Cuba is so much more than just beaches, resorts, and vintage cars. The largest island in the Caribbean offers travelers so much more than just its stereotypes would imply, leaving the travelers that get to know it well ready to plan a return visit ASAP.
As locals, we’ve had the pleasure of exploring all the best places to visit in Cuba and having some of the most incredible travel experiences the island has to offer. Read on for our tips on the very best things to do in Cuba, whether you’re looking for an escape to the best beaches in Cuba or prefer a packed itinerary of cultural activities and events.
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Best Time To Visit Cuba
There’s never a bad time to visit a Caribbean island that feels plucked from a postcard, as Cuba does! However, the best time to visit Cuba tends to be between December and May, when the skies are clear and the oceans warm and calm.
Cuba never feels packed with travelers, but these are the travel seasons to be aware of in Cuba:
- High Season: December – March
- Shoulder Season: April – June, October – November
- Low Season: July – September
Keep in mind that Cuba sits within the Atlantic Hurricane Belt, and tropical conditions are possible during hurricane season, which lasts from June through November. Storms are rare, but wetter weather is common during these months.
Looking for even more details and a month-to-month breakdown of weather and travel conditions in Cuba? Check out our detailed guide to the best times to visit Cuba for all this and more.
Best Things To Do in Cuba
Looking for a quick few recommendations as you plan your Cuba itinerary? These are the experiences we, as locals, genuinely think you can’t skip as you plan your trip:
- Explore Old Havana
- Visit a tobacco farm in the Viñales Valley
- Hit the beach in Varadero
- Explore historic Trinidad
- Go diving in Jardines de la Reina
Read on for even more details about all the best things to do in Cuba during your stay, ranging from the most adventurous to the most relaxing!
Things To Do in Cuba
1. Explore Old Havana
There is no more fascinating area of Havana than its oldest neighborhood, Old Havana, home to beautiful but faded historic architecture, museums, cultural centers, fortresses, and grand plazas.
Unlike the historic centers of other cities in the Caribbean, Old Havana is unique in that people actually live here, and you’ll see real life happening around you as you walk the streets: children rushing to classes in their uniforms, fruit and vegetable markets, street vendors selling pastries.
People live, work, and study here, sometimes in buildings that are historical and interesting to visitors but are in desperate need of repair. Visit in a respectful way, and always ask before taking pictures of people.
2. Hike El Yunque
El Yunque – which means the Anvil in English – is a unique tabletop mountain outside of Baracoa, Cuba that is mentioned even in Christopher Columbus’ diaries upon his first sightings of the island.
An important part of the “skyline” of the small, historic city of Baracoa, hiking El Yunque is one of the best hikes in Cuba, and a very popular excursion.
Not a technically challenging hike except for a short steep section before reaching the tabletop, the journey will take you through lush jungles, past waterfalls and swimming holes, and through small farms where local families have made businesses out of making (delicious!) homemade meals for hikers. It’s an excellent hike, worth traveling here for.
3. Try (Real!) Cuban Food
Don’t come to Cuba looking for a Cuban sandwich. Guess what? José had never even heard of a Cuban sandwich before getting to the U.S. This sandwich was created in southern Florida – whether Miami or Tampa is the true city of origin is a source of hot debate.
Don’t worry, there is plenty of delicious Cuban food here you’ll love. Here are some of the best dishes to try in Cuba.
- Arroz con Frijoles (rice and beans)
- Tostones (fried plantains)
- Ropa Vieja (shredded beef)
- Yuca con Mojo (yuca with garlicky sauce)
- Congris (rice and beans, mixed)
- Seafood dishes like shrimp, lobster, and arroz imperial (rice with seafood)
Note: Smart restaurant owners in Cuba have caught on to this whole “Cuban sandwich” thing, and now you can find a fair number of restaurants selling them.
4. Dive with Sharks in Jardines de la Reina
If you’re looking for adventure travel rather than rest and relaxation, a visit to Jardines de la Reina is for you. Jardines de la Reina is known as one of the most pristine protected areas of the Caribbean Sea, home to unique corals, beautiful tropical fish, and countless sharks, some known to grow larger than anywhere else on Earth.
Diving with sharks is one of the most popular activities here, though experienced guides can also lead you to shark-free areas if you’d like a more relaxing dive. Wherever you plan to dive, be prepared for stunning underwater scenery with canyons, caves, and unique formations wherever you look.
Read More: Jardines de la Reina: A Traveler’s Guide
5. Visit Fábrica de Arte Cubano
You can’t visit Havana without visiting Fábrica de Arte Cubano. This mixed-use arts and performance space is simultaneously a fine arts gallery, concert hall, nightclub, movie theater, and cultural space in one, with a pop-up shop, restaurant, and five unique bars thrown in for good measure.
