This post was first published in 2018 but has been updated in 2019 with the most recent information things to do in Cuba.
In our opinion, Cuba is a great destination to add to your travel bucket list. Rich in history, colonial architecture, culture, beautiful scenery, and so many things to do in Cuba, it’s a destination that allows for a perfect combination of adventure, rest, and relaxation.
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We spent 3.5 weeks exploring Cuba on our recent visit, but even just a week in Cuba will be worth it. If there is one thing we have learned during our trip, it is that Cuba is full of interesting cities and unique experiences. There is enough to do there to keep travelers entertained for well over a month.
But if you’re planning a trip to Cuba, ironing out all of the details can be difficult. Based on our experience, we’ve put together our suggested Cuba itineraries for those planning to spend 1 week, 2 weeks, 3 weeks, or 4 weeks exploring the country and the top things to do in Cuba for each time frame.
Read on to find out all the details!
Getting Around Cuba
When you’re planning a trip to Cuba, it’s important to keep in mind how you’re going to get around, so plan your Cuba Itinerary according to that. We mainly took Collectivos, local and tourist buses and would recommend you do too. Plus they are a much more eco-friendly way of getting around Cuba versus renting a car.
Viazul tourist buses are the main way travellers get around Cuba. They offer greyhound style buses from most major cities around the country. You are guaranteed a seat when you book, and you can book online in advance. We would highly recommend this option for longer trips.
Keep in mind you will be paying for the whole duration of the trip, even if you are getting on mid-route. For example, the trip from Havana to Baracoa and the trip from Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa are both $15 USD because Santiago de Cuba is a stop on the Havana to Baracoa route.
Collectivos are fixed-rate taxis, that run on a predetermined route and leave when they are full. Essentially a shared taxi.
These are a good option for travelling shorter distances between cities. Your accommodation or locals will be able to point you in the direction of a Collectivo stand. Fares are slightly higher than local buses but still very cheap. Fares should be paid in CUP.
Local buses offer an authentic Cuban experience and the cheapest way to get from place to place. Like anywhere else they run long and short distances and have routes between cities and within them.
Buses are typically very full, and very hot. Routes are written on boards at the local bus stations, and fares should be paid in CUP when you get on the bus.
Taxis should be metered in Cuba, however, sometimes the driver will offer a slightly cheaper rate for a set fee. This is so that he can pocket the cash rather than hand it over to the state (remember Cuba is a still a communist country).
Taxis are typically very safe and convenient for getting around a city.
Car rentals give you a certain freedom that other modes of transportation can’t. However, roads are very poor, and signage is limited making getting around Cuba via car very difficult. Especially when there is no cell phone data to use Google Maps.
This option can also get quite expensive. With some car rentals starting at $100/per day and one-way drop off charges tending to be very high. The car rental companies are state-owned, but you hire a private driver and car and avoid dealing with government bureaucracy.
Parking can also be challenging, and there are stories of car rentals being reserved and then having the car not be available when the tourist arrives. So, for most travellers renting a car is more trouble than it is worth.
It is possible to travel inter-city by rail. However, the railway system is underdeveloped and often delayed in Cuba. So, often it is much more reliable to opt for other transportation options. For more information on railway travel in Cuba check out Seat 61.
Things to Do In Cuba & Top Destinations
If you are interested in experiencing some Cuban culture (and we sure hope you are), we recommend starting your trip in Havana, as it’s one of the best places to visit in Cuba.
Some of our best memories from Havana were from the days we spent getting lost in the streets of Old Havana, sipping cocktails, and enjoying people-watching in Plaza Vieja. The longer you stay in Havana, the more you’ll come to love this old colonial city.
If you are in need of some relaxation in nature and wondering where to go in Cuba, then head to Vinales. This beautiful and laid back lush valley in Pinar del Río province of Cuba provides a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Havana. It’s a great option for nature lovers looking for things to do in Cuba.
If you’re escaping the cold and snow back home and wondering where to go in Cuba, to spend a few days on the beach, there are a couple of ok beaches about 30 mins outside of Havana.
However, the best places to visit in Cuba for beaches with the whitest and most pristine stretches of sand in Varadero (located about 3 hours east of Havana).
While we wouldn’t usually recommend a visit such busy Cuba tourist attractions as Varadero, the truth is, nice beaches without the hordes of tourists and all-inclusive hotels just don’t exist in Cuba.
But unlike the other beach hot spots in the country, Varadero actually offers some alternatives to the overpriced all-inclusive, as the area is also full of Casa Particulars (Cuban homestays), catering to backpackers and those on a tighter budget.
If you’re on a budget and wondering where to go in Cuba, then hit the beach in Varadero
If you are like us and like to get off the beaten track a little bit and are wondering what to do in Cuba that will give you that authentic experience, then Cienfuegos should be on your Cuba itinerary. It gives you the chance to experience Cuba without the tourists.
Cienfuegos was one of our favourite destinations in Cuba, not because of its sights and attractions, but precisely because it didn’t have any. Apart from a quiet Malecon and the central street, Calle 37 that comes alive with locals around sunset, there really isn’t much to do or see in Cienfuegos.
But we found Cienfuegos to be a place where you could just roam around, peeking into locals’ homes, or chatting them up on the streets. Cienfuegos is friendly, it’s simple, and it just so happened to be the home to the best cocktail we had in all of our time in Cuba.
If you want to experience some Cuban nightlife and are wondering where to go in Cuba, check out the small bar El Botellon (Calle 33, Between Avenue 52 and 54).
