Gorgeous beaches, fascinating history and some of the liveliest people you’ll ever meet await at this island, the largest in the Caribbean. From the bright turquoise waters of Holguin to the festive streets of Santiago de Cuba during carnival season, there’s plenty to discover when you travel to Cuba. It’s easy to be surprised by the wide array of options you have when you visit Cuba, ranging from water sports to following the footsteps of onetime Havana resident Ernest Hemingway. Travel + Leisure’s Cuba travel guide includes highlights for all tastes.
Things Not to Miss in Cuba
• Sunbathing in Varadero’s popular white beaches
• Discovering Havana’s historic downtown
• Sipping on a daiquiri at Havana’s Floridita, the drink’s birthplace
• Having a refreshing mojito at the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana
• Taking a guided tour of a cigar factory
• Checking out the French-influenced architecture at Cienfuegos
When to Go to Cuba
Cuba’s tropical climate makes it especially appealing during the winter, when visitors from cold locations flock to the sunny island. The rainy season runs from May to October, and temperatures and humidity run high, although summer is also a popular time for tourists, especially in July for Carnaval in Santiago. If you plan to visit Cuba between June and November, remember it’s hurricane season.
Most of the popular hotels in Cuba are all-inclusive resorts, especially those in beachside locations. Overseas agencies also offer complete packages that include flights and transportation within Cuba. Accommodations range from full-service hotels–especially in Havana and main tourist spots like Varadero–to simple, affordable hostels. Hotel Ambos Mundos in downtown Havana is an iconic Cuba hotel, with an ideal location at the lively corner of Obispo and Mercaderes streets. Ambos Mundos was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, who made room 511 his home and sipped quite a few mojitos at the hotel’s rooftop bar. For the ultimate beach experience in Holguin, head to Meliá Paradisus Rio de Oro. This all-inclusive resort boasts bungalows, villas and suites, a spa, lush gardens, and access to white sand beaches. In Cienfuegos, Hotel La Union is one of the oldest in town. The colonial building houses a swimming pool, a fitness area and several courtyards and patios, as well as a restaurant and bar. With comfortable rooms and an attentive staff, La Union is one of the most welcoming hotels in Cuba.
Spanish, French, African and even Chinese flavors influence the Caribbean-based Cuban cuisine, resulting in hearty, flavorful fare served in very generous portions. Cuban staples include café con leche (strong espresso with warm milk), tostones (fried plantains), white rice with black beans, and media noche, a pork, ham and cheese sandwich. Many Cuban restaurants maintain a simple, family-style vibe, while others are slightly more upscale and geared towards tourists. Here are a few great options. Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio is one of the most iconic restaurants in Cuba, thanks to its classic menu–ropa vieja, vaca frita, arroz con pollo–as well as historic appeal. Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Neruda were regulars, and legend has it that the mojito was created here. Make yourself at home at Casa Micaela in Santiago de Cuba, a friendly restaurant serving traditional Cuban food and cocktails. Casa Micaela is, like many restaurants in Cuba, a paladar, which typically means that a family runs it in their own dining room or backyard. Café Ciudad is a perfect spot for people-watching in Camagüey. Gaze at the plaza while drinking strong café cubano for breakfast, or snacking on a toasted sandwich as a light dinner.
Walking the streets of Havana is one of the greatest ways to immerse yourself in the country’s complex history, deep culture and incomparable spirit. Zigzag the capital’s narrow streets, alternating between gritty constructions and majestic buildings like the National Capitol or San Cristobal Cathedral, with its imposing baroque façade. View colonial, European and contemporary art at the National Museum of Fine Arts, and delve into the country’s stormy politics at the Revolution Museum. Visiting the Partagas or Romeo y Julieta factories should be in every cigar aficionado’s list of things to do in Cuba. After a long day of sightseeing, take a lazy stroll along Malecon, the seaside boardwalk, or stop by Floridita, a throwback watering hole that gave the world the daiquiri (and yes, Hemingway also drank here). If a tropical getaway is what you have in mind, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Cuba. Guardalavaca, near Holguin, is one of the most popular beaches, alongside Varadero, with its 21km of white sands. Over at Cayo Largo, check out the sea turtles that give Playa Tortuga its name, or try your kayaking skills at Playa Sirena. In the island’s Southern tip, you’ll find Cienfuegos, a lovely bayside city that is sprinkled with French influences. Case in point: the Arch of Triumph on the central plaza or the Purisima Concepcion Cathedral, decorated with française stained-glass windows.