Cuba, Beyond the Beaches: Five Must-See Cities
Cuba has long been the proverbial forbidden fruit of destinations for U.S. citizens, but the recent loosening of travel restrictions means that this island country is suddenly a quick flight away—with even easier access expected soon. Keep in mind that pure tourist visits technically still aren’t allowed, but there are now 12 broad categories of travel reasons that effectively allow you to approve yourself for a trip without applying for a special license. So where to go? Skip the resorts to explore the places likely to change the fastest under more open U.S. trade policies: the cities.
In Havana: Wander the Energetic Side Streets
“If I get lost, look for me in Cuba...” wrote the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. And there’s no better place to do that than in the country’s bustling capital city. Havana, the biggest city in the Caribbean, is an overwhelming mix of magnificently dilapidated colonial architecture, rickety bicycle-taxis, and bright 1950s cars; there’s music blaring from every doorway and bright laundry snapping above your head. This is a place where life is lived out in the open, so to experience it fully, don’t just hit the main streets of Old Town and Habana Vieja. Instead, make your way down a few residential blocks. You might just see a rough-and-tumble game of street baseball, be offered a fresh sandwich for mere cents, or get pulled into an impromptu dance party.
In Havana: “Shop” for the Classic Car of Your Dreams
It’s said that Cubans are the best mechanics in the world. The proof? Thousands of painstakingly maintained vintage American cars, imported before the Cuban revolution, and kept running through scavenged parts and sheer improvisation. These 1950s “Yank tanks” appear everywhere in Cuba, with an estimated 60,000 still in use. But none are more nattily cared for than the candy-colored lookers lining the streets of Havana’s Parque Central. Most are used as taxis, so simply shop around for a favorite then hop inside for a chauffeured joyride. The toughest choice is whether to go with that ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air or the ’53 Ford Crestline Sunliner convertible, or...
In Havana: Discover the Ultimate People-Watching Destination
The Malecón, a promenade along the city’s coastline, is never empty. By day, fishermen line the rocky outcrops beyond the cement ledge while hawkers and food carts cater to passerby; at night, this is the meeting place for lovers, sunset-gazers, and anyone looking for cheap entertainment. Think of it as a town square stretched over five miles. There’s no bad time to walk or cruise the Malecón, but this seaside strip is at its most atmospheric in the golden afternoon light.
In Havana: Raise a Glass to Papa Hemingway
It’s a well-documented fact that one of Cuba’s favorite adopted sons, writer Ernest Hemingway, sought solace in the bottle. While he lived in Cuba, “Papa” was notoriously loyal to his favorite Havana watering holes, writing of “my mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita.” Both bars are still in operation today, and at the Floridita you can even order his favorite libation and say a toast to the life-size, realistic bronze sculpture of the man himself permanently holding down one end of the bar.
In Trinidad: Capture the Town’s Classic Colonial Vibe
Cuba is famously a country frozen in time—something both frustrating and alluring—and nowhere is the time warp more evident than in Trinidad. The bright Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and numerous horse-carts make a stroll through town akin to walking onto a 1850s movie set. Plaza Mayor, flanked by the golden-hued church Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, is the place to point your camera lens back through history.
In Trinidad: Seek Out a Rooftop View
A quick jaunt up a hill on the eastern side of Trinidad leads to the Vista Gourmet, a multi-level restaurant with a stunning view from its rooftop bar. This is one of the best places in the city to see just what surrounds this UNESCO World Heritage town: the looming Escambray mountains 11 miles away and Playa Ancon, a white sand beach about seven-and-a-half miles south. Sunsets here are even finer with a mojito at hand.
In Trinidad: Find the Music
Don’t worry if it’s not Saturday night. In Trinidad—and pretty much in all Cuban cities—live music is happening on or around every corner. Stop by the small plaza midway up the stairs next to the Iglesia Parroquial off Plaza Mayor for the nightly salsa show, or simply take a seat on any bench and wait for a guitarist (or three) to wander past. The town’s Casa de la Trova, just east of Plaza Mayor, is the traditional spot to catch Cuban bands from 10 p.m. on, daily. Carry spare bills to tip the musicians, who are usually excellent.
In Trinidad: Spend the Night in a Casa Particular
In a town chock-full of colonial-style mansions decked out with antique rocking chairs, vintage chandeliers, and sunny courtyards, it’s an especially smart plan to stay in a casa particular (private bed-and-breakfast) while in Trinidad. These homestays are one of the few ways the Cuban government allows families to earn additional income; there are hundreds within the city and the going rate is $20 to $35 per night. This cheerful courtyard is Hostal Lili at 108 Juan Manuel Marquez Street.
In Santa Clara: Pay Homage to Che Guevara
No matter how you feel about Argentinian revolutionary “El Che,” Santa Clara is the city to revisit his massive mark on history. In 1958, Che Guevara’s battle tactics in Santa Clara marked the end of the Batista regime; today, monuments, statues, and museums dedicated to the comandante dot the city. In addition to the big draws of Che Guevara Mausoleum, which houses his remains, and the Tren Blindado park exhibit, which details the battle of Santa Clara, keep an eye out for the smaller displays, too. The un-signposted “Che and Child” statue shown here stands four blocks from Tren Blindado. The right-hand image is another monument atop Loma del Capiro (Capiro’s Hill).
