My first trip to Havana was a long time in the making. I have wanted to visit ever since meeting my husband, Bryan in 2015; it’s where he was born and spent the better part of his childhood. If you’ve ever met Bryan, you know his contagious energy, brimming with vibrance and with a healthy dose of ‘guapería’– a Cuban word meaning confidence. He’s the kind of guy that seems to know everyone. A guy that can break into a salsa dance at the drop of the hat. I learned over time that many of these traits were greatly influenced by his Cuban roots and formative upbringing in La Habana. For this reason, I had to see for myself the place that he called home for so many years; the land of music, mojitos, and ‘asere qué bola.’
Everyone will experience Cuba differently. My experience was unique given that I had my own Cuban ‘insider’ with me at all times. Also, being fluent in Spanish was definitely a bonus. At any rate, you can have a great time in Cuba no matter where you are from or your level of Spanish.
In this Guidebook to Havana, I share recommendations for where to stay, restaurants, bars, and things to do. I will also give details on transportation, what to pack, as well as how to exchange money, and get a Cuban SIM card. I hope you find it insightful!
Entering the Country
There has been quite a bit of confusion given the recent news of US labeling Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The warning is that anyone who has been to Cuba and obtains Esta clearance for the US could in theory be turned away upon arrival. I myself am not an Esta holder, but I can speak about my customs experience with my US passport (traveling from Cayman). I purchased a visa at the Cayman Airways counter for around $40. When I arrived in Cuba, I presented to the customs agent my passport and visa and asked them to please not stamp my passport. They said not to worry and instead stamped my visa. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said the same–they asked for the passport not to be stamped and the agent obliged without any question.
Where to Stay
While in Cuba, we stayed at three different Airbnbs. One near El Capitolio, one in Viñales, and the last in La Habana Vieja, right next to La Bodeguita del Medio. I highly recommend Airbnb over a hotel because it will provide a much more immersive vibe. In the hotels, you will be surrounded by tourists and given a more cookie-cutter experience. The Airbnbs, on the other hand, will have you smack in the middle of an authentic neighborhood, living life a lo cubano.
My favorite Airbnb was Lizandra’s rental unit on Calle Cuba, by La Bodeguita. It’s a spacious one-bedroom that emanates a vintage traveler aesthetic. The French doors open up onto the balcony, overlooking the bustling Calle Cuba. The sounds of salsa from La Bodeguita blend together with neighborhood chatter to set a perfect backdrop for espresso-sipping and people-watching.
Most Cuban businesses are currently accepting US dollars, euros, and la moneda nacional (AKA pesos or CUP). We took out all the money we needed for our trip in USD at a Cayman ATM. There are ATMs in Cuba that accept major bank cards like MasterCard and Visa, but we didn’t want to risk it. The current exchange rate (which fluctuates a lot) is 160 pesos to 1 US dollar on average. At Cadeca, the exchange rate is 110 to 1 US dollar.
You can pay with US dollars anywhere (except the airport), and they will give you your change in pesos. People will also approach you to exchange in the street for up to 200 pesos, but these situations call for a bit more skepticism. There is some risk your change could be counterfeit. You should always ask what the exchange rate is before handing over money so you can check that you have the correct change. You will use your calculator a lot. Good thing I had my accountant with me!
*In certain restaurants and bars, it is better to pay in pesos. For example, in La Bodeguita del Medio, a mojito was 200 pesos (roughly USD $1.50), but if you pay in USD, it’s $5.00.
How Much Money to Bring
It depends on your budget. We ate in restaurants two to three times a day, drank our weight in mojitos, took a trip to Viñales, went horse-back riding, did a classic car excursion, and bought gifts and cigar boxes to take home. All of this considered, we spent roughly USD $80 per day per person. Basically, we went all in. You could definitely get by on much less, but it depends on what you want out of the experience. The most expensive meal we had was $90 total at La Guarida and the cheapest was $1.50 at a street pizza stand. So, yeah—lots of room for budgeting.
Phone Usage / Data
It is possible your Airbnb will provide a Cuban SIM card—message before and ask. Our first Airbnb loaned us two SIM cards, included with our stay, our second offered nothing, and our last Airbnb was renting them for twenty euros a day (don’t fall for that). What I recommend is finding an Etesca office. There are quite a few in central Habana and La Habana Vieja, open from 9-5 pm, some until 7 pm. There, you buy a SIM for USD $10 which comes with 3.5G. You will also be able to call and text. This should last you quite a few days, but you can add more data at the offices for $2 for 2 gigs. Don’t forget to bring your passport, as they won’t let you buy a SIM without it.
