Pack a sun hat, some loose-fitting clothes and a book of José Martí’s poems – and get ready to uncover the buoyant and sophisticated magic of Cuba.
Fewer restrictions on private enterprise in recent years have led to an explosion of creativity, while the culture-dampening effects of globalization have yet to dilute the local charm.
Isolated but eager to advance, the country is buzzing with ideas – here, a free-spirited, student-filled cafe; there, an avant-garde art factory where live music, exhibitions, DJ sessions and creative gastronomy collide with electrifying results.
Here are the top activities that encompass all this country has to offer – and embody Cuba’s essence.
1. Escape to the beach
Uncrowded, extremely varied and loaded with tropical beauty, Cuba’s beaches are world famous for a reason. Search around long enough, and you’re sure to find your own slice of nirvana.
The long, wide, tourist-heavy beaches of Varadero abound with massive resorts, while sea turtles lay their eggs on the wild, deserted beaches of the Península de Guanahacabibes.
On the little-visited black-sand beaches on the Isla de la Juventud, pirates once roamed – and the nudist beaches of Cayo Largo del Sur, package tourists lounge with mojitos (and without self-consciousness).
2. Spend a night at a casa particular
Stay in a private homestay, and you quickly uncover the nuances of everyday Cuban life. Think rocking chairs on the porch, a bottle of rum on the dresser, a front room full of family heirlooms, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves in the street outside and the animated conversations over breakfast that always seem to end with the words “no es fácil” (it ain’t easy).
Casas particulares in places like Havana and Viñales are positively palatial, while others remain refreshingly down-to-earth. All of them offer an uncensored view of Cuba that no hotel could ever replicate.
3. Go birdwatching
Aside from crocodiles, Cuba’s fauna doesn’t make much of impression – except for its abundance of birdlife, that is. Approximately 350 avian species inhabit the shores of this distinct and ecologically unusual archipelago, a good two dozen of them endemic.
Look out in particular for the colorful tocororo (Cuban trogan), the zunzuncito (bee hummingbird), the critically endangered ivory-billed woodpecker and the world’s largest flamingo-nesting site. The Gran Parque Natural Montemar is one of many birdwatching highlights.
4. Enjoy Cuba’s ebullient festivals
Through war, austerity, rationing and hardship, Cubans have retained their infectious joie de vivre. Even during the darkest days of the Special Period (following the demise of Cuba’s ally and patron the USSR), the feisty festivals never stopped – a testament to the country’s capacity to put politics aside and get on with the important business of living.
The best shows involve fireworks in Remedios, folklórico dancing in Santiago de Cuba, movies in Gibara and every conceivable genre of music in Havana. Arrive prepared to party.
5. Dive and snorkel in the Caribbean Sea
There will be objections, no doubt, but let’s say it anyway: Cuba has the best diving in the Caribbean. The reasons? Unrivaled water clarity, virgin reefs and sheltered Caribbean waters that teem with exotic fish.
Accessibility for divers varies from the swim-out walls of the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) to the hard-to-reach underwater nirvana of the Jardines de la Reina archipelago.
For repeat visitors, Punta Francés on Isla de la Juventud – known for its underwater photography – reigns supreme. Rich coral reefs, caves and wrecked ships are among the submerged wonders near the shores of Guardalavaca Beach in Holguín.
6. Admire Cuba’s eclectic architecture in Old Havana and beyond
Often spectacular yet rarely constant, Cuban architecture retains certain binding threads, a definable cubanidad (“Cuban-ness”) that is always recognizable.
Many of the country’s older buildings were built with the sugar fortunes derived from the brutal enforced labor of enslaved Afro-Cubans. These structures provide an uncomfortable testimony to Cuba’s multifaceted culture and sometimes difficult past.
More-recent architecture displays a melody of influences, from French classicism to hints of art deco and art nouveau. Visit the UNESCO-listed cities of Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Camagüey, and pick out the details.
7. Soak up Cuba’s live-music scene
If you’ve been in Cuba for more than a day and still haven’t heard any live music, you’re clearly hanging out in the wrong places.
Welcome to one of the most musically diverse countries on the planet, where melodious guitars always win out over background tracks, and singing is seen as just another form of verbal communication.
The traditional genres are merely one groove on a larger record – and indeed, Cuba has been pushing the musical envelope for decades. From Benny Moré to X-Alfonso, cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba have spawned talent that continues to enchant the world.
8. Feel the rhythm of folklórico
There's nothing quite as transcendent as the hypnotic beat of the Santería drums summoning up the spirits of the orishas (deities). But while most Afro-Cuban religious rites are only for initiates, the drumming and dances of Cuba’s folklórico (traditional Latin American dance) troupes are open to all.