In Santa Clara: Hike to the Best Viewpoint in Town
Not only is Loma del Capiro the ideal spot to look out over Santa Clara, it also served as a crucial vantage point for Che Guevara’s guerilla army during the 1958 liberation. Climb the easy 579-foot peak to see a striking monument (see previous slide) and take a breather while you admire the city view.
In Santa Clara: Check Out Vibrant Parque Vidal
Set right in the center of town, it’s impossible to miss Vidal Park, an open-air theater. (Think street performers, kids at play, frequent bands, and gossipy old ladies warming the benches, all crammed into one square block.) It doesn’t hurt that the park is surrounded by eye-catching examples of colonial, Art Deco, and neo-classical architecture. Snag a seat and watch the drama unfold in the most charming of settings.
In Santa Clara: Eat Traditional Food at a Local Paladar
Dining at paladares, small, family-run restaurants, is one of the best ways to discover local Cuban cuisine. The only trick is that many, like popular El Alba shown here, bill in national pesos rather than the convertible pesos (CUCs) most tourists carry. Cuba operates with two different currency systems, which can be incredibly confusing at times, but it’s well worth it to carry a bit of both types of cash. At El Alba, portions are huge, the peso payout tiny, and the food delicious. Order the pescado (fish)!
In Santiago de Cuba: Just Follow Your Ears
The sounds of Santiago de Cuba alone will reel you in—trumpets, bongos, guitars, clapping, stomping, you name it. Live music is happening, happening, happening, all over this vibrant city, but one of the best places to catch traditional beats is at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova. The doors are flung wide to spirited Heredia Street late afternoon ’til late night. Hit the small dance floor, cram yourself onto one of the narrow benches, or join the crowds grooving right outside.
In Santiago de Cuba: Park Yourself in Lively Cespedes
There’s little shade in central Cespedes Park, so the best time to hang out is at dusk, when temperatures drop and throngs of locals arrive to talk, flirt, drink, play music, and more. As you crisscross the city it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself on a bench here, taking in the nightly commotion. The bronze bust of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes at the park’s heart makes an excellent meeting place, too.
In Santiago de Cuba: Drink at the Ultimate Sunset Spot
Writer Graham Greene’s character Wormold from Our Man in Havana stayed in the elegant Hotel Casa Granda; the scribe himself loved to relax on the street-side terrace. But—apologies to Greene—though the lower terrace is nice, the fifth-floor garden bar is the real stunner. It’s well worth the $2CUC fee (applicable to a drink) for a chance to kick back on high with a rum drink, gazing out to the harbor and beyond while the late rays of sun turn the city golden. The angel statue tops nearby Catedral Nuestra Señora de La Asunción (Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral), best viewed from the terrace.
In Santiago de Cuba: Climb the Padre Pico Steps
Calle Padre Pico is one of the most famous streets in Santiago, thanks to its famous stairs. Commissioned in 1899 by Emilio Bacardi Moreau (yes, of the famous Bacardi rum distillery), the staircase has become a city symbol. The steps stand at the gateway to Tivoli, Santiago’s picturesque old French quarter, settled by Haitian colonists in the late 18th century. Walk them as you wander through, snapping photos.
In Baracoa: Peruse the Bustling Main Drag
Half the fun of getting to laid-back Baracoa, a city separated from the rest of Cuba for 450 years due to a mountainous buffer zone, is the windy, vista-filled road you’ll take. Called La Farola (the lighthouse road), this paved path was a gift to the city’s loyal revolutionaries from Fidel Castro in 1964. It snakes through pine-coved mountains to sink into a lush tropical paradise. Eventually you’ll find yourself on Antonio Maceo Street, pictured here. Everything is walkable in this small settlement, and the action—performance art, buskers, hawkers, shows, and much more—happens right out in the street.
In Baracoa: Eat As Much Seafood As You Can Handle
A long-running joke is that Cuban food is better in Miami. Not so in Baracoa, where the seafood is plentiful—check out that pile of prawns—and the cooking creative. Lechita, a savory mixture of coconut milk, tomatoes, garlic, and spices is poured over many a fish or lobster, and, thanks to a plethora of cocoa plants, you’ll find locals selling squares of homemade chocolate on every corner.
In Baracoa: Sample a Beloved Local Concoction
Sweet cucurucho, a tasty mix of coconut, sugar, honey, nuts, guava, papaya, and more (each blend is different), is a foodie craze just waiting to happen. Ingeniously packaged in a palm frond and secured with a hook for easy transportation, simply scoop out the delicious paste with your fingers and pop it into your mouth. Locals claim the campesinos (country people) make the best stuff, so look out for roadside sellers just outside of town, or for makers living near Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, the neighboring national park.
In Baracoa: Watch for Rogue Waves
Baracoa’s expansive coastal road, Los Martires Avenue, is reminiscent of Havana’s Malecón. A long wall hugs the Atlantic, with views of the open sea, waving palms, and purple mountains in the distance. Strong waves surge mightily against the rocky edge, though—sometimes right over the top. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself taking an “early shower,” as one local jokingly put it.