If you feel like you've recently heard everyone you know mention wanting to go or having just gone to Cuba, you're not mistaken. Previously closed off to Americans, the travel ban has been lifted in Cuba last year, causing a surge of U.S. visitors to flock to its capital in the last six months. And for good reason. After experiencing Havana and its surrounding areas firsthand last December, I have to admit: It's a one-of-a-kind travel destination. And, yes, as everyone has probably already told you, you need to go right now, if only to experience the authentic Cuban experience before the tourist equivalent of gentrification happens (Anthony Bourdain said it first on the Cuba episode of No Reservations).
One of the things that makes Cuba a unique travel destination is that it feels like a piece of remote paradise that hasn't been affected by time, in the best way possible. Vintage cars are omnipresent, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single familiar franchise. You will quickly understand why writer Ernest Hemingway, whose traces are felt all over Havana, fell in love with the country and its people. In fact, it's rumored that after the writer was forced to leave his beloved home in Cuba after 20 years of living there, it increasingly added to the depression that he suffering from. The mishmash of eclectic and colorful architecture—borrowing from Colonial, Neo-Classical, and Art Deco periods—make it one of the most visually stunning cities you'll ever experience, and the domestic history, unknown to so many Americans due to previously strained relations, is one that begs to be told to visitors. Not least adding to the charm of this city are the people who try to make your visit a personal one, as well as the live music and dancing that take over every and any empty corner of space. (No exaggeration: We witnessed a full-on dance party break out in the middle of a market.)
Ahead, some things to know about to Cuba before you set off on your journey and all the best places to check out and things to do once you're there.
U.S. visitors are allowed to legally visit the country provided their trip falls into one of 12 categories—including family visits, educations activities, and support for the Cuban people—and they have the appropriate visa. "You need a visa to enter the country, and it’s a relatively straightforward process to travel under the 'educational activities' category on a people-to-people trip. Travelers can request to purchase a visa with Cuba Travel Network. You can also purchase your visa the day of departure at the airport, but double-check with your airline first as they may not be available at all airports," says Eddie Lubbers, founder of Cuba Travel Network, a travel agency dedicated to making travel arrangements and booking customized itineraries Cuba. "We usually recommend purchasing in advance from the Cuban consulate or Cuba Travel Network to avoid any last-minute issues."
This visa, also available for purchase online here if you prefer to go that route, allows visitors to stay in Cuba for 30 days and can be extended for another 30. Once you receive your visa, don't be surprised that it looks like a simple piece of paper with two identical sides that you will need to fill out by hand with your personal details; as someone who's used to seeing the fancy Schengen sticker visas, it was a bit jarring to see how "unofficial" the Cuban entry permit looks. "When you go to the immigration booth in Cuba, the immigration officer will stamp both halves of the card, keep one, and hand the other half back to you. You must hand in this other half when you clear Cuban immigration on your return home," warns Lubbers.
Most U.S. visitors go to Cuba under the support for the Cuban people or people-to-people category as tourism is still not an official reason for which you can travel to Cuba yet. "Many trips qualify as 'people-to-people' trips under the educational exchange category. Under people-to-people guidelines, travelers must pursue a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people. The emphasis is on visiting for cultural interactions with the Cuban people," says Lubbers.
Cuba has two different currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban National Peso (CUP). "The official currency is the Cuban Peso, which you cannot import or export; this Peso Cubano is for use by Cuban nationals only. The so-called Convertible Peso is the only legal tender for foreign visitors," says Lubbers. You can exchange U.S. dollars for CUCs at the airport upon arrival and currency exchanges and bureaus in select hotels and around the city. Since you can't exchange money ahead of time in the U.S. (most banks and exchange centers don't carry Cuban currency), you will have to exchange it at the airport when you land, which can take anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours depending on how long the line is. You will most likely be paying in CUCs while in Cuba. "The CUC currency is applicable to cash purchases in shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, taxis, and car rental companies," says Lubbers. "The exchange rate of the CUC is measured by the value of the U.S. dollar: one U.S. dollar equals one Cuban Convertible Peso. And as part of Cuba Travel Network’s services, on arrival to the country, our experts can provide CUCs to our travelers."
