Places to visit in Cuba
Although Cuba is not a huge country there is plenty to see and do here. Our tours tend to concentrate on western and central Cuba where the main sites are located within a few hours’ drive of each other. This area is packed with lovely scenery, pastel-painted towns, classic cars and child-friendly activities, so is ideal for a family holiday. However some more intrepid families, or those who have a bit longer, head further east to Baracoa and the dramatic mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
We have put together a selection of the most popular places to visit in Cuba but there are plenty more. If you aren’t sure where you want to go or if you are ready to start planning your trip, just get in touch and we can put together an itinerary for you.
Most itineraries will start or finish in Havana, the capital of Cuba. There is a terrific amount to see in Havana and it is easily worth spending at least two days here, wandering at will through the narrow streets of Vieja (Old) Havana and admiring the crumbling grandeur of the little back streets, as well as the more immaculately preserved facades in the impressive squares. Don’t forget to use the convenient hop-on/hop-off bus with around 60 stops, the ideal way to get your bearings around the city. There is often time at the end of a trip for a half day extra sightseeing in Havana, to maximise your time before flying home, and for last minute shopping!
Some of our favourite spots are the Paseo del Prado, a wide, tree-lined avenue with bronze lions dotted along it and surrounded by the most fascinating old buildings – grab a bench and prepare for some people-watching, particularly in the early evening. We just can’t get enough of meandering through the city, past the enormous Capitolio building, through Parque Central – don’t forget to admire those highly-polished pink classic cars – and taking in the fabulous views from practically every corner. If you need a refreshing rest, check out the famous Coppelia’s Ice Cream parlour, or one of Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts. Remember, “mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquirí en El Floridita”…
An essential stop on any Cuban itinerary, Vinales really is home to the most staggeringly lovely scenery. Fields of tobacco stretch across the red-earth plains, broken up by steep sided limestone outcrops, palm trees and small villages that are home to farmers who till the fields with ox ploughs.
We can arrange horse cart rides, which smaller (and bigger!) children love, bike rides, horse-riding suitable for beginners, river swimming and visits to tobacco farmers to learn how a cigar is rolled. The town itself is picture-perfect, with pastel one-storey buildings, eateries and classic cars chugging along, all set against the backdrop of those giant mogotes (limestone peaks), lush greenery and splashes of bright bougainvillea tree blossom. Cool off with a boat ride through a cave, try spotting hummingbirds in the botanical gardens or take a dip in the pool of one of the local hotels?
In the heart of a UNESCO protected area, Las Terrazas is a community eco-project with about 1,000 inhabitants. It is home to undulating hills in every shade of green, groves of palm trees, orchids and hibiscus, steep mountain streams and rocky pools, hundreds of birds and butterflies and carefully tended fields of lush sugar cane.
Check out the local cafes/bars (children welcome!), which are open all hours, or Café de Maria, which prepares the most delicious locally grown coffee. There is an artificial lake in the middle of Las Terrazas where you can spot a couple of (non-native) monkeys, flamingos and if you’re lucky a little blue heron. It is easy to take boats out for a relaxing row around other lakes in the community, or those with older children may enjoy going on an exciting zip-line excursion through the forest canopy and across the village. There are 6 sections on the zip-line course, which makes it a really fun activity! There are also many small artists’ studios and craft shops, which are interesting to look around. There is no ‘hard sell’ in Las Terrazas, one of the things that make it such a pleasant place to spend time. Other activities in the area include visiting the San Juan waterfalls where you can take a dip in the pools, the Soroa Orchid Garden and visiting a traditional coffee plantation.
Trinidad and Santa Clara
The immaculately preserved city centre of Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is possible to spend many happy hours just wandering at will and enjoying the gorgeous views on every street corner. In the evening, check out the vibrant atmosphere at the Casa de la Musica in the town centre. Those with older children may enjoy a ride by 4×4 truck into the beautiful Escambray Mountains and Topes de Collante nature reserve, just outside Trinidad, where you can go hiking through paths in the reserve to the El Nicho waterfalls, a beautiful cascade deep in the jungle where you can take a swim. Also on the doorstep is the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), which includes the sites of 75 former cane sugar mills, plantation houses, barracks and the Manaca Iznaga Tower from the 19th century.
A popular excursion from Trinidad is a full day boat trip to Cayo Iguana, an incredible island that is home to a large population of Cuban Iguana. It is also home to the most beautiful beaches and there is fabulous snorkelling off the coast here.
On the drive between Trinidad and Havana you may want to stop at Santa Clara, a vibrant city that sprang to fame when it was liberated by the Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara in 1958, marking the end of the Batista regime. If you have time, we recommend stopping to visit the Che Guevara museum and mausoleum where he is buried, and to see the famous armoured train.
This is a lovely town situated in a stunning seaside location. It is home to a wealth of beautiful old French buildings that were built by the settlers that arrived here in the early 19th Century. The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is easy to see why, with beautiful pastel coloured palaces, whitewashed churches, swaying palm trees and a cooling sea breeze. With a more modern and spacious feel to it than Trinidad and Havana, Cienfuegos is a pleasant town in which to spend a night. Don’t forget to go and look at the amazingly lovely Hotel la Union in the centre of town (or perhaps have a splurge and spend the night here).
Cuba is home to many magnificent beaches. Here we have described some of our favourites as well as the most popular. However if there is a different beach that you want to talk to us about, please do let us know.
