Cuba has for years been very much closed off to the world, especially for travelers from the United States.
But recently, the country’s tourism industry has seen a resurgence, as the nation opens its gates to visitors and those visitors embrace the chance to explore this vibrant island.
Havana is the capital of this island nation and it’s an incredibly diverse place, where hundreds of years of Spanish colonial history merge with modern Cuban culture on the old streets of the city.
It’s a place of rum and cigars, of fortresses and historic buildings, and of culture and diversity, where the Cuban spirit is most pronounced.
Havana is also the perfect base from which to explore much of the rest of the island too.
Located on the northern shore are beaches and national parks all within easy reach of the city center, while many of Cuba’s most exciting and energetic towns can be traveled to in a day.
There are plenty of exciting day trip opportunities available from Havana – here are the very best.
1. Havana Beaches
The historic center of Havana may be a maze of stone buildings and narrow alleyways, all built far back in the colonial days, but away from these old streets and just 30-minutes along the coast is a different world.
The beaches of Havana are absolutely spectacular and remind us why the island was such a popular tourist destination before its revolution.
Their ever-growing popularity now is also a reminder of how this island is likely to change soon, with the huge resurgence of tourism.
The best area to head is east, where the long, sandy, tropical beaches begin before the city even ends.
Travel to Playas del Este for laid-back beach days – to sip a few cocktails on the sand and enjoy the warm, clear waters.
If you are looking for more beach time, then the most spectacular stretches of sand in Cuba can be found at Varadero, to the east of Havana.
Varadero has long been the haunt of package holiday-makers from Europe, well before the island even began opening up to tourism.
This sheltered, closed-off beach resort has a completely different vibe than the rest of the country.
The reason that holidaymakers have sunned themselves here for years is that this small peninsula is simply beautiful.
This is one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, and at 20-kilometers long, even with lots of tourism here, there’s always space for more people.
It’s laid back, full of sun and full of rum – perfect for those awesome lazy afternoons on the beach.
Matanzas is found just over 100-kilometers away from Havana’s city center.
It’s a laid-back example of the slow-paced life many Cubans live outside of the big city.
It’s close to the resorts of Varadero, but unlike the beaches there, few people actually hang around to explore this charming place.
The small city looks out over the Bay of Matanzas and is a cultural heaven, famous across Cuba for its poets musicians and writers.
Spend the day strolling the streets of Matanzas and discovering the real Cuba.
4. Cuevas de Bellamar
The Bellamar Caves are found close to the city of Matanzas and are an incredible underground spectacle.
The caves are some of the most impressive in the Caribbean, and certainly the longest network of caves in Cuba.
They were discovered in 1861 and have been an important tourist attraction ever since.
It’s thought that there are at least 750-meters of tunnels and caves underground, but it’s possible that much more still remains undiscovered.
There are many day trips available from Havana that specifically take visitors here.
Walking through the cool, dark, ancient tunnels is a very humbling experience that makes for a very unique day trip.
5. Yumuri Valley
Also close to Matanzas, and the perfect distance away from Havana to make for an excellent day trip, the Yumuri Valley is a huge, lush area of green landscapes; it’s a wonderful place for hiking and outdoor exploration.
The Yumuri River runs through the valley itself and is fringed by tall mountains on either side, producing a place of startling contrasts.
Locals will tell you that this is the most beautiful part of Cuba.
Despite the obvious bias, they may, in fact, be absolutely correct.
6. The Hershey Train
One of the more unusual day trips to make from Havana is to take a ride on the Hershey Train.
This is an ancient electric train that was originally used by the Hershey Chocolate Company.
Before the revolution, they built train lines that connected their sugar plantations with Matanzas and then onto Havana.
Although the company left when Castro came to power and the government took over the trains, they are still in use today.
It’s not for everyone, because the trains are old and in a state of disrepair, but it is an incredibly nostalgic experience.
The journey is a slow one, but it’s possible to take the Hershey Train all the way from Havana to Matanzas, or vice versa.
It will probably take all day, so many people will take the train one way and find quicker transport for the return leg.
Colon is around a two-hour drive southeast of Havana, and it’s not the standard tourist attraction.
The small city isn’t usually found on travel itineraries, as there isn’t much of anything to see here, or any particular stand out attraction.
It’s made it onto this list, however, because of the fact that this is a place that is completely untouched by tourism.
This is the Cuba of your imagination – where grand colonial architecture stands proudly in the streets; where classic American cars from the 1950’s and 1960’s are still very much in everyday use; and where the charm that may be slowly fading elsewhere – especially along the busier coast of Havana – is still very, very much alive.
Cienfuegos lies 200-kilometers to the southeast of Havana and it’s one of the island’s most impressive cities to explore outside of the capital.
It’s an elegant, colorful and charming place, where laid-back life continues along the coast as it always has, with little care in the world.
The local name for the city is Perla del Sur, which translates to ‘Pearl of the South’, and you’ll soon realize just why it’s achieved this claim to fame.
The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a tribute to the 19th Century buildings which still remain here.
Trinidad is a city that’s also found southeast of Havana, but it’s a long day trip from the capital.
It’s very much worth making the journey though, in order to experience this UNESCO World Heritage Site in all its colorful glory.
The old colonial streets are some of the best preserved in the country, with many vibrantly painted houses and buildings giving the city its unique charms.
Outside of the UNESCO streets, many visitors travel here to experience the spectacular natural areas found nearby.
Make sure to visit the Topes de Collantes National Park – an area of outstanding beauty – where many towering waterfalls can be found.
Found in the western portion of the island, Vinales is one of Cuba’s most revered areas of natural beauty.
The town of Vinales is a small place, and the population of this wild, rugged area is sparse, meaning that the valley and the mountains here are almost untouched.
The Vinales Valley itself is now a UNESCO World Heritage area, where lush, green plains are punctuated by the distinct forms of huge, towering limestone cliffs that rise from the vegetation like giants.
It’s the perfect place for hiking and exploring rural Cuban life.
Cojimar is a small town on the eastern outskirts of Havana.
It’s really not far away, but it makes for a very interesting day trip, especially for literary fans of Ernest Hemingway.
The author spent a lot of time in Cuba and wrote many stories from the inspiration he gained here.
Today, he’s somewhat of a national hero for the way he portrayed Cuban life before the revolution; many of his favorite haunts are visited by locals and tourists alike.
Cojimar is one of those favorite spots, where Hemingway found inspiration on the coast for his book, The Old Man and the Sea, which helped him to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
12. Finca la Vigia Estate
Another favorite spot for day trippers and Hemingway fans is the Finca la Vigia Estate.
This was the former home of the famous writer, but even if you aren’t into his novels, it makes for an excellent day out.
Again found on the outskirts of Havana, it’s a lovely yet somewhat easy to reach escape from urban life.
13. Las Terrazas
Not far from Havana you can find Las Terrazas, an area of unique flora and fauna that acts as a bio-reserve and is a much-loved day trip from Havana.
The scenery here is beautiful and the protected vegetation is well-preserved; the area acts as a pioneering ecotourism endeavor.
14. Parque Nacional la Guira
This is one of the most interesting national parks in Cuba.
Found in the overgrown jungles west of Havana, this was once a wealthy landowners estate.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Che Guevara lived here amongst the many caves – which can be explored today – in order to survive if the Americans bombed Cuba.
15. Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata
South of Matanzas is Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata, a huge protected area of wilderness, jungle, and coastline.
The area includes the historic Bay of Pigs – where the US attempted an unsuccessful invasion after the Cuban Revolution.
Today, the region is becoming well-known amongst tourists for its diverse wildlife spotting opportunities.