Cuba Part I: Discovering Havana
Island weather, eclectic architecture, classic american cars, salsa dancing into the night, and sunsets that take your breath away
According to John Steinbeck, "People don't take trips, trips take people." This quote particularly resonated with me during my time in Cuba.
You'll be transported back in time.
To ring in the New Year, I planned a trip to Cuba with two of my best friends. I knew very little about what to expect, but was excited to finally be able to explore this Caribbean island that was so close to home, yet always out of reach. United States citizens were banned from visiting Cuba my entire life, until Obama recently lifted some of the restrictions around the original embargo from the 1960's. I had seen pictures of classic Chevy convertibles and knew I wanted to ride in one. I wanted to see the tobacco fields and spend a day at one of the beautiful beaches. Knowing nothing more than that, I went with an open mind and allowed the country to work its magic.
Visiting Cuba was like going back to the 1950's and 1960's. The people were incredible and friendly, but it was a more difficult trip to take. Cuba doesn't have a lot of the luxury that you can expect on a typical "vacation". You can't plan your "perfect" trip to Cuba because no matter what, something unexpected will happen. It's a challenge and it'll make you love the place even more if you can embrace it and go with the flow. One of the best parts was being free from technology and letting loose with zero obligations.
If you are passionate about history, culture, music, and art, Cuba is the place for you. If you love daiquiris, eclectic architecture, and tangerine sunsets, grab your passport and get ready to travel back in time.
In this post, I'll share my itinerary for a week in Cuba as well as detailed daily activities for the capital city, Havana. I hope it inspires you to plan your own trip and experience this incredible place. If it does, I recommend also checking out our Do's & Don'ts of Cuba to help you prepare.
ITINERARY AT A GLANCE
We spent 7 days in Cuba and split them between Havana and Viñales (posted here!). In our short time, we wanted to be able to spend at least a few days in each location and really immerse ourselves into the culture. Since this was my first time in Cuba, I prioritized visiting these two cities, but I have heard about so many other amazing places to see. I have every intention of going back and continuing to explore this beautiful country as soon as possible. From my research, you could easily spend three weeks in Cuba and not run out of things to do.
Days 1-3: Havana - the capital city of Cuba
Days 4-6: Viñales - the land of tobacco fields, with a day trip to Playa de Cayo Jutías (beach)
Day 7: Travel Day - We left Viñales and spent our last night back in Havana to catch an early flight home
WHAT TO SEE BY DAY
Day 1: Explore Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
+ Head down Obispo to explore the main tourist area of Havana. There are cute shops, restaurants and bars that line the street. Stop for a Daiquiri at La Floridita, buy a trinket at the local market and sip on a coconut for 1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC, about $1 USD). There are a a number of museums near Paseo de Martí if you're a museum person.
+ Stop by Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas (Tobacco Factory) to see a cigar being rolled, and buy an authentic one if you'd like! This isn't currently a factory, but the architecture is beautiful and it's definitely worth a visit to the store inside.
+ Have dinner at Santy de Pescador. We took a taxi for 20 CUCs to this waterfront restaurant and had the most delicious ceviche while sipping white wine.
+ After dinner, head to Plaza de Vieja for a tower of beer, live music, and some salsa dancing!
Day 2: Experience Centro Habana (Central Havana) & Visit an Art Gallery
+ Have breakfast at Cafe Santa Domingo for coffee and eggs. It cost only 1.50 CUC for food and 1 CUC a drink. I always order the Cafe Americano, which is the closest to a regular American filtered coffee. If you order "café," you'll most likely be served a shot of espresso.
+ Start to stroll down Dragones street into China Town, called El Barrio Chino. If you make a left on Rayo, there is a gorgeous art gallery called Artecontinua. They have rotating exhibits with locations in Havana, Beijing, Paris, and Italy; we saw an exhibit by Anish Kapoor. Our host at the gallery was an art history student who spoke perfect English and took us on a private tour. I highly recommend stopping by!
+ Walk through China town and explore the architecture. If you're in the mood for Chinese food, there is a row of restaurants past an iconic pagoda structure on Dragones. I tried Tien Tan and while it didn't rival the Chinese food in San Francisco, it re-energized me to venture on and walk the streets of Central Havana.
+ Wander down Zanja and Avenue Simon Bolivar, two main streets that run through Central Havana, where you'll pass rainbow colored buildings and experience incredible people watching.
+ Watch the sunset at Hotel Saratoga. You can enter the hotel and take the elevator to the top for free. I recommend ordering a mojito at the rooftop bar for the full effect.
+ Get in line at Fabrica de Arte Cubano by 8PM to make sure you can get in for the most incredible night you'll have in Cuba. Fabrica de Arte Cubano is an art museum (it reminded me of the MoMa) and at night it turns into a night club. They even serve food at the bars! You can grab a drink and explore the art for hours. There is also a roof that includes sculpture pieces.
Day 3: Cruise in a Classic Car & Explore Historic Hotels
+ Walk to Cafe & Boutique Jacqueline Fumero and order an egg sandwich and some fresh coffee.
+ Head north to the Malécon, the winding road and seawall that stretches the coast of Havana. There will be old cars lining the street, so take some time to find your dream car. We picked an orange convertible and negotiated a price of 18 CUC to drive us to Hotel Riviera.
