This post took such a long time to put together but finally it is here!
I visited Cuba at the beginning of July (I know, the hottest time to go!) and stayed there for a little less than two weeks. It was such an adventure – after all, it was my first time in the Carribean. We traveled around the island: from Havana to Vinales, back to Havana, to Trinidad and back to Havana.
Funnily, it seems like such a small island but since it is so thin and long, it takes quite long to travel between different cities. That’s why we never made it further than Trinidad. We could not handle even longer car rides in non-airconditioned taxis from the 1950s. I mean, it looks fun but actually it is kind of living hell in 35 degrees (95F) humid heat.
I was thinking long and hard how to pen down this whole trip – so it would be both useful and interesting for you guys. I couldn’t post anything in Cuba because we didn’t really have any access to the internet (I’ll definitely talk about it at some point during these posts). This made me delay blogging a little. And once I got back to Boston I started a new job.
But now I’ve decided to start with making this checklist of things to do in Havana. I hope it’s both useful for people visiting Cuba and interesting to people reading it from home.
1. Visit the Revolutionary Musem and learn about the country’s stormy past
If you’re going to visit one museum in Cuba it should be the Revolutionary Museum. The museum is in a former residential palace, used by numerous Cuban presidents up to notorious Fulgencio Batista. If you are not interested in history, go for the palace itself, as the interior is designed by Tiffany’s from New York. The museum focuses on the events right before, during and after the Cuban revolution. Of course, the stories are sprinkled with a touch of propaganda but they are captivating and still took place in one way or another.
Tip: Check out the original bullet holes in the main entrance staircase from 1957 when a group of students tried to assassin Batista. Also, the tank in front of the building was used by Fidel Castro in 1961 Bay of Pigs battle when the US tried but failed to overtake Cuba.
Some history: Batista started off in 1940 as a relatively fair democratic president with plans of generous social reforms. However, after his term ended he was not so keen to give power to the new president, particularly considering the sweet deals that the US Mafia was proposing to him. So before Batista lost the next elections in 1952 he staged a military coup, grabbed the power and struck a deal with the American mafia, allowing them to mind their business for a share of their profits. After his coup, a revolutionary group formed around a young charismatic figure called Fidel Castro. Against all odds and many years of fighting, the revolutionaries finally took Havana in 1959. The revolution was a success.
2. Cruise the city in an old American car
A trip to Cuba isn’t complete without a ride in one of the colorful old American cars from the 1950s. We booked the tour for two hours for 60 CUC ($60). Make sure to get a convertible car because otherwise, it will be more like a sauna-on-the-wheels experience. Plus cruising around the hood down is much more fun anyway.
Tip: Don’t book the ride for more than an hour. After a little while, the drive gets quite monotonous and tiring. Plus most sights you can visit on foot or by velotaxi. You won’t have enough time to look around while you are on the car ride anyhow. It’s more for the experience rather the actual tour.
Random fact: The most common car in Cuba isn’t actually a glamorous Chevy but instead a Russian Lada, followed by a Moskvich. And apparently many old American cars in Cuba run on old Lada and Moskvich parts as American car parts are simply unavailable. After all, Soviet Russia was Cuba’s “big brother”, whereas the United States’ embargo has already lasted for nearly 60 years.
3. Try Cuban food at the restaurant where the Obamas ate
Cuban food isn’t exactly world famous. If anything, it’s famous for being not so great and quite bland. However, since 2012, when the government finally allowed private restaurants to open (before only 12 people had this privilege), the culinary world doors have opened too. I mean, it is not comparable to Paris or anything, but it was quite nice. My only concern was that the food was pretty repetitive. HOWEVER, I really loved the San Cristobal restaurant where the Obamas ate in 2016. The food was high quality, the menu was fun and the service was outstanding. The fine dining experience only cost us a little over 30 CUC ($30) for two people!
Tip: If you want to try the same dish as Barack Obama had then go for solomillo (sirloin). Michelle Obama had tentacion habanero (fajitas with fried plantains).
Random fact: Obama was the first American President to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution. That’s nearly 60 years of hostility between neighboring countries with only 90 miles of water between each other.
4. Wander around the Plaza Vieja
Havana’s old town (Habana Vieja) business revolves around its four main squares. Plaza Vieja with its colorful and varied architecture and loads of restaurants and bars was my favorite. Interesting connecting streets between the plazas include Calle Obsipo and Calle Mercaderes.
Tip: Be careful about the restaurants you sit down at. Some of them are ridiculously priced and the neighboring restaurant might serve drinks that are 2x cheaper! Don’t forget to dress up, Cuban women dress quite nicely. I would say that they even dress up more than people in Paris do.
5. Take a bicycle taxi
I found this the best transportation method to get around the city (aside from walking). If you have comfortable walking shoes then perhaps you can walk around the whole day but I wore not-so-comfortable heels and sandals and in addition to that it was super hot and humid. So walking long distances all day long did not interest me too much. There are bicycle taxis everywhere and they are much cheaper than the regular taxis.
Tip: 5 CUC ($5) should get you from Centro Havana to the old town. Don’t forget to bargain! One time we even had two men fighting over taking us. But don’t bargain too hard either because these men are really working hard to move the bicycle in such heat carrying all this weight.
