When President Obama opened up diplomatic relations with Cuba, American tourists began flocking to Cuba. In February, I became one of those tourists, and discovered that the rumors are all true: Cuba is spectacular! I was in Havana for four days, which were packed full of sightseeing, dining and drinking. The city is walkable, full of colorful buildings, shops, and historical sights. Check it out for yourself before ticket prices go up and mojitos cost more than $2!
How to get there: Many commercial airlines now fly to Cuba, including JetBlue and American Airlines. Tickets are incredibly inexpensive so strike while the iron is hot! You do need a visa, which the airline will sell to you at the airport. It costs $50. Your trip needs to fall into one of thirteen categories defined by the state department, which can be as simple as “people to people contact.”
Where to Stay
You can either choose to stay in a casa, which is a home you rent from a local or a hotel. You can even just a room in a local resident’s home, if you want to save money. There are a number of hotels, such as the one where I stayed, called Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal, although they are booked pretty far in advance. The main decision you should make is whether you should stay in old town, the center, or Vedado. There are casas and hotels in all of those neighborhoods. We stayed in old town because it is where most of the sights are, but Vedado is a good choice too; it’s the trendier part of town. And the center is the cheapest!
There is so much to see and do!!! A word of advice: be sure to get a map. Your phone won’t work, so you won’t have access to the internet or google maps. Wi-Fi is hard to find. You will have to rely on a city map to get around, and will likely have to guide your taxi driver, as the cars don’t have GPS! Public transport is easy in Havana; there are tuk tuks, taxis, bicycle taxis and buses, all of which are easy to use. Just be sure to negotiate the price before you get in! They even have shared taxis—basically uber pool without the app.
Havana Tour Company’s Old Havana Walking Tour: This tour is essential to understanding Cuban culture and politics. Take the tour on your first day so you can learn about Havana and get oriented with the city. We visited the four famous squares in the city, went to an open air book market, saw important government buildings and learned about the lives of local residents. Our tour guide was interesting and knowledgeable, and happy to answer the hundreds of questions we asked her!
Urban Adventures Afro-Cuban Tour: This tour gives you a glimpse into the lives of those practicing Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion. You will get to see artwork, a religious dance, and even visit the home of practicing Santero.
Museo de Ron: Once you have oriented yourself with the city you need to visit the Museum of Rum! Rum is the national liquor, and used in nearly every cocktail you will sample in Havana. Learn about how rum is made in Cuba and sample different varies of rum, including a super smooth aged rum.
Museo de la Revolucion: This is one of the most interesting museums I have ever been, and it gave me great insight into the history of the Cuban people. Learn about Batista and his cruel regime, the revolution, the roles of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the changes implemented by Fidel, and the aftermath. It is deeply interesting.
Museo Nacional de Bella Artes de la Habana: Cuban culture is rich with art, music, and literature. This is showcased by the street musicians and jazz concerts, outdoor book markets, a plethora of private art galleries, and the stunning national art museum. The art is historical, colorful, and dramatic, and will give you an understanding of the Cuban way of life.
Where to Eat, Drink, and Be Entertained
It is important to note that in Havana most restaurants are state-owned. These venues serve bland, awful food. You need to seek out paladares, which are privately owned restaurants. Usually these spots are former homes or sections of homes that people have turned into restaurants. Historically, people were not allowed to open private businesses but under Raul, Fidel’s brother, things have loosened up, and about twenty years ago people were able to start operating private restaurants. But, people do not have the funds to purchase buildings for restaurants, so they use their homes. Most of the paladars require reservations, so be sure to make them in advance!
Nao Bar-Paladar: This charming restaurant has an outdoor patio in small alley that has gorgeous views of the water and is wide enough for a live band to play music while you enjoy your meal. The food is Cuban-Creole, and is incredibly reasonably priced. I treated myself to a stunning bowl of Cuban rice cooked with vegetables; basically a paella. The aroma of saffron and garlic and onion was so appetizing I was almost dizzy! Wash it down with a beer. Cuba has fantastic local beer that costs $1.50-$2.00 no matter where you go.
Paladar Habana 61: A trendy new spot in the city, this place has fun cocktails and menu of unique dishes like veggie dumplings in a savory gravy, fried plantains with a garlic honey sauce, as well as traditional items like Cuban rice and beans.
Otramanera: Dining at Otramanera was one of the highlights of the trip. This super modern, hip restaurant has impeccable service and excellent food. I had noodles served in a sweet and spicy sauce, laden with fresh vegetables and sesame seeds. For dessert, I enjoyed a waffle with banana ice cream while my friend had sweet mamey creme brulee.
La Cocina de Lilliam: This gorgeous restaurant is clearly part of a home in the upscale neighborhood of Miramar. It’s a little hard to find, but once you do it is well worth the effort. The lovely outdoor dining area is situated adjacent to a romantic green garden, and the food is unbelievably good. I enjoyed a warm potato and tomato salad, smothered in melted cheese. Then, I enjoyed crepes layered with fried eggplant and soaked in a heady béchamel sauce. For dessert, I cooled off with refreshing basil ice cream. Hats off to Chef Lilliam! I am still dreaming about that basil ice cream.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba: After all the walking you will do around Old Havana, you need to relax. Head to Havana’s most famous hotel and enjoy a drink on the stunning lawn. Mojitos and pina coladas should be your drink of choice while you sit back and admire the views of the Havana coastline.
Azucar: This modern bar in Havana Vieja (old town) is a great place to have a pre-dinner drink!
Factoria Plaza Vieja: If you like beer, be sure to visit this microbrewery. It is only one of two microbreweries in Havana, and it is situated in one of the four famous squares in Havana Vieja.
Tropicana Cabaret Cuba: Everyone needs to go to a cabaret show while they are in Cuba. This one is visually stunning, and is outdoors, an added bonus. You can buy tickets which include dinner, but the food is just average, so I would just buy tickets for the show. Your ticket will include a small bottle of rum, peanuts, and mixers!
La Zorra y El Cuervo: This underground jazz club in vedado is the perfect place to get a taste of the famous Cuban jazz music. It’s small and crowded but the musicians are authentic and engaged. The entrance fee is just $10 which includes two drinks.
La Fabrica de Arte Cubano: This is the best place I visited in Cuba. Seriously. It is a giant cooking oil place which has been converted into a massive, super modern art gallery. Each room has its own bar, and some feature fantastic modern art paintings, jewelry, and installations while other rooms host jazz musicians, local bands, and films. There is also an eatery and several outdoor patios. It opens at 10pm and I would plan to stay all night! You will never get tired of perusing the artwork, listening to the various musicians, and sampling the food and drinks.
Havana is the perfect place for a short escape from the U.S. Gorgeous weather, fantastic food, and incredible art, music, and culture. Cuba is the destination of the year!