Open from Thursdays through Sundays, this space has a rotating group of exhibits and performances – every night of the week is different. It has hosted international performers, local celebrities, and even Michelle Obama, and was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Places in the World.
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6. Hike Pico Turquino
If you’re looking for an adventurous and unexpected excursion in Cuba, consider hiking Cuba’s highest peak: Pico Turquino. In the heart of the Sierra Maestra mountain range in southeast Cuba, expect lush jungles and stunning views to reward your efforts.
The hike is moderately strenuous and doesn’t require any special gear, acclimatization, or training, so as long as you’re reasonably fit and active, it’s well within your reach.
The summit also includes an optional visit to the Comandancia de la Plata, one of Cuba’s most important revolutionary sites. This was the location of the guerrilla camp used by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and their band of revolutionaries, from which they launched the first attacks against the Cuban government that launched the Cuban Revolution.
Today, visitors on their way to the summit of the peak can visit the site of the evolutionary radio station, field hospital, barracks, and even Fidel’s private camp office. It’s a fascinating stop on the way up to the summit.
7. Stroll the Colonial Streets of Trinidad
As a historic city in Cuba filled with colonial architecture, Trinidad is overshadowed by Old Havana in the number of visitors but not in beauty. Trinidad is known for having the best-preserved and most extensive colonial center in the Caribbean. It’s a gem that far too few travelers in the Caribbean visit.
While specific sites in the historic center are worth seeing – particularly the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asis with its stunning mountain views from the rooftop, there is a simple and special joy in exploring the historic city streets.
Much of the old town is pedestrian-only, making it perfect for strolling, exploring, and getting lost. It’s the very best thing to do in Trinidad, though there is enough here to keep you busy for at least three or four days easily.
8. See the Mogotes in Viñales
More than just a great day trip escape from Havana, Viñales is a top place to visit in Cuba. I’ll be honest; when I visited for the first time, I fully expected it to be overrated – I was SO wrong.
Viñales is stunning; its limestone “mountains” called mogotes soaring up from otherwise flat ground make this valley look almost otherwordly, leaving a lasting impression. Visiting just to bask in the beauty is more than enough of a reason.
However, Vinales also has so much to see and do. Horseback ride through the valleys, visit tobacco plantations, learn about the art of making cigars, and explore caves with underground lakes and rivers.
9. Soak Up the Sun in Varadero
Cuba’s favorite beach getaway, both for international travelers and Cubans, is Varadero.
The convenience of Varadero – just two hours east of Havana – and its bevy of restaurants, bars, rental apartments and houses, and resorts – makes it a great, easy spot to enjoy one of the World’s best stretches of white sand.
Varadero is by no means off the beaten path, so if you’re looking for a hidden gem, consider Cayo Jutias near Viñales, Cayo Saetia in Holguin or the beaches near Playa Girón. However, if you’re looking for some rest and relaxation, clear waters, and white sand, Varadero awaits.
10. Visit Cuba’s Pristine Cayos
Some of Cuba’s most popular destinations aren’t actually on the Cuban mainland – they’re the tiny cays (cayos) that rim most of the island, sitting just offshore. While each cay is unique, they’re generally known for having Cuba’s most famous and luxurious resorts and are home to the island’s best beaches.
These are some of the most popular cays for visitors to Cuba:
- Cayo Coco: Located off Cuba’s north central shore, Cayo Coco is famous for its white sand beaches and stunning resorts.
- Cayo Guillermo: Connected to Cayo Coco by a causeway, Cayo Guillermo has more family-friendly resorts and similarly stunning beaches.
- Cayo Santa Maria: This is the new resort hotspot in Cuba. Cayo Santa Maria has stunning beaches and an increasingly impressive number of beautiful places to stay.
- Cayo Jutias: This natural, rugged cay near Viñales has stunning beaches but no accommodations. Most visitors make a day trip from Vinales, but wild camping is permitted for an adventurous stay.
- Cayo Largo del Sur: One of the most distant cays, Cayo Largo is known for having three of Cuba’s most beautiful beaches. This cay sits to the east of Isla de la Juventud and south of the mainland.
11. Stay in a Casa Particular
Before renting on Airbnb became a popular way to travel, Cuba did it first.
Called “casas particulares,” these “private homes” have long been the best place to stay in Cuba. Just like on Airbnb, you can find everything from a spare bedroom to a sprawling mansion with a private pool for rent – often significantly cheaper than the prices of a hotel.
The best part? You’ll often get a much more local, authentic experience than you would in a hotel. You’re also supporting local Cubans, many of whom make their livelihoods with these rentals.
Check out our guides to some of Cuba’s best casas particulares here:
- Best Casas Particulares in Old Havana
- Best Casas Particulares in Vedado, Havana
- Best Casas Particulares in Viñales
- Best Casas Particulares in Holguin
12. Ride in a Vintage American Car
Would it be a trip to Cuba without taking a ride in a vintage car? While you’ll see vintage cars everywhere you look, the most impressive convertible models are usually used for giving car tours of the country’s major cities.
