CUBA TRAVEL GUIDE
It’s hard for me to put into words my week-long stint in Cuba this March. The closet I can get to embody the spirit of what I felt and saw can best be defined as magic. For me, Cuba holds a special place in my heart. I have long been a fan of the prolific and inimitable Ernest Hemingway, and knowing that he spent a vast majority of his adult life in Cuba piqued my interest years back. That, coupled with the fact that we as Americans legitimately weren’t allowed there for the past 50 years made my desire to go and see and experience this magical, forbidden place even greater.
While I was away, I got so many messages from you guys on where to go, what to see, places to eat… so I decided to do a comprehensive travel guide on my seven days in Havana. I hope my Cuba travel guide helps you plan your trip to Cuba. And please let me know if you have any magical spots I need to check out on my next trip there!
WHERE TO STAY:
Casa Particulars are basically AirBnB’s in Cuba. We booked one through AirBnB and man did we luck out! Our place was insanely huge and gorgeous. Two bedrooms, three bathrooms, three floors, a 70 foot wrap around patio, 10+ foot tall doors, a spiral staircase, a complete upstairs patio and an even higher third floor patio. We stayed in Centro Habana and this was the view we had from the street level, and below that is a view from our third floor balcony.
There are definitely pros and cons of staying here. Pros: close to everything and walking distance to Habana Vieja. It was nice not staying right in Habana Vieja because it’s so damn touristy and it’s right where the cruise ships let off, so every few days Habana Vieja was flooded with thousands of people! Centro Habana, where we were, is in between Old Havana and New Havana (Vedado) and our place was a stone throw away from the sea wall. I’d stay here again! Old Havana is beautiful and quaint too–the only place I wouldn’t want to stay is in Vedado.
The cons: not really anything however Centro Havana is in local territory and the locals don’t have a lot to do (but they are really friendly and harmless.) Therefore, they are up at all hours of the night and they are pretty damn loud. Also, no swimming pool which would have been nice on super hot days. If I had to stay at a hotel, I’d consider Hostal Valencia (hostels aren’t hostels in Cuba, they’re nice,) or somewhere with a pool.
Fabrica De Arte !!!! If you do one activity on my list, go here. It was so much better than what I expected! It’s an insane art gallery filled with all different kinds of art, music, performances, movies–it really was stunning and my favorite thing the whole trip. Only open Wed – Sunday, go early.
Walk along the sea wall at dusk, pure magic.
Be a tourist and take a ride in a classic car around town. Pick your favorite color and style and don’t pay more than 50 CUC for the hour.
Hemingway House: I loved this so much! See Ernest Hemingway’s actual house outside of Cuba. About 35 minutes away and worth it. We had a delicious Hemingway Special cocktail at the bar and listened to salsa.
Playa Santa Maria: close beach to Habana. Nice to get away from the city and relax. I want to host a Cuban beach clean-up because there was a decent amount of trash on the beach and it made me 🙁
Walking tour of Habana Vieja. We loved this! So worth it, and we learned a lot about Cuba’s history
Vinales: We did a day trip here. It’s 2.5 Hours in both directions. We went through the caves on a boat which was cool, went to a tobacco farm and learned how to roll cigars, and saw a botanical garden. The highlight here was our lunch. BEST MEAL IN CUBA! Paladar Barbaro, get the PORK. OMG!!!
Cigar Tasting: We only did this in Vinales but I wish we had done it in Havana too. We went to a place right behind the Capitolo (you can’t miss it) on our last day, but it was closed!
Drive past the mansions in Miramar. The juxtaposition of poor v wealth in Cuba is fascinating considering it’s a socialist country
Walk around Centro Habana
Shopping at Almancenes San Jose: A huge market in a warehouse by the water near the cruise terminal. So much good, local, Cuba made goods here, including a ridiculous art section filled with some pretty incredible artwork. I brought home a killer abstract piece.
Despite what people say about the food being borderline terrible, we had some wonderful meals in Cuba, including the best fried pork Cassondra and myself have ever had. The biggest tip here is to go to paladars instead of state-run restaurants. Most paladars have the word “paladar” in the title, but at times, it can be hard to distinguish if a spot is a paladar or state-run. Paladars are family run and are Cuba’s small but steady pulse of capitalism. The families pay a tax to the government and they’re allowed to run their paladars like a business. Remember to not over order and try and finish your meals, because food in Cuba can be scare and some restaurants have to ration out their portions so they don’t run out.
One thing I wish I would have known is you need to make reservations at the “hotspots” now. Who knew you’d need a rezzie in Cuba? I put * by the ones you should make a reservation at before you leave.
el Cafe (Habana Vieja) Super cute breakfast / lunch spot located close to the Capitolo. This was by far my favorite breakfast that we had. Only downside, it was super slow, as most things are in Cuba, but at least the building is cute with original colonial columns and tile floors.
