By now you’ll have heard the news that the US is moving to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in over 50 years. This is huge news. For Americans, this is a new, unexplored destination just a short shuttle flight away from Miami. For non-Americans, this is your last chance to go before the big multi-nationals move in and “spoil” the place. The great news for both groups is that I’ve already been and I’m here to help!
Think of Cuba and you’re likely drawn to thoughts of sun and sea, mojitos and cuba libres, cigars and salsa halls and vintage cars running through the streets. And you’d be right. The streets of Old Havana are a wonderful place to spend time and are surprisingly safe. And there are more than a few “musts.”
Assuming you’re only staying in Havana for a couple of days (by all means, stay longer), here are a few of those musts.
Morning Museum: For museums, I recommend the Museo de la Revolucion. It will be interesting to see if they tone it down before the arrival of the Americans, but here’s “the other side” of the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the embargo. If you’ve ever been to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, you’ve kind of got the idea. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating look into Cuba’s history, and if you only had time for one museum, this would be the one I would suggest. It opens at 9am so if you can, go before lunch and spend the morning there.
Noon Neighborhooding: When you get hungry, go and grab some lunch and then explore the neighborhoods of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Check out the grand Capitolio Nacional, but also explore the side streets. Be sure to bring a camera to get some wonderful photos of vintage cars and kids playing in the streets. Another way to see a larger portion of Old Havana is to take a horse-drawn carriage that will give you a larger range than you would have on foot.
Helpful tip: Things may change, but basic necessities such as toothpaste and soap are still scarce in many areas, if you happen to bring along a few extra travel-size mini toiletry items, you’ll make more than a few people happy. Cubans are generally proud people and won’t beg for money.
Helpful tip 2: The rooftop of the Parque Central Hotel has nice views of the city. So does the bell tower above the Cathedral (see below).
Sunset Sea Wall: Ahh, the Malecon. You’ve seen this spot in all the photos and videos of Havana on TV in the last week. To me, at sunset, this is still the heart, the essence of Havana. Buy yourself a bottle of rum, a cola (No Coca Cola there yet, of course), some plastic cups, and head to the sea wall in time for sunset. Hang out there and mix yourself a cuba libre, and pay some musicians a couple of bucks to serenade you. Watch the children play in the not-so-sanitary water below, Take in the old citadel, the bustle of traffic along the road lined with sun-worn, once-colorful Caribbean houses, and watch the sun go down. It’s truly a Havana must.
Zipping along the Malecon
Peckish at the Paladar: Paladares are privately owned, small restaurants (as opposed to all the state owned restaurants–remember we’re talking Communism here). Many of them are located in converted apartments. One of the very best of them is the famous La Guarida. There may well be others that are better, but this one is an icon, a classic. Make a reservation to sit outside on the balcony if you can, but even if you can’t, the indoor seating is well worth it. Smoke a cigar here after dinner as well.
Another good spot is the terrace of the restaurant next to the Cathedral in the Plaza. Yes, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, so maybe just go for a drink and a snack. The views of the Plaza and the music coming form below give you that “only in Latin America” feeling.
Taking in the Tropicana: After dinner, you have dozens of options, but a night at the Tropicana Cabaret is bound to be a classic night. It’s everything you expect from the name, with all due respect to Las Vegas, this is Cuban spirit at its best. One thing to note is that tickets must be booked in advance. You and your party will be assigned a table and you pick the package based on the drinks and snacks offered. Prices aren’t cheap, starting at $75 per person and going higher from there, but you may as well splurge one night if you can afford it.
Alternatives for the evening include the bar Bodeguita del Medio. This bar in Old Havana is famous for supposedly “inventing” the mojito, and hosting the likes of the poet Pablo Neruda, and writer Ernest Hemingway over the years. Another option is to go find a salsa club for the evening, although back when I went that entailed a rather intimidating “underground” taxi ride to and from a remote location.
The above itinerary could easily be spread out over several days. There’s plenty more left to see and experience within walking distance in Old Havana. Shops, little courtyard restaurants, the list goes on and on. The Portages Cigar Store and Museum is also pretty neat, for example. Watch them bring in tobacco leaves in bales. Another good thing to do is take a tri-wheel taxi along the Malecon to explore some other sea side neighborhoods. And taking a vintage cab ride is a must at some point as well.
Other things to know about Cuba? Well, it’s been the case that US credit cards (that means no Visa, no MasterCard, no Amex even if issued internationally) and bank cards weren’t accepted, but that’s about to change. Just in case the systems aren’t caught up yet (I expect there to be more than a few hiccups in that part of the world), take some cash with you. Old Havana is safe. The locals need a permit to travel from one sector to another and there are policemen everywhere.
I’ll have another post up featuring more photos soon.
Absolutely feel free to contact me with any questions at [email protected]
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