Cuba is a world away from other places that you’ll visit. This revolutionary island that claimed independence underwent a revolution and fought off an American invasion has many unique aspects. It’s an island with a huge history, a challenging future and seriously interesting things to do. Whether you’re visiting Cuba for a week or longer, there is plenty in Cuba to keep you occupied. Here’s our inspiration for things to do in Cuba for your trip.
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THIS POST MAY CONTAIN COMPENSATED AND AFFILIATE LINKS. MORE INFORMATION IN OUR DISCLAIMER
These Cuba experiences are unique in many ways to the island – there are places and things to visit in Cuba that you’re won’t find anywhere else. Even if you’re staying in a Cuba all-inclusive you can get out and about and see some of the unique and iconic Cuban things to do.
Stay in a casa particular in Cuba
There is no better way to experience Cuban than by staying with a Cuban family. The Casa Particular Cuba movement came about in the early 1990s when the tourist trade started to pick up following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Before this 80% of imports came from the Soviet Union, and a similar amount of Cuban exports went there. The changes meant that Cubans had to find an alternative source of revenues. Originally staying in a Casa Particular was informal, but since 1997 the Cuban Government has issued licenses and it’s all above board now. Staying in a Casa Particular gives you a certain insight into a Cuban way of life. Casa Particulars range from renting an entire apartment, house or villa from a private owner, or just a room in their house. It’s all official, above board and government sanction and the owners do pay a tax for providing this service.
There are some incredible Casa Particulars in Cuba, with amazing hospitality and fantastic food. Check out our guide to casa particulars and get the low down on everything you need to know about where to stay in Cuba.
Explore Havana, Cuba
There is no better way to explore Havana than just to go for a walk. Wherever you’re staying, there are things to see. Many Cuban’s live a lot of their life out on the street. So a walk around the streets of Havana will have you seeing a lot of Cuban life. Whether it’s old Havana or the Vedado district. You’ll find street vendors, stunning and dilapidated buildings and gorgeous old cars. Be sure to try and end up on the Malecon for Sunset.
If you don’t feel comfortable exploring by yourself, take a private tour with a Cuban local and get more of an understanding of the way of life here.
Visit Hotel Nacional in Cuba
The iconic Hotel Nacional just back from the Malecon in the Vedado district of Havana was opened in 1930 when Cuba was a major tourist destination for wealthy Americans. Today it is a National Monument in Cuba and is a famous location for a mojito on the lawn. Famous visitors have included Sir Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Weissmuller.
If you want to partake of more than just a cocktail here, then rooms and suites are well-appointed and well maintained.
Walk along Havana’s Malecon at Sunset
A Malecon is an esplanade or seawall. In Havana, the Malecon stretches for 8 kilometres (5 miles) from the Havana harbour mouth to the Vedado neighbourhood. Subject to the beating Caribbean sun during the day the atmosphere at sunset and in the early evening is both electric and quintessentially Cuban. The falling down dilapidated buildings take on a magical air, the classic Cuban cars look magical and the entire city comes to cool down.
Malecon across Cuba were laid out in the early 1900s and have been a way of life since. Havana’s Malecon makes for amazing photos, as much exercise as you want and an incredible insight into Cuba. Ride down the Malecon at sunset in a classic car – it’s iconic Havana.
Take a FREE Walking Tour of Old Havana
Like many cities around the world, it’s possible to take a free walking tour of Havana. The tours are tip-based and run in English and Spanish. They’re a great way to get an introduction to the city of Havana and also the Cuban culture. They focus on old Havana, and you’ll come away with lots of tips on where to eat and what to do while you’re in the city and the country.
Reservations are required, and you meet at 1000 and 1500 each day by the Fountain of the Lions in Francisco de Asís Square, also known as Plaza de las Palomas. Tours last about 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Engage your inner Hemingway and drink a Daiquiri at El Floridita
This bar opened in 1817 but didn’t become El Floridita until 1914. It became famous because of regular visitor author, Ernest Hemingway, who is remembered by the bronze bust placed in the bar in 1954 and the life-sized statue of “Papa” which has been at the bar since 2003. It’s definitely a tourist hot spot and whether you get the famous daiquiri here or not probably depends on your determination to outstay the crowds.
