Visiting Trinidad—about a four-hour drive southeast from Havana—is a form of time travel. Founded in 1514, the city prospered in the 18th and 19th centuries on sugar and slavery, when vast fortunes filled mansions with extravagant chandeliers, china, and silver. Then time moved on, leaving the city forgotten. Trinidad's unique combination of perfectly preserved Spanish colonial architecture and time-honored way of life is its main draw.
In winter months the city can be swamped with sightseers, but it’s easy to escape the hordes and experience more rustic quarters. Nearby, white-sand beaches, cattle ranches, ancient haciendas, and the Sierra Escambray Mountains await. Here are some of the top options for where to stay, eat, and have fun during your stay in Trinidad.
You can fly direct to Cienfuegos from North America, then take a Víazul bus or taxi to Trinidad—a 75-minute journey. Many visitors arrive in Trinidad after visiting Cienfuegos or Santa Clara en route from Havana or Varadero, and Víazul buses link Trinidad to these destinations.
You can also arrange a taxi or chauffeured ride in a classic 1950s automobile. Or hire a rental car in Havana and follow the Autopista Nacional, exiting for Cienfuegos at Aguada de Pasajeros: a 4.5-hour journey via the Costera Sur coast road (linking Cienfuegos to Trinidad). You can also take the Autopista all the way to Santa Clara, then after sightseeing head south on Ruta 4-474 via Manicuragua and the Sierra Escambray.
Getting from Havana’s International Airport to the Autopista is easy: take Ruta 246—the main highway exiting the airport—four miles north to the traffic circle (by the Oro Negro gas station) and turn right. Follow this east for six miles as the Circunvalación (ring-road) until it connects to the Autopista. For information on where to stay should you decide to overnight in Havana, check out our list of Top 10 Boutique Hotels in Havana.
Sights and Activities
Experiencing and enjoying Trinidad is less about visiting museums and historic sites as it is about wandering the virtually traffic-free cobbled streets, absorbing the time-warp ambiance, and marveling at the neoclassical and baroque colonial architecture of the tile-roofed mansions and homes awash in tropical pastels. The historic core is still a thriving community and features mule-drawn carts, cowboys on horses, and twittering caged songbirds. Here are the principal sites of interest not to be missed.
Plaza Mayor and vicinity
Most historic sights are within one or two blocks of Plaza Mayor or on the plaza itself. Ringed by wrought-iron fencing and studded with royal palms, the town’s exquisite main plaza is surrounded by true jewels of colonial architecture:
Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Concepción: Echoing its conservative 18th-century exterior, the cathedral was rebuilt in 1862 with a dour Gothic interior, but has some intriguing statuary. A large percent of trinitarios (city locals) are active Catholic practitioners, and Sunday Mass is a great time to visit.
Museo de Arquitectura Colonial: The City Historian’s Office has done a fine job in creating a museum of spellbinding interest, with superb displays and English-speaking guides that regale the evolution of colonial-period architecture locally. It occupies the Casa de los Sánchez Iznaga, on the plaza’s east side.
Museo de Arqueología: German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt stayed in the former Casa Padrón, to the southwest corner; now displaying archeological finds and exhibits on local flora and fauna.
Museo Romántico: On the northwest side of the plaza, the two-story Palacio Brunet is filled with 18th-century antiques, as if the family might return at any moment.
Museo Histórico: Well worth seeking out, this museum—half a block downhill from the plaza—in the former Palacio Cantero, is dedicated to regaling the region’s history. Rooms are themed: slavery, sugar-production, etc. Highlights include a weathered volanta—a single axle colonial carriage with massive wheels—and a fountain that once squirted champagne. Clamber up the tower for an awesome view of the city.
Casa Templo de Santería Yemayá: At Calle Villena 59, half-a-block southwest of Plaza Mayor, peer in through the door or window and you’ll note a black doll dressed in white sitting erect on a chair. Motifs of fishes swim along the walls. To the rear is a shrine to Yemayá, the saint-god of the sea and Mother Goddess in the santería religion; her avatar is the Virgin of Regla in Catholicism.
Plazuela Real del Jigüe: A few steps further west brings you to a charming little plaza—founding site of the city in 1514—marked by a jigüe, or calabash tree. The exquisite façade of the one-story restaurant on the south side is a stunner. There's usually a 1950s car and a donkey or mule passing by to lend a National Geographic quality to the setting.
Antiguo Convento de San Francisco de Asís: Rising to the northeast of Plazuela Real del Jigüe, along Calle Piro Guinart, this former convent features a campanile that has become a symbol of the city; it can be climbed for great views, but the narrow, steep staircase is not for the faint-of-heart. It centers another lovely plaza where trovadores (performers of traditional songs) serenade visitors from beneath a flamboyán tree, which flashes bright red in winter months. The convent today houses the Museo de la Lucha Contra Los Bandidos, with motley mementos of the fight to eradicate counter-revolutionaries (which Cuba calls “bandits” for their terrorist acts).
