YES! You can go to Cuba. Nope, you can’t go on a cruise right now, but the country is NOT closed to Americans and everywhere we visited we were warmly welcomed. The main goal is not to have your tourist dollars go toward “enriching the Cuban military, security, and intelligence services,” but instead to support the Cuban people as directly as possible.
Greater Havana – Definitely do some kind of car tour while you are there so you can see the greater city outside of the old town. There are beautiful embassies in former mansions, imposing forts on the sea, pre-Vegas casinos built when the mob was trying to establish a foothold, breathtaking views from the famous Malecon (seafront), Universidad de la Habana’s beautiful campus, community art projects like the explosion of colorful tile mosaics in Jose Fuster’s Fusterlandia neighborhood, and Callejon de Hamel, a two-block long alley filled with the eclectic Afro-Cuban art of Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, John Lennon’s park bench statue installed after decades of a ban on the Beatles was lifted, and even the incredible Colon Cemetery is worth a visit with elaborate Italianate mausoleums, famous residents and over 500 tombs.
Old Havana – You could spend a LOT of time walking through this part of town which is jammed with lovely restaurants, churches, museums, galleries, live music, bars, cafes, beautiful squares, historical monuments etc. It’s especially fun to walk around at night as there is music literally filling the air. It’s SUPER safe – even on the streets that haven’t been groomed for tourists, even at night, even on the dark streets. We especially loved:
- Taller Experimental de Grafica – this cool gallery is at the end of a café-lined alley just off the square by the cathedral. You can pore through fantastic high quality artworks by top graphic artists,everything is for sale,and you can sometimes see artists at work. This was our favorite gallery of the visit.
- Habana 1791 (Museo Del Perfume) – Perfume “laboratory” in an 18th-century mansion where you can make your own custom fragrances.
- Some of our favorite streets include Mercadores, Obispo, and O’Reilly for shopping and sites, but definitely get off the beaten path – there is something around every corner.
- We didn’t make it but were told to check out Papito’s Arte Corte – hairdressing salon that is also sort of a museum, collective in Old Havana
- People steered us toward a large Handicraft Market on the waterfront, but honestly, I would skip it – it seems like it is there for the (former) cruise ship passengers and there is not a lot of originality.
- Hemingway – Definitely make time to visit some of the haunts, homes and watering holes frequented by the author who spent the last 20 years of his life here:
- Steep yourself in history at Finca Vigia, the author’s tropical estate just outside of town
- Belly up to the bar for a daiquiri and live music at favorite watering holes El Floridita (with a statue of Hemingway standing in his old spot at the corner of the bar) and La Bodeguita del Medio
- Pop up to Room 511 (now a mini-museum) at Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway drafted “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while gazing over the rooftops of the old city.
- Read: The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream, both set in Cuba.
- Watch: Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, a 2015 Canadian-American biographical film based on events from the 1950’s.
- Great article from Smithsonian Magazine – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hemingways-cuba-cubas-hemingway-159858952/
- And a few more interesting factoids about EH in Cuba: http://cubajournal.co/10-facts-about-hemingway-in-cuba/
- If you are VERY lucky you will be able to schedule a day or two in Havana in the capable hands of local guide Enrique Nunez who is brimming with fascinating historical perspective and seems to know everyone in town. He can also help you plan your trip, and can arrange side trips to other destinations in Cuba. Phone: (537) 8364849 / Cell-phone (535) 391 37 68 / email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Be a good tourist and take a classic car ride. Many of these cars also offer tours of the city, but you can also use them the same way you would hail a taxi. There are also fun Coco taxis (little yellow bubble-shaped cars), or bicitaxis (sort of a rickshaw attached to a bike). Regular taxis are metered and/or fares are meant to be standardized (to the airport, etc). In all cases negotiate the fare BEFORE you get in any vehicle, and be clear that the fare you agree on is the total, not per person (um yeah).
- Food walking tour – https://www.foodtourshavana.com – fun way to see the old part of town, learn about the local foods and history, meet great people, visit a market, and generally have a yummy day.
Anyone who says the food is not good in Havana is truly not trying hard enough. Do a little research, make some plans! We had fantastic meals every day/evening:
- Paladar la Guarida – widely considered the best restaurant in Cuba. Super cool space a couple of floors up.
- L’Atelier – Paladar owner Niuris Higueras and chef Michael Calvowere were featured in Saveur magazine and the food and ambiance are spectacular. Request a seat outside on the roof.
- San Cristobal – Another favorite for both cuisine and atmosphere, classic Cuban food is elegantly served in a converted house crammed with photos, memorabilia, and antiques. Definitely reserve!
- Al Carbon – Popular festive spot for dinner and cocktails from chef owners Iván Rodríguez and Justo Pérez, who previously both cooked for Fidel himself. Their other restuarant is Ivan Chef Justo – https://www.ivanchef.com
- 5 Senses – Very pretty space on a corner in the old town with excellent service and Cuban/international food.
Cocktails – don’t like rum? Too bad. You pretty much HAVE to have a mojito or a daiquiri (or two) per day around here. It’s the thing:
- Packard Hotel – Have a cocktail and watch the sunset on El Morro from the swank new poolside terrace.
- Hotel Raquel – Amazing rooftop on this historic hotel overlooking Havana Vieja. Be sure to look up at the stained glass atrium from the lobby on your way up…
- Hotel Palacio Cueto on the corner of the Plaza Vieja has a roof bar and a cool lookout tower where you can peer down on all the action.
- Café de Paris for live music
- Hotel Nacional – Definitely stop by to have a drink in the historic bar lined with photos of decades of visiting celebrities, and maybe another one on the patio overlooking the Malecon and majestic skies, and then possibly also another one in the historic music venue where members of the Buena Vista Social club perform frequently.
Also recommended, but we didn’t have time to try:
- Mojito Mojito
- El Dandy
- Fabrica de Arte – former factory converted into bars/cafe/galleries/nightclub venue
- El Cocinero – Happening rooftop restaurant run by Cuban afro-rock and hip hop musician X-Alfonso
- La Corte del Principe – best Italian food in Havana per Saveur
- Sergio’s place – homemade pasta, fresh fish
- Doña Eutimia – widely recommended Cuban food in Havana Vieja
- Casa Pilar – in Miramar neighborhood
- Rio Mar – terrace overlooking the sea
- 304 O’Reilly – inventive small plates
- Café de los Artistas
- Otramanera in Playa
- Lonely Planet – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/cuba/Havana
- Atlas Oscura – https://www.atlasobscura.com/things-to-do/havana-cuba
- The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2018/jun/11/havana-cuba-locals-guide-art-cafes-restaurants
- GQ – https://www.gq.com/story/old-havana-neighborhood-guide-travel-advice
- La Habana Magazine – http://www.lahabana.com/content/
- AirBnB – lots of spots to rent at super reasonable prices. Recommend A/C for sure!!! https://www.airbnb.com
How to abide by “Support for Cuban People” – In accordance with the NSPM, OFAC is requiring that each traveler under this travel category engage in a full-time schedule of activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. Such activities must also enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities. Renting a room in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) are examples of authorized activities.
Here is a current list of hotels/businesses the Department of State does not want you to patronize: https://www.state.gov/cuba-sanctions/cuba-restricted-list/list-of-restricted-entities-and-subentities-associated-with-cuba-as-of-april-24-2019/