8 must-visit Cuban destinations in and near Havana, plus travel tips for Americans.
The Cuban travel ban was lifted in 2016 and Alaska Airlines now offers a daily flight to Havana — so it’s officially time to move Cuba to the top of your list of vacation destinations.
If you need any further incentive… Rum! Classic cars! Music! Dancing in the streets! More rum! Convinced? Here are eight destinations not to miss.
Become a street walker: Havana Vieja
Habana Vieja is lovely and worth a stroll, but the cat’s out of the bag: Every visitor flocks to this restored area, and the cobbled streets and plazas are clogged with people of every nationality.
Spend an afternoon seeing the highlight reel, enjoying the liveliness and mix of colonial, neo-classical and art-deco architecture, and then move on to other mysterious and magical areas in and around Havana.
Wet your whistle at El Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, and elbow your way to the bar for a Papa Doble, a double daiquirí frappé that the bartenders make en masse.
Stroll to the Conde de Villanueva hotel and find Tienda de Habanos, a jewel box of a cigar shop on the second floor. You can purchase single cigars from Cuba’s world-renown brands like Cohiba and then light up in the adjoining bar.
The heart of art: Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market
A walk south along the waterfront from Old Havana will lead you past docked cruise ships to a huge converted warehouse filled with artist and souvenir stalls. Pick up a vibrant painting or a traditional guayabera shirt, all the while sipping on a coconut filled with coconut water and rum.
Avenida del Puerto corner of Calle Cuba
Taking the waters: El Malecón
Conceived in 1901, the Malecón is a storied attraction — and with good reason. This waterfront esplanade and seawall stretches for four miles from Old Havana to the more modern Vedado neighborhood. It is a popular gathering place and offers spectacular views of Havana’s waterfront and skyline.
At any time of day, you’ll encounter musicians, fishermen, snorkelers, street performers, lovebirds, classic convertibles and amateur photographers. It’s a snapshot of Cuba’s liveliness.
Somewhere in time: Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Come for a cocktail, stay for the history. No visit to Havana is complete without a stop at the glorious Hotel Nacional for a cocktail or café con leche in their outdoor courtyard. This art deco beauty features roving peacocks and amazing views, but there are also trenches and bunkers on the grounds from when the hotel served as Fidel Castro’s headquarters during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Calle 21 y O
Fortress around your heart: El Morro
Guarding the mouth of the Harbor is Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, an imposing 16th century fortress originally built to spot enemies (i.e. pirates). A perfect location for a horror movie or high-fashion photo shoot, El Morro offers amazing views of the Havana skyline and port from its walls and parapets.
Inside, get lost in a maze of outdoor passages that connect the various buildings. Dark doorways and scenic outlooks provide ideal backdrops for indulging any photographic aspirations.
Carretera de la Cabaña
The Old Man and the House: Finca Vigía
Hire a classic car for a few hours (you can negotiate on price), and head out of town to Finca Vigía, which was Hemingway’s home, situated about 30 minutes outside Havana. Now a museum, you can tour the grounds and peek into Papa’s island home, which provides a glimpse into the man and the writer.
Exotic animal heads adorn the walls, his artist’s garret features his trusty Corona typewriter and the bathroom walls are scribbled with his weight, which he jotted down each day when he got on the scale. His beloved fishing boat Pilar is also on display.
Via Carretera Central de Cuba
Life’s a Beach: Playas del Este
Another short drive out of town will take you to the Playas del Este, a string of pristine beaches to the east of Havana. Each beach has a slightly different flavor: Locals talk up lively Playa Guanabo, while Playa Santa María del Mar is a showstopper, with turquoise waters, gentle waves and a long sandbar perfect for swimming or floating.
Via Blanca to Avenida Viscada
Dance Dance Revolution: Café Cantante Mi Habana
You can’t talk about Cuba without talking about music. Music is everywhere — musicians, singers and full-on bands are crammed into tiny restaurants and crowded bars.
