Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) is the heart of Cuba's capital and its cultural center. Founded in 1519 by the Spanish, Havana was originally a walled city. Most of the old walls are now gone, but the dense, 3,000-building district they once guarded contains some of Cuba's most important cultural sites.
Amid the narrow streets of Old Havana you'll find the Plaza Vieja, established in 1559, the national capital building, the Great Theater of Havana and the city's museum of fine arts, the Cathedral of Havana, the Museum of the Revolution, and the famous La Floridita bar, a onetime hangout of Ernest Hemingway and the birthplace of the daiquiri cocktail.
Havana's iconic seawall is the best place to meet local residents in a relaxed environment. The Malecón runs for five miles along the Caribbean shoreline of Havana from the mouth of the harbor to the Old Havana waterfront. Lovers, fishermen, joggers, tourists, prostitutes, Santeria practitioners, and ordinary Habaneros alike can be found day and night during a stroll here.
The crashing surf and glorious sunset are worth a visit along, but prominent and interesting landmarks also include the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a monument to the victims of the USS Maine explosion in 1898, and the statue of Cuban nationalist hero José Martí in the Plaza de la Dignidad.
The Museum of the Revolution
Havana's Museo de la Revolución tells the story of Cuba's successful revolt to overthrow the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship (and U.S. ally) in the 1950s. Located in Batista's former presidential palace, the museum includes a variety of artifacts from the conflict, including a Russian tank and U.S.-built fighter plane that took part.
Most prominent is the yacht Granma, which was used to transport Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and their revolutionary comrades from Mexico to Cuba at the outset of the war. Exhibits include weapons carried by Guevara and Cienfuegos, the engine from a U.S. U2 spy plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and Batista's gold telephone.
This famous show cave in Matanzas is one of Cuba's oldest tourist attractions -- and still one of the most popular. Located close to the Varadero resort area, these limestone caves were formed more than 300,000 years ago but only discovered in 1861.
Filled with impressive stalactites, stalagmites, galleries, and an underground river, Bellamar Caves has lights and stairs for visitors but, unlike most caves, is quite warm and humid inside. The complex also includes a museum, cafe, playground, and gift shop. Tours can be arranged from hotels in Havana or Varadero.
The beautiful Spanish colonial city of Trinidad, Cuba, takes visitors back in time. Located in the mountainous central Cuba province of Sancti Spíritus, Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1514, the city is a well-preserved example of a Caribbean sugar town of the 19th century (the surrounding area is known as the Valley of the Sugar Mills), filled with ornate Spanish colonial mansions, plazas and churches.
Plaza Mayor is the heart of Trinidad, an excellent jumping-off point for walking tours that take in major sites such as the old San Francisco convent (now a museum) and ornate mansions that once belonged to sugar barons. The rolling hills, historic plantations and waterfalls of the Valley of the Sugar Mills can be toured by steam train or horseback.
The beaches of Varadero are world famous and home to most of the island's international resorts. Located on a narrow peninsula east of Havana, Varadero's 12 miles of beaches were once home to waterfront mansions and today boasts dozens of international hotels visited by more than one million tourists annually.
Nearby attractions and activities include jeep trips to the El Nicho waterfall, the Bellamar Caves, and the Montemar Natural Park at the tip of the Zapata Peninsula.
Santiago de Cuba
San Pedro de la Roca Castle, a 1638 Spanish fortress, is one of the historic landmarks of Cuba's second largest city, but hardly the only one worth visiting. Dating to 1515, this Caribbean port city was the scene of the famous Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, as well as an abortive attack on the Moncado Barracks by revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro in 1953 -- an incident viewed as the opening shot of the Cuban Revolution.
One of the cultural capitals of Cuba, the city includes museums containing the expropriated art collection of the Bacardi rum family (who fled to Puerto Rico after the revolution), a broad musical heritage, and lively Afro-Caribbean culture, including the practice of santeria. Other top attractions along this city's narrow streets include a rum museum, a multitude of parks, and the unique French-Haitian district called Tivoli.
Santiago de Cuba's Carnival celebration is the best in Cuba, reflective of a city that is notoriously hot and loud but also vibrant and bustling. To get a respite, head to the beach or the large Baconao nature park is nearby.
This breathtakingly beautiful valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its unique rock formations and traditional agriculture that includes tobacco cultivation -- much of it used for prized Cuban cigars.
A depression in the Sierra de los Órganos mountains of Pinar del Rio province, the area's most distinguishing landscape features are a profusion of knolls with cliffs rising from the valley floor, known as mogotes -- the result of limestone erosion in the karst valley.
In addition to tobacco, local farmers raise taro and bananas, while the surrounding mountains are known for their many caves.
Cayo Largo del Sur
An island paradise about 50 miles off the southern Caribbean coast of Cuba renowned for its lovely white-sand beaches, Cayo Largo is home to a few small resorts, many catering to clothing-optional travelers. Playa Paraiso has made various world's best beach lists, and nude sunbathers abound.
The island has no permanent residents and few bells and whistles other than some restaurants, shops and a turtle farm, making it ideal for a short-term Caribbean disappearing act in a remote corner of Cuba.
The town of Santa Clara was the site of one of the crucial battlefields of the Cuban Revolution and remains a shrine to the memory of Che Guevara. The Battle of Santa Clara in 1958 pitted two columns of revolutionary soldiers -- one led by Che, the other by Camilo Cienfuegos -- against government troops loyal to General Fulgencio Batista, who were quickly routed.
Batista fled Cuba just 12 hours later, handing victory in the Cuban Revolution to Fidel Castro and his allies. Today, visitors can visit Che's mausoleum, see an armored train derailed by rebel soldiers, or stroll the streets of this 300-year-old city, centered on the beautiful Parque Vidal.
The surprisingly hip cultural scene includes a rock festival, drag club, and modern art museums; the popular beaches of Cayo Santa Maria, linked via a causeway, are nearby.