Cuba has become one of THE hottest destinations to visit for many reasons…it has an intriguing history with the States, a very rich, beautiful culture and even more beautiful locals…sights..ha! I spent 6 weeks on this island from April-May 2015 which I still manage to reference in my everyday life as it was that good. It was also the first time I had solo travelled!
I had the privilege of experiencing Cuban healthcare as part of the last module of my degree….I won’t go into that here but you could always visit Medical Women’s Federation if you are interested in reading more. Here I’ve listed some things I enjoyed whilst there…I haven’t included everything otherwise this article would never end!
A great reference point whilst planning your trip and also serves as an offline map once downloaded is Triposo..it’s useful for any destination really!
Flights: Virgin Atlantic ❤️ 9 hours direct from LGW to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. For those of you like me who actively avoid connecting flights, this is quite cheap if booked in good time.
Visa: For British passports, you can either go to the Cuban embassy in London and get your visa the same day for a small fee (£15 at the time) or do an online application which costs more for delivery.
Currency – Interestingly, Cuba has 2 currencies. The 1st and most useful for tourists is called CUC. I don’t think it’s available outside of Cuba so change your cash when you arrive at the airport. They like Euros and since the pound is basically worth the same these days, it could save you a bit! The 2nd currency, CUP, is used by Cubans. This is worth much less than CUC and chances are you won’t need it. However it is really important to check your money as you don’t want to pay for something in CUC and get change in CUP! There are ATMs around but it’s ideal to keep as much cash on you as tolerated as not all cards work (especially American based ones).
Where to stay – Casa particulares! These are B&Bs within a Cuban household which was a great experience and reasonably priced. I stayed with Sandra and her family in Vedado which is a nice suburban part of Havana…with an en-suite and breakfast included plus tips on surviving Havana as a young woman thrown in for free. The houses are identified by the official blue logo hanging outside their doors. The families who take part in Havana mostly live in gorgeous colonial houses which are a treat to stay in. Hostels and hotels are also available all over town.
Getting around – A lot of Havana can be navigated by foot..most of the central part of town is divided in blocks American style so it’s really easy to get around. For further distances, the classic 50s cars which are used for taxi’s are a great choice. A standard journey is about 10 CUC. There are no health and safety rules in these cars – often no seat belts and the doors are questionable in stability but when in Rome..! If you are feeling really brave, you can take a local bus..they cost 40CUP which is a bargain but not worth it if you don’t understand Spanish.
Internet – This was an issue 2 years ago and I imagine still is..most places didn’t have wifi so you had to go to a hotel to pay for an hour of Wifi which cost between 7-10CUC depending where you went. They also have wifi cards which I heard were less reliable…it was refreshing to not be constantly connected to the world so take an internet free challenge if your trip is short!
Now onto the important things…Places I visited
Calle de Hamejon – this is a tiny side street where every Sunday from about 11-3pm, Afro Cubans put on a great dancing and singing show in the name of Santeria (type of religion). They will get you involved in the dancing and if you’re lucky to be there for 2 Sundays, you might get a shoutout for returning!
El Malecon – The infamous wall. It sounds like an anticlimax and if you visit in the day, it kind of is…it’s a peaceful place to sit and watch a few boats go by and Cuban men fish. But during sunset and into the night is when things heat up…Cubans meet here to drink (rum in the milk cartons was weird favourite), sing, dance and socialise. If you drive/walk past at this time, it’s just a row of beautiful bodies. Words cannot describe the vibes you experience there so just go and get involved!
Museo Del Ron – The rum museum..because Havana Club Rum! This museum will take you on a rum journey extraordinaire and best of all, you get to buy more rum varieties than you knew existed at the end!
Colon cemetery – Okay this is a weird one because it is a real cemetery and there were a couple of burials going on whilst I visited..but the headstones are incredible and this is a legit tourist attraction on all credible websites…
Plaza de la Revolucion – ‘Revolution Square’. The May Day parade ends there – This incredible event starts early in the morning (people were gathering at 3am as we made our way home from FAC…see below) and Cubans dance all the way up to the Square. For those of you not visiting at this time, you will see the Jose Marti Memorial which you can go up for great views of the city, as well as graffiti esque art on council estate looking buildings dedicated to two important men in Cuban history: Che Guavara and Fidel Castro.
El Capitolio – in the heart of Havana. It “accidently on purpose” looks just like the Capitol Building in Washington DC. It was under construction at the time of my visit but still made for a pretty picture. Opposite it is the infamous image of Havana with the bright coloured houses. It is very near Parque Central (featuring a statue of Jose Martí) which is a great meeting point…it also leads to Old Havana, el Paseo del Prado, Calle Obispo (with many restaurants and shopping) and more.