6. Chuck down as many rum cocktails as you can
Havana is the world capital of rum! Well, I kind of made this up but it seems quite accurate, considering that it was the Cubans who first transformed the coarse unrefined pirates “fire water” into the smooth rum we are used to drinking today. Rum is also the main ingredient of various Cuban cocktails such as the Mojito, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri etc. And the drinks are really so-so cheap. Many places offer them for just 2 CUC ($2). Some clubs ask for 7 CUC ($7) for entrance but that includes UNLIMITED mojitos. Alcohol is so cheap that when I ordered a Pina Colada the waitress brought me a glass of pineapple juice and a whole bottle of rum so I can mix it up together myself and make it as strong as I want.
Tip: Don’t go for the tourist bars such as La Bodeguita del Medio that booze-drowning Hemingway made famous. The drinks cost twice as they would in regular bars where the locals go. If anything, go for the experience, get one mojito, and then continue the evening in another place.
Random fact: The first man transforming rum was a Spanish immigrant called Don Facundo Bacardi Masso whose rum factory in Cuba was in a bat-infested dockside warehouse in 1862. Bacardi’s name quickly became famous. However, the family fell out with Castro’s regime in 1962 and moved their business to Bermuda. The other famous run dynasty, Havana Club, was founded in 1878. They were seized by the Cuban government in 1973. Today they produce 40% of Cuba’s alcohol production.
7. See the City from the Christ of Havana
One of the places I recommend you to ask your driver to take you during you American car joy ride is the La Cabana fortress hill opposite from Old Havana. There is a huge Jesus statue with loads of people marveling at the beautiful view over the Havana harbor. The views are really gorgeous, probably the best you can find of the Havana skyline.
Tip: The best time to visit is during sunset.
Random fact: The statue was brought from Italy after it was personally blessed by Pope Pius XII. Just 15 days after its inauguration, Fidel Castro entered Havana during the Cuban Revolution.
8. Visit the official cigar shop of the Cuban government
Would it really be a trip to Cuba without purchasing a couple of cigars? Even if you are not a smoker (which I am definitely not) you surely know some people who are and they would absolutely love you for this gift. After all, Cuban cigars are the most famous cigars in the world. If you go to the official shops like Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas Shop (this is the one we went to), La Casa del Habano Quinta, Casa del Habano or Museo del Tabaco, the salespeople will be knowledgeable and will help you make the best decision. Prices vary a lot but the ones I bought were between 9-15 CUC ($9-15) per cigar. But surely you can find cheaper ones as well, especially at the tobacco plantation in Vinales.
Tip: Pay a LOT of attention when looking for these shops because there are very crafty scammers waiting by the door of the shop to tell you how the “shop is closed” or that the “shop has moved” to then guide you to a “better shop”. This is actually what happened to us the first time. They stopped us at the door and told us how the store has moved to another place, offering to walk us to the “new place”. The new place was essentially a random apartment building with people selling cigars out of their cupboards. Super dodgy and scared of being robbed, we got out of there FAST. Next day we were determined to enter the real shop and even though the scammers tried to physically stop us at the door, we got through and entered the real store. Later when I asked the salesperson what is up with that, she said that those people are fake, selling fake products and there is not much they can do about them.
9. Stay at Casa Particulares
I don’t know if you are a hotel-kind-of-a-gal but Cuba is not the right place to stay in a hotel. There are some government-owned properties but their level is not comparable to hotels in capitalist countries, they simply do not have the access to many goods and the service tends to be rather mediocre. Plus you would be likely supporting shady businessmen who were probably way too buddy with the former communist regime. A BETTER OPTION is to stay in casa particulares aka home stays, essentially Cuban version of Airbnb-s. They are normally very friendly, welcoming and conveniently serve delicious breakfast with eggs, toast and fresh fruit for approximately 5 CUC ($5).
Tip: Book your home stay ahead of time from Airbnb and print your reservations before traveling to Cuba. It’s almost impossible to access the internet in Cuba so it’s necessary to have everything ready on paper. Make sure your place has AC!
Random fact: Since Raul Castro took over his brother’s job in 2006, Cuban people have been slowly subjected to the largest economic and ideological shake-up since the Revolution. From 2008, Cubans are allowed to buy electronic goods such as mobile phones and TVs. In 2011 Raul opened up the private sector, also allowing people to buy and sell cars and homes for the first time in 50 years. In 2015, the government opened up first wifi public hotspots. Today, even some few casa particulares have limited wifi access.
10. Check out the cars at the Parque Central
The best place to choose an American car for a joyride? Parque Central. The park is surrounded by beautiful cars from all sides and it’s fascinating to see even if you are not looking to go for a ride. However, be ready to handle all the yelling and bargaining if you’re not looking to go for a ride because those people are all ready to sell.
Tip: You need to bargain hard as they will show you “proof” of how the government-given prices are two times higher than what you should actually pay. Start walking away when the price is too high and they will likely run or yell after you.
Random fact: Tourist pesos (CUC pesos) are highly valued (the locals use CUP which is valued 25 times less) in Cuba, as it is the only way to afford modest luxuries to make life in this austere socialist country more comfortable.
BONUS: Marvel at the most gorgeous colonial architecture you can find in the world
Havana can broadly be split into three main areas: Habana Vieja (the old town), Centro Habana (central Havana) and Vedado (more modern luxury neighborhood). Habana Vieja with its historic majestic architecture is my absolute favorite and if you have only a limited amount of time to spend in Havana, I would simply stay there.
Random fact: Cuba was once ravished by French pirates, provoking a wave of fort building.
I hope you liked it! This post took such a long time to write so please let me know how you liked it in the comments section below.