Three of the best places in Cuba for old world charm

How about a Sunny Heart holiday to a place where time seems to stand still?

Our beautiful blue planet’s full of fascinating destinations with a real Olde Worlde vibe. But if you’re craving tropical sunshine and a Caribbean breeze to go with all that history, the only way is Cuba. With its Spanish colonial style, it’s one of our top destinations with old world charm.

Cuba’s pretty different from anywhere else, as it’s still shut off in many ways from the rest of the world. You can’t take the currency (Cuban Convertible Peso) in or out of the country, you’re not likely to see familiar brands, and meals often have a very local, un-‘cheffy’ feel; but I think things like that are all part of what makes Cuba such an unforgettable country to visit. This is one rare corner of the world where you can have a proper travel experience, whether you’re on a backpacking budget or a luxury holiday. So, where are the most charming old places to visit in Cuba?

1. Havana

This is the big one, the capital, the place you’ll know from the photos. All those glamorous old buildings, which are now being saved from crumbling to dust. The oldest part of Havana, known as La Habana Vieja, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that means it’s being preserved for future generations. While some are sad that Havana’s losing some of that air of neglect that added extra charm, at least it’s still here for those who call it home – and, of course, for us to visit.

What is there to do in Havana?

For full-on old-world charm, spend your time exploring the streets of La Habana Vieja. I was only there for one night, so I focused on the main touristy things; like wandering around Plaza Vieja (the old central square), browsing the shops on the lively Calle Obispo for unique souvenirs, and drinking daiquiris in El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars (the American author lived in Cuba for many years).

You could also soak up the atmosphere in a cafe on Plaza de Armas, dance the salsa at Casa de la Musica, and visit the city’s fortresses, such as Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta on the harbour.

Best beach resort near Havana: We spent the rest of our holiday in Varadero. It takes at least two hours to travel between the two, depending on how you’re doing it. We went to Havana on an overnight excursion direct from our Varadero beach hotel, but you could also hire a car or take the bus.

 2. Camaguey

This art-loving city’s perfect if you like to lose yourself in your destination. Literally, as it happens: Camaguey’s quaint old streets and alleyways are like some kind of tricky knot puzzle, apparently designed to confuse pirates. And that means you’re never quite sure what to expect around the next corner. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty exciting. This is one place to keep your camera at the ready at all times!

What is there to do in Camaguey?

Well, you can’t miss the churches in old Camaguey – again, literally, as there are lots of them. If nothing else, make sure you check out the catacombs under the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced. For something with a little more, erm, life about it, go in June for carnival week; it’s spectacular!

That said, colonial Camaguey’s a special place to visit at any time of the year, especially if you’re into history or art. There are countless galleries housed in the colourful colonial buildings; in particular, look out for Galeria Martha Jimenez, displaying the work of one of Cuba’s best-known artists, and the astonishing Casa de Art Jover, where you can see original friezes alongside the modern artworks. Or how about joining an art class while you’re there?

Best beach resort near Camaguey: The main beach resort in the Camaguey region is Playa Santa Lucia. It’s brilliant for diving and snorkelling! Camaguey city’s about 2 hours away by car or taxi; you can also take a longer journey by bus.

3. Santiago de Cuba

You’ll get a different angle on old world charm in Santiago de Cuba. It’s still got the Spanish heritage you’re after but here it’s mixed with Afro-Caribbean culture, the story of the Cuban revolution and, more than perhaps any other city on the island, music.

What is there to do in Santiago de Cuba?

If you’re the kind of person who likes to sit in the sun with a coffee, you’re going to love Parque Cespedes. This music-filled square’s the perfect place to get a feel for Santiago de Cuba; you could people-watch the day away here if you’re not in the mood for sightseeing. But that would be a shame as you’ll only be a few steps from Casa de Diego del Velazquez, one of the oldest houses in Cuba – it’s a museum now and one of several glorious, must-see buildings on Parque Cespedes.

Make sure you give yourself time to explore the streets that haven’t been regenerated, too, as that’s where you’ll get to see more of the city’s ‘real’ life. It’s not hard to find, just off the pretty shopping street of Jose a Saco.

Ignoring our ‘old world charm’ theme for a minute, Santiago de Cuba’s one of the best places to explore Cuba’s more recent history. Among the places you can visit is the beautifully restored Museum of the Clandestine Struggle, which is as memorable for its city view as for the story it tells.

Best beach resort near Santiago de Cuba: For a beach break nearby, you could try Baconao, about an hour from Santiago de Cuba (an hour and a half by bus). It’s in a protected natural area and feels like a wild paradise, quite different from Cuba’s better-known beach resorts.

Drop us an email to arrange your trip back in time with Sunny Heart Travel: [email protected]

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