A week in Cuba: what to do, what to see
A week in Cuba: what to do, what to see
You've decided to travel to Cuba. You've got seven days – it should be brilliant. You've locked in your destination and your timeframe, now it's time to start planning. What are the best things to do in Cuba? What should your Cuba itinerary look like?
There are a lot of Cuba highlights to cram in: the crumbling elegance of Havana, the charm of colonial Trinidad, the musical vibe of Santiago de Cuba – and, of course, the glorious white-sand beaches.
Cuba is a surprisingly large island so we suggest that you don't over do it by trying to visit everywhere. Limit yourself to the highlights and add on another couple of destinations that interest you. Here's our suggestions to help you create your perfect Cuba one week itinerary.
Days 1-2 Havana
You must spend at least two days in the capital of Cuba, Havana. This place has something about it that is a little like magic and it will draw you in to its unique and crazy beauty.
In the 1940s and '50s Cuba was a popular holiday destination for Americans – think cocktails, dancing, pool parties and generally living the high life. Luxury American cars were transported to the islands until Fidel Castro came to power and banned the import of foreign cars. The visible legacy of that ban is the 1950s cars that dominate the road. With no other options, the locals have maintained their cars as well as possible over the last 60 or so years, and now these gorgeous vintage vehicles are an icon of Havana.
As well as the classic cars, there's the lavish architecture that is now faded and crumbling. There's the waterfront walkway, broad cobbled plazas, wide avenues, pumping bars and back-street galleries. And over the top of all of this is the vibe. It's Caribbean laid-back charm, the constant rhythm of music, the bright colours and the ready-to-party feeling in the air.
Things to do in Havana
Wander through Old Havana
Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring cobbled streets, open plazas and beautiful, intricately-decorated buildings. The baroque Catedral de San Cristobal is a highlight and the Plaza de Armas and Plaza Vieja are popular meeting places.
Have a mojito at La Bodeguita
A mojito is the classic Cuban cocktail of rum, lime and sugar that is popular across the island. A well-known bar in Havana, La Bodeguita del medio, claims to have created the mojito back in 1942. The bar has a long and illustrious list of past regulars and holds plenty of interesting paraphernalia from their history. Head to La Bodeguita to sip a mojito in style.
Walk along the Malecon
The Malecon is the waterfront strip of Havana – the old sea wall, the esplanade walkways and the broad road that runs alongside. It runs for seven kilometres alongside the city and on a warm night, the Malecon can be thrumming with people out to have a chat, a drink or a dance.
Visit the grand El Capitolio
The Capitol Building is Havana's most grand building and it's a prominent city landmark. The building features a large domed cupola and inside it houses a 15-metre-tall bronze Statue of the Republic and plenty of intricate decoration and elegant spaces.
Watch the sunset from El Morro
El Morro is the 17th century castle / fort / lighthouse that stands at the entrance to the bay. Exploring the quiet castle, you'll feel the history of the place and from the top of the walls you get fantastic views over the sea and back across the city. A perfect sunset destination.
Laze on Santa Maria del Mar
If you need some time out from the hustle of the city, head to one of the best beaches nearby – Santa Maria del Mar. White sand and clear warm water – it's a perfect escape just 20 minutes from the centre.
Days 3-4 Trinidad
Across the island from Havana is the colonial town of Trinidad. At the centre of the old sugar farming region, Trinidad was built on the extraordinary wealth of the sugar trade. In the 1880s Trinidad's main square, Plaza Mayor, emerged as the centre of ostentatious wealth. It is surrounded by ornate and extravagant houses built by the wealthy sugar trading families.
With the abolition of slavery and the Wars of Independence, the sugar trade slumped. The mills closed and Trinidad became a quiet backwater. With no more money, the grand buildings were left to sit quietly and today, Trinidad's well-preserved historic centre is one of Cuba's highlights.
Things to do in Trinidad
Soak up the sights of the sugar wealth
Around Plaza Mayor, you'll see some of the grandest buildings in town. Palacio Brunet, the former house of the Borrell family, is decorated with rich frescoes and marble floors. The house is now a museum displaying objects that belonged to the Borrell family. Nearby, the Palacio Cantero features a grand courtyard, a watchtower and colourful decorative paintwork.
