Beyond being an interesting place in terms of the socioeconomic / political climate (read my thoughts here), Havana is also a fun place to visit. The weather was positively stunning (I highly recommend going in the winter – it was still 80°F!). The people were gracious. And the vintage cars were freaking awesome.
So without further ado, here’s my Havana Travel Guide:
– How to Get There –
Getting to Cuba has gotten a lot easier over the past few years. You no longer have to travel through another country or even with a designated group. However, you do have to have a visa (which I found out while waiting for my flight that you can purchase at the airport on your way to Cuba). And a reason for traveling.
There are 12 “acceptable” reasons to travel to Cuba as a United States Citizen. These reasons are family visits (if you have Cuban family), official business of either the U.S. Government or of a foreign government, jounalistic activity, professional research / meetings, educational activities, religious activities, public performances / clinics / workshops / athletic and other competitions, support for the Cuban people, humanitarian projects, activities of private foundations / research / educational institutes, exportation or transmission of information, and certain authorized export transactions. Upon landing in Cuba, while going through Immigrations / Customs, you must list one of these reasons when you are asked what is the purpose for your visit. In my experience, after I said “education”, I wasn’t pressed for the details of my trip or of my stay. They just kinda wanted to hear something legit.
There are tons of flights from the U.S. per day to Cuba. I flew directly from Miami, but I had friends fly on non-stops from Houston, Atlanta, and even JFK in New York. There is one international airport that serves Havana – José Martí International Airport. Note that it will take a long time to go through Customs and Immigrations. And even longer to receive your bags if you check bags (aka don’t check bags). After landing, it took me and my friends another 2 hours to clear customs and get checked luggage.
Expect similar delays when leaving Cuba – my guide recommended getting to the airport at least 3 hours before departure.
– Where to Stay –
During my trip to Havana, we stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It is a very historic property and just about everybody from Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra has stayed there at some point in time. The lobby of the hotel is absolutely stunning – very art-deco – and the views of the ocean are unparalleled. Additionally, the location was perfect for our stay: very easy to get just about anywhere in the city from the Hotel Nacional. In terms of the accommodations, they were completely satisfactory (aside from some minor flooding in the bathroom whenever we took showers because my friend couldn’t figure out how to work the shower… it was more of a personal problem than a problem with the room, but still worth noting).
If I were to return to Havana, I would like to stay at the Hotel Saratoga (pictured above). It’s located in Old Havana (perfect for walking everywhere!) and is the top-ranked 5-star property in Havana. Beyoncé and Jay Z stayed at the Hotel Saratoga when they visited Havana… and if it’s good enough for Queen Bey, it’s good enough for me!
Plus the whole lobby, bar, and building in general are all just so Instagram-worthy!
– Where to Eat –
During my trip to Cuba, we ate at Nazdrovie (USSR-themed restaurant), Café Laurent, Paladar La Casa, La Guarida, El Aljibe, and La Foresta. Additionally, on our trip outside of Havana, we went to the AgroEcological Farm in Viñales (don’t miss the beef!), and, one night, we ate at Tropicana (skip the food) and then saw the famous Tropicana show.
Of all of the above, my favorites by far (and the only ones I’d even recommend trying) were Café Laurent and La Guarida. Both served European-style dishes, delicious cocktails, and had great vibes. Café Laurent is a private restaurant on the top floor of an apartment building, located only a few blocks from the Hotel Nacional. A reservation is definitely required (try to get a table on the terrace!) and you don’t want to miss the croquettes, ceviche, or the beef or chicken entrees (the chicken was particularly delicious).
If you want to take your meal up a step in terms of atmosphere, try La Guarida. The private restaurant takes up the top two floors of what used to be a Venetian-style palazzio. And it shows! The lower floors of the building have been left to weather time, but the upper floors, where the restaurant is located, are so beautifully decorated. Every detail from the bathroom to the art to the tile on the floors is just so incredible… It’s definitely Insta-worthy. In terms of food, apparently the suckling pig is quite good. I highly recommend the stuffed ravioli with pesto and the lobster. And all of the sides (particularly the sweet potatoes!).
– What to Do –
My trip to Cuba was only really four full days. But they were four very full, jam-packed days. Every night, I would literally collapse on my bed and fall asleep instantly.
On our first day, we went to the US Embassy (must make an appointment), attended a session on Foreign Business in Cuba, and then walked around Old Havana and the markets for a few hours. Day two was Las Terrazas. We attended a session in Las Terrazas, followed by a meeting with a local doctor in Rancho Curujey. We then went on a boat ride through the Cueva del Indio and wrapped up the day with a visit to a tobacco plantation in Viñales.
On Wednesday, we drove around in vintage cars and attended a few sessions held by University of Havana professors. We also went to the Hemingway museum in the afternoon and then to Tropicana to see the show that night. Finally, we filled the last day with a trip to the cigar factory, a visit to a local artist’s (Flora Fong) house, and then a few hours of wandering through the city.
So what do I actually recommend doing? (This is my Havana Travel Guide, after all!)
This is a must. The architechture is absolutely beautiful and the markets are great. You can even find some amazing old, leatherbound books in the markets for next to nothing. You’ll want to see Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, Christ of Havana, and El Floridita (Hemingway’s favorite bar). I also heard the most amazing (and ridiculous) things about the Museum of the Revolution from my friends who went. Apparently the Museum of the Revolution is proof that the concept of propaganda is alive and well. And that my friends’ guide told them that Fidel used to lift cars off of children around the country. Totally normal.
Le duh. How could you go to Havana and not drive around town in a vintage car? Most of the hotels have vintage cars on standby as taxis (they are more expensive than the normal taxis), but you also have the ability to rent a vintage car for a day (includes driver). Even if you don’t end up riding around in a vintage car, I definitely recommend bringing your camera a long to grab some shots of the old cars around town in action!
Sunset on the Malecón:
We did this on our last night. Every night around sunset, Havana descends on the Malecón. The Malecón is the road that runs along the seawall in Havana. Most people will congregate on the stretch of the Malecón close to the Hotel Nacional. It’s the loveliest view for sunset (it’s right on the ocean). I recommend grabbing a bottle of rum to split among friends as you watch the sun set, like the Cubans do.
This area is just a short drive from Havana but is so gorgeous and lush. It reminded me of The Land Before Time. The Viñales Valley has a ton of tobacco farmers and I highly recommend stopping by a plantation to check it out for yourself.
Museo Hemingway Finca Vigía:
In case your Spanish is even worse than mine, that’s Hemingway’s Lookout House Museum. You can’t walk through the house anymore, but I still recommend going. The museum has been kept up very well and it was so interesting seeing how Hemingway lived. Books everywhere. Booze everywhere. And – oddly/unexpectedly – he had a good eye for interior design.