10 things you HAVE to see & do in Cuba – as recommended by Travelzoo members
You’ll often hear people describe a certain destination by saying “there’s nowhere like it”. On this one, you’ll just have to trust us – there really is nowhere like Cuba.
This is a land of salsa, cigars and vintage cars; where crumbling colonial architecture meets bath-temperature seas and sparkling crystalline beaches are baked by Caribbean heat.
We love Cuba, and we know many of you do too. How do we know this? Well, we decided to ask Travelzoo fans on Facebook for their Cuba tips. Specifically, we wanted to know what’s the one thing people would recommend above all others.
The response was huge. We were inundated with tips from people and declarations of love for this special country.
So we decided to collect the 10 things that cropped up most frequently in your responses and list them in this blog post. Whether you’ve been to Cuba before or need a little intel ahead of your first trip, we guarantee you’ll find some inspiration here.
1. Get out & meet the people
Although the items in this list appear in no particular order, there was only one place to start: the people. When we asked for Cuba tips, the one thing that came up more often than anything else, by quite some distance, was a recommendation to get out and meet the amazing locals in Cuba.
Jayne Houghton, Keith Winn, and Anita Rainford were just a few who urged everyone to go beyond the hotel and get to know the real Cuba. Here’s Paul Shaw: “The people are so lovely and friendly. Get out into the country and meet the local residents, they’re fantastic people. Loved it so much!”
Many of you also suggested packing a few extra items to give away. Keith Winn says, “We took bars of soap, toothbrushes, pencils, pens and books. The people who look after you are poor but do not want money. They are so grateful for these items.”
2. Uncover cabaret history at the Club Tropicana
If you’ve ever wondered where the sequin-and-feather cabaret acts of Las Vegas were born, here’s your answer. Ever so slightly cheesy it might be, but Havana’s Club Tropicana is a window on the past. As Travelzoo fan Wendy Rogers says, “You have to go, for the journey into history.”
This is where the mobsters (and celebs such as Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway and Errol Flynn) of pre-revolution Cuba used to hang out, smoking cigars, drinking rum and watching the dazzling shows.
A word of warning. Despite what you might remember from the old Wham! song, drinks here are most definitely not free. Not last time we checked anyway.
3. Follow in Hemingway’s footsteps
There are few people more inextricably linked with Cuba than American author Ernest Hemingway. “Papa” made his home in the impressive Finca Vigia in Havana, for 20 years between 1939 and 1960, and it was here that he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. Of course, when he wasn’t writing, he was busy carousing in the bars of Havana.
One of his favourite establishments was Floridita, possibly because of its famously brilliant daiquiris Travelzoo members Alison Jones and Gaynor Edwards both agree – “the strawberry daiquiris are the best”, says Gaynor.
Another of Hemingway’s favourites was the Bodeguita del Medio, his bar of choice when a mojito was required. A number of Travelzoo staffers have been and wholeheartedly agree, as does Travelzoo member Annabel Lucy.
4. Go west – to Viňales & Maria La Gorda
Many people like to combine their Havana stay with a beach break – often in nearby Varadero. This is a great choice as it gives you chance to see two different sides of Cuba. We often run deals that combine a trip to both of these classic Cuba destinations.
However, if you have a little more time on your hands, you might consider heading west. Here’s Travelzoo member Erry Lilley: “Aside from Havana, go to the Viňales valley for traditional agriculture [including the tobacco plantations] and the amazing mogotes.”
Here’s what in store…
“Keep on going,” says Erry, “and head to the white coral beaches of Maria la Gorda. If you go at the right time, you’ll see an unbelievable crab migration – it’s an amazing experience trying to drive through this.”
5. Hire a vintage car, driver & guide
The image that’s synonymous with Cuba, perhaps above all others, is that of a beautiful vintage car cruising through the streets of Havana. These vehicles, expertly maintained over decades, make for a great way to see the city. Karen Michelle Webb-James knows how it’s done: “Hire a classic car, driver and guide, they take you to all the best places. We had a pink Cadillac. Fabulous.”
Alison Overbury agrees about hiring a guide: “You will see parts of Havana that are off the tourist trail and your guide will enjoy your interest. We saw where the old time gangsters used to stay and other cool places.”
6. Remember that it’s not all about Havana
Everyone wants to see Havana (and with good reason), but don’t overlook Cuba’s second city, Santiago, at the eastern end of the island. Musically, it’s widely considered to be Cuba’s beating heart and is a must for anyone with dancing feet. Linda Warburton and Trish Duffy both labelled Santiago a must for your to-do-list.
And if you’re heading that way, you are hereby ordered to stop in Trinidad on the way. This immaculately preserved colonial settlement, with cobbled streets and pastel houses will take your heart. “Trinidad is amazing,” says Liz Hawksworth, and we’d have to agree.
7. Look beyond restaurants for the finest food
Cuba doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to food. However, as Susanna Salts says, it all depends on whether you know where to look. “Go to one of the private restaurants [known as paladares] in someone’s home. You get treated like royalty and the food is delicious. They can only have a maximum of 50 covers and they really appreciate your custom.”
8. Live like a Cuban – check into a casa particular
There’s a lot to be said for the fly-and-flop holiday, and there are some fantastic hotels in Cuba that make this a great option. But for anyone who wants to experience a slice of real Cuban life, a few nights in a private homestay (known locally as casas particulares) is a must.
These private and characterful homes have been given special licences by the government to rent out spare rooms, thereby giving you a chance to stay and eat with a local family. Travelzoo member Jazz Bhangal agrees: “Forget staying in big hotels – instead stay with locals in casas particulares”.
9. Hit the beach
Cuba was clearly near the front of the queue when stellar beaches were being handed out. Whichever part of the island you’re heading to, rest assured there’ll be a beautiful stretch of sand nearby.
The following all got a mention when we asked for recommendations: Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Santa Maria and Varadero on the north coast; Playa Larga, Playa Giron and Cayo Largo to the south; and Maria La Gorda in the west.
Here’s Varadero to get you in the mood.
10. Don’t come home
Here’s member Lee Speed with a final thought: “I’d recommend avoiding the flight home. I absolutely fell in love with the place and cried my eyes out on my final night.”
That, ladies and gents, is the effect Cuba has on people.