The bar is famous for the daiquiri cocktail, invented in Eastern Cuba, but perfected here by barman Constantino Ribalaigua. You can take a Hemingway inspired tour of Havana and get yourself a Hemingway Daiquiri at El Floridita.
Drink Mojitos in Cuba
No mojito will ever taste the same after you’ve had one, or more, in Cuba. Sure you should go to the famous places, but you should also take up offers from your Casa Particular owner to make you one. They will knock your socks off. And you will definitely sleep well. Havana, Cuba is recognized as the birthplace of the Mojito. Legend has it that following a raid at Cartagena de India in Colombia, Sir Francis Drake‘s ships sailed to Havana. An epidemic of dysentery and scurvy broke out, so it was a small boarding party that went ashore and brought back a local remedy for both. The ingredients of the remedy were aguardiente de caña (a rum made from sugar cane), lime, mint and sugarcane juice. While it wasn’t called a mojito at the time and rum was added by the sailors, it fast became a favourite.
You can learn more about the history of Cuban Cocktails in our guide here.
La Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana is famous as where author Ernest Hemingway drank his mojitos. Nowadays the bar is more recognized for its food, than the quality of its mojitos, but it’s well worth the US$5 per drink to watch them being made.
Drink Craft Beer in Cuba
Rum might be the drink of choice in Cuba, but a craft beer revolution is starting. Head to Cerveceria Puerto Del Rey on the riverfront in Santiago de Cuba – where you can try a flight of beer brewed here. Or if you don’t get as far as Santiago de Cuba, head to Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco this old wood and tobacco warehouse is part of the revitalisation of Havana’s harbour. There’s another cerveceria in Plaza Vieja too that’s well worth a visit – the Cerveceria Fabrica Plaza Vieja.
Explore Cuban’s Revolutionary Past
You simply cannot come to Cuba and not understand at least a little of her revolutionary past. Before you come I’d recommend you at least read a basic history, it will help you understand the people so much more. Here’s a basic history of Cuba – in recent times at least.
If you do nothing else culturally in Cuba, then I recommend you visit the Museum of the Revolution. We know from our travels that national museums control the message. The Museum of the Revolution is no different.
The museum of the revolution is housed in the old Presidential Palace of Cuba. Following the Cuban Revolution, it became the Museo de la Revolución. It covers the Cuban revolutionary war of the 1950s and the history of Cuba since 1959. Many of the exhibits are in Spanish, but there is also some detail in English.
If this museum does nothing other than question what was written in the newspapers of your home country then (for me) it’s done its job.
Find out about the history of Cuban Rum
If there’s one drink that epitomizes Cuba then it’s rum. The most famous brand of which is Havana Club. And you won’t find a cheaper place to buy Havana Club than in Cuba. Cuba is famous for rum-based cocktails like the Mojito, the Daiquiri and the Canchanchara. There is a museum of rum in Havana that you can find here. However, I think the better rum museum in Cuba is in Santiago de Cuba and it’s here that you should head to to find out more about the history of Cuban Rum.
Ride in a Colectivo while in Cuba
Much of the economy of Cuba has been driven by necessity. Ownership of private cars is low, the national wage is around US$30 a month. A sharing economy is very much at the forefront of life and so using colectivos to get around is the norm. A colectivo is simply a shared ride that you pay for. Think of it as the shared airport pickup or shared minivan between points A and B. Only in Cuba, your colectivo might be a 50-year-old. They don’t always provide 21st-century comforts and there might be a few more people in the sharing that you’re normally used to, but they’re well worth an experience.
