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When we think of the the top things to do in the Caribbean island of Cuba, we visualise strolling past the multi-coloured houses lining the streets of Havana, with 1950s cars and stunning Spanish-colonial architecture. While a visit to Old Havana is definitely on the list, there are also sugar-white beaches and tobacco fields which are responsible for the legendary Cuban cigars. People have been saying it for a while, but now really is the time to visit Cuba; the shift in relations with the US means that times are changing and progress is happening here. Some of the renovation is much needed and very positive, but if you leave it too long to visit, the soul of Cuba may not be quite the same. Virgin Atlantic flies direct from London Gatwick to Havana in a little over 10 hours, but there are many other connecting flight options too if you wish to visit as part of a larger tour of this part of the world. Read on for my Top 5 things to do in Cuba now…
1. Varadero Beach
Cuba is famed for its beaches and Varadero (pictured above) has got to be one of the best; with more than 20km of stunning white sands and warm, clear water. This is a popular tourist town so expect the bustle and excitement surrounding the hotels on the beach and there are a handful sellers, although they are not pushy here. For a quieter experience, head to the DuPont Beach and nestle down in the white sands under the shade of a palm tree. If the more active takes your fancy, you can hire a boat, snorkel the reef, play beach volleyball, jet-ski, parasail, aqua bike, kayak, windsurf, scuba dive (there are 30 dive sites in the area) or just take a stroll and hunt for shells. It’s worth sticking around to catch the sunset, it’s totally stunning and the vibe is lovely with people from all over the world hanging around to chat.
2. Old Havana
The atmosphere of the old city is still mesmerising. You can spend a couple of hours walking around and exploring and despite the 50 years of neglect, the city is beautiful and totally bewitching. Take some time to study the architecture and imagine what this city would have been like in bygone eras. This is generally a safe city and the people are welcoming and hospitable; whether you are stopping for a coffee to people-watch or indulging in a Cuban cigar. Try to catch some local live music in the bars, there’s always something on and if you have time, a tour in an old American car is a fabulous way to travel. If you want to visit the museums, go early as they get busy.
Known as the City That Time Forgot, the locals will concur that the town remains pretty much unchanged since its colonial founding in 1514 as the centre of the sugar trade. This is real old-school Cuba; expect music everywhere you go, small galleries displaying the work of local artists, craft shops, cigar shops and even a local farmers market. A browse around the cobblestone streets and the Plaza Mayor (historic town centre) and you’re right back in colonial times. There are restrictions still in place so don’t expect a big hotel but somehow you don’t, the family-run B&Bs fit in perfectly and the rooftop restaurants afford you spectacular views. The town is surrounded by untouched beaches and neighbouring Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) is also part of the same UNESCO Heritage Site. It’s rather fabulous here by night too.
4. Pinar Del Rio
For something a little different but yet totally Cuban, pay a visit to Pinar Del Rio; with its lush green tobacco fields making it the centre of the cigar industry in Cuba. The Francisco Donatien Factory is a small factory where you can actually watch the workers expertly hand rolling fine cigars. The factory itself is housed in a former 19th-century prison and the 20 minute daily tours (come in the morning, it shuts at noon on the weekends and 4pm in the week) are truly fascinating and educational too.
Yes, it may be a bit of a cliché but it’s somewhere that you simply must visit on a trip to Cuba! The performances in the 2-hour cabaret shows are incredible; colourful, loud and very fun; yes, it’s a little over the top, but this is a once in a lifetime experience. Drinks and dinner also comes recommended, especially the complimentary rum! The venue is open air so dress accordingly.
The diversity of this country is evident with the range of activities in my Top 5 and to be honest you could easily turn this list into a Top 50, there’s a lot to see in Cuba and a lot of authentic experiences to undertake. Just relax, let go of any pre-conceptions and let the energy of Cuba flow into your veins!
If you are looking for inspiration, use Baarb.com to help you choose a brilliant place to stay in Cuba.
Read my other top five best articles to discover the best beaches and luxury hotels around the world.
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