Playa del Este – lovely beach about 25 minute drive from Havana…accessible by bus outside Parque Central (opposite Hotel Inglaterra) for 5CUC or by taxi. It is more popular with Cubans than tourists I found…pack everything you need as there aren’t many shops nearby. There will be men wandering around selling tamales on the beach…these were tasty so do try one!
Plaza de la catedral – this square houses the cathedral as well as Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum), restaurants and plenty of photo ops (for a small fee) in the form of old Cuban women in colourful clothes.
Plaza de Vieja – “The Old Square”…full of tourists and Cubans alike wandering about, eating and drinking outside and loving life..my favourite thing there was the random statue of a naked woman sat on a cockerel holding a pitch fork!
Plaza de Armas – This pretty square with leafy surroundings had stalls selling books and comics every so often which was really cute..also we came across young creatives who were skating, drawing and dancing.
Basilica menor de San Francisco de Asis...this church has interesting architecture..peep the statues closely when you pass by and let me know… It’s on the way to the rum museum and has another nice square around it because you’re not really in a Spanish speaking country unless you spend all you outdoor time in ALL THEIR SQUARES!
Morro Castle – it’s a bit of a trek to this fortress but the views of Havana are amazing. During the day you can visit and learn about its history…we visited at night to watch the city salsa from afar.
Christ of Havana – this can be seen from the malecon. It potentially bares some resemblance to the Brazilian Christ the Redeemer. We didn’t venture out to it but it would be another way to take in the views.
John Lennon Park – Cubans have a sweet yet random love for very specific celebrities like John Lennon and Charlie Chaplin (for real)..this park actually has a statue of John which you can sit next to..
Hotel Nacional – This hotel is fancy AF and has a long history of famous and royal guests. As much as I love to live my best life, this wasn’t an affordable place to stay! However, you can go to their outside terrace and have reasonably priced cocktails whilst overlooking the malecon. This is a perfect chilled evening/date idea!
Eat and Drink…
I found Cuban cuisine wasn’t as exciting as I expected as it’s heavily based on rice and beans (Moros y Cristianos) and meat. But the paladares (which are non government restaurants) have more varied menus to excite your tastebuds. There are also many markets, bakeries, small shops and supermarkets dotted around the city for fresh produce if you wanna cook….I challenge you to successfully haggle a good price in Spanish! If you are staying in Vedado, Galerías de Paseo is quite a good shopping centre to get your essentials.
El Floridita – Legend has it that Ernest Hemmingway enjoyed many a daquiri here..hence the inflated prices and saturation of tourists (with money). I would say it’s nice to go inside and have one if you’re feeling flush. But there are better cocktails elsewhere.
La Bodeguita del Medio – The cocktails here are a tad cheaper than in El Floridita but still as busy..it’s a half open quite edgy looking bar which again is nice to peek inside.
Restaurant with no name – I’m not joking, we never found out what it was called….please let me know if you go and it’s named! It is up the road from El Floridita. There’s a sign outside which translates as ‘Hemmingway was never here’..ooh the shade! This was one of my favourite places to eat..cheap, cheerful and one of the waiters was beard goals (we tried to explain that he would fit into shoreditch with his look but he didn’t know what a hipster was..so pure).
Cuba Pasion – We came here for early evening drinks which is great if you get a seat near the terrace to view the sunset. It was one of the chicer bars I went to and prices reflect this.
Casa de la Amistad – This pretty millennial pink house has a standard Cuban lunch menu..I ate here alone on my second day before I had made friends. However the waiter invited me to their Saturday night party which I went to once I had company. For only 3CUC you get a welcome cocktail and entertaining live show with a band, singers and performers….plus the crowd got involved with salsa later as is the Cuban way!
Bar Lluvia del Oro – live music at all times of the day whilst you eat and drink..here for it.
Barrio Chino – great chinese food in this cute side street in ChinaTown. I always end up having one Chinese dinner when I go abroad and I can’t stop myself. I have no regrets.
Cafe Paris – their slushed daiquiris slay! They also provide great live music por la noche
Coppelia- this huge ice cream parlour is very popular, especially with Cubans. There’s a good flavour selection with various frills to add to your dairy. If you spot a very long queue then join it as it’s likely for this..! I joke but it is a bit of a wait..the tourist queue is shorter once you work out where to go. There is a separate pricing for if you’re Cuban or not as they pay in CUP and we in CUC.