If you’re planning on taking a ride in a vintage American car while in Havana, I recommend making this one of the first things you do in Havana. These rides are a great introduction to the city, and will take you around to some of the city’s most impressive spots, like the Plaza de la Revolución and along the Malecón.
You can book online ahead of time, which saves you cash you’d need to carry to Cuba, and the hassle of negotiating a price with a driver. I’d certainly recommend booking ahead of time!
What to Pack for Cuba
Check out our Ultimate Cuba Packing List to help you pack for your trip – we’re sharing exactly what to bring to Cuba and what we never travel without.
13. Walk in Ernest Hemingway’s Shoes
Cuba is famous for being a second home to Ernest Hemingway, and the inspiration for much of his work. Today, visitors to Havana can take a guided Hemingway tour, or follow in his footsteps by visiting some of his favorite spots around Cuba:
- El Floridita: This famous Old Havana bar memorializes Hemingway with a large bronze statue at the bar; he was known to down several at a time at this very corner of the bar.
- Cayo Guillermo: This beautiful cay along Cuba’s north coast inspired the writer’s posthumous novel, Islands in the Steam. On the bridge onto Cayo Guillermo, you’ll see a Hemingway statue welcoming visitors, and the island’s most beautiful beach – Playa Pilar – is named after his yacht.
- Hotel Ambos Mundos: This Old Havana hotel was Hemingway’s home away from home before he purchased his estate outside Havana. Today visitors can check out the small museum in this Old Havana hotel dedicated to the author in room 511, where Hemingway stayed.
- Casa Vigía: Hemingway’s estate outside of Havana is a popular destination and an easy spot to visit from the city. It is kept in much of its state in which the writer left it, with countless personal items on display.
14. Hike Waterfalls in Topes de Collantes
Cuba is filled with fantastic places to get off the beaten path and hike through the stunning interior of the country. One of the best spots to explore on foot is the stunning Topes de Collantes area in the Escambray mountains just west of Trinidad.
Home to countless waterfall hikes like El Nicho, Salto de Caburní, and Vegas Grande, this is a great place to escape for a day trip to an impressive natural spot.
Make sure to bring your bathing suit – swimming beneath the waterfalls is highly encouraged!
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15. Explore Cuba’s Caves
A surprising number of destinations in Cuba are well known for having impressive caves systems, which make for unique day trips, and a great excursion to cool off on a hot day.
Among the mogotes of Viñales, you’ll find countless caves. A particularly impressive example is the Cueva del Indio, an important site for the indigenous peoples who lived in the area. While there are plenty of caves worth visiting in Vinales, this one is interesting in that you can take a speedboat inside the underground river in the cave for quite a distance.
16. Take in the View from the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca
Located in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s eastern capital and second-largest city, the historic Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca is an impressive Spanish fortress you can’t skip. It’s lauded by UNESCO as “the most complete, best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture.”
A visit to the fortress is impressive, but the view over the ocean, bay, and surrounding beaches is another highlight that makes the visit even more scenic.
Read More: Santiago de Cuba: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide
17. Take a Free Walking Tour
How could you get any better than free? Civitatis is an excellent tour company from Spain that offers free walking tours in cities around Cuba. Experienced, thorough guides lead these tours, so make sure to tip if you enjoy the tour!
Here are some of the most popular free tours in Cuba:
- Old Havana Free Walking Tour
- Modern Havana (Vedado) Free Walking Tour
- Viñales Free Walking Tour
- Trinidad Free Walking Tour
18. Visit the Countryside
A visit to Cuba just doesn’t feel complete if you stick to the major cities and coastal resort towns. Though these places have so much to offer, a visit to the countryside offers a whole new perspective on Cuba.
In Havana, you’ll find excursions to nearby farms for home cooking and to learn about Cuban agriculture – take advantage of these and prepare for the best Cuban food you’ll ever try. You’ll also find unique accommodations in the countryside where you’ll be immersed; we love MogoteArt if you’re looking for a countryside retreat.
One of the most accessible spots for visitors to visit in the Cuban countryside is Viñales. Though you’ll see that the town of Viñales has a fair amount of resources and business to cater to travelers visiting the national park, it’s an easily accessible countryside town well worth visiting.
19. Learn to Dance Salsa
Cuba is, of course, the best place to learn how to dance salsa. You’ll find dance schools in most cities in Cuba, and lessons are a popular activity no matter where you’re traveling.
I don’t have specific class recommendations for all cities in Cuba. However, if you’re traveling in Havana, Civitatis has excellent salsa classes I recommend for travelers on a quick Havana itinerary.