Cuba doesn't accept credit cards issued by U.S. banks. It, therefore, is important to make sure that you have enough money to cover the duration of the entire trip. At any given point, you'll find U.S. tourists at the airport getting on an earlier flight because they ran out of money and had to rebook their return ticket. "Bring more cash than you anticipate needing while you’re there. You can’t pay with credit cards on the ground, but there are exchange booths at the airport and at most hotels," says Lubbers.
There is no readily available Wi-Fi in Cuba, so don't be expecting to be able to use Google Maps if you get lost; there are plenty of apps that offer offline maps for that purpose. You can buy scratch-off internet cards directly from ETSECA, the telecom company that provides Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba, for around $2 for an hour, but expect to wait in a long line. More commonly, tourists either buy internet cards from hotel lobbies that have Wi-Fi or head to a Wi-Fi hotspot (which can be identified by crowds of young Cubans and tourists glued to their phones and tablets) and wait until locals approach them selling internet cards for a slight markup.
As with most things in Cuba, booking in advance and through a trusted source is always recommended. "For hotel rooms and rental cars, demand is outweighing inventory, and it can make navigating the country on the fly quite difficult. Sometimes travelers will arrive to find that though they booked rooms, there aren’t actually any available when they get there. Because of Cuba Travel Network’s relationships within the country and offices throughout Cuba’s provinces, this would never happen when booking through the company," says Lubbers. "Our experts are able to assist 24 hours a day with anything you might not even realize you may need once you’re there."
Hotel Ambos Mundos: Known informally as Hemingway's Hotel, this Old Havana historic institution has preserved the room in which the For Whom the Bell Tolls writer stayed and wrote several short stories, and turned it into a museum space of sorts that visitors can visit. Make sure to take advantage of this quaint hotel's roof terrace that offers impressive views and live music. Even if you don't end up staying here, swing by for a drink in the picture perfect lobby bar, which also happens to have a good Wi-Fi hotspot and great vantage point for people watching.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba: This is one of Cuba's most historic and upscale hotels; Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, and Ava Gardner are just some of the guests that have stayed here. Expect to see beautifully manicured lawns and lots of greenery surrounding the stunning Art Deco structure that houses 450-plus rooms. Make sure to check out the bar on the terrace overlooking the Malecón seawall at sunset. The hotel also houses a money exchange desk where you can exchange money and a tourism bureau that can book excursions for you.
Hotel Florida: Practically across the street from Ambos Mundos, hiding behind the elaborately carved wood doors, this Colonial-style hotel boasts one of the most Instagram-friendly courtyards you'll see in all of Havana. At night, don't be surprised to find people salsa dancing between the majestic columns and wicker furniture. It's what skyrocketed this hotel to top of our list.
Where to stayAirbnb: With a limited number of hotels, Airbnbs, or casa particulares as they are referred to in Cuba, are soaring in popularity. When booking an accommodation, keep in mind that in a lot of casa particulares, you'll be staying with the hosts, which, on one hand, will provide you with an authentic experience and convenient amenities, such as a home-cooked breakfast spread made by the abuela or in-house staff and airport transfers, but, on the other, reduce the privacy you might have come to expect from an Airbnb. Read reviews and make sure to inquire about whether you will be alone or staying with the host if that's an issue for you.
If you are all for mingling with the locals (which, you should be—most Cubans are incredibly friendly and a pleasure to be around), take it a step further and partake in airbnb's newly launched Experiences program which includes immersive experiences and social events led by local insiders, and is nothing like the run-of-the-mill group tours you'll be offered in Havana. Get to know the musical history of Cuba with By Night in Havana, visit a hidden urban forest on bike with Maverick Biker, and get a scholarly tour of Cuba with Being Cuban.
