From Christopher Columbus’ trip in 1492 to the Bay of Pigs and beyond, Cuba has seen its fair share of historic events. With the restrictions on American visits significantly relaxing as of January 16, it might be a good time to consider everything the nation once known as the "Pearl of the Antilles" has to offer. American travel to Cuba must still fall within 12 categories—including religious, educational, cultural, professional, journalistic or humanitarian activities—although the administration says there will now be fewer hoops to jump through, and Americans will be able to spend money more freely within the country.
"Cuba boasts some of the oldest cities in the hemisphere," says Emilio Cueto, a researcher specializing in Cuban culture who advises the Smithsonian Journeys excursions. "To travel to Cuba is to travel in many directions and throughout many heritages."
Here are our picks for the sites that tell Cuba’s story, from its days as the staging area for Spanish explorations of the Americas to the tumultuous political events of the 20th century.
Founded by the Spanish in 1519 and once the largest port in the region, Havana's historic city center retains an time-warped, atmospheric allure. Bounded by the original city walls and marked by five large plazas (each with its own architectural style), Old Havana is a mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments and narrow streets lined by private homes. Highlights include the baroque Catedral de San Cristóbal (one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas, and once home to the remains of Christopher Columbus) and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (the oldest extant colonial fortress in the Americas). UNESCO has designated all of Old Havana a World Heritage site, alongside its vast network of centuries-old defensive installations—which include some of the biggest and the oldest stone fortifications still standing anywhere in the Americas.