Ride in a Classic Car in Cuba
Classic cars really are the icon of Cuba. Even though they’re primarily American. There are so many American Classic Cars in Cuba because there were so many trade restrictions placed on the country following the Cuban revolution. So no new imports of cars came into the country, as it was too expensive to import from countries other than the USA, which is only 180 kilometres away. And so a made do and mend attitude came into the Cuban way of life. So these classic cars you see driving around the streets of Havana and other cities are there not just for tourists, but they’re a way of life and a necessity. So when you find the plastic-covered seats an annoyance, consider the sacrifices that the owner had to make to get the car restored.
Riding in a Cuban Classic Car along the Malecon in Havana is one of the most iconic experiences. You can pre-book this experience, or even take a tour around Havana in a classic car. Read more about it here, or book your Cuban Classic car experience now.
Ride a Train in Cuba
2019 saw changing fortunes for trains in Cuba, with the first new train in more than 40 years! With support from the Chinese government, Cuba hopes to rebuild the Cuban rail system by 2030. The deal with the Chinese government has seen 80 Chinese made new rail carriages, with a further 170 due to arrive by the end of the year. The trains, however, run slowly as the tracks are in need of repair. Buy tickets from the Havana railway station and check out more details about Cuba’s trains here.
Celebrate May Day in Havana, Cuba
May 1st is the traditional public holiday of “Workers Day” around the world. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Cuba on May Day then come together with Cubans from all walks of life and march towards Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. The parades are immense, the flag-waving and banner carrying is stirring and it starts early. No public transport runs until it’s all over. Even taxis are unlikely to be running as the streets are so crowded. We left our casa particular at 0530 and walked towards Plaza de la Revolucion, hitting a backlog of crowds and joining in. The drinking starts early on May Day too. We’re not sure if folks had made it home or if they’d been out all night and just gone straight to the parade.
We were in Havana during the May Day Parade and had a great time – if you get the chance do attend!
Visit the public parks to get some internet in Cuba
The internet in Cuba has come slowly. While it is possible now to get some mobile internet – for residents – and some internet access in hotels and private homes, the vast majority of internet access is via public Wi-Fi hot spots in parks. There are more than 1000 Wi-Fi hotspots across Cuba and access can be gained by buying cards for time periods. Read more about how to get access to the internet in Cuba here.
Understand Cuban Rationing
Cuba imports up to 70% of its foodstuffs and still operates a system of rationing. 2019 saw a halving of deliveries of oil as a result of the issues faced in Venezuela and the hardening of the American trade embargo. This has led to an increase in the rationing that has been in place in Cuba since the 1962 revolution. Goods such as chicken, eggs, rice and beans are now affected. Some hygiene products are also affected, like soap.
Cuban residents receive a ration book, a Libreta de Abastecimiento, that lets them buy small quantities of basic goods – beans, rice, sugar and eggs for instance for the equivalent of a few US cents.
Most goods sold under this scheme are distributed at the local bodega or store. Meat, fish and poultry are sold at the meat store and other goods are also included in the libreta system – like cigarettes, cigars and cooking fuels. Allowances depend on your age and sex – children under the age of 7 get 1 litre of mil a day. Over 65-year-olds get different allowances as do those with specific health conditions. Signs at these specific stores indicate the allowances and the costs.
Take a close look at signage as you walk around Cuba to understand a little more.
Go Shopping to understand a little more about Cuba
You’ll read a lot about how it’s hard to buy what you might class as normal things in Cuba. Like fresh milk, or sun cream or tampons. Many people, before they get to Cuba, think that this is a myth. Walking around some of the more touristy areas of Havana you’ll see tourist and souvenir shops that appear to be stocked with goods that you can buy. But for the ordinary man on the street, buying staples and goods that you take for granted is more than a little difficult
Try heading off the beaten track, or walking into a “supermarket” to see the range of goods that are available and you’ll see a very different Cuba and it will increase your understanding of the challenges faced by ordinary people here.