The best way to maneuver around La Habana is by taxi or on foot. There are many different kinds of taxis which I will explain below. There is no Uber, but apparently, there is an app that is similar, called La Nave. We did not use it, but it’s worth checking out.
When you leave the airport, you can expect a taxi driver to approach you in a matter of ten seconds. They are quick. The average rate is $30 to Havana, so if someone tries to charge you more than that, you have some wiggle room to negotiate.
These are the adorable yellow three-wheelers that are shaped like, you guessed it–coconuts! This was my absolute favorite way to get around Havana because I had a front-row seat to the city. You notice things that are simply unobservable from inside a car. If you’re lucky, your coco taxi engine will die and the driver will recruit you and a random bystander to help push it back into life. No, I’m serious. “Oye, hermano–échame un cabo!” Havana at its finest. Average fare: USD $5-10. A lot of negotiating can be done here.
If you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, you can ask in Spanish: “¿Te cuadran cinco dólares para ir hasta Hotel Nacional?” It means, does five bucks sound good to you to go to…[insert your destination]. If you really want to come off local, you can throw in an “oye mi hermano” at the beginning.
We never took one, but it wasn’t for a lack of offers. They are similar to Coco taxis in that there is one “driver” and space for two people in the back. Great for short distances at a low price. The bikes all have names and the drivers like to blast reggaeton, so you definitely won’t be bored with this taxi ride.
Yellow Taxi & Almendrón
There are plenty of your standard yellow taxis as well as the classic almendrón car. The almendrón taxis are harder to spot, as there are hundreds driving around at all times. Look out for the taxi sticker on the windshield, or just hold out your hand on the sign of the road, and eventually, someone will stop for you.
This could be in a yellow taxi, almendrón, or even a sidecar motorbike. Colectivo just means ride-sharing AKA “fill the vehicle up.” Our taxi to Viñales was a Colectivo. We shared it with two Italian girls on the way there, and a Norwegian couple on the way back. You never know who you may meet in the back of a taxi!
Things to Do
Havana has something for everyone. I will tell you upfront that Bryan and I are not museum people, and we have an acute aversion to cut-out experiences. For that reason, we did very few organized activities on our trip and we didn’t go into a single museum. We like to wander and go with the flow, preferably with a drink in hand. In my opinion, this is the best way to travel. Now that you know this about us, let’s see what there is to do in Havana!
Classic Car Tour
This is the one organized tour we did in Havana and would highly recommend it to visitors. Alain and Daimir took us on a two-hour tour around Havana in their pink, 1952 Ford Mercury convertible. They of course gave us a lot of historical info on Havana, but what was cooler than anything was getting to know them personally and seeing Havana through their eyes. Tours prices are between $20-$30 per person per hour. The cars are all parked in front of Hotel Inglaterra by El Capitolio. If you want to guarantee great guides in a cool car, email me for Alain’s contact info.
Live bands are everywhere in La Habana! Walking around, you will hear salsa rhythms echoing throughout the streets. There’s no need to plan in advance, just let the son cubano guide you. The spots that guarantee live music almost all day are La Bodeguita del Medio, La Floridita, and La Vitrola–but live music can be found everywhere in La Habana Vieja.
Ride in a Coco Taxi
It’s more than just transportation! It’s the best way to see and feel the city. You can ride the entire length of El Malecón, wind in your hair, sea spray on your face–¡que rico!
Buy / Smoke Cigars
From day one in La Habana, people will constantly be asking you if you want to buy cigars. They make wonderful gifts and it is legal to travel internationally with two boxes per person. Walking through the streets of Havana with a cigar balanced between your lips is a total vibe. This was Bryan basically the whole trip; I just enjoyed the occasional, sophisticated puff á la Sex in the City.