Mansión de los Conspiradores: Plaza Mayor extends to the northeast, where at the base of a broad staircase this two-story home with an ornate balustrade is named for the anti-Spanish conspirators who once met here. It today hosts an intriguing art gallery and café perfect for a refreshing mojito, limonada, or cappuccino.
Plazuela de Segarte: One hundred yards further east, this triangular plaza is lined with art galleries, several paladares (private restaurants), and the earthy and spirited Casa de la Trova. Dating from 1777, it hosts traditional music every afternoon and evening.
Other sights in Trinidad
Plaza de los Tres Cruces: This bare-earth plaza surrounded by simple 18th-century homes is centered by three wooden crosses that have long served as the terminus for religious processions. This humble area is overlooked by most visitors, but it's here that you’ll discover the real Cuba untainted by tourists.
Parque Céspedes: On the southern fringe of the historic core is Parque Céspedes, a paved and partially tree-shaded plaza where Locals play chess while young lovers canoodle under a long arbor. The Etecsa telephone exchange and a modest church and town hall are also here.
La Maqueta: At the corner of Colón and Dragones the Casa Frías hosts an impressive scale model (maqueta) of the city, with every building, every balcony and even every tree shown in situ. Guided history tours are given.
Plaza Santa Ana: On the eastern fringe of the casco histórico (historic district) stands—albeit barely—the ruined shell of Iglesia de Santa Ana. Adjacent, the city’s former jail now hosts a restaurant, bar, art gallery, and cultural event venue.
El Alfarero Casa ‘Chichí’ Santander: Trinidad is renowned for its pottery. The most interesting taller (workshop) is that of the Santander family: two brothers each have an adjacent taller where you can marvel at how pottery is made. Bring Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) to purchase a souvenir.
When you need a break from roaming the cobbled streets, head to Playa Ancón, a scintillating stretch of white sand beach where tourists from the three resort hotels lay out their towels. Snorkeling is ho-hum off the beach, but excursions—including for scuba diving—are offered to idyllic Cayo Blanco.
The beach lines a peninsula that curls around mangrove-lined Bahía de Casilda like a shepherd’s crook. You can hire a taxi, but the TrinidadBusTour shuttle also operates five times daily. For more great Cuban beaches, check out this article.
For beach time, Cuban families prefer the rustic coastal hamlet of La Boca, four miles west of Trinidad and where many trinitarios maintain second homes. The little beaches can’t compete with Ancón, and the Caribbean waters are rocky, but you'll be treated to epic views of the Sierra Escambray. Plus there are several dozen private B&Bs, several good paladares, and all the fun of a day at the beach spent with locals.
Valle de los Ingenios
Trinidad owes its immense colonial-era wealth to the ‘Valley of the Sugar Mills,’ five miles east of town. The verdant valley was once farmed end to end in sugarcane, now much depleted, and most of the 19th-century mills are now in ruins, having been destroyed during the Wars of Independence. But several haciendas have been restored. Most visitors head to Hacienda Manaca-Iznaga, the most complete of the former mills and manor houses, with a seven-story tower that can be climbed. To avoid the tourist hordes, head further east to Sitio Histórico Guaímiro—a lovingly restored former hacienda with spectacular wall murals and a chapel.
A steam train that famously offered tourist excursions from Trinidad has ceased operation.
Hiking: Book an excursion in Trinidad for an open-air ride by ex-Soviet Army truck to Topes de Collantes, in the Sierra Escambray mountain range. The area has the best trail system in Cuba, and hiking these thickly forested hills, with their jungle ferns, vines, and epiphytes is a cool treat made more so by waterfalls with pools good for swimming.
Horseback riding: Trinidad is still wed to the country and horseback riding is a popular option. Several licensed private operators solicit business on the streets, so you won't have to look far for a cabalgata (horse riding) excursion.
Scuba Diving: You can find operators offering diving excursions at Playa Ancón.
Planning Your Itinerary
Trinidad is small enough that you could easily explore the main sites in two days. But to enjoy it fully you should go with the flow, taking time to mingle with locals and get a flavor of the city. Three days is perfect, adding a day for exploring beyond town—you can visit the Valle de los Ingenios in the morning and laze at Playa Ancón in the afternoon—and maybe another day for hiking or horseback riding.
The TrinidadBusTour makes a five-times-daily circuit of the area, including the Valle de los Ingenios and Playa Ancón. In town, bicitaxis are the default mode of transport if you don’t feel like walking. Taxis and scooters can be rented for short trips out of town.