Where to eatEl Chanchullero: This casually oriented joint was so delicious, we ended up here twice on our trip. The concept is simple: fresh protein paired with delicious sides. Prepare to wait in line to get a table unless you arrive as the restaurant opens and expect the restaurant to run out of the most popular dishes if you are arriving on the later side.
Paladar Los Amigos: This is the restaurant that Bourdain made famous during the No Reservations episode filmed in Havana—and for a good reason. The completely unpretentious dining room puts out some standout grilled meats. This restaurant is also located close to Hotel Nacional de Cuba, making it the perfect dinner stop prior to one of the shows (more on that later).
Ivan Chef Justo: The first thing you'll notice about this restaurant is the quirky decor and artwork that seemingly adorns every corner of this two-floor restaurant; the second is how delicious every single cocktail and plate is. While this joint is slightly more expensive than most places in Havana and will most likely take a reservation to get in, the new take on Cuban classics is a must-try when in the city.
El Cocinero: This cooking oil factory-turned-alfresco rooftop restaurant and bar will also require a reservation. The trendy newcomer is known for hosting a chic crowd, great views, and its seriously delicious seafood. This is also a great spot if you plan on hitting the uber-popular Fábrica de Arte Cubano (more on that later, too), which is housed next door, after dinner.
La Guarida: Another reservation-necessary dinner output, La Guarida is where frequent travelers to Havana will tell you to go to. It's one of the most scenic places you can have dinner at (think: arched columns, adorned ceilings, and a beautiful terrace); the food—a nouveau approach to Cuban fare—is gastronomically top-notch too.
Where to drinkEl Floridita Bar + La Bodeguita del Medio: Hemingway once famously said, "I get my mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita," forever solidifying these two spots as tourist traps. And super-packed tourist traps they are, but still worth a visit if you're a lover of all things Hemingway.
Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco: This beer garden, located on the scenic waterfront, is a great place to take a break in midday and listen to some live music at or at night when salsa dancing takes over. The beers are unexpectedly delicious and the huge space provides a welcome relief among the typically tiny and crammed Cuban bars and restaurants.
La Zorra y el Cuervo: With the entrance concealed by an old-school British phone booth, it might be easy to miss one of Cuba's most popular jazz bars. While there is a cover to enter, expect a free drink with it and great music. Make sure to get here early (10pm is when it opens) as lines tend to get long.
Jazz Cafe: Another jazz institution in Havana, this is one is housed on the top floor of an empty mall. While this doesn't sound like a romantic setting (and it sure doesn't feel like it if you haven't been warned and are climbing the dark stairs in the middle of the night), the space features more room than La Zorra y el Cuervo while hosting equally impressive music sets.
Casa de la Musica: If you are looking to dance the night away, you will inevitably find yourself at one of the two (or both!) popular nightclubs: Casa de la Musica or Fábrica de Arte Cubano. While we'll talk about Fábrica de Arte Cubano in the next slide for its multipurpose function, Casa de la Musica is a straight-up nightclub where you can't not have fun. Equal parts locals and tourists, the Miramar outpost, located in a beautiful mansion, plays some of the most popular tunes to early hours of the morning.
Espacios: This restaurant and bar is also a popular go-to among the Miramar crowd. The artsy space attracts a younger, and we'll even go as far to say hipster, crowd and features a scenic terrace where you can dwindle the night away before heading to Casa de la Musica to dance.
Turquino del Hotel Habana Libre: If you are looking for something more upscale, head to the 26th floor of Habana Libre hotel for unparallel views of the city. The drinks are more expensive than what you would typically find anywhere else, but do it for the scenery.
Obispo Street and Calle 23: If you want to come upon your own hidden gem of a bar, proceed to Old Havana's populated Obispo Street or El Vedado's 23rd Street. Both are filled with personalities, live music, and bars on both sides, so you're bound to find a favorite that's not featured on any travel list.