5 Esqinas Trattorias (Habana Vieja) We adored this place! We got a huge breakfast for 4.50 cuc, not bad considering there was a whole buffet, coffee, fruit, and made-to-order eggs and bakey included.
Cafe Francesa (Centro Habana) Easy place to grab coffee and pan dulce or some other delicious sweet treat.
DRINKS / TAPAS:
Cafe Madrigal (Vedado)* The vibe here is so on point! An adorable paladar located in the second floor of a bright pink home with a very hipster, Williamsburg feel. Tapas style only, but we were obsessed with our Cuban chicken nuggets and tortilla with egg! Ambiance + piano player made this place a 10.
Hotel Saratoga (Capitolo) Where Beyonce stayed. Go up to the rooftop and check out the insane view!
Ambos Mudos (Habana Vieja) We loved the pina coladas so much here, we went twice! A gorgeous pink hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived in his 30s. A truly beautiful place, but very touristy. Head up to the roof for a gorgeous view of Havana and the sea wall, and order the pina colada special in the pineapple, you’re gonna die it’s so good!
Hotel Nacionale (Vedado) Spectacular hotel on the water where all the famous people stay. Worth it if just to walk around and enjoy the view. We almost stayed here and I’m very glad we didn’t. We also checked out the famous cigar room and the pool.
Sia Kara (Centro Habana) If you go to one restaurant on my list, go here! The food was phenomenal. This place has been around since the ’50s (or earlier) and has a really awesome island eclecticsm going on with the decor. At 11pm, they had the most fantastic salsa singer come in and we had so much fun singing and dancing the night away.
Los Nardos (Capitolo) A really delicious restaurant with all the local flavors, and very cheap. We went here for lunch but I’d go back but for dinner instead. The mood is very dark and vampy and makes you feel like you’re in pirates of the caribbean. There are 3 restaurants all next to each other, make sure you go to Los Nardos the whole way at the top.
El Dandy (Habana Vieja) Get the pulled pork tacos! We went here for both lunch and dinner. Cute and small.
Dos Pelotas (Centro Habana) The second best Cuban meal we had. Delicious little locals spot in Centro Habana that’s not to be missed! Get the fried pork pieces, mixed rice and yucca.
El Chancellero (Habana Vieja) Next door to el dandy. Amazing spot run by cool, young guys. Was the first “good” meal after a first day of not-so-good meals in Cuba. This place gets a crazy long line, but it’s worth the wait. I had the grilled fish and it was 💣
El Cocinero (Vedado)* Go here! But make a reservation. And go on a Friday or Saturday before going to Fabrica de Arte right next door. This place has an Asian-inspired menu and since I basically only really eat asian food at home, this place was very welcomed after a week of Cuban food. Ambiance is great too, sit on the patio.
Casa Migilas (Centro Habana) We were craving pasta and this place came to the rescue! Loved the decor of this spot too, colonial with a little bit of edge. I also had plantains and ice cream for desert and I’m still thinking about it.
We also went to: Rio Mar (in Vedado just OK) el Chansonnier (also in Vedado, just Ok.) Some spots we wanted to check out but couldn’t get in because we didn’t have reservations were Dona Eutimia and Paladar La Guardia (make recs for both!)
Since Cuba is a socialist country, they can decide what value currency has in their country. And since America isn’t on the best terms, they royally f*ck Americans on the exchange rate. 1 CUC = .87 American dollars. That being said, everything is still relatively cheap in Cuba. Drinks are 2-4 CUCs, meals are anywhere from 5 – 25 CUCs. The thing that will get ya are the damn taxis! Always negotiate. Also, Cuba has two currencies, one for tourists CUCs and one for locals Pesos. Pesos aren’t worth anything, 25 Pesos = 1 CUC. A major scam is that they give you back money in pesos instead of CUCs. CUCs have buildings on them and pesos have faces on them. This happened to me once, so annoying!
Ahh wifi. Legit hard to get. We went to Hotel Ingleterra and sat in the lobby using wifi cards that we peddled from guys off the street. Not very pleasant and also the wifi is slow, so try not to make it a priority unless you have to.
Another thing: download Galileo! It’s an offline map and you need to download the Cuba map specifically before you get there. You can search for restaurants and places then without wifi so you can get around! This was a huge lifesaver.
My biggest piece of advice to you: go now, don’t wait. Go while it’s still fresh and untainted from American tourism… while there still isn’t wifi and cars from the ‘20s and ‘50s roll down Paseo del Prado by the plenty. Go while the markets are still filled with artisanal, hand-made goods made in Cuba by local craftsman. And see their ingenuity and creativity on how they reinvented, maintained, and created basic necessities from the meager products that were imported. I can’t wait to go back, but at the same time, I’m scared it will change.
Did you like my Cuba travel guide? Let me know in the comments along with any awesome places I should check out next time I’m in Cuba!