Cuba has long been a desirable vacation spot for Americans, especially American students. Before the travel ban lifted, students studying overseas would often make trips to Cuba, as there was no ban from traveling from other countries there. Now that Americans can freely travel to Cuba, there are plenty of things to explore and experience while on tour in this beautiful country.
While there are many places to go and things to see in Cuba, some of the most unique things are to be experienced. Cuban culture and tradition are strong throughout the island, and can especially be felt in the experiences below.
1. Swim in a Cenote
Cenotes, while not unique to Cuba, are still a great experience. Formed when the roof of an underground cavern collapses, these deep, water-filled sinkholes are filled by rain and water from underground rivers. Cool, freshwater cenotes are great for escaping the heat while exploring Cuba. One cenote to visit is Cueva de Saturno, just 20km from the popular resort Varadero.
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2. Tour the Hotel Nacional
Since its opening in 1930, the national hotel of Cuba has been a venue worth touring. In the mid-1940s, it was a mafia gathering place. Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, and even Winston Churchill have stayed at this famed hotel.
The architecture and art deco, Mozarab, neoclassical, and neocolonial influences, place it among the most eclectic in the world. The grounds and lobby are open for visitors twice daily, Monday through Friday and Saturday morning.
3. Drink a Daiquiri
Replicate a historic 1930s moment by drinking a daiquiri in Havana. El Floridita, considered the home of the daiquiri, is the best place to try one. This restaurant and bar was one of Hemingway’s favorite places, so consider ordering “The Papa Hemingway” double rum, no sugar daiquiri.
4. Stroll Malecon of Havana
To truly experience Cuba, stroll along the Malecon of Havana. See the locals smoking cigars, feel the sea breeze, and catch the classic cars drive down the busy promenade. Stretching 7km in length, the Malecon is full of energy, serving as the heart of the city.
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5. Relax on a Remote Beach
About five hours from Havana, on the western side of the island, sits Playa Las Tumbas. At the end of Peninsula de Guanahacabibes National Park, finding this beach isn’t easy or quick – but it’s worth it. The water is crystal-clear, the sand is shimmering white, and the palm trees blow in the gentle breeze. One benefit of the remote beach is that it’s never crowded.
6. Visit the Sleepy Town of Trinidad
Visiting the little town of Trinidad allows you a peek into the old Spanish influence on Cuba’s southern coast. Trinidad is incredibly popular, especially for photographers, but it still retains its small-town charm. Think small, pastel-colored cottages, cobblestone streets, and very, very friendly people.
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7. Dance at an Underground Disco
Slip about 100 feet underground into the Disco Ayala club, where you’ll see giant video screens next to stalactites and stalagmites. This experience is worthwhile for everyone, even if you aren’t into the night club scene. As a bonus, admission includes a drink.
8. Explore a Sugar Plantation
The trio of valleys that once made up the sugar hub of Cuba is another excellent place to visit. Specifically, Valle de Los Igenios, where 30,000 slaves once worked the lane harvesting sugarcane. Ride the Baldwin Locomotive steam train, climb the towers the slaves did to see the amazing views, and take a look back at that dark part of history when you visit the Manaca Iznaga estate.
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9. Come to the Cabaret
If you can swing it – the price tag is not budget-friendly – consider a night at the Tropicana Club, on the western side of the city for their nightly cabaret shows. In residence since the 1930s, the Tropicana is a mainstay of the nightlife, known well for its dance shows and music nights.
10. Find your Inner Hemingway
What’s a trip to Cuba without a little Hemingway? The Hemingway Museum is about 16km outside Havana on a sprawling estate. Finca Vigía is one of the best-preserved homes in the country, boasts a full rum bar, a swimming pool, and is where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
11. Watch the Historic Battle at Morro Castle
The panoramic sunset view from El Morro is worth the trip to where tourists and locals mingle, just like the past and the present. Each evening, you can catch a reenactment of 18th Cuban military soldiers marching to the top of the castle walls and then firing toward the sea, warding off pirates and invading armies.
12. See History Come Alive
For history students, or anyone with some love for history, the Museum of the Revolution housed in the Presidential Palace is a must.
Collections include artifacts from the 1950s political upheaval, the boat that Castro rode in during the Granma expedition, and guns used by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Exhibits showcase Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain as well as the communist rebuilding in the 1960s and 1970s.
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13. Join the Fiesta in Bayamo
A real Cuban fiesta should be on everyone’s list when touring the country. Head to the old town of Bayamo – which was founded about 1513, making it older than Havana – where the historical and colonial town hosts the Fiesta de la Cubani each week.
Cuban dancer, fire hot dishes, lots of chatter from the locals, and the Caribbean-influenced music surrounds you on these streets. And, unless you’re a master chess player yourself, maybe just watch the famous Bayamo chess matches instead of participating.
Most of today’s Americans have not had the opportunity to tour Cuba yet. Make sure you visit as many places as you can, absorb as much of the culture, and are prepared to tell the stories of your adventures over and over again for all of those who have not yet experienced Cuba.