From a very young again, Cuba has always been a topic of conversation at the dinner table. My father is very much into politics (he is why I’m a global affairs nerd) – so when the doors opened for U.S. citizens to travel – I was so excited!
A short plane ride away but a world of a difference, the minute you step off the plane, you will feel like you went back into time. We arrived on New Years Eve and with no set plans, we roamed the streets of Old Havana and took it all in. That evening we had dinner at a random restaurant and bar hopped, listened to live music and admired all the beautiful 16th century spanish architecture. We waited for the countdown on a street corner with hundreds of other people and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Due to an overload of recommendations, I will be dividing up my Cuba travel guide into three separate parts – Havana, Vinales and Trinidad! Please feel free to ask me ANY questions in the comment section below.
I recommend you to stay in a bed and breakfast all the way! Those who know me or have been following my blog for a while know that I’m a stickler about where I stay during vacations! But for this trip I knew I had to keep an open mind. The first night we arrive we stayed in the Hotel Panorama and I wouldn’t stay there again. You are paying for 5 star prices but getting 2/3 star service. I personally think if you want an authentic cuban experience a bed and breakfast is the way to go. Most cubans open up their homes to tourist because it’s a way for them to earn extra money. Thomas and I LOVED our home in Havana – we had a great host (sweetest lady!) who provided us with a nice room and private bathroom in her apt. Our wonderful experience in Cuba was in part because the locals we stayed with were so friendly, insightful and gave us a taste of what it’s like to live in Cuba….and I wouldn’t trade that for any hotel in Cuba (well, staying a night or two at El Nacional might be quite nice haha).
La Guarida – You MUST go here! It’s a swanky and gorgeous restaurant unlike any other in Cuba. Make reservations a week or two before you go because we were barely let in for lunch. This is where you might want to go for your fancy lunch or dinner. We went twice – once for rooftop drinks and the second for lunch (kudos to my cousin who knew i would love it and encouraged me to go twice).
Dona Carmela – tucked in a backyard and in different part of Havana (near El Morro) – the staff was attentive and the food was great-you may have heard about it online because Beyoncé and Jay-Z ate here during their visit. On our way out, we met the executive chef and owners – they were super sweet and made you feel right at home.
Cafe Madrigal – I learned about this bar online and was looking forward to it because it reminded of a “speakeasy” bar, which Thomas loves to go to here in the city. We sat on the balcony, drank delicious cocktails, ate small bites and talked for hours. It was perfect for us.
El Cocinero – we loved this spot! Recommended to us by the locals – it’s cuban/asian fusion and has an awesome rooftop -make sure to make reservations a week or two before you travel!! This restaurant is right next to La Fabrica de Arte so you should totally plan to do both in one night.
San Cristobal – very sad that we couldn’t get a reservation (Obama dined here when he visited) make sure to have this one on your list!
grab a classic car and tour Havana – it’s like having your own private tour guide but instead of a bus you get a beautiful classic car of your choice (no need to make reservations ahead of time – you can go up to the drivers when you see a car you like).
walk “el malecon” during sunset.
visit the Museum Of The Revolution – we weren’t able to but I hear is great.
visit “El Hotel Nacional” – this fabulous hotel (think The Breakers in Palm Beach) -was built-in the 1930s and known for hosting all A-list celebrities like Frank Sinatra. Grab a cocktail in their garden and admire the old world glamour surrounding you.
walk, walk, and do more walking! I am a little biased because in general Thomas and I love to walk -not only because we enjoy it but also because it’s the best way to bump into hidden gems. Old Havana is filled with cool spots so make sure to walk and get lost! 🙂
Visit the Fabrica De Arte -so sad we missed this because they were closed for construction but it’s suppose to be so awesome! It’s a huge warehouse (use to be an olive oil factory!) divided into different art galleries and a club!
drink lots of mojitos – every list you find online will tell you to grab a daiquiri at El Floridita and a mojito at “La Bodeguita Del Medio”- don’t bother.
Thomas and I tried to grab a drink in both spots and they were overflowing with rowdy tourist -no thank you! Plus the staff at “El Floridita” was very rude! Instead ask a local cuban where you can grab a well-done drink in a more “hidden” cuban spot!
Bocoy Rum Factory – this is an old rum factory but we didn’t particularly go here for the rum – we went here for the coffee. Go inside the factory and walk upstairs – the hidden coffee bar is to the left – your coffee will be brewed by an old cuban barista who will remind you of your grandfather. Oh, and flames and chocolate will be part of the experience.
make reservations! I had a list of restaurants I wanted to visit and had a hard time getting into them so be sure to make reservations ahead of time if the restaurants are well known.
be careful with cab drivers – they will charge a ridiculous fee to drive you to what we consider “close-by” locations (we learned it the hard way) – put it this way, it shouldn’t cost you more than 15-20 CUC (and that’s being generous) to travel anywhere in Havana (this doesn’t apply if you use the car to take a tour, of course.)
If you are doing a road trip outside of Havana then make sure you carry change (usually 1 CUC) because rest stops will charge for bathrooms.
internet is practically non-existent! You can buy internet cards inside most major hotels but will only get an hour per card and even then it works very slow.
let go of certain expectations and learn to go with the flow – what makes Cuba so magical is how different it is from the rest of the world!