On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the start of normalizing US-Cuba relations. At that moment, we were wandering the streets of Havana, unaware of this historic day due to the lack of internet. Just one of the consequences of an economic embargo and communist rule for fifty years. It is what makes Havana and Cuba a destination like no other.
#1- Trade local tips for a cocktail
Tourists in Havana are welcomed with open arms, ready to take you on a tour of the city. After just a couple of hours, we started seeing a trend. The history lessons by helpful citizens would always end in a bar, with a cocktail on us. Luckily, a cocktail in Havana doesn’t break the bank, with delicious mojitos for just three dollars. A small price to pay for a local take on Cuban history and culture. We put a halt to the spontaneous tours on day two, as we were not making it past Havana’s bar scene.
#2- Ride a classic car
Classic American cars from the 1950s and before are an integral part of Havana’s street scene. The first part of the 20th century saw a big inflow of American cars into Cuba. After the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro put an import ban on foreign cars and car parts. As a result, Cubans cherished their American cars and held them together with any part they could find. A lot of these cars have been turned into improvised taxis. Take a ride at your own risk, because seat belts were not part of the 1950s car design.
#3- Drink on Ernest Hemingway’s triangle
Ernest Hemingway sure knew how to pick his literary retreats. After spending various winters in Key West, Florida, Hemingway started looking for inspiration in the streets – and bars – of Havana. His first home in Cuba was Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he rented a room for seven years. Eighty years later, the pink hotel’s charm is still intact. The rooftop bar offers great views of Old Havana and the harbor. From the hotel, Hemingway could walk to his two favorite watering holes: La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita. The former claims to be the birthplace of the mojito, the latter the cradle of daiquiri.
#4- Take a trip to the beach
The Cuban capital has its own riviera. Playas Del Este is a strip of paradise east of Havana. It is reached by a short bus or taxi ride from the historic city center. There are six beaches to pick from, each a world apart from their touristy neighbors in Varadero. The lack of luxury resorts around Playas del Este means less tourists and more locals enjoying a day off. Santa Maria del Mar is considered the main beach of Playas del Este. No need to bring a cooler, as mojitos, piña coladas and lunch are prepared right on the beach.
#5- Explore four colonial plazas
Old Havana counts four beautiful colonial plazas. All squares can easily be explored in one day, as they are just a short walk apart. Ranked from old to new, each square had its own function back in the colonial days.
Plaza de Armas | Military
Plaza de Armas is Havana’s oldest square, built shortly after the city’s foundation in 1519. Its name stems from the military exercises that used to be carried out from the square. Visit the fort Castillo de Real Fuerza, or stroll around the daily secondhand book market.
Plaza de San Francisco | Commercial
Housing the former stock exchange and customs building, Plaza de San Francisco was commercial in nature. It’s home to a beautiful fountain, Fuente de los Leones.
Plaza Vieja | Residential
The Plaza Vieja used to house Havana’s elite. Part of the original square was demolished to make space for an underground parking garage during Batista’s rule. Thanks to a big restoration project initiated by UNESCO, the square looks better than ever. As opposed to the other squares, Plaza Vieja offers many food and drink options.
Plaza de la Cathedral | Religious
The impressive baroque Cathedral de San Cristobal lends its name to the youngest square of Old Havana.
#6- Revel in fifties glamour
Old Havana shows off the city’s rich colonial history, but Vedado reminds of Havana’s recent past. In the decennia before the revolution, American investors turned Vedado into a mixture of glamour and gangster. Luxurious hotels and casinos arose everywhere, financed by the mob and encouraged by the government. The gangsters and casinos are long gone, but part of the glamour stood the test of time. Vedado is scattered with art deco landmarks like the legendary Hotel Nacional.
#7- Trace the roots of Cuban cigars
The Viñales Valley was named UNESCO world heritage for its cultural value and dramatic landscape. Here, tobacco is still produced the traditional way. Animals are used for ploughing the land and tobacco leaves are harvested by hand. These methods result in the finest tobacco of the country. The valley is characterized by mogotes, limestone hills that arise abruptly from an otherwise flat surface. Make the three-hour trip from Havana to Viñales to experience the traditional cigar-making process and take in the spectacular landscape on the way.
#8- Stroll along the city’s bustling veins
Two bustling boulevards make up the heart of Havana.
Paseo del Prado is a dividing line between Old and Central Havana. This elegant boulevard is flanked by trees and static buildings, reminding of promenades in Southern Europe.
El Malecón is a five-mile strip separating the city from the Atlantic ocean. Just 200 miles apart, the resemblance to Miami’s Ocean Drive is undeniable.
#9- Stand on the Cuban side of the revolution
The Museo de la Revolución is housed in the old presidential palace and a must-visit on a trip to Havana. It tells the story of the revolution from a Cuban perspective, which is not always easy to come by in Western countries.
#10- Watch the sunset over Havana
The Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña is made up of two historic forts that are worth a visit. Since 1898, a canon is fired every night at 9 PM during an impressive ceremony open to the public. If not for the history, go for the stunning sunset views of Havana and El Malecón.