I would be lying if I didn’t say how challenging it was to write this post. From thinking of what to say to finding the time to write it, I was tempted not to write anything at all. But because I’ve been asked by so many of my friends for recommendations, I wanted to take the time to share some useful tips and to list some of my favorite restaurants and rooftops.
Before traveling to Havana, I knew that visiting this once forbidden island would be special, not only because of its time-warped nature and revolutionary history, but also because of its people and their resiliency, especially after having faced so much adversity. I knew that I would learn so much from them and about the way that they lived. I could not wait to experience their culture and to get a glimpse of what Cuban life was really like.
Upon arrival, we quickly learned that life in Havana takes place on the street. Because there are no cars that travel on the main roads, people typically walk on and hang out in the middle of the street. You’ll find people of all ages and at all hours of the night gathered on the street talking, listening to music, playing games, or on their phones trying to access wifi. If you decide to stay in Habana Vieja or “Old Havana” (highly recommend it) and you’re a light sleeper, you might want to consider bringing ear plugs. It can get pretty loud at night. The Cuban people were some of the friendliest and most welcoming people that I have ever met. We were often stopped on the street and asked if we were enjoying their country and which parts of Cuba we had visited so far. Most people speak only Spanish there, so it can be tricky to communicate at times. Nonetheless, I had so much fun practicing my Spanish, and had even more fun listening to Sean mix both English and Spanish words, while practically yelling at people (no malice intended of course) in an effort to be understood. I highly recommend downloading the app Spanishdict before leaving for Cuba. It allows you to translate English words into Spanish while using your phone offline. There are several apps like this now, but Spanishdict was recommended to me and was what I used throughout the trip. A few other things to keep in mind before traveling to Cuba:
If you’re traveling from Newark or JFK airport, there will be a special check-in section at your airline where you can buy your visa for $50 at the same time that you get your boarding pass. They give you two visas; customs takes one when you depart for Cuba and one when you leave Cuba. It’s crucial not to lose the second half or you will have a difficult time trying to get authorities in Cuba to sell you a new one. Also, when I stated the reason for traveling to Cuba, I selected the journalistic activities option because I planned to write about my experience here on the blog. Another option is to select the “people to people” option, which means that you are traveling to Cuba to experience the culture.
*Travel Update: As of June 16, 2017, U.S. residents may no longer travel on people-to-people visas. These are now permitted solely for groups and must be organized by a licensed tour operator. To find out more about the recent changes, be sure to check the U.S Treasury Department’s website. According to a June 27, 2017 New York Times article, the most common refrain in the frequently-asked-questions section related to the announcement is, “The announced changes do not take effect until new regulations are issued.” In other words, right now nothing has changed. A White House fact sheet reports that the issuance of the regulatory amendments is a “process that may take several months.”
WHERE TO STAY
Sean and I decided to stay in an Airbnb in Habana Vieja. We wanted to be within walking distance of the all the main attractions and felt that renting a room in an Airbnb made the most sense. It was honestly the best decision that we made. Our host was so knowledgeable and essentially helped us create an itinerary for each day of our trip. He cooked for us every morning and cleaned up the apartment every day. It was nice having him there; it made the experience feel so much more authentic. We had considered staying in a hotel, but after seeing rates for over $1,000 a night, we felt that staying in an Airbnb was a better and more exciting option.
HOW MUCH MONEY TO BRING
Everyone I know who had already traveled to Cuba told me to bring more money than I think I’ll need. This was great advice because we did end up using almost all of our money. For the four days that we were there we brought $1,500 for the two of us. Friends had recommended converting our money to either euros or to Canadian money to get a better exchange rate, but we didn’t end up having the time to do this before hand. This is definitely something to look into before traveling to Cuba. We had created a budget for the four days and thought about how many times we planned on eating out, how much our taxis would cost, entrance fees to different museums and clubs, and for a day trip to Vinales. Definitely create a budget before hand because almost everyone I know who traveled to Cuba ended up running out of money.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are two currencies in Cuba, one for Cuban citizens and one for tourists called CUC. Our Airbnb host took us to a local bank upon our arrival to exchange our American dollars into CUC. There are banks all throughout Havana where you can exchange your money. Simply ask someone on the street for “el banco,” and they will direct you.
WHERE TO EAT IN HAVANA
In preparation for my trip, I had researched and read about the impact that the U.S embargo had on the country as a whole. Friends, who had already traveled to Cuba, warned me about the quality of the food, and not to have high expectations. I was told that authentic Cuban cuisine would not be as flavorful as it is in the United States. Sean and I decided to take these recommendations with a grain of salt, and to go to each restaurant with an open mind. We love Cuban cuisine here in the States, so we could not wait to try authentic Cuban dishes. Needless to say every dining experience was unique and we never left a restaurant disappointed.
The restaurant scene in Havana is noticeably up and coming, so there aren’t that many options. As a result, I would highly recommend making reservations anywhere from a day or two in advance to a few weeks. There were several restaurants that we wanted to try, but couldn’t go to because they were fully booked for the entire 4 days that we were there. Thankfully, our Airbnb host helped us in making reservations and would call for us early in the morning for reservations that night. Our host had also sat us with us when we first arrived and gave us several amazing restaurant recommendations. I had created my own list of restaurants in preparation for the trip, but ended up relying on almost all of his. Here is a list of some of our favorite restaurants, roof tops, and clubs in Havana:
- Donia Eutemia – great menu if you are looking for traditional Cuban cuisine. Sean loved the Ropa vieja. You’ll need a reservation to eat here. We lucked out that someone had just cancelled their reservations before we ate here.
- El Del Frente – come here for delicious cocktails and tapas. Great bar and ambiance. We felt like we were on a rooftop in Manhattan. Be sure to make reservations if you decide to stay for dinner.
- El Chancullero – trendy multi-level restaurant in old Havana. Come here for traditional Cuban cuisine.
- La Guadarilla – arguably the best restaurant in Havana. Beautiful view of Havana. Reservations are needed a day or two in advance for lunch or dinner.
- El Floridita – come here for the best daiquiris and for live music. There is a reason why Ernest Hemingway kept coming back to this restaurant on his visits to Cuba.
- Hotel Ambus Mundos – come here for the rooftop and delicious mojitos. Our Airbnb host took us here within an hour of our arrival so that we could have our first mojito of the trip.
- Cafe Habana – located in old Havana. Come here for an inexpensive Cuban lunch or dinner.
- Fabrica de Arte – come here for a fun night full of live music, art, and dancing. They are open Thursday to Sunday, 8PM – 3AM and it’s $5 CUC per person, which includes two drinks.
- Parque Central Hotel (pictured directly below) – we originally came here for the wifi, and ended up visiting the rooftop. I am so glad that we did because this hotel ended up having some of the best views of Havana.
DAY TRIP TO VINALES
Taking the approximately 3 hour journey into Vinales was honestly the highlight of our trip. It cost us about $175 CUC roundtrip for a private driver (our Airbnb host’s friend) to show us around Vinales for the entire day. We went horseback riding through the beautiful tobacco fields (bring bug spray), learned how to roll Cuban cigars, ate fresh fruits from the surrounding fruit trees, and visited a coffee plantation where we had delicious farm grown coffee. We promised that on our next trip to Cuba we would spend a few days here. We are hopeful that traveling to Cuba will continue to be an option for U.S citizens.