Cuba offers visitors the ideal blend of culturally rich, historically interesting cities and magnificent natural landscapes. These range from lush tropical plains to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and some of the world’s most glorious beaches.
Vibrant cities and towns
Cuba’s capital, Havana, is a bustling city that’s home to over two million people. For visitors, a highlight is the historic district of Old Havana (Habana Veija). First founded in 1519, this is the oldest part of the city. It includes Cuba’s grandest colonial buildings, such as the impressive Capitolio, as well as colourful, narrow streets and some of the city’s most famous watering holes.
In Old Havana, don’t miss the beautiful Havana Cathedral; Iglesia Parroquial del Espíritu Santo, which is Havana’s oldest cathedral or the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, which houses an impressive collection of Cuban art.
Another interesting part of Havana is the more modern district of Vedado, which is where you’ll find the seafront promenade known as the Malecón, a number of grand old hotels and the famous Coppelia ice-cream shop.
Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s second largest city. With its large Afro-Caribbean population, it’s known especially for its colourful carnivals and exuberant music.
Trinidad is an amazingly well-preserved 19th Century sugar town, with cobblestone streets, colourful houses, graceful colonial buildings and an impressive central square that’s perfect for people watching and listening to street musicians. Both Trinidad and neighbouring Valle de los Ingenios have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are well worth a visit.
Cuba’s best beaches
Playa Paraiso Beach
Located on Cayo Largo, Playa Paraiso is easily one of the most magnificent beaches in the Caribbean (and that’s saying a lot). The beach is completely unspoilt, with very soft, white sand, warm blue waters and a sand bar you can swim to. Rated number one on TripAdvisor, this is a beach worth going out of your way to visit.
Fringed with palm trees, popular Varadero Beach includes a long stretch of turquoise sea that’s safe for swimming and uninterrupted by rocks. The beach is spotlessly clean and a good place to look for shells.
Playa Pilar on Cayo Guillermo is another of Cuba’s most beautiful beaches, with soft white sand and good opportunities for snorkelling. The beach includes a popular restaurant and a small snack bar, but there’s no nasty development to detract from the beautiful surroundings.
Other outstanding Cuban beaches include Sirena Beach on Cayo Largo, the beach on the island of Cayo Blanco, which you can reach via catamaran as part of an organised tour, Ancon Beach in Trinidad and Guardalavaca Beach in Holguin.
Lush valleys, plantations and parks
Cuba includes a total of seven national parks, in areas with highly diverse landscapes and types of ecosystems – from wetlands at Montemar to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
Although all the parks are of interest, one highlight is the Parque Nacional de Viñales in Pinar del Rio province, and the incredibly picturesque Viñales Valley in which it’s set. The valley includes the rustic town of Viñales and tobacco plantations and farms, and is known for the surrounding limestone mogotes (isolated, dome-like hills). It was declared a UNESCO World Cultural and Landscape Site in 1999. The park itself is popular for walking, hiking and rock climbing.
Also well worth a visit is the Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata in Matanzas province, about two hours from Havana. The park includes a vast stretch of wetlands and beautiful beaches, with excellent scuba diving. It’s also the site of the historically famous Bay of Pigs.