Head out for an evening of Cuban rhythms
While some parts of Trinidad can be quiet in the evening, you'll find packed dance floors if you follow the sound of music wafting through the streets. Take to the pumping dance floor at Casa de la Musica, slip into a quiet courtyard bar to hear some low-key tunes, or perhaps head to 'the Cave' to experience a dance party in an actual stalactite-lined cave.
Chill on one of Cuba's best beaches
One of the best beaches in Cuba, Playa Ancon stretches for four kilometres of uninterrupted, white-sand heaven. The snorkelling here is great and there's thatched-roofed beachfront bars to let you know you're in the Caribbean.
Take a hike in Topes de Collantes
Mountainous Topes de Collantes National Park holds a rich jumble of caves, jungles, waterfalls and hidden pools. The hike to the most impressive waterfall, Caburni, is a strenuous one, but well worth the effort. It just might be one of the best hikes in Cuba.
Days 5-7 Choose your own Cuba activities
Cultural things to do in Cuba
Feel the rhythm in Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is a vibrant and energetic city that is alive with music. It has a revolutionary history and there is passion in the air. There is music everywhere – people sitting on their doorsteps playing guitars, people carrying radios as they walk down the street. Most bars have live music playing. You would struggle not to get swept up into the rhythm of this town.
Tuck into street food in Baracoa
At the far end of the island from Havana lies Baracoa, one of the first colonial settlements in Cuba. This small historic town is a charming place and there's hiking and river boating to be done nearby. Food here is a highlight. Sample a street food classic like teti (small fish) in coconut and then finish up with some famous Baracoa chocolate or the local sweet treat, cucurucho – a confectionary of coconut, sugar and fruit.
Discover the pearl of Cienfuegos
The elegant town of Cienfuegos is known as 'the Pearl of the South'. It is the only city in Cuba that was founded by the French and there is a certain 'je ne sais quoi' in the wide boulevards and elegant architecture. Check out the Palacio del Valle, watch the pink flamingoes at Guanaroca Lagoon, stroll along the Malecon and walk to the El Nicho waterfalls.
Outdoor activities in Cuba
Hike or cycle in the Sierra Maestra Mountains
There is some great cycling in Cuba along picturesque coastal roads and through rural villages. But if you're after something tougher, head into the Sierra Maestra Mountains for a challenge. Beautiful mountain views and lush jungle make the thigh pain worthwhile. If hiking is your thing, there are great trails here visiting the waterfalls and caves with lush flora and fauna en route.
Get active in the Vinales valley
Vinales is a small town in a picturesque valley studded with outcrops of limestone cliff. It's a tobacco plantation area, where life is slow and the locals are friendly. Hike, cycle or ride a horse through the beautiful valley, past brightly painted houses and tobacco and coffee farms. There's also cave exploring and rock-climbing to be done here if you're keen.
Chill on the best beaches in Cuba
Get the Caribbean resort vibe at Varadero
If relaxing is high on your agenda, head to some of Cuba's glorious Caribbean beaches. The town of Varadero is packed with resorts, shops and restaurants, but the big drawcard here is twenty long kilometres of glorious beach.
Brush up on Cuban history at the Bay of Pigs
Who says you can't learn something at the beach? At Bahia de Cochinos, better known as the Bay of Pigs, you can visit the Museo Giron to learn about the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba in 1961. Then head down to beautiful Playa Giron to swim and snorkel amongst coral reefs and tropical fish.
Snorkel with sea life in the Canarreos Archipelago
If you like your beaches to be isolated, head offshore to the islands of the Canarreos Archipelago. Here you'll be treated to quiet beaches with plenty of the white sand and palm trees you've come to expect. There's great marine life here – green turtles, manta rays, iguanas, eels, barracudas and lobsters are just for starters.
If putting together your own itinerary seems like hard work, consider a tour of Cuba – a tour will offer a low-stress way to see a lot of this beautiful island. With transport and accommodation all organised you can focus on exploring the things you want to see. You'll find Cuba tours that focus on culture and history, cycling, hiking, sailing – or just seeing the sights. However you travel to Cuba and whatever you do, it will be an eye-opening and amazing experience.