The Essential Cuba Travel Guide
Havana…ooooo na na. Sorry, I couldn’t resist singing a little diddy for you.
Cuba is a magical place. It’s hard to find the words to describe what a trip to Cuba will mean to you. The place is stuck in time—which makes it such a precious jewel, but will also provide it’s fair share of challenges (basically, say goodbye to WiFi and cell service for the entire duration of your trip). Of all the places I’ve traveled, nothing has sparked more interest from followers and friends than my travels to Cuba. I often get questions about where to stay, what to do, how to get there and where to eat. So, it’s time to give you the ultimate Cuba travel guide.
I absolutely fell in love with Cuba. But, it wasn’t because of the reasons why I usually fall in love with a place. Cuba is a place unlike any other and this is what makes the place so very special. Visiting Cuba was like going back in time to the 1950's. The Cuban people were warm, ready to tell stories and extremely friendly. It’s not the easiest trip in the world to take because the country truly is stuck in time. Cuba doesn't have a lot of the luxury that you can expect at your typical vacation destination. You can't plan really go into it planning the perfect Cuban vacation because no matter what…something unexpected will happen. Navigating the country and your itinerary will be a challenge, but that’s where the magic happens. It's a challenge and it'll make you love the place even more if you can embrace the quirks and go with the flow.
If you are passionate about history, culture, music, and art, Cuba is the place for you. If you can’t live without internet access (I thought I couldn’t, but I was able to cope), luxurious accommodations and the . comforts of home—you may wanna sit this one out. If you’re ready to give up your expectations and experience a place that truly is unlike no other—grab that passport and travel back in time.
If Cuba has been on your bucket list, the time is definitely NOW. In fact, it’s already getting late. Anthony Bourdain said it best when he said, “My biggest fear is that there will be a big glass box of a W Hotel, and you’ll start seeing Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret and, you know, all the people who make every place look the same. It would be awful. There will be wealthy hipsters, women in tiny black dresses drinking ironic riffs on the mojito, the lobby of the spanking-new W Hotel with oonce oonce oonce in the background, and that’s within five years.”
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
There’s a lot you need to know before choosing to visit Cuba. One thing is absolutely for sure—this is not going to be your typical vacation. This is going to be an adventure. Do not expect glamour or relaxation, but do expect an unforgettable adventure that you’ll talk about for years to come. The information in this blog pertains specifically to Havana, as that’s where I primarily spent my time while in Cuba.
DO book airport transfers beforehand. It’s one less thing you need to worry about and will start your trip on the right foot. I used Airbnb Experiences and loved starting + ending the trip with a ride in a classic car. This is the one I personally used: AIRPORT-Pickup or Drop-Off in Classic
DON'T bring US Dollars to Cuba. Exchange them for Euros, Canadian dollars, or Pesos before you arrive. There are two types of currencies in Cuba, the CUC and the CUP. One CUC is about equal to 1 USD and is the primary currency for tourism. The CUP is used mostly within the local community, and is equal to about 4 US cents. Make sure any change given to you says “convertibles” on the bill so you can ensure it’s the CUC and not the CUP.
DO 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. Don’t take this lightly. We actually ran out of cash the last two days, luckily we made friends who let us borrow $100 until we could get home to Venmo them back (since we didn’t have internet connection lololol). 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.
DO brush up on basic Spanish so you can communicate more effectively with locals. Not many people speak English outside of the tourist areas. The locals in Cuba are so warm and welcoming. You’ll enjoy your experience more if you can engage with them.
DON'T miss out on riding in an old American car down the Malecón, the long stretch of road along the coast of Havana Harbor. They charge about 30-35 CUC per hour, but we talked one guy down to 10 CUC. Even if you pay full price, it’s worth it.
DON'T get into any taxis without negotiating the fare first. Taxis will most likely be your main transportation around the city, outside of walking. Always confirm a price before you jump in.
