Cuba is a place that I have wanted to visit for a long time so when planning a trip to Central America it made sense to incorporate it right? From the moment we set foot in Cuba it really was something else, walking through the airport felt like travelling back in time. Cuba, and Havana in particular, really is a test of your senses, your Spanish and sometimes your patience but it is so, so worth it!
Where to eat
Eating was an interesting experience for us in Havana. Before we arrived I thought that I would be living off rice and beans and salad for the whole time that we were there, I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of food but less pleasantly surprised with the price. The only cheap thing on any menu was alcohol, it was cheaper to get beer or a cocktail in most places than water (you can only drink bottled water in Cuba) but we happily obliged (crazy to drink water when you can have a super strong Mojito for less!). We stayed in both Old Havana, the picturesque 'center' of the city, and Vedado, the traditionally rich neighbourhood which is leading the charge in bringing Havana, and Cuba into the modern age. With very limited options for buying ingredients to cook ourselves (think only dried pasta and very basic tomato sauces) we ended up eating out a fair bit during our time in Cuba.
Vedado offered the best range of food that we were able to find in Havana. We tried a range of excellent vegan and vegetarian food at the lovely Camino al Sol. Right next to the Melia Cohiba hotel it was a great place to sit and eat great food and plan the next day activities. The prices were very reasonable and every day they had a different selection of foods at the counter as well as a really tasty regular menu. They also brought us a little treat to sample the two times we visited, it was even more of surprise with our very limited Spanish! We had our one 'blow-out' meal at Retro Habana on Calle 23, ordering a selection of pizza, pasta and fries after a week or so of more basic Cuban-style food. The portion sizes were very good and the staff were nice but the prices were much more similar to US or European prices, around $10 per main meal. On our last night in Vedado we headed for the well-reviewed Beirut, a Lebanese restaurant on the Malecon. The prices were reasonable and the quality of food was great, again with good portion sizes (if you haven't noticed by now this is important for us!). If you are staying in Old Havana and wanted to try out any of these it is worth getting a taxi (around $7 USD) and you can always use the Melia Cohiba hotel as a good pick-up/drop off.
In Old Havana we were based close to the lively Plaza Vieja, which was lovely to walk around in the warm evenings and listen to the sounds of music and people chatting over food and drink. Our first night here we headed for La Vitrola which seemed to have the most people in out of all the restaurants around the square. We took this as a good sign but it also could have been a reflection of the good work by the waiters puling people in from the street! The food was very good and there was a fantastic live band playing Cuban music and some Cuban versions of pop songs which was great. Our only disappointment here was that they didn't bring back our change, instead they kept it as an assumed tip. We have no problem at all with tipping and ended up leaving the full amount of change as a tip but it is always nice to have the option rather than not receiving any change. On our last night we ate at Don Julio again located in Plaza Vieja after a very friendly staff member had pointed us n the direction of a bank earlier in the day before we had eaten at their restaurant. The food was much more reasonably priced than other restaurants in the square and the portions were great.
There weren't many restaurants that weren't good but sometimes eating in Cuba can be an interesting experience. We went to one restaurant inside the Hotel Habana Libre, which was a very important hotel in the Cuban Revolution and a interesting place to visit, and were greeted by the host proclaiming that this was the best Cuban restaurant in Havana. We were a little tired and hungry so we agreed to give it a try...unfortunately we were the only people in the restaurant, were seated right at the back and a lot of the food we tried to order wasn't available. This wasn't the only time we tried to order something that wasn't available 'that day' so worth having a few options in mind before ordering wherever you are.
Where to sleep
We found both of our accommodations for Havana on Airbnb. You can't book anything online whilst in Cuba (sites like booking.com and Airbnb are not allowed to take booking from inside Cuba), so I would highly recommend booking your accommodation before you arrive. We stayed in fantastic Airbnb's in both Vedado and Old Havana. For first timers, I would 100% recommend staying in Old Havana. Everything you need is in walking distance and it is a stunning part of the world. We stayed in Emilia's "Carpe Diem in Old Havana" which was in a great location and the family were really lovely.