Really test your Spanish in Cuba
While you are likely to find English spoken in the all-inclusive resort hotels of Varadero, step out into the streets of any Cuban town or city and Spanish is the language. Move further away from the tourist hotspots of Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba and if you don’t speak much Spanish you’ll be relying a lot on sign language. Cuba is a great place to really test your Spanish skills and understand some of the nuances of pronunciation.
Cuban’s tend to drop the “s” off words. So “Dos” (or two) becomes “Doh”. It takes a lot of getting used to and is usually best understood with a smile!
Go diving in Cuba
The waters that surround Cuba are some of the clearest and cleanest you can dive in and much of the diving in Cuba is shore-based, which means that it’s cheaper – there’s no cost for a boat, so you walk into the water. Or jump. The most famous place to dive in Cuba is the Bay of Pigs – the scene of the historic failed American invasion.
Diving here is cheap. Just US$25 a dive. Plus US$10 if you’re a complete beginner and just want to try it, you’ll get a specific instructor to work with you. That includes all equipment, which while it isn’t new, was safe and our dive leader was superb. Read more about the Bay of Pigs diving here.
Visit the Historic Bay of Pigs, Cuba
The “Invasion of the Bay of Pigs” was a failed invasion by the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA), aiming to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist government. A combination of paramilitaries and aircraft attacked Cuba between 13th and 15th April 1961, with the main invasion occurring on April 16th at Playa Giron in the Bay of Pigs.
The invasion was overcome within 3 days. The museum at Playa Giron tells the Cuban version of events. 99% of the exhibits are in Spanish (but relatively easy to read), however, there are sometimes options to take a tour in English. Ask at your Casa Particular or the museum entrance.
Lie on a beach and relax in Cuba
I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t think I’ve laid on a beach for 20 years plus. It’s not my thing. But there are some incredible beaches in Cuba. If all-inclusive is your thing, then there are some incredible luxury beaches in Cuba. If independent travel is your thing, bring a towel, a bottle of your favourite hydrating or dehydrating liquid and enjoy.
If you do spend the day on the beach be sure to secure your valuables. We use and recommend portable travel safes.
Varadero is the location of some of the most famous beaches in Cuba, but you’ll find them, throughout the country. Facilities tend to be basic, peace generally reigns and there’s always the cooling waters of the gorgeous Caribbean Sea to walk into.
Snorkel from your own private beach in Cuba
Stay outside of the norm and get yourself a casa particular in a smaller village or town and you find yourself with an almost private beach. Even in the main diving areas of Playa Larga and Playa Giron you’ll find the beaches relatively quiet. We spent great days snorkelling in very clean shallows at La Boca near Trinidad and Boca La Camaron about 30 minutes from Varadero. There are also few people to be found on the public beaches of Varadero.
There are however few beach facilities, so you’ll need to take your own sunshades and drinks. You’ll also pay a serious premium if you try to purchase snorkelling gear in Cuba – even if you can actually find it.
Book yourself a fabulous casa particular – like these – and step out of the front door and into the ocean.
Eat Lobster while in Cuba
If you enjoy seafood then you’re in for a treat in Cuba. Much of what is on the Cuban menu is sourced locally, imports are few and far between and expensive. So if you see Lobster on a menu, it’s because someone picked it up that morning. The sale of lobsters in restaurants is heavily controlled by the government, and restaurant owners are required to buy from specific government sources only. That’s not to say that’s what happens in reality. If you do spot surreptitious activity, and bags of freshly caught seafood changing hands, then you’ll be delighted to know that this tastes just as delicious as the government-sanctioned foodstuffs.
We enjoyed lobster in Boca La Camaron and also in La Boca. Each enormous lobster was big enough for 2 people and cost the equivalent of US$15 and was served as part of a set meal.
Eat Cuban specialities
Start the day with breakfast at your Casa Particular. Not only can you experience some of the best food that you’ll get in Cuba, provided for by the local family hosting you, but eating at your casa particular really helps the families make a little more money. The breakfast at Casa Rafaela in Havana will set you up for the rest of the day.
