As an American, we’re finally able to go to Cuba again since the embargo during the 1960s. And now a lot more people are going to Cuba since it has become a lot easier for an American to travel to Cuba. Commercial airlines are flying direct from the US and it has become much accessible to book a trip. There are still restrictions in place; you must fall into one of the 12 categories for a general license for travel.
For more information on travel requirements for US citizens, please visit the US Embassy in Cuba website and continue to read my Havana travel guide.
I’ve always been intrigued by Cuba; it’s a country I wasn’t allowed to visit for so long so naturally, I wanted to go. Cuba has an interesting history and I was eager to make my visit to Cuba an educational trip.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Stay
Where to stay in Cuba really depends on where you want to go during your visit. Most people start and end their trip in Havana since Havana has a larger airport. From Havana, you can take the Viazul bus, rent a car or hire a driver. But let’s talk about where to stay in Havana. If you want to be in the middle of the all and would like to skip some cab rides then stay in Old Havana “La Habana Vieja.” You’ll be walking distance to many of Havana’s sites and central so when you need a cab, you can effortlessly get one.
Alternatively, you can stay in Vedado, a neighborhood in Havana. The cab ride from Vedado to Old Havana will take about 10 minutes and cost you about 5 to 10 CUC one way. It’s a more contemporary and affluent neighborhood. And is a lot less touristy than Old Havana which makes it a great place to stay if you’re looking for a bit more of a local feel.
Before You Go
American debit cards and credit cards don’t work in Cuba. This may change in the near future but for now, you’ll need to bring all the cash you plan on spending. You can bring US dollars but you’ll be taxed an additional percentage. Every currency gets taxed 3%, however, US currency gets taxed an additional 10%. It’s recommended to exchange euros for avoiding the extra tax.
You may be asking “how much cash do I need to bring to Cuba?” I recommend taking more money than you think you need because chances are you’re going to need it. Because Havana is a tourist destination, it’s a bit more expensive for visitors. I like to keep my travel affordable and I spent just under $100 a day. This did not include my casa particular stay because it was prepaid.
Prepare for No WiFi
There is WiFi available in Havana with a WiFi card available for purchase but I’d suggest not counting on it. If you need to set up automatic payments or pay bills in advance, do that! Do not count on using it because it is anything but reliable. See “WiFi Cards” below for more information.
I love travel apps from Triposo! The Cuba app helped me out tremendously since I was hardly online. The app allows you to browse the top things to do, give you tips and also includes a map that shows your location without an online connection! The app is available for Apple and Android phones.
At the Airport
Departing to Cuba
If you are a US citizen or US resident, leaving the US, you’ll be required to have a Tourist Visa for your visit to Cuba. If you have a direct flight to Cuba you’ll purchase your Tourist Visa at the airport, before your departure. For most airlines, you’ll purchase the visa at the check-in counter.
If you have a layover before reaching Cuba, like I did, you’ll purchase the visa at the counter inside the terminal. I purchased mine during my layover in Orlando. I flew on JetBlue from Los Angeles and had a short layover at the MCO airport. The visas were available about 30 minutes before our boarding time.
My advice is to find out when there will be someone at the counter to sell you the visa and be one of the first ones in line to get it. You’ll need your returning flight information and passport handy. The Tourist Visa costs $50 and JetBlue preferred payment by card.
Check with your airline for information on purchasing your Tourist Visa so that you’re aware of the process before arriving at the airport.
Upon arriving at the airport in Havana I walked through immigration which was a regular process. Once I stepped outside I got to see those classic cars I had been waiting for, but there weren’t as many as I thought there would be.
I got some of my money exchanged at the airport so that I could easily get a cab. The larger hotels also exchange money so don’t worry about finding an exchange later. If you’re staying in or near a hotel you’ll have no problem.
From the Airport to Havana
The drive into Havana isn’t long, it’s maybe about 25 minutes. I rode in a taxi van, yes, a regular taxi van that was probably from the late 90s or early 2000s. I was bummed that I wasn’t riding in a classic American car but I knew there would be other opportunities to do so later. The taxi fare to Old Havana was 25 CUC.
Tips for Cuba
We were staying at a casa particular, a home, which was walking distance to Hotel Inglaterra, one of the larger hotels in the Old Havana center. The hotel sells WiFi cards so we went there to buy one. They are 2 CUC for an hour of online time and available for sale in most bigger hotels. They tend to sell out later in the day so try to get your card in the morning.
You can use the WiFi cards wherever WiFi is available. This will be most bigger hotels and WiFi parks.
If you’re looking for the tourist hub where you can shop, eat, drink and more, (or looking to avoid it) Calle Obispo is the place. It’s a popular street filled with plenty of restaurants, souvenir shops and more.