DO follow the music! Whenever you hear music, follow the sound to what’s likely a pretty dang good dance party. This is the best way to take in the culture, but also something to have in mind when you’re planning—leave room for adventure and flexibility. You’re gonna want to pop into places you find along the way.
DO BYO toilet paper (or wet wipes, if you’re into that thing, they can double for a nice little hand wash when needed) for the times you may need a restroom break. Most places don’t have toilet paper. You can thank me later.
DON’T expect to ever get access to anything that remotely resembles WiFi or cell service. Just don’t. You’re not gonna be able to check work emails, call your sister to tell her you’re good or slide into anyone’s DMs. The best WiFi you’ll find (and it’s not great, but good to know in case of an emergency) is at the Hotel Inglaterre. You’ll need to buy a cocktail to get in on the login. Just in case you don’t believe me, our hotel said it came with WiFI, but it turned out it was the hotspot of a woman who worked at the hotel’s front desk for 8 hours a day. If she was there, you’d get access to the shady internet when you’d sit close to the kitchen. Just prepare yourself to be without it for your trip. You’ll be happier that way.
DO go off the beaten path. Walking around is going to be your best bet for seeing and experiencing Havana has to offer. Get lost and find adventure in that. Havana is relatively small, you’re never going to be too far from where you wanna end up. Wear good walking shoes and always watch your step. Old cobblestone streets won’t go easy on you. Just go ahead and leave your cute heels at home.
WHERE TO STAY
You’ll have a wide variety of options when it comes to finding accommodations in Havana. You’ll find everything from large hotels (I suggest avoiding these—most are government owned, so they’ve got a bunch of rules and are incredibly overpriced, but also VERY much lacking in charm. Also, 5 stars in Cuba is about equivalent to a solid 2.75-3 star hotel in the US.) to hostels and casa particulars (this has my vote and strongly recommended).
I LOVED staying at a casa particular, a privately owned hotel (more like bed & breakfast) that’s owned and operated by a local. Casa particulars are not only way more traditional, but are closer to what you’d expect from a boutique hotel when it comes to design, details and hospitality. Staff tends to be super friendly, accommodating and quick to help you navigate through Havana.
Here are a few places I’d recommend to stay:
Revolution Boutique Hotel is an innovative concept in Havana and where I stayed while in Havana. I can’t way enough great things about the location, right in the heart of Old Havana. It’s quaint, cute and did just the trick for our stay in Havana.
Offering a sun terrace and amazing city views, rooms are typical of those found in Havana, and the hotel is on the upper end of the quality scale. All rooms have air conditioning and ensuite bathrooms. The hotel offers a complimentary breakfast and great coffee.
Perfect for families or groups of friends, the hotel offers spacious double rooms with two beds, and triple rooms too. All rooms have a private ensuite bathroom, flat-screen TV and air conditioning. A complimentary breakfast is included in the room rate. WiFi is available – a rarity in Havana.
Hotel Saratoga is not a small boutique hotel, but Beyoncé and Jay-Z chose to indulge at the Hotel Saratoga, so you might want to splurge too. I’m including this hotel for those of you who want to go to Cuba, but have hesitations. This is going to be the closest you’ll get to “luxury accommodations” in Cuba. The hotel is newer, built in the early 2000s, which is modern AF for Cuba. They’ve got an incredible rooftop sundeck and a pool with fabulousl views over the Capitolio and Gran Teatro.
WHERE TO EAT
EL DEL FRENTE
El Del Frente is the sister restaurant of the popular 304 O’Reilly across the street. El Del Frente is a super fun and tad but more casual alternative to it’s sister. We LOVED this place. We loved it so much we came twice. Once for drinks and dessert and another time for dinner and drinks. It’s pretty hip and feels a little more modern than most places in Havana, but not in a way that makes it too touristy. Both the upstairs dining area and rooftop bar have really lively, hip vibes in the evenings, but if you have good weather, I of course recommend the rooftop bar for sunset and evening cocktails. If you want a table, definitely make a reservation; otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find a spot or two at the bar upstairs.