What to doVintage car tour: It might sounds cheesy, but it's really not. There is nothing like the feeling of riding in a vintage Buick with the top down to make you feel like a star from a 1940s movie. Get a tour with an English-speaking guide so you can really get to know Havana and its history and ask any questions that you may have. If you book the tour in the afternoon, you can catch the sunset at the end of the ride which is something in its own right. Also, take advantage of the vintage cars as cabs when getting around Havana. We took one to the beach!
Finca Vigía: Visit Hemingway's house, located about 25 minutes outside of Havana, in which the famed writer reportedly wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Movable Feast and where he began to famously breed his cats. Not only is the house unbelievably beautiful, furnished with and featuring knickknacks (and reproductions of gifted artworks by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro) of Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, but the landscaped grounds, which now hold Hemingway's beloved Pilar boat, are incredibly expansive and equally impressive.
Cabaret Tropicana or Cabaret Parisien shows: No trip to Havana will be complete without a trip to the cabaret. Whether you opt for the Tropicana, an open sky music show exploring Cuban music history and Caribbean folklore, or Hotel Nacional's Cabaret Parisien's "Cubano, Cubano" show, featuring a fusion of Indo-American, Latino, and African dances and sounds that make the modern Cuban culture, each one is a costumed, over-the-top production worth spending a night out on.
Almacenes San José: There have been several articles that claim that Cuba is on the rise as an artistic hub, and judging by the art that can be found at the Almacenes San José market, they are not wrong. The open-air crafts market, located next door to the Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco brewpub, is the perfect spot to get souvenirs and some one-of-a-kind artwork at very affordable prices. Make sure to haggle for the best prices and keep some money to pay the export fee to take the artwork out of the country at the airport (cost is dependent on the size of the artwork).
Fábrica de Arte Cubano: The most recommended and buzzed-about spot in Cuba, F.A.C is Havana's response to New York's MoMA PS1. It's part art gallery, with several exhibitions going on at all time, part music venue with live music, and part nightclub where young Cubans and tourists gather at night. Go check it out on the earlier side of the night, or prepare to stand in line that could wrap around the block on a weekend night.
Museums: You can just spend your afternoons strolling around Havana marveling at the architecture and building facades without ever walking inside one. But you really should venture indoors, if only to check out some pretty stellar museums that the city offers. Of special note: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, a museum of fine arts dedicated to the most comprehensive collection of Cuban art, and the self-explanatory Museum of the Revolution, former headquarters of the Cuban government.
Malecón: Havana's waterfront is one of the most scenic places in the city. We suggest you walk it once during daylight to absorb all the colorful and character-filled buildings that flank it on one side, once at sunset when the warm orange glow overtakes and turns the boardwalk into an ethereal scene from a La La Land-like movie, and once at night when the local youth takes over, hanging out, listening to music, and drinking rum from a passed around bottle.
Buena Vista Social Club: Members of the legendary band appears in different venues across Havana. Catch one of the shows at a local bar or at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where they have a standing weekly date.
Viñales: Two and a half hours away from Havana is this small rural town that houses tobacco farms (where you can learn how to roll cigars), Cuba's largest cave system (that you can take a boat through), and Mural de la Prehistoria, a giant cliff painting designed by Leovigildo González Morillo, a follower of Diego Rivera. Before leaving, make sure to stop by the overlook (pictured above) to witness the valley in all of its scenic glory.
Las Tarrazas: A Unesco Biosphere Reserve, this ecotourism site is only an hour from the city and boasts abundant vegetation as well as activities like zip lining and swimming in the river. There is also ruins of a 19th-century coffee plantation on a mountain in the area.
Varadero Beach: A beautiful resort town two and a half hours away from the city, this beach attracts the young and the beautiful in packs. It's considered one of the most stunning beaches in the Caribbean, and while it's not inexpensive and it is tourist-filled, it still shouldn't be missed.