Only 90 miles from Florida, yet so far from most Americans’ reality, Cuba remains a land of mystery and mystique. After decades of restricted travel between the United States and Cuba, the easing of regulations in recent years has finally allowed curious travelers to visit this nearby yet unfamiliar Caribbean island. From its classic cars and architecture frozen in time to its stunning natural landscapes and world-famous rum and cigars, Cuba offers visitors a vibrant culture, sizzling nightlife, and an immersive journey into a nation rapidly evolving after being closed off for generations. Whether you’re a beach bum, history buff, culture vulture, nature lover, or foodie, captivating Cuba has something for every type of traveler. Read on for a tourist’s guide to making the most of your visit to this fascinating tropical destination.
Things To Know Before You Go
Before jetting off to Cuba, keep these essential travel tips in mind to make your trip smooth and successful:
- You Still Need a Tourist Visa/Card. While US travelers no longer need to apply for a special license to visit Cuba, you must obtain a tourist card from your airline or travel agency before departure. This acts as your entry visa.
- Only Visit With An Approved Travel Provider. Individual “vacationing” by US travelers remains prohibited. You must visit Cuba as part of a guided tour group, cruise, or other approved group itinerary.
- Have A Plan For Accessing Money. US credit/debit cards do not work in Cuba. Bring enough cash for your entire stay (in either USD or Euros) or use services like PayPal to access more funds from abroad.
- Book Accommodations In Advance. Cuba’s tourism infrastructure is still developing. Don’t arrive expecting to secure quality lodgings on the fly. Reserve hotel/B&B stays well ahead of your trip.
- Practice Your Spanish. Outside of major hotels, English is not widely spoken. Learn key phrases, download a translation app, and be prepared to gesture/mime when needed!
Check our website for additional Cuban travel tips and resources for trip planning. With the right preparation, Cuba is an amazing destination waiting to be discovered!
Experience the Magic of Havana
No trip to Cuba is complete without spending quality time in its spellbinding capital city. From its musical energy and festive nightlife to its stunning architecture, Havana is guaranteed to captivate:
Wander Picturesque Old Havana
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Habana Vieja (Old Havana) transports you back centuries with its cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, and lively plazas. Take your time strolling its pastel-hued streets that seem unchanged since the era of pirates and Spanish galleons. Can’t miss sights include the Castillo de la Real Fuerza fortress, the opulent Gran Teatro theater, and the striking Cathedral de San Cristóbal. Stop for a mojito at time-frozen bars where Hemingway once drank. Pop into secondhand bookstalls and art galleries tucked into gorgeous crumbling facades. Old Havana rewards those who lose themselves in its timeless corners and crevices.
See Revolutionary Sites
Modern Havana also portrays Cuba’s dynamic political history. The iconic image of Che Guevara gazes down from the Ministerio del Interior building, while Plaza de la Revolución is dominated by memorials to Cuba’s revolutionary heroes. The Museo de la Revolución provides insight into the events that shaped today’s Cuba. And at the Granma Memorial, you can board the very yacht Fidel Castro used to return from exile to launch the revolution. Understanding Cuba’s past will make you appreciate its present.
Enjoy Fabulous Food and Nightlife
Havana sizzles after dark. Live salsa pours out of open-air dance clubs. Classic jazz rings out in intimate lounges. And exotic cabaret revues pull you into the excitement. Mix and mingle with lively Habaneros over cocktails at cool bars. Savor mouthwatering meals at Paladars, Havana’s wonderful home restaurants. Then continue the party dancing under the stars to the beat of live Cuban bands. The energy and joy of Havana’s nightlife scene is infectious.
Cruise the Malecón
No Havana experience is complete without joining the crowds along its seaside esplanade, the Malecón. Kids play, fishermen cast lines, and classic cars cruise by as locals and visitors commune day and night on this iconic waterfront stretch. When the spray from crashing waves doesn’t keep you cool enough, grab some ice cream and a seat on the famous seawall. Wave to passing vintage taxi drivers, take in a sunset over the Straits of Florida and soak up the quintessential Havana atmosphere.