Hanoi – their food is so good and they even did paella! Really good and cheap cocktails.
La catedral – if you find yourself in Vedado and want good food and $1 mojitos…and yeah you read that right!
Salsa the night away
If there’s only one thing to take away from this great island, it would be how to salsa (basic steps at least). Every single bar, club, restaurant and every street corner will at some point have everyone salsa’ing away. Of course, you can go to formal lessons but I found it was way more fun to just join in on the dance floor….
1830 – located by the seafront, it’s an open air bar which has a mega salsa vibe in between the easy live choreography everyone can join in with. If you are female, expect a Cuban man to come and offer to salsa with you..and guys, find a gal and get involved as noone is allowed to sit for too long!
Fabrica De Arte Cubano (FAC) – This was hands down my favourite which was super popular with both Cubans and tourists. It is a club which has a few different dance floors; one is more intimate with the DJ and another in a huge room, plus an art gallery, a cinema upstairs and outdoor areas. It’s a true cultural experience.
La Zorro y el Cuervo – You enter this bar via a red telephone box! We went for a jazz night which was amazing..much less salsa than everywhere we had been! Jazz in Cuba is definitely something to experience.
Buenavista Club – Now this place is for when you’re really feeling fancy AF. We met these great Americans guys who knew a guy and got us into the show. Of course the salsa and singing which was impressive but I also loved how the audience got involved by dancing and representing their country . But I hear the ticket prices are close to $100…so it is good to check out your options..alternatively you can do you..or make friends with the right kind of people?!
Corner cafe – small bar/club literally on a corner. We had such a good night here with cheap drinks, salsa plus chart music which went down a treat with the Cubans.
I spent my penultimate week outside of Havana visiting a few other towns which if you have the time, are worth checking out…
Trinidad – Is a super cute town and almost as much fun as Havana. You can travel there via bus from Havana which takes about 4 hours..the bus station will have specific times and you can buy a ticket close to the day of travelling. The buses are well conditioned and the route is scenic. I stayed in another casa particular called Casa Patricio (a friend of Sandra’s who she rang up to book me in)..you can find more casas when you arrive also by looking out for the blue logo if you’re that spontaneous and ready to negotiate prices.
My favourite place in Trinidad was Casa de la Musica – it’s an open air restaurant and bar which comes alive at night. The whole town comes to hear the band and salsa the night away of course..and for 1CUC entry. So here is the place to make friends solo travellers!
There’s quite a bit to see in Trinidad so La Plaza Mayor is a great starting place as you can wander from all directions and find museums, restaurants, ice cream parlours etc. Horseback riding is a popular activity they offer tourists here too.
If you are more time efficient than me, you could also visit nearby Ancon Beach, Bay of the Pigs etc…your casa host will be helpful with this.
Santa Clara – Can be done as a day trip from Trinidad (and I would recommend this) but I chose to stay over to make my round trip easier. The main thing to see here is the Che Guevara Museum which was very fascinating. Santa Clara had the cheapest wifi for only 2.50CUC per hour so I had extra instagram time! Otherwise, it’s quite a small town, with a lot of students and cheap places to eat and drink.
Varadero – Now this is the kind of resort that you see on a nice travel website to entice people to visit the Caribbean. The beaches are so beautifully white and if you place yourself close enough to a hotel’s beach then you will have the most peaceful sunbathe. There are literally a million all inclusive hotels but I stayed in a casa particular which was close to the beach as beach bumming was my main activity here. This casa was the most expensive of my trip but still very affordable.
Parque Josone is a gorgeous oasis of greenery, palm trees, lakes, birds etc for when you need a break from the beach. It has a few restaurants and bars inside to continue maxing relaxing.
Salsa Suarez Restaurant y Bar – This was my fave in Varadero. It looks really posh but the prices are actually decent..and the blue coconut flavoured mojito was a dream. You’ll probably need to book in advance..
La Esquina – classic Cuban food in a cute setting served with live music.
Calle 62..it felt like half of the town (both Cubans and tourists) have flocked here..open air bar, free entry, live band, dance offs..and salsa obviously!
Other towns I didn’t make it to but you could consider visiting are Viñales (3 hours away from Havana..beautiful countryside for horseback riding) and Santiago de Cuba (Cuba’s 2nd city which is literally at the opposite end of the country).
Okay so I’m exhausted! Well done for making it here with me…I have enjoyed reliving my Cuban dream all over again. There’s so much more to see and do out there so let me know what you get up to! And for everyone else, book a flight to Havana STAT!