Despite being one of the most touristy places in Cuba, Trinidad is a gem worth visiting and one of the best places to visit in Cuba. This perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement is a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting a historic centre, cobblestone streets, a great selection of restaurants and shops, and lots of nearby activities to entertain even the pickiest visitor.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the second-largest city in Cuba and one that played a large role in the historical and cultural development of Cuban. The city is home to a rich mix of cultures and Afro-Caribbean heritage and is often described as the most Caribbean city in the country. In July, the city also hosts the Santiago de Cuba Carnaval, one of the largest celebrations in all of South America.
Main Plaza in Santiago de Cuba
But with or without Carnaval, Santiago is a great destination to feel the rhythm of the nation. It’s the place where salsa lovers and those that appreciate live music will fit right in.
A small town of Baracoa, the most eastern point in Cuba, just so happened to be one of our favourite destinations in Cuba. In October 2016 (about 2 months after our visit), Baracoa was devastated by Hurricane Matthew. Now in 2018, you would barely notice that a devastating hurricane once swept through the town.
Suggested Cuba Itineraries
Cuba Itinerary – 1 Week
Havana to Vinales or Varadero
If you only have a week in Cuba, we suggest that you focus your Cuba itinerary on just one or two destinations. The country may look small on the map, but the lack of good infrastructure makes it hard to hop around from city to city. One week in Cuba may not sound like much, but you can still tick some of the best places to visit in Cuba off of your list.
While you’re figuring out what to do in Cuba for a week, you’ll want to spend at least 3-4 days in Havana. This will give you just enough time to explore most of Old Havana, visit the Malecon, and get a chance to take a trip out to Vedado. But even those that decide to spend an entire week in Havana won’t get bored. The city itself is one of the most popular Cuba tourist attractions, and it’s easy to see why.
Spend 2-3 days in Vinales. Enjoy the scenery of the Karst mountains, take a horseback riding tour, go on a hike, or visit one of the many tobacco farms to get the lowdown on one of Cuba’s biggest exports.
Cuba Itinerary – 2 Weeks
Havana to Trinidad
2 weeks in Cuba will give you enough time to go past Havana, Vinales, and Varadero and explore more of the island.
It’s just enough time to sample more of the unique things to do in Cuba. If you’re planning on 2 weeks in Cuba, there are 2 destinations that you can now add to your Cuba itinerary: Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
Plan to spend 1-2 days in the quiet town of Cienfuegos. It is the only town in Cuba that was founded by the French and thus it looks and feels different from the other parts of the country.
Plan to stay in Trinidad for 1-2 days to get a feel for the place and explore the old colonial center, and add another 2-3 days if you want to pay a visit to the surrounding attractions, like Playa Ancon (one of the nicest non-all inclusive beaches in the country) or the waterfalls just outside of the town in Topes de Collantes National Park.
If you have time, add another day to your Cuba itinerary and plan a trip to Santa Clara (you can do this as a day trip from Cienfuegos or Trinidad) where you can learn more about the history of Cuba.
Santa Clara offers many of the most interesting things to do in Cuba. Pay a visit to the resting place of Che Guevara, and the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, the site of one of the most important battles in Cuban history.
Cuba Itinerary – 3 Weeks
Havana to Santiago de Cuba
With an additional week up your sleeve, you can cover the cities in the 2-Week Cuba itinerary and head further south towards Santiago de Cuba and beyond adding to your list of what to see in Cuba as you go!
Plan to spend at least 3 days in Santiago de Cuba and budget another 2 for getting there and back. If you happen to be visiting Cuba in July, don’t miss a chance to attend Santiago de Cuba Carnaval.
Cuba Itinerary – 4 Weeks
Havana to Baracoa
This is the Cuba itinerary that we followed during our time in Cuba and allows you ample time to experience all the best things to do in Cuba. Since we only had 3.5 weeks instead of the full 4 weeks, the itinerary did seem a bit rushed, so keep that in mind if you are looking at this option.
Plan to spend at least 3-4 days in Baracoa to enjoy the town, visit the Humboldt National Park, check out the nearby beaches, or climb Mt. El Yunque. Budget another 1-2 days for transit as getting to Baracoa is an adventure in and of itself! The town is located a bumpy 5-hour ride from Santiago de Cuba.
Slow Down Instead of Adding More to Your Cuba Itinerary!
If you have more than an extra week to spare, we suggest that you slow down your pace instead of adding more destinations to your Cuba itinerary.
Give yourself a few extra days in Havana to drink, eat, dance, and just soak in this fascinating city. It’s the melting pot of the best things to do in Cuba.
Spend a few solid days relaxing on the beach (or by the pool). While we don’t usually recommend all-inclusive resorts, we spent 4 fantastic relaxing days at the Memories Playa Jibacoa Resort enjoying their lovely private beach, yoga classes, great food, and nice amenities. It was a much-needed escape after 2 weeks of exhausting bus/Collectivos travel in the southern part of Cuba.
Add a few extra days to your time in Trinidad to visit the nearby mountains and waterfalls. We heard it was a trip worth making, although we didn’t have the time to experience it ourselves.
Remember that at the end of the day, some of the most interesting and memorable moments will probably take place when you least expect it. So give your trip the extra space it needs so you can have the time to take it all in, to reflect, and to learn more about the history of Cuba and the daily lives of its people.
2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Cuba Itinerary: Things to do in Cuba on Your Next Vacation”
Nice post Max and Oksana! We intend to go there pretty soon… How about lodging prices? Do you guys have got any recommendation?
Hi guys, great post! Hubby & I are going for NYE this year (eek!) for 5 nights. We would have travelled up from Panama/Costa Rica for 6 weeks before this so would have seen some amazing beaches – do you think its worth culling Varadero and just spending the time in Havana (3 nights) & Vinales (2 nights)? I’ve also heard its easy to get Casa Particulares once on the island, but I’d really like to book ahead, being NYE. Do you know if you can book any of these homestays in advance? Any advice appreciated..