Cuba’s unforgettable capital is like nowhere else in the world. The infamous heat, color, and history are alive and well, and you’ll surely meet delight, challenge, surprise, and estilo. (That means flair. I looked it up. I don’t yet claim Spanish as one of my abilities.)
Unlike my guides to most cities, Havana requires more practicality advice and less specific eating and shopping suggestions for reasons that will become clear.
Pack your sunscreen and most breathable clothing (seriously), and let’s go!
Everyone flies into Havana, which boasts a well-traveled but by no means luxurious airport. For visitors traveling from the United States, your options are legally limited, but as of late 2017, you can fly directly from a handful of cities, including Miami, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Atlanta. This article is one of the most recent explanations of how individual Americans can legally travel to Cuba. And the U.S. Department of the Treasury offers its list of officially approved reasons for travel in this document.
During my experience, I had definitely overestimated how challenging it would be to get from Atlanta to Havana. I was prepared to be questioned, stopped, or otherwise in need of in-person approval before boarding the plane, none of which I experienced. My travel companions and I were required to fill out basic visa documents at the gate and purchase our visas (around $50). That was all.
Big note here: I visited in May 2017. U.S.-Cuba travel regulations and practices are changing often, so be sure to seek out the latest news reports, government documents, and, if possible, blogs/visitor experiences to know what to expect.
What to Pack
What I was thankful I packed or wish I would’ve packed:
sunscreen, a hat, very lightweight and casual clothing, a guidebook with a map (wifi is hard to find), Euros,* backup battery charging packs for phones, lots of snacks,** copies of all your important travel documents
*You can’t rely on credit cards, because cash is king in Cuba, and they use two currencies: convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (referred to as moneda nacional), but Cubans refer to both CUC and Moneda Nacional as pesos. In most cases, tourists will exclusively use CUC. Americans: exchange your USD for EUR at the American airport before you arrive in Havana, as conversion rates from EUR to CUC are far better than from USD. You’ll exchange your euros to CUC as soon as you get to the airport in Havana.
**Food rations are a surprising but handy packing essential for a visit to Cuba, since most visitors will be shocked by the Cuban equivalent of a grocery store. Because the Cuban government strictly controls trade and commerce, food choices are incredibly meager, and grocery stores may look more like wartime ration shops than the supermarkets to which much of the world is accustomed. As a result, you might find it comfortable to bring along plenty of snacks, as well as some meal staples if you plan on cooking in your accommodations.
Photo by Alexander Kunze via Unsplash
Where to Stay
Hotels are few and far between compared to most cities in the world. Airbnb is your best bet for quality and value in Havana, and local hosts are almost always eager to offer advice and recommendations
Public transportation isn’t a developed aspect of Cuba’s infrastructure, so the best bet is taxis, which are far less expensive than in the U.S. or Europe. Cuba has official, government-issued taxis as well as “gypsy cabs,” which are private cars willing to take tourists around the city and beyond. Don’t be alarmed when random people offer you a ride in their car; since cars are a valuable commodity in Cuba, pretty much anyone with wheels is willing to transport tourists and make some extra CUC, which has more value than local moneda nacional. For the most part, the local drivers are all respectful and kind. This site offers in-depth info regarding Cuban taxi travel.
What to See
Havana’s seafront avenue serves as a main alleyway for cars and pedestrians alike, and an evening stroll along the Malecón is simply a must.
Museo de la Revolución
Housed in the former Presidential Palace, this museum explores Cuba’s revolutionary history by presenting photography and memorabilia.
Museo de la Ciudad
One of Havana’s smaller museums, the “Museum of the City” offers evidence of Cuba’s colonial history. It’s located in a beautiful 1700s building and is conveniently located next to the lovely Plaza de Armas.
Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Moro
This 16th century fort sits perched atop the sea and welcomes visitors to explore its cool, inner chambers and views from its high walls. Accessible by taxi.
Havana’s Old Square is a favorite spot for strolling and people watching, and its environs offer plenty of visitor-friendly restaurants and shops.
Plaza de la Catedral
Another gorgeous example of colonial Cuban architecture makes up Plaza de la Catedral, which is bordered on one side by the Museo de Arte Colonial.
Edificio FOCSA and La Torre
The tallest building in Havana offers unrivalled views of the city and sea, which can be seen from La Torre, the restaurant on the top floor. More on that below.
Where to Eat
Remember, food choices are limited in Cuba. Keep this in mind as you discern what constitutes a worthy restaurant.
Eat at La Torre for the views. It’s one of the nicest restaurants in Havana, and the atmosphere is reason enough to trek over to the west side of the city.
Arguably the restaurant to visit in Havana, La Guarida definitely recommends booking a table in advance. The historic, uniquely Cuban ambiance of the building has served as the backdrop for films and TV shows.
Paladar Los Mercaderes
A lovely, airy paladar (privately owned restaurant) situated in the heart of Old Havana offers quality service and a wide selection of dishes (a rarity for Cuban eating establishments).
Day Trips from Havana
Playas del Este
Local Cubans recommend this stretch of beach for a day trip from Havana. Just 40 minutes by car from central Havana, Playas del Este is a gorgeous, turquoise getaway from the dirty bustle of the city.
Museo Ernest Hemingway
The famed American author passed most of his later years at his Cuban estate just 25 minutes from central Havana. The house is now a popular museum, and visitors can walk around the grounds, see his boat, and glimpse life in more village-like Cuban settlements.
30 minutes west of central Havana is a veritable mini-wonderland. Piece by piece, Cuban artist José Fuster transformed his neighborhood into a world of colorful mosaics. Entrance is free.
A few final tips before your trip:
- Prepare for oppressive heat. Don’t expect to trot around the city seeing as many sites as you think you can cram into a day. You’ll need to budget time for rest and hydration. This is one of the biggest obstacles we faced during our time in Cuba.
- Remember that Cuba’s “charming” old fashioned vibe may be a lovable photo opportunity for voyeuristic visitors, but it’s also a physical manifestation of a tumultuous and controversial history for its inhabitants. Take a look at this post for more.
- Wi-Fi is government-controlled and difficult to find; it requires purchasing an access card. Most big hotels sell the cards and offer a connection in the lobby. You don’t have to be a guest to use this service.
Consider reading The Other Side of Paradise by journalist Julia Cooke prior to visiting.
Photo by Darius Soodmand via Unsplash
All photos by Janie Swingle except where stated.