A long weekend in Cuba
I have always had great fascination and curiosity about Cuba, so as soon as the historic announcement was made about direct flights between the United States and Havana, we promptly searched for our place in the window!
Havana is less than three hours flying from NY, what makes it a perfect getaway destination for a long weekend - when you live here.
Don't worry about being an american flying to Cuba, or having reasons why to.
As in february 2017, right by the checkin counter there was a visa counter, where you just pay 75usd (no questions asked) and get a paper visa, that you will have to show at the immigration there.
Where to Stay:
You better start looking as soon as you can, unless you wanna stay in a glamorous but expensive (and probably outdated hotel room), it's not an easy task to find a nice bed and breakfast.
Don't get me wrong, there are thousands options, and that - besides delay of communication - is what makes it hard.
I suggest searching for best rated Bed and Breakfast on TripAdvisor and sending emails (or even calling) to ask for availability. No worries, it takes sometimes 2 days for an answer. But you won't regret it! Besides the great value for your money ( a private room with a bathroom in a colonial house for 35/40 usd a night) it is a memorable experience!
You are probably trying to decide in between Habana Vieja, Havana Center and Vedado.
- Habana Vieja is where we stayed and loved it! It's mostly colonial houses with high ceilings, cause its the oldest neighborhood, the one that was surrounded by walls back in colonization days.
Yes, more touristic, but despite other cities around the world, in Havana families still live in the historic center, so you will blend in their everyday lives.
Also, you will be short walking distance from main attractions and restaurants.
- Habana Center - Literally an extension of Vieja, the other side of the big Paseo de Martí avenue. There are slightly newer constructions, but still many housing options, probably fewer options for restaurants thought but still walking distance to attractions in old center. Try to stay on main streets Concordia or Neptune, closer to the Malecón and Paseo Martí as possible.
- Vedado - The newest neighborhood of the 3, with larger tree-lined avenues. Not same feeling, not walking distance from many attractions but still where many hotels are located, by the water. Good options for restaurants and nightlife.
Honestly, I would only stay here if it was my 3rd time visiting Cuba and I really wanted to make it a relaxing trip!
Where to go:
If you only have 2 days, I suggest getting a private walking tour (we found it on TripAdvisor) for one of the days, that would cover most of the attractions, including a taxi ride to the ones not reachable by foot.
Starting in Habana vieja take a stroll to Plaza Vieja, the main square in the neighborhood , where the most important people of the colony resided and where processions, executions and celebrations took place. Today, it is one of the places where Cuban families legitimately get together, mixed with tourists, taking advantage of the many music groups and bars, such as La Casa de la Cerveza (traditional brewery) and the Camara Oscura (dark chamber), from which it is possible to have a 360º vision of the city through a device created with a large mirror.
Came back by night!
Then, taking in all the beauty of this Unesco-Heritage-Architecture, continue towards the other squares:
Plaza San Francisco, where is located the beautiful church and convent of the same name, built at the beginning of the 16th century, on the edge of the port, which today is the maritime terminal where cruises arrive.
Plaza de Armas, surrounded by trees, the oldest in the city, dating from 1520, shortly after its founding. It is where military training took place in the colony days.
Located here is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the beautiful building where today operates the City Museum (you should visit if you have time) that served as a residence for the colony governors.
Close to here, take a peek at what remains from the old wall which surrounded town.
During the colonization, there were 7 gates that were closed every day at 8pm, shortly after the cannon shot known as Cañonazo, which happens to this day - now at 9pm - at a ceremony on the other side of the canal at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña. (which is a short taxi drive trough a tunnel)
Plaza de La Catedral, where you should visit the church, beautiful and somewhat simple, built in baroque style by Jesuits in the mid-18th century.
Also a beauty by night:
At the same street is located Bodeguita Del Médio, famous bar that gained that name simply for being the only one in the middle of a block, while the others were in some corner. (Darn! Love this!)
Hemingway used to come here for the only drink they sell, the best mojito of the city until today! And for only 5cup. Although it is well touristy, it is a must! Cool vibes and live music, plus a whole block for you to leave your art (or mark) in the walls!
Passing by Paseo del Martí, better known as Prado, a wide tree-lined iconic avenue that spans countless beautiful buildings and stretches from the Malecón - the famous avenue to Beira Mar - to the Capitol, take a look at the street art market which happens on saturdays.
Then we arrived at the Museu de la Revolution, essential in the visit to Cuba and very important for those who want to better understand the history of the country, full of objects and documents linked to the revolution of 1959.
On the marble walls of the beautiful palace that served as the residence and office of General Batista, there are still bullet marks of the day when the revolutionaries arrived in Havana to fight for the power.
In the annex - which has no walls, it is opened to be seen from the street, with a permanent guard - there is a memorial, where, behind a glass, stands the Granma yacht, a national symbol used by 82 revolutionaries - including Fidel, Che and Raul - for crossing from Mexico to Cuba. In addition to vehicles used in taking Havana, as the delivery truck from where they went out to fight in the same palace.
