The largest island in the Caribbean is Cuba, located less than 160 km (100 miles) from the southernmost tip of Florida in the U.S. and the Bahamas, Cuba is open to world travelers eager to explore the rich culture and history of the island. Known for its legendary cigars, American vintage cars, stunning beaches, not to mention a few rum distilleries, Cuba clearly has a lot to offer to its visitors. When selecting the best places to visit in Cuba, be sure to embrace both the rural and the city experiences. The perfect trip to Cuba will include Havana, but the incredible scenery and culture of the entire island can be found to get off the beaten track.
Jardines del Rey
Just north of the mainland, and connected via bridges, is the archipelago called Jardines del Rey. Jardines del Rey, or Gardens of the King, is a chain of islands including Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Paredon Grande and Cayo Romano. The islands weren’t true tourist destinations until the 1990s, when the first hotel was built. Even today, many visitors come for the fact that the chain is still largely undeveloped. Playa Pilar on Cayo Coco is one of the most beautiful and popular beaches, and it is located just steps from a number of all-inclusive resorts.
Cienfuegos is a city in Cuba that is unlike others on the island. Since it was found by the French, rather than the Spanish, it has a unique atmosphere. The city is known as La Perla del Sur, or the Pearl of the South. For those who appreciate mid-century modern architecture, the peninsula of Punta Gorda is a must see. There are still many houses dated to 1950s, many of which have been carefully preserved. The center of Cienfuegos is Pueblo Nuevo, where you can explore the history museum, dine at an outdoor cafe or take a Spanish or French language lesson.
Just a short drive from Havana is Varadero, a popular beach resort town found on Hicacos Peninsula. Along its 20 Km of Atlantic Ocean coastline are magnificent views of the white sandy beaches and blue warm waters are really stunning to behold. While the gorgeous beach is the reason why Varadero is among the best places to visit in Cuba, there is plenty more to do. Parque Josone is a gorgeous park filled with botanical gardens, lakes, wildlife and bridges, not to mention music, vendors and even camel rides for kids. Also worth exploring are the Bellamar Caves, an extensive cavern system that has been available to visitors for more than 150 years.
For those with a love for history or architecture, Trinidad is a great place to visit in Cuba. The heart of Trinidad is Plaza Mayor, the main square surrounded by neo-Baroque buildings. Next door to the plaza is a colonial convent that now houses the Museum of the War against the Bandits, or the Lucha Contra Bandidos. After exploring the museum, walk uphill away from the Plaza Mayor to shop for handicraft souvenirs. Popular items for sale include hand-sewn tablecloths and napkin linens. Another of the breathtaking structures in Trinidad is the Palacio Brunet Mansion, which now serves as the Museo Romantico. Visit to admire a fantastic collection of 19th century artworks and antiques.
Last, but certainly not the least, is the city of Havana. As the capital of Cuba and the major transport hub, virtually all visitors will spend at least some time exploring Havana. This sophisticated, retro and cosmopolitan city is known for its spectacular nightlife, but days offer just as much excitement. Start in La Habana Vieja, or the Old Town, where crumbling colonial buildings and vibrant mid-century structures stand side by side. Don’t leave Havana without watching cigars being rolled by hand in a small factory, or tasting some local rum fresh from the distillery. Mingle with the locals along Malecón, the seawall right along the coast that offers sea views and plenty of fun.