Yes, that is a full blown charred octopus on a Bloody Mary. Located in a converted privately-owned apartment on O’Reilly street and is legit poppin’ all night long. This hip bar in Old Havana is home to great ambiance, service and cocktails. This bar is part of a restaurant group in Cuba that is doing things real right (also own El Del Frente). Like El Del Frente (probably my favorite spot in Havana), this place is very modern for Havana, but not in a way that makes it too touristy.
Now, much to my dismay, this place was closed temporarily while I was in Havana. So, I didn’t get to go, but it’s apparently one of the most remarkable spaces in Havana. People recommended I go here before I left for Havana and while we were there, everyone made comments about how they feel bad that it’s closed while we’re in town. Needless to say, this art-gallery-meets-nightclub has drawn a huge crowd of Havana’s progressive youth and is pioneering a new wave of art in Havana. It’s built inside a former cooking oil factory, but now hosts live performances and events, art exhibitions, and night-owls looking for a somewhat more sophisticated place to spend their nights.
Another trendy spot for Cuban food that tends to draw a bit of a line in the evenings. The scene is fun and lively, overlooking a busy town square that makes for awesome people watching to take in the sights and sounds of Havana.
This ice cream parlor was founded by Fidel Castro in the 1960s, this long-standing and rather famous ice cream parlor chain sells tasty scoops and cartons of ice cream for extremely low prices. Because the prices are so low, it’s also where locals go to stock up on cartons of ice cream, so you’ll almost certainly have to wait in a line for around 30 minutes or so. But it’s a great opportunity to get out of the tourist areas, people watch, and decide for yourself whether this really is some of the best ice cream in Cuba (or the world, as some have boldly claimed). You can use CUPs here if you have them, but they also accept CUCs (which generally will allow you to skip the queue).
This spot was recommended to me by a friend who lives in Havana, and it ended up being my favorite meal of my entire time in Cuba. The interior is beautiful, with that typical Cuban decor style where a hodgepodge of random antiques are somehow made into art. Don’t miss the breads & dips spread (I could have just feasted on these dips for a meal and been happy), and the meat empanadas. The roasted squash salad was also super fresh and tasty, and the lobster quesadillas were super rich but incredible. If you’re feeling particularly indulgent, this place is famous for their whole suckling pig. The drinks and fresh juices are incredible as well! EL DANDY
I loved loved loved the tacos here and coffee here! I also loved the cute cat that hung around and sat on patrons laps (not really begging for food, just wanting to nap), the cozy and eclectic decor, and the chill vibes. It gets a bit livelier at night, and is a fun class for a casual meal with a really social scene.
One of the newest restaurants in Havana, exploding on the scene of privately owned restaurants. Neon signs greet you and the inside has a great hipster vibe that made me feel as if I was back in Brooklyn. The best surprise? The food was surprisingly authentic. I highly recommend the ceviche, probably the best I’ve ever had. Tapas are between $2-12.
Ah, the famous La Floridita. Home of the daiquiri and made even more famous by Hemingway, who supposedly loved hanging out here. They even have a statue of him in the corner. If you are going on any sort of Hemingway tour you will undoubtedly come here. If there are no Hemingway tours in your future stick your head in and decide for yourself if the crowds are worth a drink. We lucked into a table in the corner (after our second try) and enjoyed an hour sipping a (hard to get) daiquiri while people watching.
Probably the most popular restaurant in Havana, this beautiful Paladar (privately owned restaurant) is located on the top floor of a gorgeous - but crumbling - building. It has a rich history, and was a filming location for the movie fresa y chocolate. The food is one of the best meals you will have. Don’t expect to get in without a reservation.