+ Have a drink at Hotel Riviera and climb the high dive! I was a diver growing up, and this diving board was a dream. I didn't jump off, but there is water below so bring your bathing suit if you dare.
+ Explore Hotel Cohiba and have lunch by the pool. Hotel Cohiba is just a block away from Hotel Riviera.
+ Walk the streets of Vedado since you're already in the area while at Hotel Cohiba. The area is a bit more suburban, and the houses are absolutely gorgeous.
+ Eat dinner at Los Naranjos. Check out "Where to Eat" section below for more information.
WHERE TO EAT
As mentioned above, Cuba is not known for its cuisine. A lot of the restaurants are government owned and serve pork, rice, and beans. However, we did come across some gems during our stay there. Here are the restaurants we recommend:
> Cafe Santa Domingo, Havana
Cafe Santa Domingo is a cute little cafe right on Obispo. The ground floor is a tiny bakery, but there is seating upstairs where you can order a full breakfast. We had eggs and toast for just 1.50 CUC and some delicious coffee for 1 CUC. This place has no nonsense food at a great price.
> Cafe & Boutique Jacqueline, Havana
Cafe & Boutique Jacqueline Fumero had by far the best coffee I sipped in Cuba. It was a bit more expensive than Cafe Santa Domingo, but worth the visit. We sat outside in the square with the gorgeous Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio Cathedral as our backdrop.
> Santy Pescador, Havana
Santy Pescador is a waterfront restaurant located about 20 minutes from Habana Vieja by taxi. A bit of a trek, but it was by far the best meal I ate in Cuba. I ordered ceviche and was served a huge bowl of fresh tuna that melted in my mouth. The sushi was unique, flavorful, and beautifully displayed. The atmosphere in general was lovely, and I highly recommend making the trip.
> Los Naranjos, Havana
Los Naranjos is a french-inspired restaurant nested inside a large Vedado casa (house). The venue itself was beautiful and we sat on a balcony decorated as if you were dining in Paris. The menu was presented on a chalk board, leading me to believe it changes often. Los Naranjos would be a great date spot if you're in Cuba for a romantic trip.
> Waoo!!!, Havana
While Waoo!!! looked like a tourist trap from the outside, the food did not disappoint. I traveled with my friend Megan, a vegetarian, and this was the most vegetarian-friendly restaurant we visited. The chef made her a plate of vegetable lasagna and steamed broccoli. I had octopus carpaccio and a fresh salad. If you're getting sick of only eating meat, rice, and beans, make a trip to Waoo!!! to eat your vegetables.
WHERE TO STAY
We recommend a casa particular or Airbnb. The majority of hotels are overpriced and run-down. Cuba is a place to truly immerse yourself in a new culture, and the best way to accomplish that is to meet the locals. I always book accommodations ahead of time and while that isn't necessary in Cuba, I recommend booking at least your first few nights so you can plan from there.
In Havana, I recommend staying in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) or Vedado. Habana Vieja is the historic district and while fairly touristy, the area's close proximity to the the main sights can't be beat. We stayed in an Airbnb right next to the Hotel Saratoga. The location was perfect to explore Habana Vieja, while also letting us be walking distance from Central Havana and a quick taxi ride to Vedado.
Vedado is the hip, up-and-coming, artsy neighborhood of Havana. It's a bit more residential that Habana Vieja, but houses some of the best restaurants and clubs. If you want to be close to the nightlife, I recommend Vedado.
Here is my Airbnb wishlist for Havana.
TBP INSIDER TIPS
> As soon as you arrive in Havana, head to a nearby hotel to plan your transportation to Viñales. I recommend visiting the tourism desk at Hotel Saratoga, which was extremely helpful with recommendations and helping us plan our time. You can reserve a colectivo (shared) taxi that will take you to Viñales for about 20 CUC per person, or head to Hotel Plaza Havana and buy a bus ticket for just about 14 CUCs.
> Make restaurant reservations ahead of time. We went to the concierge at Hotel Saratoga and they booked us at Santy Pescador and Los Naranjos. Here's an article that I found before I went and it was helpful in understanding the restaurant culture there.
> If you are looking for a relaxing vacation where everything is planned, Cuba probably isn't the best place for you. If you travel for luxury cuisine, I don't recommend going to Cuba either.
> It's very important to head to the Airport at least 3 hours before your flight out. We spent the back-half of the trip in Viñales (about a 3 hour drive from Havana), so we came back to Havana for our last night and stayed in a house in Vedado. Our Airbnb host coordinated a taxi to the airport in the morning, which should cost 25 CUCs.
> Make sure to bring enough cash for your whole trip. US credit cards and ATMs still don’t work in Cuba. I recommend calculating what you think you’ll need and doubling that. If you aren’t sure, plan on about $100 a day to be safe. You can exchange money at the airport when you arrive, as well as the banks in town. There is a bank on Obispo Street in Old Havana that has the best rates and always has a line outside. Stay away from exchanging at the hotels, as they always have the highest rates.
> Check out our Do's and Don'ts of Cuba for a full list of tips to help you plan a successful trip to Havana and Viñales.