Havana Cuba is a new travel destination for Americans, and a visit provides a unique glimpse into a vibrant and colorful culture. Here's what to see and do on your first visit to Havana Cuba.
Now that Americans have the green light to travel to Cuba, I wanted to visit before Starbuck's and McDonald's made their mark. I ended up planning a somewhat spontaneous trip to explore Cuba, which may or may not have been the smartest decision. Sure, it would have been easy to book an organized tour for the week with all the activities and locations neatly mapped out, but I like more flexibility when I travel and you know, less time on a bus with a bunch of people who may not like what they're doing. Who I know are good and flexible travelers are mes amies from Paris. Two of them jumped at the chance to join the adventure in Cuba, so off we went to explore.
Whether you plan to travel to Cuba yourself someday, or if you're more of a digital nomad, preferring to enjoy a city from the comfort of your own home, here's what to expect on a first visit to Havana Cuba.
McDonald's and Starbuck's may not have made it to Cuba yet, but guess who has? Airbnb! This is one US based company that I was happy to see in Cuba. I booked an apartment in Havana using Airbnb. The only issue I encountered, really with any Cuba communication, was the spotty internet connection. Sometimes the internet would be down for days. Yes, days. I got a bounce back from one place who said to try back in a week when the internet would be better. So again, maybe not the best trip to plan spontaneously, though if you're truly spontaneous, you can plan a lot of things right on the ground when you're there. If you're more of a planner and you've never checked out Airbnb, I've got a $40 credit for your next stay here.
There are other travel websites in Cuba to look for accommodations like Cuba Junky and Havana Casa Particular. Casa particulares? This basically means private house in Spanish - kind of like a B&B set-up. In 1997 the Cuban government gave locals the opportunity to open up their homes to rent to travelers, or to even use as a restaurant, or paladar. More on paladares later.
We stayed in these private homes throughout our trip through Cuba. There are some decent state-run hotels in Havana like Hotel Nacional, Saratoga and Hotel Inglaterra, but I didn't want to stay in any of them for a few reasons. If you're like me and want to go to Cuba, you probably want to get a real glimpse of Cuban life, so what better way than staying in a local's house. Also, when I was looking at prices, some of the hotel prices were $4-600 per night. Per night! They're government run, remember, and they can change the prices at any time based on demand. The casa particular prices were about $30 per room per night. In each of the 3 cities we visited, we had a home/apartment type set-up with our own rooms and bathrooms with locking doors and plenty of privacy. We were happy with our decision.
The casa particular also adds a personal touch with the owner offering many services from laundry, trip planning, drinks and morning breakfast. We always ordered breakfast for $5 each. It included bread, fresh fruit, freshly blended fruit juices, coffee and made to order eggs. It was an easy and efficient way to start a day of travel.
Also a note that there are several large boutique hotels being built in the middle of Havana - one with 485 rooms. It's a little hard to stomach the site of an enormous, newly painted white building being constructed in the middle of picturesque and historical Havana. This is yet another reason I wanted to see Cuba now, because there are many changes coming to the country that are already impacting the landscape. I'm just hoping the Cubans find ways to keep their culture and identity intact.
Havana is a fairly large city of 281 square miles and 2 million residents, with about double the amount of tourists now visiting the city. You can walk to everything in Old Havana, but if you want to visit Vedado and Miramar, it's best to take a taxi. You'll see many beautifully restored 50s vehicles to transport you around Cuba, just beware that these pretty cars haven't been through an emissions test so you'll be inhaling some serious fumes.
Here are some highlights across Havana of sights to see and places to check out.
There are several major plazas that are worth a look, sit, drink or picture in Havana.
Plaza Vieja is surrounded by brightly restored buildings from four different centuries. There were a handful of expressive children enjoying themselves in Plaza Vieja when we walked through. The kids are as colorful as Cuba!
Plaza de la Catedral is the place to stand to take in the impressive Catedral de San Cristobal. The cathedral boasts not one, but two grand bell towers. There's a baroque facade and a simple neo-classical interior.
Plaza de Armas contains Baroque buildings looking over palm trees with a park in the middle. There's always a good spot to take in some shade and sit on a bench. If you're there on a Tuesday or Sunday, you can also check out a book market that's open in the park, with publications dating back to the 40's and 50's.
Castro used to deliver many a speech in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and it was home to a lot of political rallies. The square now has a memorial dedicated to Jose Marti. The Interior and Communication Ministries are set up opposite of the memorial and have the profiles of Che Guevara and Camilo Cinefuegos on the outside.
Buy Your Souvenirs in La Habana Vieja
Reserve a good chunk of time to wander the meandering streets of Old Havana, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll find all of the tourists in these streets, but it's also the place where you can see the Capitol, relax in Parque Central, look at some of the recent restoration and check out how cigars are made. There are some decent galleries to admire and event buy art and many a place to buy souvenirs. Wander Obispo and their open market to do some shopping.
See Where the Locals Live in Havana Centro
A few blocks east of Old Havana is Havana Centro. This is where you'll see where the locals live. I never tired of seeing the different pastel colors on the buildings. Some places were in better shape than others with often crumbling stone and debris in the road. Doors would be open with TVs on and many a rocking chair being put to good use. People were in the streets, mingling and socializing at all hours. Walk through Havana Centro to really see how Cubans live.
Walk El Malecon
The Malecon is a nice walk that skirts the sea wall for 4 miles. I think I took about 100 pictures while taking this walk. There's beautiful old buildings next to new, modern structures. There's good views of Vedado and of the fortress that does a daily 9pm cannon-firing ceremony that you might want to check out.
There's random artwork on corners. And there's just great people and car watching everywhere. A young local woman chatted with us while we were walking, curious what 3 ladies were doing in Cuba together. Walking the Malecon gives you a nice slice of life.
Cuban artist Jose Fuster owned a small, wood home in Havana and decided to spruce things up after an inspirational visit to Gaudi-heaven in Barcelona. Fuster ended up transforming more than 80 houses in a few block radius just outside Havana into what is now called Fusterlandia.
You immediately see the Gaudi influence with the bright mosaic patterns in all different forms from ceramic people, animals, benches and artwork. It's a pretty amazing site and worth the taxi drive down.
On your way to Fusterlandia, you can see the large homes of Miramar and the Vedado, both of which offer a more serene neighborhood setting in Havana. We stayed in Vedado, near the Hotel Nacionale and found it to be central enough to see everything we wanted.
Listen to Live Music
It's almost impossible not to hear live music in Havana. It's playing everywhere, always, and that's a good thing. Sure you can pay to go to a club like Casa de la Musica to see some top acts, but you can also just hit any of the plazas above to hear quality music. People play in the streets, restaurants and even in random parking lots like we ran across one night. Fabrica de Arte is also a must see spot, but more on that later.
Hemingway spent some time in Havana, and you can trace a whole Hemingway trail if you're a big fan. Hemingway's home, Finca Vigia, is a short taxi drive away. You can tour his house, but can't physically enter, so we passed. We also passed on the uber-touristy Hemingway bars like El Floridita and La Bodgeuita, in favor of a quality drink with a view at Hotel Nacionale.
Cojimar is a small fishing village a few miles north of Havana where Hemingway was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea. You can see his table at La Terraza, but if you're looking for better food in Cojimar, then you want to go to Ajiaco Cafe. We arrived there on a Sunday afternoon for a late brunch, and had an hour and a half wait. Needless to say, we settled for mediocre food at La Terraza.
You know I'm going to need a whole post just to talk about food, so up next are my thoughts on food in Cuba and some of the restaurants we visited while in Havana.