However, I recommend skipping the main dining area altogether and heading to the roof, which for some reason most people haven’t yet discovered. Simply turn right at the host’s stand, and take the spiral staircase up. Here you’ll find a really cool outdoor bar with incredibly views of Havana — it’s great for tacos and drinks, and obviously is bit more casual than the dining area downstairs (but you won’t feel out of place if you dress up).
Head up the spiral staircase one more level to reach the very top of the roof, with 360-degree views of Havana and the sea, probably alone because no one knows to go up there. Great for sunset!
A completely open air rooftop restaurant in Vedado that is situated next to the Fabrica del Arte Cubano. If you are in visiting the area I highly recommend it but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. Mains between $5-15
I came here for tapas the first night I arrived in Havana, and couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the trip. It gets busy for dinner, but is a nice spot to have some pre-dinner tapas (the tacos and croquettes are amazing) in a cozy setting. If you’re feeling indulgent, the daiquiris are massive and shaped into cute creatures like Minions or animals.
This hip little cafe was my favorite spot for breakfast. It’s also one of the few places you can get a super healthy meal for a very affordable price in Havana. Here you can get hummus plates, a breakfast of fresh eggs and a salad and the cafe’s heavenly sourdough bread, fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, and other lighter dishes. There are also more indulgent options, like French toast served with honey-poached quava, pancakes, and a pulled BBQ pork and orange marmalade panini which was amazing. The coffee is great here too!
DO + SEE
I was in Cuba for 5 days and I wanted to see as much as possible, with my home base being Havana. So, I turned to my favorite travel companion—Airbnb Experiences. While I’ll list out highlights below (which you can surely do on your own), I saw most of these via Airbnb Experiences and highly recommend you do the same.
Here are the tours we did and ones I know you’ll love too:
Loved doing this on our first day. It helped us get the lay of the land down and know where to return throughout the rest of the stay. It was also an awesome opportunity to ask a local’s advice on what to do, see and eat - Explore Cuban life with an economist
Highlight of the trip! I highly recommend this. This will take all day (the tour itself is 12 hours with transportation) and you’ll be exhausted when you return - Viñales Premium-Horses, Farm, Cave &More
I’m a big fan of doing some sort of food, cooking and/or chef related experience wherever I travel, so this one was an obvious choice. Not every restaurant has traditional Cuban food and it’s hard to find a place that agrees on what it is, so doing this was a great cultural experience - Taste the flavors of Cuba with a chef
Riding a vintage car is something you can choose to do on your own, but it’s nice to have it scheduled in advance with someone who is trusted and recommended. This experience also happens to include photos along the way, which is a fun way to make sure you’re leaving your trip with some good snaps to show off later - Private Convertible Tour + Photo Session
Day Trip to Viñales
If you’re REALLY into cigars (or just a really cool person in general), head to Viñales. Not only does this area have the most beautiful landscape in all of Cuba, it’s where the tobacco leaves are actually grown.
Just a short 2½ drive from Havana will take you to the the colorful wooden houses and palm tree covered fields of Vinales. A rural town now famous for it’s tobacco plantations, it is the place to go to visit the cigar factories where authentic Cuban cigars are made and perfect for a day trip.
For 25CUC/person, you can take a horse ride through the tobacco fields with a personal guide that will teach you how to roll a cigar, let you smoke a complimentary one, teach you about the coffee plantations, and show you the caves around the city. This is also where you can purchase cigars direct from the farmer. The government takes 90% of his crop, leaving 10% of him to sell on his farm. So I highly recommend supporting the locals. Make sure to keep some time open when planning your things to do in Havana for a day trip to Viñales.
Hang out at Hotel Nacional
The Hotel Nacional is another Havana landmark that experienced its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s when it was frequented by everyone from celebrities to mobsters. This beautiful hotel can be seen from many places around the city and it’s located between La Habana Vieja and Vedado right across from the Malecón.
