10 Must-See Attractions in Cuba
Soak up the rich history, culture and beautiful beaches of this Caribbean paradise with our guide to the must-visit attractions of Cuba.
1. Trinidad, Cuba
Founded in 1514 by Diego Velaquez, Trinidad was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the city was a wealthy slave-trading centre and hub of sugar production and its wealthy landowners and merchants erected fine homes and mansions. The cobblestone streets lined with pastel coloured houses have barely changed since the colonial era; Trinidad feels like an attraction that time has passed by. Unlike most cities in Cuba, Trinidad sits on a hill and is cooled by near-constant breezes.
2. Zapata Peninsula, Cuba
Protected within a huge biosphere reserve, Cuba's Zapata Peninsula is covered in swampland and forests teeming with wildlife. The coast, in turn, is lined with sandy beaches and coral reef, attracting scuba divers. Much of the population here works as carboneros, eking out a living making charcoal. The area is known for Bahia de Cochinos, site of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Known locally as "La Victoria," the event is commemorated in two museums.
3. Valle de Vinales, Cuba
The pine-clad mountains that begin a short distance west of Havana and run through northern Pinar del Rio province are a nature lover's paradise of protected national parks sheltering endangered animals. The mountains grow more rugged westward, where dramatic rock formations called mogotes tower over lush valleys where tobacco plants thrive in the rich red soils and gentle climate. Centred on a village that itself is a National Historic Monument, the Valle de Vinales is rural Cuba at its most quintessential. Huge caverns beneath the mogotes provide a realm of possibilities for spelunkers.
4. Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba
With almost 1,000 buildings of historic importance, this intimate quarter is perhaps the largest and most complete colonial complex in the Americas. Like a peopled "museum" full of animated street life, Old Havana boasts an astonishing wealth of castles, cathedrals, convents, palaces, and other important buildings spanning five centuries. An ongoing restoration program, now in its third decade, has transformed the finest structures into museums, hotels, restaurants, boutiques and trendy bars. Easily walkable, the cobbled plazas and the narrow, shaded streets of Habana Vieja exude colonial charm.
(Photo courtesy of Alexmontjohn/Flickr)
5. The Modern City, Havana, Cuba
Beyond Habana Vieja, Cuba's lively, colourful metropolis of two million people is a major attraction for its architecturally significant districts in various stages of dilapidation. Radiating inland from the harbour and coastline like a Spanish fan, Havana emerges from compact 19th-century barrios into more spacious 20th-century municipios and post-Revolutionary working class suburbs. Functional apartment blocks give way to once-noble, upper-class districts full of Beaux Arts, Art Deco, and Modernist mansions, while concrete office blocks, government buildings and hotels from the 1950s lend the city a retro feel.
6. Jardines del Rey, Cuba
Rising from the sea along the north shore of Ciego de Avila and Camaguey provinces, this 450 kilometre long archipelago, known as the King's Garden, contains hundreds of islands. Three of the major cays are linked to the mainland by causeways, although only Cayo Coco and neighbouring Cayo Guillermo have tourist facilities. Lined with white sand beaches melting into clear, warm turquoise waters, these twin isles are a popular attraction for package vacationers in Cuba. Flamingos wander the inshore lagoons while other birds inhabit a nature reserve.
7. Camaguey, Cuba
A cradle of Cuban culture, Camaguey-the "City of Tinajones"-lies in the heart of cattle country and was laid out with irregular streets designed as a convoluted maze to thwart pirates. The historic centre is full of well-preserved colonial plazas and cobbled streets featuring antique churches and convents, and by colourful 17th- and 18th-century domestic buildings featuring red-tile roofs, lathe-turned wooden window grills, and spacious interior courtyards adorned with the city's trademark oversized jars called tinajones.
8. Holguin, Cuba
This sprawling industrial city, known as Cuba's "City of Squares," radiates around a compact colonial core arranged in an easily navigated grid. Its numerous historic plazas including Parque Calixto Garcia, named for the general who liberated the city from the Spanish in 1872. With its abundance of small museums, Holguin has an especially vibrant cultural life. Tourists generally bypass the town to visit the hilltop tourist complex of Mirador de Mayabe or the beach resort of Guardalavaca, offering various ecological and archaeological attractions as well as spectacular scuba diving.
9. Santiago de Cuba
The country's second-largest city has a flavour all its own, thanks to it being the most African city in Cuba and the most musical place in the island nation. Surrounded by mountains, Santiago was founded in 1511 on the hilly east shore of a deep flask-shaped bay. Its sloping colonial core is an attraction replete with noteworthy historic buildings, while its fascinating past as the first capital of Cuba is enriched by its importance as a hotbed of revolution. Fidel Castro studied here as a youth and later initiated the Revolution with an attack on the Moncada barracks. Santiago explodes with colourful frenzy during Carnaval each July.
10. Baracoa, Cuba
Tucked inside a broad bay enfolded by mountains, Baracoa sits at the far Northeast corner of Cuba. This antique city was founded in 1511 as the island's first settlement. When governor Diego Velazquez later moved to Santiago, a long period of isolation set in. Locals claim that the Bahia de Miel was the site of Columbus' first landing in Cuba in 1492, and that the flat-toped mountain he described is El Yunque, which rises dramatically behind Baracoa. Lined with venerable wooden houses in local, vernacular style, the sleepy town is laid out in a tight grid. A favourite with independent travellers, Baracoa today buzzes with crowds of tourists.