If you want more than just a single class or want to learn the bachata, rumba, or countless other dance styles, look into options for a series of classes at the much-loved Salsabor dance school in Havana.
20. Enjoy a Havana Sunset on the Malecón
There is nothing like a Havana sunset. The colors are spectacular, and watching the sunset seated on top of Havana’s famous Malecón sea wall is one of the best free things to do in Havana.
If you’re looking for another beautiful spot to watch the sunset in Havana, take a bus or taxi through the tunnel across the Havana harbor and to the Cristo de la Habana. Alternatively, take the Lanchita de Regla ferry across the harbor to the hill below the statue. The ferry costs just a few pesos and departs from Old Havana, at the dock across from the Russian Orthodox Church.
This Christ statue guards the Havana harbor, and its platform on the hill provides a spectacular spot overlooking Old Havana, the ocean, and the entire Malecón. This is our favorite spot to watch the sunset, so don’t tell too many others – we don’t want the secret getting out!
21. Drink Cuban Coffee
The famous Cuban coffee is strong, sweet espresso with a foamy top, a delicious treat you’ll be offered whenever visiting a Cuban home, maybe if you’re staying in a casa particular and meeting your host.
For true Cuban coffee, look for tiny local storefronts where locals sell tiny cups of this strong coffee for a few pesos. This is how Cubans drink it, and trying Cuban coffee is a must on any visit to Cuba.
22. Visit the Sierra del Rosario
The Sierra del Rosario mountain range in the province of Pinar del Rio is a unique protected biosphere, home to endemic flora and fauna in the stunning and lush tropical forest that makes for an unforgettable trip.
Within the Sierra del Rosario you’ll find Soroa, a popular destination for hiking in Cuba, and home to a beautiful orchid garden and stunning waterfall hikes.
Just an hour from Havana, it’s a popular and easy day trip escape from the city. If you’re looking to spend a bit more time here than you’d be able to on a day trip from Havana, consider stopping on the way to an overnight in Viñales.
23. Learn About the Cuban Revolution
Just stepping foot in Cuba is a lesson in the Cuban Revolution; you’ll see revolutionary imagery everywhere, from billboards and posters to major monuments. However, learning more about the Revolution in some of these places is an excellent way to get even more of the backstory.
Museo de la Revolución
The former presidential palace is now the Museum of the Revolution, where you’ll learn so much about the history of the Revolution, plus personal artifacts and more. Behind the building, you’ll see cars driven by Fidel, and a replica of the boat he used to arrive in Cuba from exile in Mexico at the start of the Revolution.
Be aware that the exhibits are all in Spanish, so consider visiting with a guide, or downloading Google Translate with its image translation feature if you can’t understand Spanish.
Plaza de la Revolución
Located in the heart of Havana, the Plaza de la Revolución is where Fidel gave many of his famous speeches in front of the monument of Cuban independence leader José Martí. You’ll see images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos (another important revolutionary) on the buildings facing the square.
This is an obligatory stop on any ride through Havana in a vintage American car, so you’re sure to visit if you plan to ride through the city in style.
Comandancia de la Plata
If you’re headed up Pico Turquino in the Sierra Maestra mountains, make sure to stop at Comandancia de la Plata, the guerrilla camp where Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and their band of revolutionaries camped out as they launched their first attacks.
You’ll see their field hospital, barracks, and more – it’s a fascinating stop.
The Mausoleum of Che Guevara
In the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, travelers can visit Che Guevara’s tomb, a major destination for those interested in the Revolution.
24. Spot Unique Wildlife in Ciénaga de Zapata
One of the most unique natural spots in Cuba is Ciénaga de Zapata on the southern coast of Cuba. Known for being one of the country’s best areas to witness wildlife, Ciénaga de Zapata is home to over 900 species of plants and over 175 species of birds (many of which are only found in Cuba – some are found only in this park!).
Here you’ll see the world’s smallest bird, flamingos, Cuban crocodiles, and much more – and there are some great hikes to see it all.
A trip to this part of Cuba – one of the best places to visit in Cuba! – is perfect to combine with a trip to Playa Girón, where you can swim at off-the-beaten-path beaches and unique swimming holes similar to Mexico’s famous cenotes.
25. Dance the Night Away at the Tropicana
Havana’s Tropicana has been the stage for some of the most important and historic performances in Cuba, with everyone from Celia Cruz to Frank Sinatra, Joséphine Baker, and Nat King Cole gracing the stage.
For an unforgettable night in Havana, head to the Tropicana for a cabaret show with incredible live music, dancers with elaborate costumes, food, and drinks. It’s a great time, and you’ll feel the immense history of this cultural institution the second you step through the doors.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Home to Havana and Explorers Away. She is a serial expat and traveler, having visited 40+ countries and counting. Carley has written for publications like Travel + Leisure, MSN, Associated Press, Weather Channel, Wealth of Geeks, and more. Find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.