Head to a Paladar, a locally independent– not government-run restaurant. Try local specialities like Ropa Vieja, literally old clothes, but braised meat in tomato sauce served with white rice – always seriously flavourful. Read about Cuban cuisine and learning to cook Cuban dishes here.
Listen to Music in a Casa de La Trova
During the 19th century groups of travelling musicians known as Trovadores moved around Cuba, primarily the east of the island and specifically around Santiago de Cuba. They earned a living by playing the guitar and singing. Their music became known as Trova and has been an important element in the growth and evolution of Cuban music. Most major cities have a state-run music hall as Casa de la Trova where for a small cover charge and good strong cocktails or beer you can sit and listen or get up and dance to the music of the city.
The most well-known Casa de La Trova is in Santiago de Cuba, but if you get the opportunity to visit in other towns or cities in Cuba it’s well worth a visit. They’re not just tourist places, these are frequented by Cubans and tourists alike.
Pay respects to Che Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentinean doctor, author, guerrilla leader and revolutionary. He was a major figure in the Cuban Revolution. Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1928, the eldest of five children in a middle-class family. It was his 9 month trip through South America, chronicled in his fabulous “Motorcycle Diaries” which was published posthumously by his family that changed his views on the world.
His visit to Guatemala in the early 1950s saw a CIA backed coup overthrowing the progressive regime attempting to enact social reform. From this point on he became a Marxist and dedicated to bringing about socialism worldwide.
Leaving Guatemala he met Fidel and Raul Castro early in their plans to overthrow Cuba’s Batista and the rest, as they say, is history. He became a Cuban citizen, defined many of Cuba’s policies and becoming disillusioned with the Cuban reliance on the Soviet Union began to seek revolution elsewhere. In 1966 he travelled to Bolivian to lead a group of guerrillas. It was here that he was captured, wounded, shot to death and buried in an unmarked grave.
His remains were found in 1997 and were returned to Cuba, where they were interred in a massive memorial to him and 29 of his fellow revolutionaries on the 30th anniversary of his death.
The mausoleum and memorial are located in Plaza Che Guevara in Santa Clara.
Explore Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, Santiago de Cuba
The Cuban hero Jose Marti is buried here in this, the signature cemetery of Santiago de Cuba. This legendary national hero was born in Havana in 1853 and through his political activity and writing became the Cuban symbol for their independence bid from Spain in the 19th century. His poem Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses) was adapted to the song Guantanamera – the definitive patriotic song of Cuba.
In the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, you’ll also find the final resting places of Fidel Castro, Cuban revolutionary Frank Pais, Tomas Palma, Cuba’s first democratically elected President and members of the famous Bacardi rum family.
Visit Tobacco Fields and Rural Cuba
Cuba is famous for its cigars and tobacco fields can be found all across Cuba, but it’s the Pinar del Rio region that is most famous for producing the Habanos and Cohiba cigars. The town of Vinales is where most people visit the area. Depending on the time of year that you visit, you may see tobacco growing in the fields, or drying. You can take visits to the tobacco plantations, ride through the fields on horseback and understand a little more about Cuban cigars and how the industry works.
Smoke a Cuban Cigar in Cuba
You can buy cigars in Cuba anywhere. And for virtually nothing. Those free or US$1 cigars are going to be somewhat lacking though. If you’re not a smoker, but want to try a cigar you’re in the right place. And the best place to try a cigar in Cuba is while you’re visiting a tobacco farm. The easiest place to do this is in the area around Vinales. Take a tour, either a day trip from Havana or a trip while you’re staying in Vinales and you’ll be able to understand the situation in Cuba. Find out who owns the tobacco farms, their history, and how they make money. Learn how tobacco is grown, what is used for cigars, for cigarettes and then find out how to roll a cigar. Finally, you can also smoke your own cigar – and you’ll also be taught how to.
