This July we took advantage of the twilight hours of the Obama administration’s reach and traveled south to Havana, Cuba. Excited by the prospect of glossy pastel convertibles from another era, an endless supply of cheap mojitos and rum-based beverages, and the novelty of journeying to a place that for so long has been (and still looks to be) off-limits to US citizens, we were not even remotely prepared for the visual overload we discovered once there. The colors, architecture, vegetation, otherworldly light, people, music, and (most of the time awful) food, made us wish our 5-day trip had been more like a month.
We stayed in an Airbnb in Vedado ($25 a night and a palace by New York standards). Flying in and out could not have been easier – this is changing – but with due diligence it can still be done via Cancun or similar. We were already traveling in Mexico and got a visa into Cuba at the Cancun airport in under 2 minutes. We flew direct back into JFK (which until things change again in DC probably isn’t an option). Americans’ credit and debit cards do not work there, so we went with all of the cash we planned to spend and then some. There are 2 currencies in Cuba, the CUC (pronounced cuke) and the CUP (the Cuban Peso). The CUC is what non-Cubans mostly work with. 1 CUC is a little more than a dollar these days, and your average mojito goes for 2-3 CUC, a full dinner / drink outing for two will land you 45 CUC tops.
While most of this you'll find in any good guide book, we went having done very little research and this short list made up for all the strike-outs we made along the way. So here are our Havana highlights, our top ten things to do in no particular order.
1. WalkOur favorite thing by far was to stroll around the neighborhoods and see the architecture, the metal work on building facades, the colors and details from the different eras, the cars, tropical plants sprouting out of every nook and cranny. We spent the most time in Vedado strolling north and south of La Rampa and up to the Malecón. Miramar and Central Havana are also not to be missed on foot. Spending time in Old Havana is a given, but it’s extremely touristy and lacks the neighborhood appeal of the other areas.
2. Café MamainéWe had a really hard time finding decent breakfasts, but this place had strong coffee, an extensive menu, and a delicious house made pineapple jam. Calle L no. 206, Vedado
3. BelkisA 2-story antique store inside an old Vedado mansion. The family that runs this spot lives there too, so most days you have to make an appointment. There are few extraordinary pieces, but the amount of old ephemera stashed inside this colonial-style home is worth the visit alone. Calle 2 no. 607, Vedado
4. El DandyIt felt a little too New York, but we forgive this café for that because they had delicious sandwiches, great music, and a very clean bathroom. Plaza de Cristo, Habana Vieja
5. Casa de la Música de MiramarRecommended by friends as a nightlife must-go, we were hassled more than we’d like standing outside in a 15 min wait (it was a Saturday night), but we’d do it all over again and longer – great music, perfect dancing, when can we go back. Avenida 35, at the corner of 20, Miramar
6. Hotel NacionalWi-fi is hard to come by in Cuba, you have to visit hotel lobbies and parks to tap in and then pay for it too. Our favorite place to go ended up being this classic. The internet is fast compared to many other spots, you can sit and look at the ocean, peacocks wander the grounds, and waiters serve strong drinks while you spend an hour checking email and Instagram. (And these were the best restrooms we found in all of Havana.) Calle 21 and O, Vedado
7. DecameronAfter striking out several times (either having to wait to be seated just to find out everything on the menu was sold out or dealing with an inedible meal), dinner here was a real treat. This Vedado paladar has been around for a while, but we thought it was much better than other more hyped about spots. And they have an extensive collection of antique clocks lining the walls. Linea no. 753, Vedado
8. Habana 1791We love a good old apothecary and spent plenty of time perusing the ones we found around the city, but this restored mansion is something even better. A relatively new perfumery, they use all natural oils and essences to create scents that capture the history of colonial Cuba. The space is beautiful, they have an extensive scent archive, and you can work with the staff to create your very own perfume. Shop ours here. 156 Mercaderes, Habana Vieja
9. Doña EutemiaWe had to stop by this paladar right off Plaza de la Catedral to make a reservation 3 nights beforehand (US phones don’t work in Cuba and many restaurants fill up fast). It’s definitely touristy, but it is also extremely delicious typical Cuban food. We had the ropa vieja and it’s not to be missed. Callejon del Chorro no. 60-C, Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja
10. The MalecónClassic, free, fun entertainment. We spent several of our late nights hanging out on this waterfront walkway. You can bring your own drinks, people watch for hours, and listen to the waves crash along the coast – the whole time we were wondering why we don’t do this more in New York.
Our recommended reading as trip prep: Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba – because it’s a good history lesson in beach-read form. The Patrick Symmes article Thirty Days as a Cuban from Harper’s for insight into what it’s like to live in Cuba. And John Jeremiah Sullivan’s NYTimes piece, Where is Cuba Going? for an entertaining read on an outsider’s perspective into the inside of Cuban life.
There were a lot of other things on our list, but not nearly enough time. If you have tips to share, drop us a line – we’re already planning our next trip back.