Havana is unlike any other city you’ve seen before. It has this mix of brown Soviet relics and a growing modern vibe that makes it truly unique. It’s also the only city with a real big city feel to it which makes it the best spot to do some serious sightseeing.
One of the best things to do in Havana is actually just to stroll through the streets. Cuban street life is pretty rad and there’s always something going on. Start out by roaming through the historical Old Havana to see some overpriced cocktail bars and hoards of tourists. And then, when you’re ready to see “the real” Havana, head over to the more residential Central Havana.
A few of the other best things to do in Havana include:
- The boardwalk or Malecón is the place to be at sunset. Pick up some cheap rum, find a good spot, and watch the locals promenade by in the soft light of the dying Caribbean sun.
- Museo de la Revolución is a great place to learn about Fidel Castro’s rise and rule. There’s enough communist propaganda and guerrilla relics to keep you entertained for an hour or two.
- Calle Mercaderes is Havana’s pedestrian shopping street. It’s, without doubt, the most touristy part of town, so take your time and prepare for some quality people watching.
- Callejón de Hamel is an Afro-Cuban community art project. It’s an alleyway filled with pretty sweet murals and there’s a rumba show every Sunday. It’s not the most authentic Cuban experience but hey, who doesn’t like a good dance?
Viñales is where you go when you’ve had enough of Havana’s busy streets. It’s a little green oasis about 3 hours west of Havana and it’s likely to be one of the highlights from your Cuba backpacking trip.
The town of Viñales itself is quite tacky and the main street is basically just restaurants and tourist shops. None of that matters, though, when you start exploring the surrounding green hills. That’s where the charm is at! Viñales is where some of Cuba’s finest tobacco is produced and the hills are full of small-scale traditional plantations. Rent yourself a horse and spend the day sampling Cuban cigars and world-class mojitos. Not too shabby, eh?
If you want to squeeze in some exercise, there’s also plenty of hiking, rock climbing, biking, and caving in the Viñales Valley. Viñales is your oyster!
Cienfuegos is nicknamed the “Pearl of the South” and although it does shine here and there, it’s not mind-blowingly awesome. It’s a good spot to do some city chillaxing but not really much else.
If you do make it there, make sure you drop by Paseo del Prado which is the city’s main boulevard and of course the Malecón. It’s not as fun and lively as the one in Havana, but it’s still a boardwalk in the Caribbean aka you can’t complain too much. Then there’s El Bulevar, a pedestrian shopping street where you can see what a 50-year trade embargo does to a country.
Let’s put it this way: your food budget won’t be seeing any serious cuts.
Not only is Santa Clara home to Che Guevara’s final resting place, it’s also a vibrant city with a both historical and edgy vibe. It stands out as one of the more alternative cities you’ll see when backpacking in Cuba.
One of the best things to do in Santa Clara is to spend a night at Club El Mejunje. That’s the name of the most awesome bar/cultural space/art gallery/music venue in town and you better get your behind down there. The place is a bit of a national legend and it’s played a massive role in pioneering for LGBT rights in Cuba since the mid-80s. They’ve got random bands playing live on weeknights, and every Saturday night is gay disco night. Enough said.
Taking things down a notch, another thing to do in Santa Clara is to swing by the Fábrica de Tabacos Constantino Pérez Carrodegua. As the name indicates, it’s a cigar factory run by the Cuban government. Just note that you need to buy your ticket in advance via the state-run travel agency Cubatur and that pictures are not allowed.
Yawn… Trying to find something nice to say about Matanzas is not easy. Sleepy, characterless, boring, and a bit hard to get to know are just some of the words that come to mind.
If you skip this one when backpacking in Cuba, you’re honestly not missing out on much. The city centre is strangely empty and there really aren’t many things to see and do. There’s the Teatro Sauto which at the time of writing was closed due to renovation, there’s a mural of Che Guevara, there’s a few cafes, and uh… That’s about it. We’re not even exaggerating.
Colonial Trinidad has a charming small-town vibe as well as breathtaking scenery. Start out by finding a casa particular in the area around Plaza Mayor and then spend the rest of the day wandering the cobblestone streets.
For a relaxed night out, head to the staircase next to Casa de la Música and enjoy live music and a drink in one of the bars. The square gets turned into a pretty busy dance floor, so make sure to wear your best dancing flip-flops.
For something to do during the day, it’s a good idea to head out of the city. Trinidad is located in Valle de los Ingenios or Valley of the Sugar Mills and there’s quite a few fun day trips available. That includes visiting the former sugar mills, the nearby fishing village of Casilda, and the beautiful Playa Ancón.
Camagüey is a fun little stop on the way down to Santiago de Cuba. The city is pretty well set up for tourism and there’s enough stuff to do to keep you moderately busy for a few days. As with most Cuban cities, Camagüey’s charm lies in taking it easy and expecting nothing.
Camagüey’s casco histórico is one of the best-preserved old towns you’ll see when backpacking in Cuba. The streets are lined with pastel-coloured colonial houses, there’s quite a few cute squares around, and there are more churches than you can count. In other words, Camagüey is a very Instagram-friendly city.
A few spots you can’t miss are Plaza San Juan de Dios, Plaza del Carmen, and Parque Ignacio Agramonte. You probably won’t be blown away by any of these squares, but they’re good for a little break or photo session.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is in many ways a unique city. Its strong Afro-Cuban culture adds a colour, energy, and rhythm that you won’t find in the western part of the island. As you’re strolling the streets, you’ll be hit by sweet salsa tunes coming from the nearby houses.
Apart from brushing up on your salsa moves, there’s also a few cool things to check out in town. The Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro is a 17th-century fortress built to hold back Captain Jack Sparrow’s great-great-great-great grandpa. You also get a pretty sick view of the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains. A little similar to Museo de la Revolución in Havana, Museo de la Lucha Clandestina is about the underground movement that overthrew Cuba’s dictator back in the 1950s.
If that’s all a little too dusty and historic, you can also just head over to Casa de las Tradiciones to see local musicians rehearsing. With a little luck, you might even catch a random street concert in the neighbourhood.