Things to Do in Havana
Tour at the Gran Teatro de La Habana
We attempted to get tickets for The Nutcracker, since the Ballet Nacional de Cuba was going to be performing at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, but they were all sold out. If you’re staying in Havana for a few days you may be able to catch a performance. You’ll need to purchase tickets in person. Tickets for foreigners are 30 CUC. You can also tour the theater for somewhere between 3-8 CUC (I don’t remember exactly how much).
Tour of Havana Via Convertible Classic American Car
We were going to do a self-guided tour around the city but when we walked outside we came across the taxi drivers that do city tours by the hour. Since we hadn’t seen the city and wanted to get a taste of what Havana had to offer, we opted for a tour. Our guide, Regis, was a kind man who showed us around, told us about the city, gave us some history lessons, and took photos of us at the different sights. We drove along the Malecon, went to a park that happens to be where some do santería at night, walked Lennon Park, and stopped at La Plaza de Revolucion before heading back.
A tour in a convertible car will cost more than a hard top. We went with the convertible to get a better view and I highly suggest going this route if you can.
Afternoon into Evening at El Morro
We grabbed a taxi just outside Hotel Inglaterra. The taxi was a pretty green American car and it only cost us 6 CUC to take us to El Morro. We were dropped off at El Cristo de La Habana where we took photos of the view of Havana and with the Cristo. The Che museum is right across and is 6 CUC for entrance.
We walked towards El Morro and passed by some military memorabilia. We also passed La Cabana which was where we would be coming back later that night for the cannon ceremony. When we finally reached El Morro around 4pm we learned that the side where the lighthouse is on was closed. Entrance is 6 CUC but since we wouldn’t be able to go to see the lighthouse we decided to skip it and head to eat at La Divina which was a walk down from El Morro. We enjoyed the sunset over the city while eating dinner right on the water.
We finished dinner and walked over to La Cabana to watch the cannon ceremony that happens every night at 8:30pm. The cannon is shot at exactly 9pm and is a reenactment ceremony from the 17th century. Entrance to La Cabana is 8 CUC and you’re able to tour the property. I recommend touring before getting a seat for the ceremony and leaving immediately after so that you aren’t stuck waiting for a taxi. The taxi ride back was 10 CUC.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano
The Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) is an art gallery meets social lounge with a bar and occasional live music acts. The venue also features salsa sessions. It’s best to check their Facebook page for updates on their events.
Hanging Out at the Malecon
The Malecon is a favorable spot to walk along during the day and to hang out at night. You’ll see plenty of young locals playing music or just chatting with their friends. Watch out during high tide when the waves splash up to the sidewalk.
In case you fancy going to the beach there are a few options, you’re on an island after all! The Playas del Este are the local beaches that are closest to Old Havana. You can take a cab or you can take the T3 Transtur bus from Parque Central. It’s 5 CUC and includes the return ticket. It’s an air-conditioned bus and runs every 40 minutes. The last stop is Santa Maria and is one of the beach favorites. Go to the Parque Central, facing the Hotel Inglaterra and look for a line of people. That’s your stop!
Bring some cash and an appetite! A seafood plate runs 12 – 20 CUC and includes grilled fish, shrimp, and lobster.
Another popular beach destination is Varadero. It’s a 2-hour cab ride and the cab fare from Havana to Varadero will cost you 80-100 CUC one-way. You can also take a 3-hour bus ride. The Viazul bus runs four times a day and costs 10 CUC one-way.
Day Trip to Vinales
If you’re staying in Havana for a few days you may want to venture out and take a day trip. Upon researching places to go within Cuba I came across Vinales and it intrigued me. It’s close enough to Havana so it makes for the perfect day trip. If you’re looking for a destination away from the city full of lush mountains, then this is the place for you. We secured a tour through the concierge at the Hotel Inglaterra. Vinales is the city where most the tobacco in Cuba comes from. It’s about a two and a half hour drive from Havana. The cost was 67 CUC a person and this included transportation in an air-conditioned bus, our activities, and lunch.
This was less expensive than the tour we originally arranged which was a private tour via an American classic car. Instead, we decided to go cheaper. Depending on how you like to travel you can take a group tour or book a private one. The group tour was great and is perfect if you’re traveling solo. Also, it’s budget friendly.
The bus picked us up from Hotel Inglaterra at 7:30am and we stopped at a couple more hotels before heading to the Pinar del Rio where we got to visit the Guayabita del Pinar factory. Here we got to see how the Guayabita del Pinar liqueur is made.
After the factory tour, we went to the Cuevo del Indio where we rode a small motor boat through the cave. Our boat driver told us about some of the formations and what they were called. We then drove off to the tobacco fields where we got to check out how the tobacco leaves become cigars. We got to sample a hand-rolled cigar and were also offered to purchase a pack of 10 for 20 CUC.