One of our favourites is Cayo Santa Maria, an absolutely gorgeous white sandy island linked to the northern coast of the central mainland by a road and bridge. Family-friendly and less developed than Varadero (for now!), but still with a selection of different hotels along the sparking beach to choose from, this is a wonderful tropical stress-free start or finish to an itinerary. This area, the Jardines del Rey archipelago, is one of the fastest-growing parts of Cuba in terms of tourism, so if you prefer somewhere quieter, you could consider Cayo Levisa.
A 35-minute boat ride off the northern coast of Western Cuba, Cayo Levisa is the opposite end of the scale in terms of development, and remains the getaway of choice for many of our families travelling around Cuba. The perfect place to completely ‘switch off’, there is just the one hotel here, and no noisy speedboats or nightclubs. In fact, your only activities on Cayo Levisa will be strolling on the beach, building sandcastles, swimming in the glittering sea, having a massage, catching up on your reading in a hammock, or taking part in water activities such as diving and snorkelling. The pristine white beaches and sense of total seclusion here will make you think you have arrived in paradise.
Playa Giron and Playa Larga are around 30km away from each other on the southern coast, a stretch more commonly known as the Bay of Pigs. The scuba diving in this area is magnificent (better than in the north), and there are beachfront casas to stay in, close to charming and friendly beach bars and paladars (restaurants). While the beach areas here are not as impressive as those on the northern coast, it is still worth staying at either of these beaches for a night, to break the journey between Trinidad and Vinales or Las Terrazas. If you extend your stay, be sure to make time for some snorkelling, or perhaps a visit to the swampy Peninsula de Zapata National Park – one of the best bird-watching areas in the world, as well as home to boar, mongoose and crocodile. This area is also where you can take a boat trip to Guama, a reconstructed Taino Indian village on the edge of a lake – great for children!
If your itinerary or route does not allow for several days on the beach at the start or end, how about including it in the middle? Playa Ancon is just 14km from Trinidad and is home to a few hotels offering all-inclusive beach stays. Considered by many to be the finest beach on the south coast, you can take catamaran trips off Playa Ancon to go snorkelling at some nearby coral keys. For a low-cost alternative, you can consider staying in a private house (casa particuliar) at the nearby (very low-key) fishing village of La Boca – slightly pebbly beaches make this a less touristy option, but the fresh seafood and lazy vibes more than compensate!
If you have a spare day or two in Havana, but don’t want to add to your travelling by venturing too far afield right at the start or end of your trip, you could consider a day trip to the Playas del Este – six beaches along a 9km stretch of coastline less than half an hour by taxi from Havana. Pack up your hat and sunscreen and indulge in a spontaneous beach day out. More popular with Cubans than tourists, these beaches are a little worn around the edges in places. The beach of choice for families is Santa Maria del Mar, with a clean beach and loungers/sunshades for hire – ideal if you’ve run out of sightseeing steam on your last day.
Cuba’s most famous beach resort is Varadero. Approximately 2.5-3 hours from Havana along a good-quality highway, Varadero is the most developed and commercial part of Cuba, however once you see the stunningly gorgeous beaches you’ll appreciate why! With over 50 hotels along the main strip, Varadero offers huge choice in terms of accommodation, eating out and nightlife. This is ideal for those families travelling with young adult (grown up) children who want to go out and about in the evenings and for families who are keen to be in a bustling resort. It is not suitable for those looking for peace and solitude!
Note that it is possible to fly directly to Varadero so you could start and finish your tour here and ‘sandwich’ your sightseeing with a few days at the beach at each end.
Nearly 500 years old and a UNESCO heritage site, Camaguey is a place to lose yourself, quite literally. The maze of streets in the city centre were created in a deliberately haphazard manner in the vain hope that this would deter the many pirates that regularly ransacked the islands of the Caribbean. Today this means that Camaguey can be a bewildering place to negotiate your way around but it is perhaps all the more enjoyable as a result, and you can spend many happy hours following your nose through the narrow alleyways past crumbling churches, handsome piazzas and colonial mansions with intricately decorated balconies.
If you are travelling to Cuba in June, make sure that you include a visit to Camaguey to coincide with the famous carnival, a weeklong celebration of music and dance.
Located on the southeastern tip of Cuba and separated from the rest of the country by a crescent of mountains, Baracoa takes a while to get to but is absolutely worth the effort. This is where Christopher Columbus first arrived in Cuba so it has an illustrious history! The centre of the town was destroyed by fire in 1652 but promptly re-built and there are many beautiful old colonial mansions lining the streets.
One of the main reasons to come to Baracoa is to explore the glorious scenery that surrounds it, a wonderful landscape of cocoa plantations, densely forested mountains and numerous rivers and waterfalls that cut through the hills. This is an ideal place for hiking and getting out and about in a region described by Columbus as ‘so enchantingly beautiful that it surpasses all others in charm and beauty’.
Santiago and the Sierra Maestra Mountains
If you are an active family there are fabulous hiking opportunities in the majestic Sierra Maestra Mountains in Santiago de Cuba province. You can follow quiet trails through the cloud forest with thick tangled tree roots and lianas all around, and with occasional breaks in the forest giving breath-taking views over the rolling mountains.
Santiago itself is a wonderfully vibrant city in a great location sandwiched between the mountains and the Caribbean. It has a strong musical heritage and a very different feel to the rest of Cuba with strong influences from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The historical centre is lovely if a little ragged around the edges and there are plenty of cafes, restaurants and clubs where you can hear the latest in Cuban music.
Call us and we will be happy to provide you with a free-of-charge no obligation itinerary and quotation designed for you.
Cuba in pictures
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