There’s no best time to visit. Although winter months (November-March) are slightly cooler than summer, the tourist crowds in peak season resemble Venice when the cruise ships are in. The throngs dissipate in summer months, making such a popular attraction seem more personal. But summer months can be brutally hot, afternoon thunderstorms are almost a daily occurrence, and prolonged rainstorms are frequent. For more detailed information on when to visit, see this article.
Where to Stay
Trinidad enjoys thousands of visitors daily in the peak winter months, and available lodging options may be in short supply. The town has only three relatively small hotels, plus three larger beach resorts of varying quality at nearby Playa Ancón.
Happily, the city has more than 1,000 casas particulares (private B&Bs), and the vast majority of travelers stay here. Most B&Bs are fairly simple, although all offer the basic necessities of hot water and air-conditioning and/or fans—plus you get the benefit of living with a welcoming Cuban family. Some homes within the historic zone astonish for their wealth of colonial-era antiques and charming yesteryear ambiance. A few new arrivals verge on deluxe.
Other lodging options include restored colonial homes ad 19th-century townhouse mansions. The best hotel in Trinidad—in fact, one of Cuba’s finest regional options—is the Iberostar Gran Trinidad. It’s not cheap, and the luxury can seem a bit removed from the true trinitario experience, but if you must have a billiards room and cigar lounge, this is clearly for you.
There are three beach resorts of middling quality, some of which are all-inclusive. They're a bit far from the action, but passable if all you seek are sun, sand, and sea.
Where to Eat
Small it may be, but Trinidad has a surprising number of fabulous paladares, many in colonial homes that double as exemplars of yesteryear luxury.
Vista Gourmet: This superb option has alfresco rooftop dining with sensational views of the town and the distant mountains and Caribbean. The owner—a sommelier and professional chef—knows his stuff and serves an unbelievably varied buffet dinner.
Sol Ananda: On the south side of Plaza Mayor, this exquisite colonial-era restaurant is brimful of antiques, including brass beds in two of the small dining rooms. Traditional Cuban criolla (local) dishes include some creative options, such as curried shrimp, but the ropa vieja is also to die for.
Guitarra Mía: The owner is a well-known composer-guitarist, and trovadores are always present to entertain. The criolla menu hits all the expected notes, including ropa vieja and roast pork dishes.
Café Don Pepe: Settle under a shade tree in this brick-lined patio to savor a refreshing iced coffee with cola, or recharge with a wickedly strong espresso or frothy cappuccino.
Trinidad’s vibrant culture surprises and delights many visitors. From ancient dive bars to booming discos, there’s something for every hour of the day. Most entertainment is infused with traditional rhythms: Every café and restaurant, for example, has its trovadores, and groups of them can be found on shady plazas serenading passing tourists.
Ground zero for traditional Cuban son music is the Casa de la Trova, where enthusiastic locals of every age eagerly get up to dance to songs by such renowned trovadores as Israel Moreno.
A stone’s throw west, the beat of bongos will draw you irresistibly to Palacio de los Congos Reales, where riveting matinees and evening performances of an espectáculo afrocubano (Afro-Cuban show) are given.
Young locals showcase their salsa moves at Casa de la Música, atop the staircase just off Plaza Mayor, and where live bands often perform. Then, night-owls can clamber uphill to Disco Ayala, a full-on nightclub held inside a cave full of dripstone formations.
Especially in winter months, it’s worthwhile getting up at dawn—around 6 am—to experience Trinidad at its most authentic. The silence is magical, the cool air refreshing, and the tourist hordes are still snoozing. Plus, the street life is stirring. You’ll have it all to yourself as cowboys and cowgirls head off to work their farms.
The early morning hours are also the best time for photos. You can also take an afternoon siesta and reemerge to catch the late-day sun gilding Trinidad’s brightly painted colonial houses.
Strolling the sloping cobbled streets of Trinidad by day is hot work. Stay hydrated: drink plenty of bottled water! Wear sunscreen and sunglasses and, ideally, a shade hat. You’ll need comfortable sturdy shoes to handle the cobblestones, while shorts or skirts—not too short, as this is a relatively conservative city—are recommended.
Trinidad is a shopper's paradise. Several streets in the historic center are lined with stalls selling everything from simple wooden statues and paper-mâché classic cars to high-quality art and guayaberas (iconic pleated Cuban shirts).
Scores of vendors here sell all manner of lace and linen pieces. The best shop is La Casa de Crochet, immediately east of Plaza Mayor. Around the corner, at Casa-Estudio Lázaro Niebla, the eponymous artist crafts astonishing likenesses of real-life city elders onto colonial-era cedar panels; his works aren’t cheap, but they’re a unique investment by an artist now gaining international fame. Among the dozens of little art studios and galleries, our favorite is Casa-Galería Carlos Mata, half-a-block north of the Antiguo Convento de San Francisco de Asís. Proprietor Carlos is known as the “painter of the night” for his evocative scenes of nocturnal Trinidad.