El Gato Tuerto is considered by locals to be the premier spot to hear Cuban jazz. If you want to dance, the Teatro Nacional on the Paseo features one of the city’s best-kept secrets: Café Cantante Mi Habana, a basement club that hosts live bands and Cuban salsa until 4 a.m.
While there are many attractions — including museums, churches and one enormous cemetery — the best thing to do is to get lost wandering the streets of the Centro, Vedado and Old Havana. Discover murals on crumbling buildings, watch kids playing baseball in the street, listen to the sound of vendors hawking strings of garlic or loaves of bread, sway in time as you hear a trumpet player in a doorway. Cuba is a mysterious and magical place, if you let it reveal itself in unexpected ways.
Paperwork: You must purchase a Cuban Tourist Visa, which you can buy online or at the gate at LAX if you are flying Alaska Airlines. In addition, you will also be asked to fill out a form stating one of 12 reasons for visiting Cuba. Most people check off “people to people,” meaning you’re going for the cultural experience.
If you’re returning on Alaska Airlines, you do not depart from International Terminal 3 but Terminal 2. There’s no shuttle between terminals, so if you get out of your taxi or car at the wrong terminal, you’ll need enough Cuban money to pay a driver to take you to the proper location.
Currency: There are two currencies in play in Cuba. Tourists use the Cuban convertible peso (CUCs), which is equivalent to the U.S. dollar. Locals use the Cuban peso (CUP), which is worth a fraction of a CUC. When you get change, make sure that it’s in CUCs (CUCs have landmarks on the bills, CUPs feature people).
Take Euros or Canadian dollars for the best exchange rate, and exchange it at the airport. You can’t use U.S. credit cards in Cuba so bring enough cash to cover your expenses and then a little more for emergencies. You can always convert your CUCs at the airport when you depart or buy rum or cigars at Duty Free.
To exchange money while in Havana, go to a CADECA (currency bureau) or the front desk at a large hotel like Havana Libre or Hotel Angleterre. Always ask for change in small bills so you’ll have the right amount for taxi rides and bathroom attendants (they aren’t in the habit of making change).
Reservations: Many restaurants take reservations but it’s almost impossible to make them via phone or email from the U.S. Compile your wish-list of restaurants and paladars (in-home restaurants) and book a reservation as soon as you arrive. Ask your host or hotel concierge to call for you, as your cell phone won’t work in Cuba.
As for lodging, there are more and more accommodations popping up at all prices points on Airbnb so you can book your room or apartment in advance. If you are more adventurous, knock on doors that have a sign indicating that the house is a Casa Particular. Cubans rent out rooms in their homes, sometimes with breakfast included, for as little as $30 a night. Conditions and amenities vary wildly, but if you are willing to forego hot water or privacy, you might have a memorable encounter with your hosts.
Bathrooms: BYO toilet paper. Most toilets in Cuba do not have seats, just the porcelain bowl, and don’t offer toilet paper in the stall. Restaurants and hotels often have bathroom attendants; give them some change and they’ll spare a square. Better yet, tuck a Ziploc containing a good supply of toilet paper in your bag each day. You won’t be sorry.
Tipping: There is often a 10 percent service charge included at bars and restaurants. Check your bill and if it’s not included, 10 percent is usually the going gratuity for good service.
Food: Cuban cuisine isn’t exactly a foodie’s dream but, on the bright side, it’s not that spendy. Menus are lousy with grilled lobster tails, so eat up! Island specialties include ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish, as well as croquetas and frituras, fried balls filled with meat or malanga (a root similar to taro). And for desert, flan is king.
Packing: You’ll be walking on cobbled and uneven streets, so leave heels at home and opt for comfortable shoes and sandals. And it’s always warm, so you’ll only need a light jacket or scarf for evening. Fill your suitcase with shorts, lightweight trousers, sundresses, hats and a whole lot of sunscreen.
Wi-Fi: Unless you are staying at one of the larger hotels, you won’t catch a signal while you’re in Cuba. There are some free hot-spots in town, such as the Parque Central, but it’s still a crapshoot as to whether you’ll get any bars. Instead, plan to unplug and enjoy a vacation free of Facebook and the news.