No trip to Cuba is complete without exploring Havana. Staying in Havana Vieja (old Havana) makes almost everything very walkable – great restaurants, museums, the capitol building, the Malecón for sunset strolls, and many museums and hotels. My absolute recommendation is to rent an apartment -called a casa particular (private home) – via Airbnb. Make sure to select something with plenty of good reviews and check their location on the map. Keep in contact with the owners up until your arrival. If they offer a pick up service from the airport, that is a hassle-free way to avoid dealing with the masses of taxi drivers. The cost should be around 25-30 CUC. When you utilize Airbnb, you’ll be paying ahead with a credit card, and that means less cash you’ll have to bring with you to carry in Cuba (or more spending money while you’re there; however you want to look at it).
There are so many restaurants in Havana, it’s hard to pick. So check Trip Advisor for top picks or ask your casa owner for recommendations ahead of time. I will simply say, if you know there are certain restaurants you want to eat at while in Havana, specifically top rated ones, make reservations a week or even two in advance. Ask your casa owner to call and make the reservation for you. Two restaurants that you’ll probably want on your radar are La Guarida (the setting for Oscar nominated film, Strawberry and Chocolate) and San Cristobal (where President Obama, Beyonce, and Jay Z ate). Good alternatives are La Concordia (photos below) for a lovely rooftop, live music, and affordable lobster or Casa Miglis for an intimate atmosphere and very friendly service. For lunch in a picturesque little square, seek out Cafe del Angel. It is truly a stunning little intersection of quintessential streets (below).
There are a couple little bars famous for their daiquiris and mojitos (respectively) and being frequented by Ernest Hemingway: La Floridita (near the capitol square) and La Bodeguita del Medio (near the Cathedral). Both are very popular and touristy, and the lines can be out the door. So don’t beat yourself up over it if you opt to skip them. You came, you saw, you’re over it.
For rooftop drinks, we absolutely loved the views from the top of the oldest hotel in Havana, Hotel Inglaterra, right by the capitol building and beautiful Grand Theater. Consider this for at least one drink during the golden hour. Another beautiful hotel with a stunning rooftop is Hotel Raquel located near Plaza Vieja (also a fun, colorful, bustling square). The stained glass ceiling is a wonder. The people at Hotel Raquel are very friendly and helpful, and they are who we chose to book a collective taxi through for getting to Trinidad.
Getting around Havana old town is easy. You walk. You can also bargain with the bike taxis when you want to go a little farther or your feet are killing you. Carry a variety of small bills, the bike taxi drivers rarely have change or say that they don’t. Prices can range from 2-5CUC. And of course you want to take a classic car city tour! It’s overpriced, but if you can afford it, it’s a fun splurge. Depending on the tour length and your bargaining skills, prices will range from 25-50CUC. You can book ahead online or just find where lots of classic cars are congregated, pick one you like, and go! We saw tons of cars near the capital building, along the Malecón, or in front of the Museum of the Revolution. You’ll get more out of it if you can communicate with your driver, so ask if they speak English or learn Spanish before you go! A sunset stroll along the Malecón, the broad roadway and seawall that stretches along the coast, is a must in Havana. It is the quintessential Cuban gathering place while the golden glow of sunset reflects off the modern skyline of Centro Habana.
There is quite a lot to do and see in Havana, and only you know what types of things you prefer to do. Me? I like to eat and take pictures. So walking and eating, walking and eating, pretty much dominated my time in Havana. Some people love museums, and admittedly I am NOT one of those people. I’d like to be, but I usually find myself walking through and glancing at everything then feeling ready to leave after 15 minutes. I’d rather read a book and learn about it, which I usually do. I almost always prepare for a new destination by studying their history and reading at least one novel or biography that teaches me about that country. But for those who love museums, there is the National Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of the Revolution, Museum of the City (we did visit this one for a few dollars and weren’t impressed), and plenty more. I do enjoy seeing churches when traveling, and Havana has a few historic and beautiful ones. Considered a “must see” is the Cathedral of Havana in the Plaza de la Catedral. For great views, climb the bell tower to the top! The church and convent of St. Francis of Asisi in Plaza de San Francisco is also lovely. If you take an old car tour, you’ll most definitely make a stop at the Revolution Square.
Internet is slow, costly, and rare in Cuba, although it is slowly improving. I found it helpful to have some offline Cuba apps downloaded prior to our trip. Google Translate has offline translators you can download, so I downloaded Spanish. It worked fine until I logged onto wifi and tried using it, then the offline translator disappeared and I was out of luck the rest of the trip. I typically download Google offline maps wherever I go, but I found them to not work in Cuba. Occasionally the map would locate me, but it was incredibly slow and not worth using. Maps.me is a well rated offline map. Cuba Travel Guide by Triposo and Cuba Offline Maps are two other popular apps, each with their own perks, but explore the app before your trip because there are particular features that require in-app purchases.
If you need internet like we did occasionally for peace of mind, you should ask at some of the major hotels to purchase an internet card. It is roughly a couple CUC for half an hour to an hour of use. Don’t buy the cards from people on the street; the price will be inflated. We found internet cards to sometimes be sold out (especially at the end of the day) and some hotels exclude non guests from using it later in the afternoon and evening. Often times, the etiquette is, if you buy an internet card and sit in the hotel lobby to use it, you should also buy a drink. Why not, right? To use the card, you select the network then type in the unique password (which is scratched off like a scratch ticket). You can log on and off, use it on multiple devices, and log back on later if you have time left, but remember to “log off” when you’re done to save your time. Places we found internet were Hotel Florida, Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Ambos Mundos, and the ETECSA telecomm center on the street of Calle Obispo.
In Cuba, you’ll have to carry your cash, as there are no ATMs that take American credit cards (at the time of writing this). What this means is you’ll have to exchange currency. The place I’m aware of in Havana is a CADECA (exchange booth) on the corner of Calle Obispo and Calle Compostela (right where my Airbnb happened to be). Exchange rates are slightly worse at the airport, so it benefitted us to wait until we arrived to Havana to exchange most of our cash. CADECAs are usually open 8:30-6ish, but sometimes there was a sign on the door that said they were closing at 4 or 5. So I recommend going first thing in the morning, before the line is long. Don’t forget your passport; it is required for exchanging money. You can exchange all your cash at once, or exchange a few days’ worth as you go. We exchanged a couple times in Havana and then once in Varadero.
Havana is a cultural icon that should not be missed, especially during this transitional time in history. It is still an affordable destination retaining its authentic cultural flare where people from all over the world come together to share the same streets and experiences. Don’t hesitate to make Havana and the rest of Cuba your next destination! To learn more about other destinations and recommendations in Cuba, click HERE.