Cuban music, delicious food and beautiful landscapes, you will experience one of the most sensorial and authentic experiences of your life. And if there’s one advice I could give you to maximise the quality of your time in Cuba, it’s to get out of the touristy locations and immerse yourself into the daily lives of the local population.

When in Cuba, live like a Cuban!

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