Our purchasing experience was interesting, to say the least. A guy approached us, and asked if we wanted to check out “La Feria de los Puros.” The Cigar Festival… “Happening this week only.” I don’t know what I was envisioning, but where we ended up was far from a festival. The man took us on a ten-minute walk to a ramshackle building, down a dark hallway, and into a tiny room that featured a collection of cigar boxes and a haphazard shrine for the Orishas. From there, I silently watched as Bryan negotiated the boxes to nearly half the original price they were offering. I also petted a dog. We walked away unscathed and with lots of puros.
Never in my life had I ingested so much rum as I did in Havana. Cuba has a kind of transformational power that turns White Claw-drinking girls like me into rum and cigar aficionados. WHO HAVE I BECOME? You have to, of course, go to La Bodeguita for their famous mojitos and La Floridita for their daiquiris. You can also vary your rum drinks with the Ron Collins, which I really enjoyed, or the classic Cuba Libre.
Walking Tour / People Watch
Turn on your anthropological lens and take to the streets. Everywhere you go, you’re enveloped by the movement and vibrance of the city; it’s enrapturing. Havana is like the Manhattan of the Caribbean, cloaked in color, music, and 1950s car fumes. On one single street, you’ll see a dog riding a scooter, a Yoruban Santo head-to-toe in white, and a vendor yelling about his ice cream bars. You’ll hear salsa rhythms, reggaeton, crying babies, “Oye, mi hermano’s,” and the rumbling of beat-up almendrones. It’s equal parts exhausting and addicting.
El Bosque de La Habana is an unexpected oasis of greenery in the middle of the city. There you can take a peaceful time-out alongside the Río Almendares. Alain told us that it considered a holy place, where Cubans of the Yoruban faith come to worship Oshun, the river deity and Orisha of divinity, femininity, fertility, beauty and love. Women especially will come to the Bosque and make a small offering ot the river.
There is also a small bar at the entrance where they give you full reign of the rum bottles. Order a mojito and treat yourself to a holiday pour.
Since hearing the song Hasta Que Se Seque El Malecón by Jacob Forever, I have been dying to see the emblematic five-mile sea wall that serves as a common hangout for Cubans of all ages. I knew it was popular, but I didn’t expect a New Years’ Eve-level turnout on an average Saturday night. All along the sea-sprayed stretch, you’ll find couples, friends groups, and families chilling and enjoying music, food, and unas cervecitas. There are pop-up vendors selling canned beer and street food like pizzas and pan con lechón. This is the place to be if you’re looking for full Cuban immersion and nightlife al aire libre.
RECOMMENDED READ: NIGHT LIFE: WHERE TO GO OUT IN GRAND CAYMAN (A WORKING LIST)
Restaurants and Bars
We ate and drank our way through the city. Here are our favorite bars and restaurants–places worth repeating! I am going to start with the most famous and obvious spots: La Bodeguita and La Floridita.
My favorite of the two Hemingway spots—open-air, hole-in-the-wall drinkery famous for their mojitos, live music, and writing on the walls. Though a well-known tourist attraction, it maintained an authentic Cuban character that kept us coming back for more. Mojitos were 200 pesos, or roughly USD $1.50.
The more elegant of the famous bar duo, La Floridita is known for their daiquiris and similar to La Bodeguita, their live music. We preferred the al fresco ambiance of la Bodeguita, but it’s definitely worth a visit!
Havana meets Soho rooftop, an Insta influencers bread and butter. The panoramic vistas from la Guarida are unparalleled, allowing you to drink in all of the city as you sip on expertly crafted rum cocktails. We started with a drink and then went downstairs for our dinner reservation. Although pricey, it’s an elevated dining experience where the prestige and service is palpable from start to finish. It’s also where they filmed Fresa y Chocolate. You don’t need a dinner reservation to check out the building. It’s worth going up even for just a sunset cocktail.
El Mirador de Doña Ana
We hadn’t planned on eating here, but the restaurant promoter nos metió muela, (he talked our ear off), and eventually, he had us sold. It’s a good thing we gave in, because it was an amazing meal! We sat on the balcony overlooking the street where we were treated to live music and a fresh, Cuban meal. The band even took requests and after finding out I was American, insisted on singing me songs in English. (Much to my chagrin).
Another restaurant that we stumbled on by accident. We were searching for a different restaurant, but heard the music from the rooftop of Café Solás and had to see what was happening. As it turns out, Tony Ávila was giving a concert (I had no idea who he was but now I do). He was well worth the entrance fee of USD $4, playing original songs against the backdrop of twinkling lights and a local clientele.