Then, it is time to hit the road (jack), passing by the Malecón towards the Plaza de la Revolutión in vedado neighborhood.
Hasta La Vista, Baby!
This square was famous by Fidel's speeches; Jose de Martí, another national hero, memorial; and the iconic mural of Che Guevara with the saying: Hasta la Victoria, sempre! (till victory, always)
From there, it takes a short drive till Fusterlandia, the neighborhood where José Fuster - an artist specialized in ceramics - did a beautiful job over 10 years, decorating several streets and houses where he lives, a simple village on the outskirts of the city. Note that each house is decorated as by the activity performed by its owners.
Then head towards the grandiose Hotel Nacional, for people and sunset watch over the Malecón while you sip a cocktail.
PS: if you're a big sundowner and really care about the sun-going-down-in-the-water (like me), you better head towards Malecón in the old city (around avenida paseo). :-)
Where to eat:
You probably won't need it, cause your Casa might have a desayuno like this:
If not, go see the beautiful Cafe Arcangel in Concordia street (between Galliano and Aquila streets) and from there go explore the center.
Two good options for casual lunch, but also for dinner and drinks:
- Café El Dandy is a beautiful cafe/gallery where walls are filled with art and photography and shelves with interesting books (like a stickers book of the revolution)
Mix of mexican cuisine.
- El Chanchulero might have a big line outside, but don't freak out, it goes by faster then you realize.
There are 3 floors, including a terrace for drinks, with an awesome "revolutionary" decor! Food is good and you-won't-believe-how cheap!
Because it has been only 5 years that Cubans we're able to open business and it's still quite hard to get ingredients, many of the good places are very hard to get a seat, unless you make a reservation within a good time in advance! (I recommend calling prior from wherever is home!)
- Café O'reilly 305 (on exactly same name street) is a tiny place, with a charming mezzanine that has very nice grilled plates, ceviches and it's know specially for drinks with an extensive gin and fruit daiquiris list.
El Cocinero - very nice ambience, many floors, trendy and chic (maybe not so typical cuban). Great al fresco dining in a terrace by a huge 40 foot foundry smokestack. Very good (and once again cheap) seafood plates.
Other places that are top of the list (but we weren't able to get a reservation) were San Cristobal and La Guarida.
Passing outside of San Cristobal one day already made me wanna go back, just to get into!
Otherwise most of the places already previously mentioned here, you might take a look at beautiful Hotel Ambos Mundos rooftop and try their dessert-like-served-on-the-pineapple piña colada while watching sunset colors in the sky.
- La Zorra y el Cuervo - Arrive early if you wanna get a table at this jazz club in Vedado. Doors open only at 10pm but at 9.30pm we we're already in a big line and luckily made into one of the last tables. Many group tours suddenly cut in front with their promoters!!!
- La Casa de la Musica in Miramar - we unfortunately didn't make into this one (located in another neighborhood). Information is quite mismatched, try confirming with the locals but apparently there is a earlier matinee presentation, when door opens at 5pm (and groups come to stage around 7pm) and another late one, when doors open at 10pm. Apparently crowded and salsa loaded fun! (I'm going back for this one too!)
- Hotel Florida Piano Bar - you also wanna check the schedule when you are there, but it's a good option for a more relaxing type of night.
Things to know:
- Bring Euros or Canadian dollars, because although the USD is 1 to 1cuc, a fee of 10% is applied when exchanging us dollars.
- Exchange a good amount of money already at the airport exchange bureau. The queues of the banks in the city are extensive and the schedules not very flexible. There are very few places accepting card yet.
- Be aware of the fact that there are two existing currencies in the country, cuc used by locals and cup used by foreigners.
- Internet still only exists in some places, such as international hotels or public squares. The chance of any casa having wi-fi is almost zero (it is provided by the government).
To use the internet on the streets, it is necessary to buy a scratch card and login. The card is from Etecsa, it costs 3 dollars with a duration of 1 hour, (but you can also use little by little). The places of purchase will have a plate with an E in blue. (Some on Obispo Street and another on the same block as Bodeguita del Medio.)
And to know where is Wi-Fi available, it's easy! You suddenly see a lot of people sitting on the sidewalks using their phones !!
- Just outside of the Partagas Tabaco store, we were approached by some people trying to scam us, saying that the store itself was closed (false) and offering cheaper cigars. Just smile at them and move on!
Beyond this one incident, Havana made us feel super safe.
We walked through empty alleyways late at night, two gringos with cameras out, and at no time did we feel uneasy!!
- As there won't be internet available most of the time, a travel guide is essential and a good research before arriving in the city very welcome.
Tip: Save your places of interest on an offline map in the Google Maps of your phone. (and print this page :-P)
Besides all, enjoy the ride to the past, to a simply beautiful lifestyle, take advantage of it to disconnect from the multi-task-high-technology-world and see the story by yourself, with a wide open heart!! ;-)
Read about doing a day-trip to Viñales here!