The last time I visited Cuba it was in 2014 and although that doesn’t seem like that long ago, so much has changed on the island since then. From President Obama’s visit, the opening of new luxury hotels in downtown Havana (The Ritz Carlton and the St. Regis in 2019) to the the renovation of Cuba’s capitol building, progress is happening in many places on the island. That coupled with a thriving art and music scene, there’s no better time to visit, explore and see Havana for yourself.
Now, with the recent acceptance of Air B&B by the government, Cuba has seen a tourism boom. I personally noticed almost double the amount of tourists than on my first trip. I opted for Air B&B’s only during this trip and I have to say, the experience was better than I expected. We were able to get lost on the narrow streets of Old Havana and discover art from local painters and artisans. We ate local breakfast in Vedado (a suburb of Havana) and strolled the famous Malecon at night with ease.
With quick taxi’s for less than $10 dollars to and from our areas, staying eating and exploring locally made all the difference this time on delivering an authentic Cuban experience. I came back to an inbox full of DM’s and emails from many of you, wanting details for your own upcoming travels to the island. So.. this is my attempt to give you the best insight. Below are my recommendations on what to expect, where to go and stay and what to do to get the most authentic experience on your next trip to Havana.
Where to stay:
Option 1: Vedado (suburb of Havana) is an upscale neighborhood in the west bank of Havana. It sits just a few blocks from the famous Malecon boardwalk and has easy access to taxi’s and restaurants in the area. What I loved about staying in Vedado was how walkable it was. We were able to walk to and from dinner, stroll the bars and even get into a dominos game or two with the locals.
Option 2: Havana Centro (the heart of Havana’s local neighborhood section). Less than five minutes to the popular tourist attractions, like the Fort Havana Centro is a busy area in the city. If you don’t mind the vegetable and bread man at 7a.m. signaling the offerings for the morning, then you’ll love this area. Our Air B&B was quaint and lovely, but it was on a busy street. Neighbors often called out to each other from their balconies exchanging goods and the streets were busy well into the late evening/early morning.
Option 3: Old Havana. By far my favorite location to stay in Havana, La Havana Vieja has it all. It can be a bit pricier than the other two locations, so book early and keep in mind that this is one of the most popular areas to visit in the city so it can be loud at night until the wee hours of the morning.
Important: Most Air B&B’s are fully stocked with toiletries, towels, and light food and beverage. We brought much of our own to be safe, but its better to check with your SuperHost before your stay.
Atelier: (high end option above) is a little gem in the heart of Vedado.. The Obama’s and many other celebs have eaten here and for good reason. It’s a classic Cuban rooftop terrace with views of the entire city and an incredible foodie experience to match. This was by far our best meal in Havana. From sushi options to Lomo Saltado (salted beef) Anthony Bourdain (may he rest in peace) would approve.
3D: (more classic and local) Right off the Malecon in West Havana, this little nook has classic Cuban meals for the low. At about $12 per person, you can enjoy classic Ropa Vieja, rice and beans and salad. The classic beer Crystal is also only about $2 each.
Classic Cuban Drinks, Live Music and Dancing:
Bodegita Del Medio- by far the most popular attraction in Havana, La Bodegita del Medio is perfect for an afternoon stroll and jam session. Famous because of Earnest Hemingway who would visit the bar often for its mojitos and live salsa, I always make it a point to stop here when I visit. Not much has changed since then, the vibes are still epic.
(Bring comfy shoes as this part of Havana is all cobbled stone).
Hemingway’s Bar, El Floridita- After sightseeing all day, this was a great pit stop to cool off and grab a pina colada. There are lots of spaces to sit as well, enjoy a quick jamon con queso and catch a live salsa session with the local band. Lines can be a bit long here, so give yourself enough time to enjoy it.
Where to Dance, catch a classic Cuban vibe:
Pretty much around every corner in Havana you can hear the percussion sounds of Salsa bands pelting our classics from Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, Gran Combo, etc. La Cecilia is probably the most famous (featured in several videos including Gente De Zona) this is where locals gather on the weekends to show off their serious salsa moves. (Heads up- Cubans take salsa very seriously, so be prepared to dance).
Sites and Must Do’s:
Classic Car Ride throughout the Havana proper. This was such an awesome way to see the city. Havana is huge, so its hard to see it all in three days. The classic convertible tour took us around Havana proper, the old forte of San Salvador, the Christ statue, El Morro Castle and Forte, Chinatown, the Botanical gardens and more. Many drivers will stop for you to take those epic pictures and even suggest places to visit during your trip.
Browse the Barrio del Arte in Old Havana. If you’re on the hunt for local art, paintings and custom souvenirs, be sure to stroll through the art zone. Leave yourself enough time so you’re not rushed as there are galleries littered throughout the area, many with artists live painting on site. I could have spent all day in this area- vibes were sweet and the people were just as warm.
Important question- How much cash to bring?
$100 per day (per person) is ideal. As Cuba can be hard to change money because US are not widely accepted, I brought $550 for myself for 4 days and came home with cash. It all depends on how many things you want to buy. Ask your Air B&B or wherever you’re staying to change for you when you arrive. It will save you time and get you the best exchange if you do it in advance. The bank in Cuba’s exchange rate is .87 cents to every dollar versus .95 on the street. So if you want to keep more of your cash, shop around and don’t go to the banks. Taxi drivers often have access to better exchange rates as well.
Finally, Cuba, although progressing is still after all a communist island. There are restrictions on the locals and tourists as well as lack of access to everyday basic things. Here’s my essentials list on what to pack to make your trip as smooth as possible:
- Pillow that you don’t mind leaving behind. (The beds, pillows and sheets can be a bit hard, so for extra comfort, pack your own.
- Bar of soap, shampoo, conditioner and toiletries. (These are hard to find on island).
- Mosquito repellent (A MUST in Varadero, Guanabo and areas outside of Havana).
- Sunblock (A MUST).
- Cash, small bills ( as we discussed above).
- Extra space in suitcase or foldable carry on for things you want to bring home.
- Beach towel and regular towel.
- One roll of toilet paper per person.
- Medicine (especially for common travelers sickness). Advil, Aleeve, Pepto, etc.
- Snacks- roadside snacks are harder to find so pack your own protein bars, nuts and berries etc to hold you over just in case.
- Mini Fan- Air conditioning is scarce on the island outside of hotels, restaurants and some govt. buildings, so bring a mini fan if you can. Yes Air B&B’s now mostly have A.C, but be sure to request one with it during your booking.
Lastly, pack an open mind and an open heart. Cuba is a unique place with a lot of history. It’s easy to have preconditioned views about it before ever stepping foot on the island. One of the most important things you need to know is that the people, just like here in America and other parts of the world are simply looking for respect, opportunity, food and services to provide for their families. I always leave wishing the best for the Cuban people and hope they soon they’ll make they changes necessary to see the change they want for themselves and future generations to come.
Written by Vanessa James. All opinions are my own.