Planning a trip to Cuba? You’ll be told, repeatedly, “go before everything changes.”Too late, that change is happening right now, every day, but it’s an exciting time to be there, and we have our friends Chand and Zul to help us navigate this new terrain.
Pace your time in Havana, think of a service à la russe, taking your time to savour it all. Walk to places, making pit-stops along the way. There will most likely be places that your Uber (or its Cuban equivalent yotellevocuba.com, translated, “I will take you”) will in fact, not take you to. Fret not, here’s a guide from the people who know.
“Something we were able to cross off our bucket lists this year was a trip to Cuba. We were very eager to go before it officially opens up to Americans. Our biggest piece of advice is to throw out any preconceived notions you might have about Cuba. The romantic perceptions that a lot of people have about Cuba, like “travelling back in time”, is an oversimplification of Cuban people and culture. Not to mention, most times we found it was quite the opposite – the many locals we got to know were very aware of what was going on in the world, and Havana has one of the most trendy and vibrant art scene of any city in the world.
Havana has lots of amazing paladares (home-style restaurants) but the one that we thought was by far the most outstanding was San Cristóbal, in Centro Habana. The décor of antiques, religious icons, old books makes it look and feel like you are dining in a museum. On top of that, after a fantastic three course meal, we were given cigars and several shots of limited edition rum. Another amazing paladar is La Guarida, also in Centro Habana. Both of these restaurants serve traditional but gourmet Cuban food and both are not to be missed.
Another very good (and less high end) paladar is O’Reillys in Habana Vieja – they do a great modern twist on Cuban cuisine. If you want a great view of the entire city, the restaurant on the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos is the place to go – more for the view than the food.
For good live music, head to Calle Obispo in Habana Vieja. The best thing to do is wander down the street and hear what is playing in different places – drop in, have a drink, some food and keep moving on.
So many great bars in Havana – there are some touristy standards that are still worth visiting. Ernest Hemingway had a reputation of making bars famous – and Havana is no exception. He liked the Mojito’s at La Bodeguita del Medio and the daiquiris at El Floridita (both in Habana Vieja). Go to both places and try the signature cocktails for fun, it’s an experience.
A must-visit is Fábrica de Arte Cubano – it’s an old factory that’s been converted into a very trendy art-space with galleries, music performances, DJs, dancing, installations, bars, food, lounges, etc. It’s a great way to get the pulse of the current Cuban art , cultural and nightlife scene.
If you want to take dance and music classes, you can find lots of places in Habana Vieja. We went to La Casa del Son for salsa dance classes, which was a lot of fun.
To get to know the modern history of Cuba, Museo de la Revolución is a cool museum – it’s was the presidential palace until the Cuban Revolution – when Fidel Castro and his army stormed the palace. You can see artefacts from before, during and after the revolution- as well as living remnants from the revolution itself, like the bullet holes in the walls.
Plaza de la Revolución is where a lot of big political rallies take place, and where Fidel Castro addresses the Cuban people. There are very large metal wall memorials of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos (two of the most important heroes of the Cuban revolution), and the Jose Marti Memorial (known as the father of Cuban Independence), that are picture worthy.
Most of the things mentioned here are pretty touristy – and definitely all worth going to – however we felt that we really got to know and fall in love with the “real” Havana by walking every inch of the city with no real destination in mind. Walking the Malecón is a good way to get started – the walkway by the coast of the city, starting at Habana Vieja, through Centro Habana all the way to Vedado. Even better if you grab a few plachao’s ($1 rum in a juice box) for the walk. We were there for 7 days and spent the entire time in Havana so we could spend our time exploring – we walked over 75 kilometres total in that time. Cuba has a distinct flavour that still lingers in our minds – we can’t wait to go back to Havana again, but also visit many other places in the rest of the country.