Where to look
There are many cool things to do in Havana. My favorite was the classic... taking a vintage car ride around Havana. We did this from Vedado, just head down to the Meilia Cohiba hotel and you will have plenty of offers, pick your favorite car and if you feel brave try negotiating! Of course I picked the shiniest, pinkest car I could find, it cost $50 USD for an hour ride which was definitely worth it as it took us along the Malecon, to the Revolution Square, and strangely to John Lennon park with a statue of the man himself ( FYI - John Lennon never visited Cuba, the Cuban people just loved The Beatles so much that the government commissioned a statue). The ride ended in Old Havana so just worth being aware if you only pay for one hour they may drop you somewhere else from where you started. It was super fun and helped us to get our bearings.
In our Airbnb in Vedado, Tom found a book on Havana from a few years ago, which had a walking tour. We took ourselves on the tour which lasted a few hours and discovered a lot about Havana's history. We visited the Hotel Nacional, Hotel Habana Libre, and the University of Havana, which is a collection of beautiful buildings and really worth a visit. We also had a lot of people coming up to us there just looking to practice their English as Tom clearly stood as out as English but was good fun!
On our other days in Havana, we wandered the streets and explored areas in Old Havana including the famous El Capitol building (which is amazing but had some renovations underway when we were there so the famous dome was under cover). We also spent a lot of time browsing art shops as I love art and Havana really delivered in this department. Cuban art is beautiful and for original pieces of work it was very cheap, I had to stop myself after the first few purchases to avoid adding several kilos to my bag so early in the trip. If you are buying art make sure you ask for a receipt as art is considered a national treasure so it's important to have your receipt or ticket handy when leaving. We weren't asked but we had all the receipts just in case.
Havana and Cuba was more expensive then we thought and had planned for. For us, this came down to a few simple reasons:
- Supermakets are pretty poorly stocked in Cuba so we weren't able to cook for ourselves at all.
- Street food was very cheap, but unfortunately being vegan, it just wasn't really an option for us. We tried once and there were some slightly questionable lumps (possibly of meat that I ate around) so we ate out at least two meals a day. If you are vegetarian or vegan and even if your Spanish is better than ours, Cuba is one of those countries where the definition of meat is very different and pork and chicken are not counted as meat. If you eat meat and dairy, then the street food is a great option and will save you a lot of money.
- We traveled to Trinidad which we weren't planning to do. This was totally worth it but transport around Cuba is expensive. We took a shared taxi there which cost us $80 for two people and a bus back to Havana which cost $50 (plus $1 for each check in bag). These weren't expenses that we were expecting.
- Our original host had cancelled on us when we arrived in Florida a week or so before heading to Cuba, so we only had a few days to organise new accommodation and didn't realise that we wouldn't be able to book more accommodation once we got to Cuba. We were lucky enough to have our friend in the UK help us out, but we ended up spending a little more on accommodation than planned as well.
We've come up with a few extra tips which we think might be helpful for first time visitors to Havana or Cuba!
We flew from London to Fort Lauderdale, and then to the Bahamas, in Florida we got asked about our onwards flight and we advised we were flying onto Cuba, it wasn't an issue.
We flew BahamasAir to Cuba, and I had made a mistake with my Cuba Tourist Card and put the details of my British Passport rather than my Australian one, so I was able to buy a tourist card at the BahamasAir desk for $20 USD. Entering Cuba we gave over our customs form, tourist card, and passport, they stamped everything and we were good to go.
We had bought our original tourist cards online and I think it's worth it for peace of mind. Another important thing to note is that Cuba is included in the Visa Waiver Program so spending time there counts against time on your ESTA for the United States, if that is what you use to enter the USA.
The final thing that we think is helpful is knowing about the internet. In order to use the internet in Cuba, you need to purchase an internet card from a blue telecommunications booth also known as ESCTA. You then you'll need to connect to a public hotspot or the hotspot at your Airbnb or hotel. I think it would be worth it to check for the closest booth to your hotel before you arrive and visit in the morning if possible as sometimes they sell out of cards (we experienced this multiple times at a small booth close to our Airbnb but had more luck in the actual store where you can buy cards or get online using one of the computers they have there. You'll need to take your ID as well as the card is logged against your name and you can't buy a card without it.