Don’t Miss Nearby Regions
Beyond central Havana, greater Havana offers enticing day trips. Tour the rum factory and pre-revolution bars and clubs in gritty yet artsy Vedado. See Ernest Hemingway’s preserved home Finca Vigía and the charming artists’ community of Las Terrazas. Or time travel amid 1950s American cars and architecture in retro beach town Varadero. Several days in the capital give you a vivid taste of Havana’s highlights. But also explore beyond the center to appreciate this area’s diversity. Havana truly offers endless opportunities to peel back its fascinating layers.
Lounge on Legendary Cuban Beaches
With over 300 perfectly powdery miles of coastline, Cuba’s beaches are second to none. If relaxation under the sun and palms is your goal, Cuba delivers the ideal backdrop. The picturesque strips of sand come in every style you could desire:
Idyllic Island Getaways
Cayo Largo, Cayo Santa María, and other small islands off Cuba’s south coast offer exclusive all-inclusive resort experiences. Spend your days immersed in aquatic activities, enjoying pampering spa treatments, and unwinding on unspoiled beaches melting into azure waters. These secluded island settings spell peace and tranquility.
Hip Havana Beach Towns
For a more local beach vibe near the capital, head east to Havana hot spots like Playas del Este and Santa María del Mar. Here you’ll mingle with Cuban families and revelers soaking up the sun and fun Havana-style. The inexpensive state-run resorts and day pass system give you a taste of the communal Cuban beach scene.
Historic Coastal Cities
time-capsule Trinidad on Cuba’s southwest coast provides postcard Caribbean beaches with a side of colonial Spanish architecture and a vibrant music scene. Or explore sites connected to Cuba’s indigenous Taíno people in Baracoa, surrounded by eastern Cuba’s gorgeous yet remote beaches.
Unspoiled Natural Beach Parks
Many of Cuba’s most pristine beaches are protected parts of national parks like Jardines de la Reina off the southern coast. Only accessed by liveaboard dive boats, these undeveloped beaches feature exceptional snorkeling and diving in an undisturbed natural setting. A true island paradise! With so many amazing beaches to choose from, you can find your ideal mix of activities, isolation, amenities, and culture. Cuba has world-class strips of sand for every preference.
Marvel at Magnificent Cuban Nature
Beyond just its beaches, Cuba’s landscape is simply staggering in its diversity. The island offers every imaginable terrain, from marshy wetlands to towering mountains. Get out and explore Cuba’s great outdoors:
Dive or Snorkel Pristine Reefs
Cuba sits in the heart of the Caribbean’s coral reef systems. The unspoiled reefs surrounding the Isle of Youth and Gardens of the Queen archipelago offer rainbow-hued sea life viewing that rivals any global destination. Snorkel in turquoise bays or scuba dive dramatically with sheer ocean walls patrolled by sharks and sea turtles.
Trek Rugged Rural Mountains
The steep limestone peaks and valleys of the Sierra Maestra in southeast Cuba present a challenging trek. Summit Cuba’s highest peak, Pico Turquino, and visit revolutionary landmark Comandancia de la Plata, Fidel Castro’s rebel headquarters. Far from crowds and comforts, this is an extreme backcountry experience.
Savor Coffee and Waterfalls in Viñales
Lush Viñales Valley is Cuba’s top spot for soft outdoor adventures. Hike through tobacco and coffee farms, explore caves, and take boat trips along underground rivers. Cap off the day relaxing at the foot of magnificent waterfalls tumbling over the mountains that encircle this picturesque pocket of rural Cuba.
Spot Exotic Birds and Wildlife
Birdwatchers flock to the Ciénaga de Zapata wetlands to spot the rare Cuban trogon, bee hummingbird, and other unique island species. At Las Terrazas eco-village, zip lines and treetop towers bring you face-to-face with the diverse flora and fauna inhabiting Cuba’s forests. The island’s varied ecosystems harbor fascinating endemic plants and animals. With so many landscapes to explore, nature lovers could spend months discovering Cuba’s outdoor treasures. The island offers once-in-a-lifetime adventures for active travelers eager to explore.
