Visiting Havana has been on my bucket list for a while now and I am so happy I got the opportunity to visit. It was everything I imagined with seeing the old cars and it was like time stopped. The city is changing and will continue to change so if you are considering a trip to Cuba I would highly recommend you book a trip sooner rather than later.
Getting a Visa to Cuba is easier than you think. You can purchase one right at the airport through the airline. The price will run you around $100. There are 12 reasons to qualify for a Visa. They don't ask questions and our guide even encouraged us to do it if we were interested in returning for a visit.
There are a few options to visit Cuba you can go on an organized trip like I did or you can go on your own. I will say that while it would have been WAY less money to go on my own I wouldn't have learned about the people and the community as much as I did. One of the highlights of the trip was the people to people interaction. I am very fortunate to live in the US where I have access to clean drinkable water, the people in Cuba do not. This visit put a lot in perspective and I left knowing that I couldn't' forget the people of Cuba and I want to help give back.
I highly recommend packing in a carry-on. The airport isn't equipped for the influx of flights so getting your luggage can take hours! I would much rather be exploring the streets of Cuba than sitting inside an airport. I love my Raden suitcase and the USB charging ports make sure I always land with a full battery.
Where to Stay
Where I stayed: Melia Cohiba it was a great location in Havana right on the water and the pool was excellent. Friends were able to connect to free wifi.
If you prefer to rent a room/house/apartment Airbnb is very popular. You can tell a room is available for rent by the blue and white sign outside the door. Make sure to read the reviews before booking.
There isn't a Walgreens or Drugstore set up for tourists so please plan accordingly. Bring all of your essentials with you in your suitcase: feminine products, medicines, sunscreen, bug spray. I found these Deet wipes to be handy and easy to use. Also, hand sanitizer is key! Some bathrooms will not have toilet paper so plan ahead with a small pack of tissues for your day pack so you aren't stranded.
The organized group I was on chose all of the restaurants we ate at in Cuba. Note they were all private owned restaurants we did not dine at the government-owned establishments. Some were better than others. We had the option of fish, chicken, shredded beef (which is a Cuban specialty) and lamb. Beans, rice, and fried plantain were staples at every meal. We had an automatic "tourist menu" which gave you a welcome drink, appetizers, main dish, dessert, and coffee. Dessert would be flan, ice cream, or fruit. The average meal will be around 30 CUC
Where I ate:
Star Bien - great ambiance and the frozen mojito was THE BEST!
Paladar Vistamar - This restaurant had a beautiful pool and overlooked the water. We arrived just at sunset so we watched it from the outside patio. We dined upstairs and it was a lovely backdrop for a meal. Drinks were very cheap and they had watermelon mojitos.
Habanera - I loved dining in the back on the patio I felt like I was at a friend's house. The food was excellent. Probably my favorite fish dish.
El Cocinero Paladar - The best view - The best view for sunset. Go to the roof for cocktails. There is a bar in the tower that is worth checking out. The meal was good I would recommend the pasta with truffles. Head next door to Fabrica de Arte Cubano for drinks and art afterward.
El Litoral - This restaurant had a buffet of starters that ranged from pastas, cheeses, octopus, charcuterie, to even sushi. (skip the sushi you are in cuba) but overall the food options were great. Dessert was a key lime pie. Delish!
Mjoreleja - Great atmosphere, music and food. We ordered lobster and it was 10 CUC per order.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano is an old oil factory that was converted into a art space. Enjoy music, dancing and art exhibitions while enjoying nicely priced cocktails. This club charges 2 CUC for entry and they give you a card to keep your drink tally. Don't loose it as the fine is hefty.
Buena Vista Social Club - The entry was 30 CUC but you were given 3 drinks ranging from a mojito, daiquiri, rum and coke. Fun music and they even got us dancing on stage.
Nacional Hotel - We did a rum tasting here. The hotel is modeled after The Breaker's Hotel in Miami. We only saw it at night and it looked a bit dated but most of Cuba is dated. I would have loved to see it during the day.
El Floridita - Hemmingway's Bar where he created the original daiquiri. It is a fun atmosphere of bartenders and music. We snagged a table and seats at the bar but it can be quite full in the high season so be prepared.
I have been dreaming of Old Havana since I saw pictures years ago and it did not disappoint. There are crumbling buildings, decaying facades, bright colors and of course old cars. It was a photographers dream.
Taxis- You can take a regular yellow taxi or the vintage cars. The old cars will cost you about double but can be fun. Negotiate the price before getting in. It costs about 10 CUC to Old Havana from the hotel. Do not get into unmarked taxis! Also, seatbelts were a rare occurrence so be mindful.
Food Prices were reasonable. To give you an idea of costs and how to budget:
coffee .60 CUC to 1.50 if you order a cafe con leche.
The hotel offered iced coffee for 3 CUC but it was a double shot.
Mojito 3 CUC
Cocktails at Il Floridita were 6 CUC
water 1 CUC (essential) DO NOT drink the local water. Beware of ice in drinks. The hotel was safe but the restaurants were questionable as I ended up sick!
Tourist Menu of Welcome Drink, Starter, Main, Dessert, Coffee 30 CUC
You cannot use credit cards while in Cuba so bring cash. You can exchange money by the day so keep money in the safe and work on small amounts. As you can see the prices are reasonable but I would over estimate on cash in case of emergency. I spent about $300 but the meals were mostly covered.
Where To Explore
Old Havana - Walk the streets, get lost and explore the streets of Old Havana.
Fuesterlandia - It looks like Gaudi in Barcelona this entire neighborhood is covered in colored mosaic tiles.
Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Grab a coffee at Café el Escorial and people watch in the square. This is one of the most developed areas that I saw while in Havana. Use this as a base and walk from here.