Until very recently, Cuba was off-limits for Americans, despite being less than 100 miles away from the Florida Coast. Thanks to the Obama Administration’s efforts, American citizens gained a relatively limited freedom to travel to this beautiful island.
Cuba has multiple destinations like Viñales, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, but its global and cultural gateway, La Habana (aka Havana) is a phenomenon on its own. I got the opportunity to visit Cuba with after a last minute decision, mostly because of having my trip to Puerto Rico cancelled due to the catastrophic Hurricane Maria.
Thanks to our local friend Eduardo, who teaches Sustainable Design at the University of Havana, we got to experience and discover many cool spots in such a short time. Here are my top favorites:
1 – Discover the Local Art Scene at “Fabrica de Arte Cubano” aka FAC
The first word that comes to mind to describe FAC is “impressive”.
This former factory is successfully converted into an art museum that is also home to a restaurant, multiple exhibition spaces and bars. Getting there early, ideally before 8 pm is recommended to avoid the long lines. At FAC you can enjoy your local cocktails while walking around and viewing the artwork. At this complex, on the same night, you can catch a variety of events from fashion shows to DJ performances or movie screenings. When you enter, you pay 2 CUCs as cover and you get a card that is stamped every time you order something from the different bars. Great place to mingle with local art aficionados and travelers alike.
Photo Credit: Alejandro Reyes
Fun fact: Michelle Obama visited FAC and met with local students during her trip to Cuba in 2016.
2 – Authentic Cuban Cuisine at La Guarida
La Guarida is a “paladar”, which is a term used to described privately owned (vs government-run) Cuban restaurants. They opened in 1996 inside a tastefully run-down but reasonably-preserved building from early 20th Century, which still serves as a multifamily residence, where in an exclusive atmosphere diners can find the mixture of the daily resident’s life routine and the proper tasks of a high profile restaurant.
Fun fact: Also, Cuba’s only Oscar-nominated movie “Fresa y Chocolate” takes place in this very building.
It’s best to make a reservation since this is one of the most popular restaurants in all of Havana. La Guarida is surprisingly reasonably-priced. We paid around 60 CUCs for a 2-person dinner that included three drinks, two mains and two appetizers, and the 10% service charge. It’s vegan-friendly.
3 – Have a Piña Colada at Hotel Nacional’s Outdoor Bar
Even though Piña Colada wasn’t invented in Cuba, it’s definitely perfected at Hotel Nacional’s bar, overlooking the ocean. For 6 CUCs or less, you can have delicious cocktails or local coffees at the patio overlooking the ocean. Great place to go with a special someone.
4 – Take an Inside Look at Cuba’s Recent History at Museo de la Revolucion
It’s super interesting for an American (or for any non-Cuban really) to witness the Cuban history from their point of view.
The admission fee is 8 CUCs and most of the exhibits have English translations. The highlights of the museum include the Granma yacht, Che Guevara’s beret, and other rare artifacts from the Cuban Revolution. Sometimes it’s easy to miss the other side of the story, so this museum is an interesting experience to find out what happened from a different perspective.
5 – Ride Through the Havana Breeze in the Back of a Convertible at El Malecon
This might seem like a tourist trap at first, but it’s so worth it. These 50-60 year old American cars will transform you to the heydays of the city. They are beautiful to look at as well!
Pro tip: You don’t have to do the full hour tour, and you can hire a car for a short destination for as little as 10 CUCs, just for the experience. However if you’re a small group, you can hire a car for an hour or more, and ride between the important landmarks and turn it into an affordable sightseeing tour.
Prepare to have a social media cleanse in Cuba because it’s not easy to go online here. Internet is unfortunately still a luxury commodity. If you opt in for using your mobile data, prepare to pay $2/MB on T-Mobile US. For that very reason, I stayed completely offline during three days. You have the option to purchase cards from the local telecom authority Etecsa and connect at their wi-fi hotspots, mostly located at parks. If you see a group of people looking at their phones and waiting around, that’s what they’re exactly doing 🙂
If you’re coming from the USA, bring enough USD in cash to cover your stay. Your bank cards won’t be valid (this is not always the case for cards from other countries, so double check with your bank). The USD can be exchanged for CUCs at the airport, and at banks and hotels. At the banks you’ll be required to show your passport, but you can walk up to any large hotel’s reception and ask them to exchange, without revealing you’re not staying there. At least we succeeded 🙂
Cuba has two currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos Expect to get about 88 CUCs back for $100 USD, after the 10% government tax on USD exchanges and the commission. If you have another currency like EUR or CAD, you won’t have to pay this tax. Keep in mind that the Cuban government requires travelers to declare cash amounts over $5,000 USD.
At local stores, you might get your change in Cuban Pesos (not the CUC) so make sure you have which currency you have at hand 🙂 One CUC is around 27 Cuban Pesos.
If you’re staying at an Airbnb like we did, make sure to ask your host what you can bring to make the life a little easier for the locals. They advised us to bring multivitamins for adults which is much cheaper in the US so we brought a whole bunch. Plus they’re lightweight and easy to carry.
Havana is very safe. People will greet you and some will ask you if you need a taxi or cigars, but they’re not pushy.
Cuban visa is purchased via the airlines, so at the time of check in (which can’t be done online for Cuban flights) you’ll be able to purchase your one-time entry visa (for tourism strictly) by paying $50, in cash or by credit card.
Cuba seemed pretty LGBT-friendly to me, however PDA (public displays of affection) are not really common, even between straight couples. KingBar is a really fun, mixed bar you can dance to global and Latin hits with the local cool kids.
When taking a taxi, negotiate the price beforehand. You might have a bit of leeway for a discount, especially if you’re travelling alone. To give you an idea, we (two travelers) paid 30 CUCs between our place in Old Havana and the airport, both times.
Thanks to JetBlue for their prompt, friendly service and the free wi-fi on board. It was great catching up with all my emails, messages and notifications during the flight and getting that done before landing in NYC.
Havana is just a tiny piece of a surprisingly big island, that’s intriguing inside and out and you probably shouldn’t wait any longer to visit it, especially given that the future of the travel freedom for Americans is not clear.
About the Author:
Saf Dogan is a New York-based travel hacker, blogger & YouTuber who’s been featured on ABC News for visiting 25 countries in one year on a budget, while keeping a full time digital marketing job back in NYC.