While I don’t recommend staying there (it’s very expensive and a little dated – you’re much better staying in a casa particular) I do recommend visiting the Hotel Nacional on your trip to Havana! It’s the perfect place to pass an afternoon or evening sitting in the back garden, where you admire the views of the ocean and enjoy some live music.
We came here on our first night to have mojitos, smoke Cubans and watch the classic cars zip up and down the waterfront (also known as the Malécon).
Go to a baseball game
I LOVE baseball and some of my very favorite MLB ball players are from Cuba, so seeing a game while visiting was on my bucket list. Now, the easy way to catch a baseball game is to go to Estadio Latinoamericano in the heart of Havana. The stadium is home to two Cuban pro-league teams and is as big (or larger) than most MLB stadiums in the USA. You can grab a strong Cuban coffee from one of the vendors, and enjoy the nation's favorite sport.
However, when I was visiting, there were no games being played in Havana, so we had to improvise and go to Matanzas for a playoff game. If you’re a diehard baseball fan (like I), this is well worth your while and was a BIG highlight for me. We paid a vintage car driver $50 for the day and he drove us 2 hours to Matanzas (we stopped at beaches and sights along the way, which was an amazing way to see another side of Cuba) where we saw a baseball game for 50 cents.
Get Your Art On At Fusterlandia
About a half hour west from central Havana, Cuban artist José Fuster created a masterpiece of mosaic tilework in his home and the surrounding neighborhood — Fusterlandia. It is street art unlike any I have ever seen. His home is decked out in a rainbow of bright colored tiles, that has spilled over to the surrounding houses as well.
It’s free to get into Casa de Fuster located in the district of Jaimanitas, but you will need to choose a way to visit there. The easiest and quickest way is to take a yellow taxi or vintage car, which will cost around 20 CUC (always negotiate this before hopping into the car). Or if you’re more adventurous (and want to save that paper), you can attempt to navigate the local bus system. The MetroBus map can get confusing, but a ride will cost only about 1 CUP. Your hotel can help you figure this out too.
Go to a Jazz Club
Cuba has rich rhythm and soul in it’s DNA, and it can be experienced from one of the many jazz clubs in Havana. All you have to do is walk through Old Town to witness music and dance spilling into the streets. You can also make a point to go to La Zorra y el Cuervo, the most famous jazz club in Havana, where every evening at 10:00pm brings a different musician.
Do a Cigar Factory Tour at Partagrás
So, if you go to Viñales, you might be cigar’d out by this point, but if for some reason you skip out on Viñales (which I don’t recommend), you have to see how Cuban cigars are made. It’s actually really intriguing process. Partagrás is one of the oldest, largest cigar factories in Havana, and is where they roll brands like Cohiba and Romeo and Juliet.
They’ll explain to you how using different proportions of types of tobacco leaves (scent, taste, and burning) is what makes each brand different, and then you’ll get to watch the masters at work! You can buy authentic Cuban cigars from a shop, but beware of the street peddlers who will try to sell you them illegally! If you’re staying at a hotel you can book tour tickets from the concierge, and if not, use the tourist information center inside the Saratoga Hotel nearby.
Cuban Street Music
No matter where you find yourself in Havana, you’re never far from someone playing the guitar or shaking a maraca. One bar that was always packed with an amazing Buena Vista Social Club style band was Café Paris, right in the heart of Old Havana. This place had the best band I saw while I was in the city. Even if you don’t want to go to a bar you’ll still find musicians at all of the main plazas – get yourself a cerveza, kick back and take in the beats!
BAR HOP WITH HEMINGWAY
Havana is home to Ernest Hemingway’s favorites. You’ll wanna have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio (This was actually one of my favorite spots. We came here twice because it was just good vibes with an adorable guitarist right outside.) and a daquiri at La Floridita. There is a sign in “La Floridita” from Ernest Hemingway (the famous American author who lived in Cuba for 20 years) that states: “My Mojito in La Bodeguita del Medio and my Daiquiri in La Floridita”.
