Back in June/July my parents and my fiancée and I flew to Havana for a holiday and we had an incredible time. We loved the city so much and have really fond memories of our time there. Although all-inclusive resort holidays are really popular in Cuba (especially for Canadians dying to get out of the cold) that’s not really our thing, so we found a beautiful AirBnb in Old Havana in the middle of the city and explored mostly on our own. I can’t say what it would be like to stay at a resort, or even at a hotel as they may offer a different experience, but Cuba is definitely a unique part of the world and I really recommend staying with a private owner through something like AirBnb. Aside from the personal touch, in a country like Cuba I would also rather support a local business owner over a huge corporation or chain, so that’s something to consider if you’re thinking of going there yourself.
Our AirBnb had pastel pink and pistachio green walls.
If you didn’t know, Cuba is a communist country. As a small island nation, it’s always going to be hard for them to sustain their economy regardless of their system of government, and they’re probably never going to be a world leader just based on their size and resources. It’s hard to talk about Havana without mentioning that the city is pretty run down. I don’t mean that as a criticism, but as a statement of fact. The government just doesn’t have the money for the repairs.
Having never travelled to a communist country before it was a really eye-opening experience. Before our trip Mark and I watched a documentary series about Cuba’s history, and when we got there the four of us also had many conversations with our wonderful host about what it’s like to live in Cuba. For example, there are two national currencies, one for locals (CUP) and another for tourists (CUC). No matter what job you do, from being a doctor to an elevator operator, you earn the equivalent of around $20USD per month, or 20CUC (the tourist currency), although obviously things are far cheaper in the local currency. In recent years the government has allowed more people to open private businesses like B&Bs (casa particular) or restaurants (paladar) which would be one of the only ways to earn more money, other than operating on the black market (aka starting your own business without government approval). Internet access is limited - our AirBnb didn’t have Wi-Fi, so when we needed to use the internet to access the list of recommendations I’d put together, we had to go to a nearby hotel and buy a one-hour internet card.
If that sounds horrible to you, it’s worth remembering that Cuban citizens are provided with free housing, health care, school and university education and food rations by the government. Although there are limited opportunities to improve your circumstances, if I were living on the Western definition of the “poverty line” I’d personally rather do it in a socialist-leaning country where your basic needs will still be met, rather than a capitalist country where it’s every person for themselves. In saying that, my time in Cuba doesn’t make me an expert on the topic and I really can’t comment on what it would be like to live there day to day and be a Cuban citizen.
Below is the view from our bedroom window.
I mentioned that we spoke with our host a fair bit, he lives in the same building which was really handy because he was always around to answer any questions we had, or arrange a car or restaurant reservation for us. He also had the family who live in the top floor apartment make breakfast for us most mornings (for a fee, obviously). Not only was the food fresh and delicious, but we got to enjoy their rooftop and pet their dog Kika. They even let us go up there one evening when Mark, my dad and our host wanted to smoke cigars.
The tall building on the right of the photo above is the original Bacardi rum headquarters.
Things To Do
Although quite busy, Havana is a very laid back place. We had 4 full days there and we ticked things off our list quite slowly, partly because we were on holiday and partly because the weather in summer is muy caliente! I would have loved to see more of Cuba beyond Havana, but because the internet isn’t widely available there, there isn’t a huge amount of information to find online before going. I didn’t feel confident about using public transport or know how long it would take to get us to a different city, so we decided we would get the most out of our time there if we stayed put. If you speak Spanish I’m sure you would be just fine, but otherwise if you want to cover a lot of ground I would say going on a tour would be the best way to do it.
If you’re in Havana I definitely recommend visiting the Museo de la Revolucion which has some hugely interesting artifacts from Cuba’s recent history. If you haven’t watched a documentary or read about the revolution before going (which I really recommend doing), this museum will fill you in.
The staircase inside the Museo de la Revolucion.
I had an issue with the shutter on my camera which is why some photos in this post are dark on one side. I lost some photos altogether so I’ve had to supplement this post with a few from my phone - hope no one minds!
Above is El Capitolio (the capitol building) which looks exactly like the White House but it was built to be slightly taller. This is the old government building which is a now a museum, although we didn’t go through it. Another thing that’s right in Old Havana is Bar Floridita, which is a bar Hemingway used to drink at a lot back when he lived in Havana. We stopped by for a drink but it was too busy and touristy for our liking so we didn’t go back. They have a bronze statue of Hem sitting at the bar which is half cute, half corny.
There are also a few pretty plazas in Old Havana that are worth a wander through - Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas and Plaza Vieja. We had a lovely dinner in a restaurant off Plaza de la Catedral one evening and we also made sure to find some live music while we were there. Just walk through the streets and you’ll almost certainly come across something.
Plaza Vieja (above) and Plaza de la Catedral (right).
Other than that, a lot of place we visited required a car, which wasn’t a problem as taxis are very easy to find. There are your standard taxis, of course, but it’s much more fun to ride in a vintage car from the 1950s. You just tell the driver where you want to go and they’ll give you a price, if you don’t like it, you can ask someone else. They may bargain with you, they may not, but if you ask a couple of people and get the same price, it’s probably fair.
