General Assembly recently voted 191 to 2 against the U.S. blockade of Cuba. This, combined with an ease of travel restrictions to Cuba in early 2015, further opens the door for Americans to enter a country that boasts beautiful colonial architecture, rich culture and people with a generous spirit.
Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century situated on a bay due east of Key West, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The largest city in the Caribbean is also Cuba’s capital and the vibrant city reflects the country’s history of colonization through architecture, food and art. Popular amongst tourists because of its walk-able neighborhoods, numerous museums and plenty of Old World charm, it is also a city in flux.
Most of the services for travelers are centered in Old Havana, which boasts unique museums, galleries and architecture. To get a broader sense of the country, however, venture to other neighborhoods and embrace the idiosyncrasies that can be found within this city that has long been innovating with few resources.
Over two million people—or almost 20 percent of Cuba’s population—reside within Havana’s 281 square miles, creating a densely populated city. The majority of Cubans still make very little money from government jobs (the average wage is around $20 a month), unemployment is high and many items that are widely available in the United States, from house paint to toiletries, are difficult to find.
Spanish is the primary language spoken and the country uses two forms of currency: the CUC, which is roughly 1:1 with the American dollar and is what most transactions by foreigners are priced in, and the Cuban Peso, which is used primarily for goods and services by Cuban nationals. Keep in mind when visiting Havana that Cuba has a complicated political and economic past and is in the midst of adjusting to the new influx of American travelers.
Don’t let all this talk of poverty and politics scare you off, though, Havana has plenty to offer the vacation and culture-seeking traveler.
For breakfast, pick up a pastry and coffee at Café el Escorial on Plaza Vieja, one of the picturesque squares in the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The fact that this square is bustling at any time of day proves it is is the heart of Havana, which is why most of the hotels, restaurants, museums and government buildings are located there. After breakfast, walk across the plaza to visit the only camera obscura in Latin America, located on the top floor of the Gomez Vila Building. Here, a guide takes visitors on a visual tour of Havana as reflected through the camera obscura’s periscope-like lens onto a concave platform. Afterward take in the view of the city skyline from the building’s roof deck.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Photo: Suzanne Cope
After lunch at Taberna de la Muralla in Plaza Vieja, which brews its own beer, beat the afternoon heat at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes featuring Cuban artists, not to be confused with a museum of a similar name nearby that houses international art. After admiring the works of artists like Armando Menocal, Leopoldo Romañach and the great forerunner of modern art Rafael Blanco, hop across the street to the Memorial Granma. Inside a glass enclosure behind the Museo de la Revolución is the boat Fidel Castro took from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. The park surrounding the memorial is filled with other military artifacts like the delivery truck used in the 1957 assault on the Palacio Presidencial. When you’ve had enough of Castro, walk down a street named Trocadero toward a street called Paseo Di Marti and step inside the lobby of Hotel Sevilla, where photos and memorabilia are hung celebrating the hotel’s famed visitors, from Josephine Baker to Al Capone. Continue to Paseo Di Marti and take a right toward the water, perhaps stopping into Pasteleria Francesa for a strong cup of coffee or guava pastry.
Before sunset, take a walk along the Malecon, the concrete walkway along the water that outlines the city, taking in the view of the Parque Historico Militar Morro-Cabana across the harbor that houses a centuries-old fortress. For dinner visit Nazdanovie, a soviet-themed restaurant situated on the Malecon that looks out over the water. Here you can relive Cuba’s Soviet era with memorabilia, vodka mojitos, or Russian specialties like stroganoff and borscht. For a quieter evening, take a taxi from the Malecon to Divino, one of the few paladares (privately owned restaurants) in Havana that grows its own produce and boasts one of the most extensive wine cellars in the city. After dinner, check out the subterranean jazz club La Zorra y el Cuervo near an area called La Rampa, where some of the best Cuban and international musicians play. Roberto Fonseca and Lazaro Valdes are often on the schedule. Arrive early for a seat at a table or the bar. The cover charge of 10 CUCs comes with two drink tickets that can be used for a cocktail or beer. Mojitos and Cuba Libres—Cuba’s rum and coke—are the most popular.