A bustling café in Plaza Vieja with terrace seating and live music. We designated this spot as our coffee shop and came three separate times for americanos and cortados. The service was excellent and the location ideal for people-watching in one of the buzziest areas of La Habana Vieja.
This was our go-to breakfast spot where I indulged in fresh guava juice and the most delicious seasonal fruit pancakes. Here you will also meet “La Amarilla” (The Yellow One), a precious café cat with her very own Instagram page.
A second breakfast favorite was El Dandy, a corner café in Plaza del Cristo that grants a perfect vantage point of the street activity. The interior is old-school Havana featuring iconic Cuban photography, handwritten chalkboard menus, and a cool vintage refrigerator. In addition to desayunos, they also have a full menu and extensive cocktail list. Try their huevos rancheros — ¡delicioso!
Tucked away behind El Capitolio is Sia-kara, a cozy cocktail bar and restaurant with a Havana hipster vibe. We loved it for its plush seating and spacious feel, ideal for recharging after walking the city streets.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Located on the seafront of the Vedado neighborhood, this hotel dates back to the 1930s and is famous for once hosting guests like Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, and of course, the American mafia. The place gave me instant American Horror Story vibes, but we enjoyed sitting outside on the sofas and taking in the peaceful nature of the palm-tree-lined grounds. Daiquiris are dirt cheap, but a request for Dos Gardenias is going to cost you.
Street Pizza (Various Locations)
This is a quintessential Cuban “culinary” experience that cannot be passed up. The Neapolitan pizzas are 80 pesos, less than 1 US dollar, and taste like a cross between grilled cheese and Domino’s breadsticks. They hand it over wrapped in scratch paper, you fold it in half, and away you walk down Calle Cuba with your greasy street pizza. Muy cubano.
A trendy nightclub (centro nocturno) in Miramar that attracts a mix of locals and international travelers. We arrived around 11:00 pm, but it didn’t get busy until midnight. The music was great, a mix of reggaeton and hip-hop, and the drinks were expensive but cargados. AKA strong 😉 It was, however, astonishingly cold inside, so plan ahead. We would definitely go back to party at Sangri-la. Another club we wanted to try, but ran out of time and energy, is called LM Bar. It stays open until 6:00 am and is apparently the place to be on Friday and Monday nights.
Everyone we spoke to pre-Cuba raved about La Fábrica. I’ve never been anywhere like it. It’s essentially a contemporary, urban art gallery with various rooms or salas featuring distinct music genres (DJs and live bands). If you want to hear or dance to authentic Cuban music, this is not the place to go. We figured that out pretty quickly. But it’s definitely worth checking out, and hopefully, you find a sala that has the music you like! You have to pay entry, and for the life of me I can’t remember the price, but it wasn’t anything crazy.
What to Pack
Clothes: The streets of Havana are well-weathered and riddled with mud puddles and potholes. For that reason, I’d say leave your heels at home. You should bring comfortable shoes that you’re okay with scuffing up. The more elegant you dress, the more attention you’re going to attract, so I think it’s best to play it casual.
Food: Cuba is not like other countries where you can go to a supermarket for snacks and groceries. The locals stand in line for hours at the bodegas to collect their monthly rations of beans, rice, and other Cuban staples. You can buy fresh fruit and some vegetables from street vendors around Havana Vieja. (The guava is amazing) However, it may be worth bringing some snacks from your home, like granola bars, nuts, and chips.
Tissues/TP: Toilet paper was widely available but rough and recycled. If you’re picky with your paper, you could bring a roll to use where you’re staying. I would also recommend bringing a small packet of kleenex to carry in your purse as many public restrooms do not have paper. Toilet seats are also not guaranteed, so ladies, you’re going to have to engage the quads and squat down low. You should also bring your own feminine products.
Medicine: You don’t need to go overboard, but you should bring all of your go-to over the counter meds.
Colorín, colorado… that’s a wrap! There is so much left to explore in Havana but I believe this blog is a good jumping-off point for first-time visitors. If you’re traveling to Cuba in the near future, I hope you have a wonderful trip! And if you’re reading just for fun, I hope you’ve learned a bit about this amazing country. There is truly no place like it.
¡Buen viaje! Thanks for reading 🙂
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