La Bodeguita is definitely a casual, open air spot, while La Floridita is slightly formal (and kinda pricey for Havan). Follow Hemingway’s example and you can’t go wrong, only difference is there will be more people doing the same thing than in Hemingway’s time, expect to queue. Also, if you want to dive deeper into Hemingway’s history in Cuba head to Finca Vigia, his former home which is now a museum. (Also known as Museo Hemingway).
Visit the Local Markets
I love a good street market situation when traveling. You never know what you’ll find and they’re always fun to photograph. I especially loved the ones in Havana because you’ll come across incredible art, historic and period pieces and things that truly can’t be found elsewhere. Some of the most impressive art I’ve ever come across has been in Havana.
Here are a few markets I recommend (check when they’re open because some aren’t every day):
Plaza de Armas Secondhand Book Market
MY FAVORITE! Booklovers beware—one step into Havana’s Secondhand Book Market and you may not want to leave. Situated in Havana’s historic Old Town, you’ll find rows of booksellers touting their favorite reads. Expect to browse through old magazines, some Revolutionary propaganda, and a lot of Hemingway—he did live in Cuba for nearly 20 years, after all. Along with books, you can browse through stacks of retro posters, stamps, and old beer labels—any of which could make a unique souvenir. This market runs every day but Sunday, and is one of the most popular in the city. But why? Scarcity of new imports plays a role, and Cuban entrepreneurs are famous for their ability to reuse and recycle goods. The biggest reason, however, may be that Cubans love to read. Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8—among the highest in the world.
Galerías de Paseo
Galerías de Paseo is a market that caters to foreigners and Cuba’s upper-class. This market features Cuba’s high-end clothes and stores, as well as Cuba’s famous Jazz Café—a club that features some of the best jazz, timba, and salsa musicians in the country. This market is all indoors, so it’s a good option for rainy weather. It also has air-conditioning, which can be a welcome break in the heat. What makes this market so interesting, though, is that it offers a glimpse into what life is like for Cuba’s wealthy—you probably won’t recognize many of the brands or designers. While everyone is supposed to be equal in socialist Cuba, Galerías de Paseo depicts a different reality.
Almacenes San José Artisans' Market
For people wanting to leave Cuba with a one-of-a-kind souvenir, Almacenes San José is definitely worth a visit. Located in a large two-story warehouse, this market features the work of hundreds of Cuban artists. It’s the perfect market to buy original paintings, handmade jewelry, and hammocks. It’s Havana’s only covered outdoor market, so visitors can shop in the shade. Almacenes San José is a local favorite, so it won’t feel as touristy as other markets. Just be prepared to bargain for your art and ask for a certificate if it’s original.
Learn to Salsa
To many Cubans, salsa moves seem to come as natural as walking. But don't let their professional-level skills deter you — the dance culture in Cuba is all about doing it together. For a crash course, hang out during salsa night at the outdoor club 1830 and fall into step with a local.
Hang out in Plaza Vieja
From art galleries to a beer museum, Havana's "Old Plaza" has tons of culture going on. The outdoor cafes are a great place to spend an afternoon (though this is definitely one of the more touristy activities on this list) sipping from three-foot-high beer towers — or only slightly smaller mojitos.
Visit the Museo de la Revolución
Housed in a former presidential palace, The Museum of the Revolution is one of Havana's most popular attractions, and features a fascinating (albeit partisan) look into Cuba's political past.
HIT THE BEACH
I’m throwing this one in there in case it’s of any interest…and you don’t live nearby a beach, so would jump at the chance to have a coastal day. There’s no beach in Havana itself, but there are many beaches you can get to in less than 30 minutes on public transport. These beaches aren’t gonna be as impressive, clear or clean as the famous resort beaches in Cuba, but they’re still a great place to spend the day if you want a break from the city.
Be aware that the beaches close to Havana aren’t really designed for tourists — they’re more popular with locals (which I’m really into).