We don’t smoke and never have, but we tried a puff or two on a cigar and it wasn’t horrible, but I’m really glad I tried, after all, it’s one of the unique things to do in Cuba.
Dance while you’re in Cuba
Whether you have rhythm or not, it’s hard not to be infected with the soul of Cuba as you travel around. Latin musical rhythm is everywhere. Find a Casa de La Muscia – Havana, Trinidad or the Casa de La Trova. Open squares, Cubanos will dance anywhere. Take lessons, or join in and have fun. The music is addictive, a rum cocktail makes it all a little easier, but if you’re like me and with two left feet the watching is also addictive!
Get Hustled by a Jinitero in Cuba
You may not have any choice in this and it’s likely to be fun the first time, but then it gets irritating.
Jinitero actually means “jockey” in English and while the word Jinitera (the female version of the word in Spanish) is often translated as a prostitute, in Cuba Jinitero generally means hustler. Cuban’s by necessity have had and continue to need to find creative ways to make money. One of the ways to make money is to offer services to tourists – accommodation, transport, services – and not always legitimately. The guy who waits around at the bus station asking if you have somewhere booked to stay? He’s a Jinitero. He’ll get paid for taking you to a specific casa particular. Blokes hanging around asking if you want a taxi? They’re very unlikely to be the taxi driver, more likely the Jinitero who’ll get paid by the taxi driver for delivering you, the customer, to them.
Many Jiniteros are ok – I couldn’t ever admit that they’re great – and they sometimes perform a useful service, connecting you as a customer with the service provider when you might not know where to look. In the main, though they’re a pain.
If you want to maximize your Jinitero pain just step off a bus in Trinidad. Just learn to say no, and keep walking.
Explore Trinidad, UNESCO World Heritage City of Cuba
Trinidad is an Instagram photographer’s wet dream. Beautiful cobbled streets with gloriously brightly painted houses. Stunning views across the rooftops, cute little cafes to escape from the heat of the sun. The neo-baroque main square of Plaza Mayor and seriously grand colonial buildings are the reasons that many visitors to Cuba flock here.
The centre of the city, founded around 1514 is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the grandest, owing to the local plantations which made it rich. Sugar cane and tobacco production contributed vastly to the wealth of the area, with local plantation owners showing their wealth with grand buildings and palaces. Read about all the things to do in Trinidad here.
You’ll want to visit the Playa Mayor, the Museo Historico Municipal, the Bell Tower, for amazing views and the Museum de Arquitectura. You’ll also want to make sure that you have somewhere peaceful to escape to. While Havana is bigger, there definitely seem to be more Jiniteros here in Trinidad. Peaceful and quiet it’s not! We recommend staying in the much more peaceful village of La Boca where you can find a casa particular opposite the beach!
Enjoy the peace of Sancti Spiritus in Cuba
One of Cuba’s original seven cities, you’ll find Sancti Spiritus a haven of tranquillity after the big city atmosphere of Santiago de Cuba or the hustling madness of Trinidad. In Sancti Spiritus you’ll find narrow and winding streets stunning colonial buildings and the only remaining colonial-era stone bridge in Cuba in the Yayabo Bridge. Parque Serafin Sanchez, the main park of Sancti Spiritus is for me the nicest city centre park in Cuba. As in many Cuban cities, there’s a Casa de la Trova where you can go to listen to music and meet people, or you can enjoy watching life go by in the café Yayabo near the stone bridge.
Sancti Spiritus isn’t UNESCO World Heritage protected like Trinidad, but it does have gorgeous photogenic cobbled streets, stunning buildings and zero Jiniteros. It’s well worth a visit.
Final Words on the Most Iconic Things to Do in Cuba
Cuba is unique in so many ways, the challenge is not finding iconic things to do in Cuba, more fitting all the best things to do in your time there. We hope this has made a good attempt at outlining what we think is essential Cuba. There’s more detail in many of the other articles on Cuba’s Best – but do let us know what else you want to hear about!