After the field, we were off to out next location, the Mural de la Prehistoria for lunch. It was a typical Cuban meal served family style. A beer was included and for 3 CUC you can buy a rum-based drink. There was a live band playing music while we ate under the covered patio. We had a view of the mural from our table and took some photos after we finished eating.
After the mural we left for our last stop in Vinales, the Vinales Valley lookout point, Mirador de Los Jazmines. We headed back to Havana after a long day. If you’re looking to do a day trip to Vinales, a tour (group or private) is the way to go.
If you don’t want to take a tour you can take the Viazul bus to Vinales from 12 CUC. You will need to stay the night because the return bus to Havana runs earlier in the day.
Catedral de la Habana
Stroll the Plaza de la Catedral and view the Catedral de la Habana (Havana Cathedral). You can walk up the bell tower I believe for 1 CUC. I didn’t get to do this because it was closed when I went. If you worked up an appetite, wander into one of the alleys in the plaza. One of the restaurants we ate at had a lobster meal which included a non-alcoholic drink for 14 CUC (12 CUC, plus a 2 CUC service charge). Note: there is almost always an added service charge at most sit-down restaurants in Cuba.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana
We went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana and purchased a ticket for 8 CUC which included admission to both campuses, the Arte Cubano building and the Arte Universal building. You can purchase a ticket for just one of the campuses for 5 CUC.
The Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home, is a bit outside Old Havana. I didn’t want to break the bank trying to get there so we priced some taxis and found a hardtop American car that would take us and bring us back for 40 CUC.
The drive took about thirty minutes and we were there for about thirty minutes before heading back. The home is beautifully decorated, however, you’re not allowed inside the main home. We visited the watch tower and then the backyard. The yard is full of tall trees and a swimming pool. Although the pool is drained it still quite impressive. Check out the photos in the pool house of Hemingway and his friends, then head over to view the boat and pass through the pet cemetery.
If you like seafood and a view, La Divina is the place! It’s a great spot for dinner while out at El Morro.
Entree and a drink: 15-25 CUC
Get lost in the city and try eating at smaller restaurants. La Divina was the only memorable larger restaurant I went to. I had good food in Havana and I also had rather bland food. Cuba isn’t much of a food destination and we’ll just keep it at that.
Coconut ice cream from shop on Obispo street* – 1 CUC
Empanadas – 2 for 1 CUC (we found these in the El Morro area)
Typical Cuban Sandwich from a small shop* – 1 CUC (ham and cheese sandwich)
*not exactly street food since it’s from a shop
We walked around the city and stopped by La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito. After all, it’s Hemingway’s favorite spot for a mojito, so I had to go! The downstairs “main bar” was full but we headed up to the restaurant and sat at the service bar. The food smelled great but it was still a bit early to eat so we didn’t have lunch there.
Hotel Ambos Mundos
Havana has a rooftop bar? Sign me up! We enjoyed a beverage or two and the views at Hotel Ambos Mundos. While at the hotel, you can check out Ernest Hemingway’s room on the fifth floor Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM for 2 CUC.
La Floridita is one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars in Havana. There’s a statue inside the bar of Hemingway himself. The bar is known for its daiquiris however I was not at all impressed. Perhaps it wasn’t the best time to go. It was incredibly packed inside at the time and the drinks were getting batched by the pitcher. Try to get to this watering hole early in the day to beat the crowds.
Patio del los Artesanos
We came across the Patio del los Artesanos while walking down Obispo Street. The patio is filled with a mix of local artisans that make clothing, jewelry, and trinkets and also vendors who resell handmade souvenirs. I purchased a pair of silver earrings for 4 CUC.
Paseo del Prado
On the main street in Old Havana, the Paseo del Prado, is where local merchants set up to sell their handmade items and fine art. Start at Neptuno Street and head towards Virtudes. There are more merchants in this area on weekends.
Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market
The Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market is located by the port in Havana and is the place where you can find all your souvenirs. It’s a large market, much larger than the Patio del los Artesanos. In addition to handmade souvenirs, you will find one-of-a-kind art pieces by different artists. There are two sections dedicated to paintings and drawings where the artists themselves may be selling their own art. This makes for a special gift.
Heading to the Airport
Be advised and know which terminal you’re flying out of. The terminals at the Havana airport are far from each other. Let your driver know which terminal to go to and avoid ending up at the wrong terminal.
Shopping at the Airport
You may want to buy a bottle of rum or five before you go (no judgment here). If your flight home is direct then you shouldn’t have a problem. If you have a connecting flight you’ll need to check those bottles in. Most airlines will allow you to check a bag for free since you purchased the items at the airport. And you should keep your items in their sealed bag.
Do you have any questions about Havana or have anything to add? Please leave a comment below.
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