Cuba is a charming Caribbean island nation trapped in time. It’s a place where the most beautiful cars of the 1950s and 1960s fill the streets, good Wi-Fi is hard to find, and major western brands are all but absent.
The Cuban capital, Havana, is the center of Cuban cultural life. It’s home to museums, art galleries, and an opulent theater housing the Cuban National Ballet. Havana also is home to countless hole-in-the-wall restaurants, a handful of top-notch jazz clubs, a growing number of galleries and boutiques, and more mojitos than you can drink.
But there’s far more to Cuba than Havana. Pristine beaches, architectural gems, diving, snorkeling, and off-the-grid cultural experiences are waiting just outside the city and beyond.
Unwind at the Beach in Varadero
Varadero is a beach town 80 miles east of Havana, with a beach that's known for its white-sand beaches and all-inclusive resorts. This is a dreamy place to bask in the sun or read a book under an umbrella. It’s also a popular scuba diving and deep-sea fishing destination. Expect to spend at least $80 each way to hire a car and driver to get to the beach. The drive takes about two hours. Viazul bus rides between Havana and Varadero are around $3 each way and take around three hours.
Ride Around Havana in a Classic Car
Nothing is more synonymous with Havana than a well-maintained classic car from the 1950s, and there’s no better way to see Havana than from one of those vintage cars. Tours typically pass by the Havana Capitol, Barrio Chino, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and the Plaza de la Revolución, a public square that has hosted many political rallies and popes over the years. Classic car tours of Havana can also be booked online through sites like Airbnb and Get Your Guide or ahead of time directly with drivers or through Airbnb hosts.
Immerse Yourself in Cuban Art
Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a multimedia art experience that’s redefining Havana’s nightlife landscape. Fábrica de Arte Cubano is part dance club, part art gallery and part live performance venue. The exhibits start outside the entrance to this venue, a repurposed oil factory. Inside Fábrica de Arte Cubano, you’ll find many bars, a restaurant, and a casual snack spot to take a break in between exploring exhibits from local artists and taking in thumping multimedia performances by local musicians and dancers.
Sip a Daiquiri at Hemingway's Former Haunt
El Floridita is where the daiquiri was born and a favorite hangout of author Ernest Hemingway. It was his preferred place to drink a Cuban daiquiri, and nowadays patrons can drink daiquiris alongside a life-size bronze sculpture of Hemingway, perched at his favorite spot along the bar.
Explore the Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a glamorous Art Deco highrise that was a favorite of Al Capone and mid-century Hollywood. (Want a peek into the mobster's room? Look for the window with a green curtain.) Have lunch, and a mojito on the hotel’s expansive patio then make your way towards the edge of the property nearest the water. It’s here you’ll find Hotel Nacional’s most interesting spot: a Cold War-era bunker that’s open to visitors.
Shop for Old Books in Havana
At the open-air ruins of the former Casa de Jústiz y Santa Ana, you’ll find a reader’s paradise. This outdoor market features secondhand books as well as postcards, vintage posters, and notebooks. The well-worn books here have served generations of Cubans, and this street market is a well-worn piece of the fabric of Havana. Except for holidays and rainy days, you’ll find this market east of Plaza de Armas—its former home–just off of El Malecon.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth at a Giant Ice Cream Parlor
Coppelia was meant to be a cathedral to ice cream, yet was designed to resemble a spaceship or UFO. It occupies an entire city block in the La Rambla section of Vedado and can hold up to 1,000 guests at a time. It doesn’t have the selection that was envisioned at its 1966 opening, but the few flavors it does carry are worth waiting in line for.
Go Dancing in Vinales
There are few places in the world where you can dance outside in the shadows of a historic church. Vinales is one of them. Listen for the music after dark near the town’s main church and follow the sound to a night of dancing you’ll never forget.
Listen to Live Jazz
Cuba is a place known for its jazz music and one of the best places in the world for catching a live jazz show. For an intimate jazz club experience in Havana, try La Zorra y el Cuervo. For more of a supper club experience, head to the Jazz Club in the Galerias de Paseo shopping center.
Experience Cuban Cabaret at El Tropicana
The Tropicana club opened its doors in 1939 and nowadays brings together 200 performers for a Las Vegas-style Cuban dance extravaganza in an outdoor garden. This is a show geared squarely toward tourists but still a unique night out.
Learn to Roll a Real Cuban Cigar
Cuba is almost synonymous with cigars. It’s the home of the legendary Cohiba and Montecristo brands, and there’s no better place to learn how to roll a cigar. Airbnb Experiences offers many cigar-rolling classes across the country.
Mix Up a Bespoke Fragrance
Habana 1791 is a perfumery dedicated to the scents of colonial Cuba. It carries a dozen fragrances that can be blended into bespoke perfumes and colognes. Customers can package their scents in the handcrafted bottles of their choice.
Take a Salsa Class
Are you looking to learn something new on vacation? Take a salsa class in Havana. Book ahead through Airbnb experiences and expect to spend a couple of hours dancing into the evening on an expansive patio dance space in a classic Havana neighborhood.
Explore a Spanish Settlement
Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage site and former pirate haven that, at one point, produced one-third of Cuba’s sugar. Trinidad is a place to wander among grand mansions built with sugar money, while nearby Mountains and beaches offer ample opportunities for diving, snorkeling, and ecotourism. Trinidad is about a four-hour drive from Havana.
Sip Guava Rum in Vinales
Guava rum isn’t something you’ll find on most bar menus or duty-free shops, but it’s a drink that’s worth seeking out. Book a tobacco plantation tour or a horseback ride and it’ll most likely include a stop to sample this Pinar del Rio specialty. And no, it isn’t available at the duty-free shop in the Havana airport. To book, go through a local tour company, Airbnb Experiences, or through your accommodation.
Shop for Cuban Art
If Cuban art is on your shopping list, head to Almacenes San José. This art market inside a sizeable two-story warehouse features works from dozens of Cuban artists. You'll find lots of paintings, ceramics, handmade jewelry, and more. (As an added perk, you won’t have to battle a blazing hot sun while you shop.)
Learn About the Cuban Revolution at the Museo de la Revolución
This museum is housed in an opulent former presidential palace and features exhibits focused on the Cuban revolution and recent Cuban history. The building itself boasts an interior designed by Tiffany & Co. and other landmarks, like the Salón de Los Espejos, a room designed to emulate Versailles' Hall of Mirrors.