Formed in the 1960s to keep the African culture of Cuba alive, folklórico groups enjoy strong government patronage, and their energetic and colorful shows in Santiago de Cuba remain spontaneous and true to their roots.
9. Understand Cuba’s revolutionary heritage
An improbable escape from a shipwrecked leisure yacht and a classic David-vs-Goliath struggle that was won convincingly by the (extreme) underdogs: the details of Cuba’s revolution might have been pulled from a (barely believable) movie script. Yet it all happened right here – and just to prove it, you can visit the revolutionary sites in person.
Little has changed in more than 60 years at the disembarkation point of the Granma yacht and Fidel Castro’s wartime HQ at mountaintop Comandancia de la Plata. For a glimpse of the guerrillas’ weaponry and anecdotes, visit Museo de la Revolución in Havana or Cuartel Moncada in Santiago de Cuba.
10. Unlock the secrets of Matanzas
For too long, travelers have overlooked the city of Matanzas on their way to the all-inclusive resorts of nearby Varadero. But things are gradually changing.
Amid the bridges and rivers of this once-great cultural city, flickers of its erstwhile beauty are starting to reemerge in revived classical-music venues, a refurbished theater and a cutting-edge art street decorated with chin-scratching sculptures.
Varadero may have the beaches, but Matanzas’ gigantic historical legacy will teach you more about the real Cuba than dozens of repeat visits to the resorts.
11. Step back in time in Trinidad
The regional city of Trinidad all but went to sleep in 1850 – and never really woke up. This strange twist of fate is good news for modern travelers, who can roam freely through the perfectly preserved mid-19th-century sugar town like voyeurs from another era.
Though it’s no secret these days, the time-warped streets still have the power to enchant with their grand colonial homestays, easily accessible countryside and exciting live-music scene. But this is also a real working town, with all the foibles and fun of 21st-century Cuba.
12. Get lost in the maze-like streets of Camagüey
Getting lost is a savvy recommendation for any traveler passing through the city of tinajones (clay pots), churches and erstwhile pirates: Camagüey.
Always keen to be different, Camagüey has a street grid that deviates from almost every other Spanish colonial city in Latin America. Its lanes are as labyrinthine as a Moroccan medina, hiding Catholic churches, triangular plazas and a growing ensemble of smart boutique hotels occupying restored colonial buildings.
13. Hike Pico Turquino
The trek up Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest mountain, is a mixture of endurance sport, nature tour and fascinating history lesson.
Guides are mandatory, whether you choose an intense one-day round-trip route or an also-tough two- to three-day 17km (10.5-mile) trek through the steep cloud forests of the Sierra Maestra to the 1974m (6476ft) summit, where you’ll be greeted by a bronze bust of Cuban national hero José Martí. Revolutionary buffs can make a side trip to Fidel’s wartime jungle HQ, La Plata, on the way up.
14. Experience the next wave of Cuban culture at Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Welcome to the “new” Cuba. And no – it’s not a casino or golf course or all-inclusive resort designed to satisfy the whims of foreign tourists.
Rather, it’s an independent, cutting-edge art “factory” where visitors can wander from room to room as they listen to innovative music, view fabulous paintings and share discourse with diverse people.
The brainchild of Cuban musician X-Alfonso, Havana’s Fábrica de Arte Cubano has emerged as Cuba’s finest bona-fide art collective, a bastion of creative ideas that offers constant inspiration and excitement. Every city should have one.
15. Cycle through Valle de Viñales
The valley offers all the ingredients of a tropical Tour de France: craggy mogotes (limestone monoliths), impossibly green tobacco fields, ambling oxen and spirit-lifting viewpoints at every turn.
The terrain is relatively flat – and your biggest dilemma (if you can procure a decent bike, that is) will be where to stop for your sunset-toasting mojito.
16. Taste Cuba’s evolving food scene
Ever since new privatization laws lifted the lid off Cuba’s creative pressure cooker in 2011, a culinary revolution has been in full swing.
A country that once offered little more than rice and beans has rediscovered its gastronomic mojo, with a profusion of new restaurants experimenting with spices, fusion and – perhaps best of all – a welcome reevaluation of its own national cuisine.
Havana leads the culinary field in number and variety of eating establishments, yet there’s plenty of regional diversity, from fresh crabs in Caibarién to to-die-for chocolate in Baracoa.
17. Tap into Santa Clara’s youthful energy
Leave your preconceived notions about Cuba at the city limits. Santa Clara is everything you thought this country wasn’t: progressive, creative, welcoming to people of all persuasions, enthusiastic about rock ’n’ roll and keen to push the boundaries of art in every direction.
Being a university town helps. Youthful energy courses through Santa Clara as nowhere else in Cuba. Check out the LGBTIQ+ shows at Club Mejunje, meet arty students at the Casa de la Ciudad or wander Parque Vidal in the evening when the city orchestra is in full swing.