A tip that I got from Jane was to have a drink out the back of the Hotel Nacional with a view of the ocean. We had a classic car drive us down the Malceon to the hotel and we sat there for an afternoon while Mark and my dad smoked cigars and we all thought it was well worth doing. The first photo in this post comes from the hotel as well.
Another place you’ll probably need a car to take you to is the Plaza de la Revolucion, This is where Fidel Castro would deliver many of his speeches and addresses to the public. From left to right is a mural of Che Guevara, the Jose Marti Memorial and a mural of Camilo Cienfuegos. We didn’t go on it, but there is also a hop-on, hop-off bus that you could use to get around if you don’t want to take a taxi.
If you plan to visit Finca Vigia, an estate formerly owned by Ernest Hemingway that’s now a museum, it’s about a 20-30min drive outside of Havana. But if you’re a fan of Hemingway’s writing like I am then it’s a very worthwhile trip. Although online it’s referred to as a house, I say estate because it’s a very large property with a house, tennis court, swimming pool, and his boat, Pilar, all on-site. You’re not allowed to go in the house, but you can walk around the perimeter and see into almost every room through the (open) windows and doors. The only room you can’t see is Hemingway’s bedroom as there’s no veranda around that part of the building and it’s above ground level, but luckily a very sweet staff member who was working in the house offered to take some photos for me. So of all the people who have been to visit this house, most of them haven’t seen the blue room in the photos below! She also took a (sadly blurry) photo of Mark and I waiting at the front door.
Food & Drink
In case you’re not a regular reader of my blog, it’s worth mentioning that I’m vegetarian and my partner is vegan (while my parents both eat meat), and of course it’s slightly more difficult communicating what you can and can’t eat when you don’t speak the language. I did a fair bit of research before we left and tried to track down vegan-friendly restaurants, but as I mentioned, because a lot of Cubans live without the internet, having an online presence isn’t always a priority. We managed to do just fine, but we were lucky a) because I had done the research, and b) because our host was able to help us out as well.
Our host’s guide said El Cafe was their favourite place for breakfast and it turned out to be only a few blocks away from the AirBnb. El Cafe wouldn’t be out of place in a city like Toronto or Sydney one bit, as evidenced by my pancakes with honey and fruit, and Mark’s hummus & veggie sandwich on house-made sourdough. We had breakfast with our upstairs neighbours most mornings and only came here on the third day, but after that we came again for coffee because we liked it so much. It’s not what I’d call an authentic Cuban experience, but if you’re vegan (or are travelling with one) put this place on your list because everyone will be happy here.
Palader 5 Sentidos – We were upset that we only found this place on our last night as it was so close to where we were staying and we all enjoyed it so much. This place had delicious, vegan-friendly (as well as meat) dishes and the bread they served at the start of the meal was fresh out of the oven. It was also very reasonably priced for the experience, so if you’re in Havana this is my top recommendation for dinner.
Paladar Doña Eutimia – I’d also really recommend this place, it’s in a cute little alley filled with restaurants just off the Plaza de la Catedral. It’s vegan-friendly and we all really enjoyed the meal, and if we’d had more nights we would have come back to this area as there were a few places to choose from. I’m not sure if it’s standard or not, but at the end of the meal the waiter brought out some rum for the table (I don’t drink, but everyone else enjoyed it) which was a nice touch.
El Dandy – We happened to be walking past here and I recognised the name from what I’d found online, so we stopped in for a drink and ended up ordering some food. They do serve meat, but have quite a few vegetarian & vegan friendly options too. It has a cute, homey vibe (pictured above) and we had a really nice afternoon at this place.
Café Boehma – I don’t exactly recommend this place as the food was extremely basic, but if you’re a backpacker or on a very strict budget then you may like it as it was very affordable, but don’t expect to be wowed by it. The restaurant is in a cute little courtyard off the lovely Plaza Vieja so it may be worth at least having a drink at during the day (which is what we did).
Cuban Art Factory – Our host practically insisted we go here because he said it’s his favourite place in Havana and that there’s nothing else like it in the city. Again, it really wouldn’t be out of place in any major Western city, so it was super interesting and cool to find something like this in Havana. Housed in a converted factory, the complex has a handful of restaurants so we went to dinner with our host and his girlfriend to start off the evening. Then he walked us through the rest of the factory which has different rooms with bars, DJs, plays being performed, an art exhibition and bands playing. It’s only open on certain days of the week but if that sounds like your sort of thing you should definitely go if you get the chance!
La Bodeguita Del Medio – This is a bar I’d read about online because Hemingway and sweet angel Leonard Cohen, who I love and adore, apparently both used to go here when they were in Havana (not together, lol). We walked by to check it out but it was so busy we didn’t bother going in. So so apparently everyone knows about this place, but if you find it on a quieter night it may be worth going to.
El del Frente – This one was a tip from our host, it’s a rooftop cocktail bar that we stopped by one night for a drink and had a really nice time.