Experience Authentic Cuban Culture
From acclaimed artists and authors to iconic sports and pastimes, Cuba overflows with cultural attractions. A trip here allows you to dive into a creative society with captivating expressions of Cuban identity:
Tour Iconic Music Venues
Cuba pulses with an incredible array of musical styles from son Cubano born in the East to mambo and cha cha chá out of Havana. Tour historic studios like EGREM where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded their hit revival album. Catch live gigs in legendary jazz clubs and salsa dance halls. Let the infectious rhythms move you!
Visit Famed Artists’ Studios
Cuba’s acclaimed visual arts scene gained prominence in the decades after the revolution. Visit working studios where you can meet gifted painters, sculptors, and printmakers up close. Tour the Taller Experimental print workshop and the home of artist José Fuster, whose artworks transform the entire town of Jaimanitas.
Catch a Baseball Game
In Cuba, baseball approaches religious devotion. Attend a game and you’ll immediately grasp the passion and pride it inspires. The enthusiastic rhythm of clapping and singing creates an electric atmosphere. For a true display of skill, catch one of Cuba’s powerhouse teams like Havana Industriales competing in the Cuban National Series.
Experience Local Nightlife
Beyond tourist haunts, discover Havana’s dynamic nightlife scene where locals go to unwind. Sip back cocktails at a chill open-air boliche patio bar, cheer on your team at a crowded domino hall, or be swept up in a high-energy rumba performance. After dark is when Cuban culture really comes alive.
Try a Food or Dance Class
Hands-on workshops allow you to absorb Cuban culture on a deeper level. Master recipes at a paladar cooking class, learn basic salsa steps from champion dancers, or hand roll cigars like a local tobacco farmer. By gaining skills in Cuban pastimes, you’ll gain insight into what makes this culture special. Cuba offers endless ways, big and small, to engage with its people, creativity, and passions. Slow down, get off the beaten path, and let the culture wash over you for the full experience.
Indulge Your Taste for Cuban Flavors
Ask any visitor what they remember most about Cuba, and the cuisine will likely top the list. From classic dishes to exotic fruits, the island’s flavors make for mouthwatering meals and tasty souvenirs.
Feast on Traditional Cuban Dishes
Essential tastes include ropa vieja shredded beef, moros y christianos rice and beans, tostones fried green plantains, and lechón slow-roasted pork. Nightly specials like rabbit stew and lobster demonstrate Cubans’ knack for peddling plain ingredients into delicious dishes. Don’t leave without trying a Cuban sandwich at least once!
Savor Tropical Fruits and Juices
Indulge your sweet tooth with Cuba’s abundance of juicy, fresh island fruits like mango, guava, papaya, and pineapple. Vibrant fruit stands and juice bars like the iconic El Floridita let you sample nature’s bounty. Quench your thirst with a creamy batido milkshake or the classic Cuban thirst quencher, a mojito.
Drink World-Famous Rum and Coffee
Sip Cuban rum to taste the island’s history right from the source. Tour the centuries-old rum factories of Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba for insight into this iconic spirit’s central role in Cuban culture. And get your caffeine fix at sidewalk cafés serving some of the world’s best coffee, grown in Cuba’s verdant mountains.
Buy Local Items Like Cigars and Coffee
Bring home edible souvenirs that capture Cuba’s core products. Stock up on varietals of Cuban coffee harvested from the Sierra Maestra mountains at the roastery and shop Café El Escorial. And purchase real Cuban cigars from an official La Casa del Habano shop rather than street vendors.
Take a Cooking Class
Local paladares and restaurants like San Cristóbal in Havana offer immersive cooking classes. Under the guidance of talented chefs, you’ll learn to prepare classic Cuban dishes using time-honored techniques. It’s a delicious way to discover Cuban food culture. Cuban cuisine provides a tasty window into the culture. Don’t hold back on indulging in the local flavors – with fresher ingredients and bolder seasonings, the Cuban foodie experience can’t be replicated back home.
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