Photo: Gerry Balding, CC-BY
After a filling buffet breakfast of American classics at El Mediterraneo located within Hotel Parque Centrale in Habana Vieja, do some shopping and gallery hopping in the neighborhood. Starting at Parque Centrale, where taxis are easily found for travel to and from the neighborhood, walk a few blocks along Calle Obispo to browse among the many shops offering souvenirs like T-shirts, cigars and handicrafts, such as papier-mâché classic cars. There are also a few galleries on this pedestrian walkway, such as Asociacion Cubana de Artesana Artista and Casa de los Artistas, both of which highlight contemporary Cuban artists and offer a wide variety of visual art, handicrafts and sculpture for sale. For more gallery options, walk a few blocks away to the Plaza de la Catedral. Once a swamp, its namesake cathedral was built in the 1700s and the plaza later became home to upscale mansions. Now, restaurants and art galleries like the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam and Palacio del Conde Lombillo, both of which house mostly contemporary Cuban art in rehabilitated, centuries-old edifices, surround it. For lunch, try El Patio with tables that spill out onto Plaza de la Catedral or La Bodeguita del Medio, which was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorites.
For lunch, try El Patio with tables that spill out onto Plaza de la Catedral or La Bodeguita del Medio, which was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorites, then take a taxi to Plaza de la Revolucion, in the neighborhood of Vedado. Built in the 1950s, this plaza houses government buildings and monuments that pay homage to the leaders of the Cuban Revolution. On the south side of the square is the monument and museum to honor Jose Marti, considered one of the country’s most revered figures for his ideological work supporting Cuban independence. Pay two CUCs for a ride to the top of the 357-foot tall structure for an all-encompassing view of Havana from its highest point. Upon descending, walk to the nearby Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, one of the Caribbean’s most lavish cemeteries. Five CUCs will afford you a guide of the 50-hectare property built in the late 1800s. Here you’ll find hundreds of chapels, tombs, mausoleums and gravestones built and decorated in various styles by known Cuban artists. Afterward visit Cuba Libro, founded by American Conner Gorrey, for an afternoon iced tea. The goal of the cafe, bookstore and event space is to connect ex-pats and locals, offering hammocks and comfortable chairs for reading some of the Spanish and English language magazines, newspapers and books available. If you’ve brought your own book, consider donating your reading material when you are finished.
Photo: Suzanne Cope
Stay in Vedado for an evening mojito or Cuba Libre at Presidente Hotel. Sit in one of the wicker chairs on the porch that flanks the marble-paneled lobby and enjoy views of the Malecon a few hundred yards away as brightly-colored classic taxis pull up to the steps to service patrons. For dinner, walk a few blocks across Calle Linea to Mediterraneo, an Italian-inspired restaurant that makes their own cheese and salumi—one of the few to do so in the city. They also have their own finca, or farm, on the outskirts of Havana, and tours are available. Tables can be reserved inside the modern dining room or outside on the wood-paneled deck. Another nearby option for dinner is the paladar El Idilio, which offers al fresco dining in an upscale neighborhood with a menu that focuses on fresh seafood. Popular dishes include grilled octopus and seafood soup. After dinner take a taxi to Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a modern music venue, dance club and art gallery covering two floors of a former factory and offering some of the most exciting nightlife in the city.
Charter flights are still the only way to fly directly from the United States to Havana and are now leaving out of New York City, New Orleans, Tampa and Miami, although new routes are being added. Book through an agency such as ABC Charters or Cuba Travel Services. Once in Havana, take a taxi to your hotel or guesthouse.
Private rooms and apartments have been legally available for rent in Cuba for a few years and are called casa particulares. Staying at one of these places can be a good way to get a sense of a neighborhood beyond Old Havana where many of the hotels are located.
Airbnb lists rooms and apartments in Havana. Some of these accommodations come with meals provided by the hosts, which is a good idea as there are not many restaurant options outside of Habana Vieja. Do note that private apartments and rooms can be quite modest in Havana due to the decades of economic hardships and trade limitations. Also, keep in mind that you might be sharing a bathroom and living space with an extended family or other guests. Prices start around $15 USD/night for a private bedroom with a shared bathroom.
In the residential neighborhood of Vedado, the classic Hotel Presidente was built in the 1920s and offers a lovely wrap around porch, a pool and Internet. Notable for being the first skyscraper in the city, the hotel has 10 floors of rooms just 660 feet from the Malecon. Prices start around $83 USD/night.
For a luxury stay in Habana Vieja, book your stay at Hotel Saratoga. The building was originally constructed in 1879 and has retained its colonial charm through a number of renovations that have lured guests from Frank Sinatra to Beyoncé. The hotel has a rooftop pool and multiple restaurants, and is located within walking distance of Havana’s major sights. Prices start around $200 USD a night.
Suzanne Cope is the author of the book “Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food” and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Time, among other publications. She teaches writing at Manhattan College and lives in Brooklyn.