My first trip to Havana may have been brief, but it was nothing short of spectacular.
With only 4 days off from work, my sister and I were determined to attempt to experience all that Havana had to offer. While we may not have seen EVERYTHING, we got a delicious taste (quite literally) that left us with the hunger to explore Cuba more.
Day 1: Our First Taste of Cuba
We landed in Cuba on a Saturday morning in mid February ready to make the most of what we thought would be a full day of exploring.. Well, that wasn’t quite how the day ensued.
It took all of 10 minutes from stepping off the plane to be introduced to the concept of “Cuban time.”
For those of you unfamiliar with this concept as I certainly was, this means waiting 30-45 minutes to get through customs only to wait some more at baggage claim. How long? Well, just as I was about to give up on ever seeing my luggage again and began plotting how to make the one pair of underwear I was wearing last for the next 3 days – that is when my baggage finally came across the carousel. Hallelujah!
And the waiting doesn’t stop there. If you plan to exchange your money for CUC at the airport, which I assume you will need to do to pay for your taxi, you will wait an additional 1-2 hours.
Tip: Take note of what terminal you arrive in. San Jose Marti Int’l Airport has 5 different terminals, most international flights arriving in either terminal 2 (United) or 3 (most others). Whichever terminal you arrive at will most likely be the terminal you depart from on your way home, which is helpful to know since it won’t be listed anywhere until you receive your boarding pass at the airport. And unfortunately if you have to travel from one terminal to the next, you’ll most likely get roped into paying 10-20 CUC, which is just ABSURD.
Once we got checked in settled in our Airbnb, we headed down to the Malecón to experience our first Cuban sunset. What a sight it was!
We stayed near Plaza de la Revolución so we watched the sunset just outside of Hotel Melia Cohiba. The Malecón, however, runs 8k all the way down to Plaza de la Catedral. So, wherever you end up staying, you are guaranteed to have a beautiful view that won’t disappoint!
After watching the sun set along the horizon, we headed to Old Town to a popular restaurant called El Chanchullero. Although it’s considered one of the more touristy restaurants after a certain black US president decided to stop by on his visit to Cuba, it is still regarded one of the best mojitos in all of Havana by locals and expats. I have to give you a fair warning though, these mojitos are not for the weak. They may be small, but boy do they pack a punch!
Tip: Try the Ropa vieja, one of the national dishes of Cuba. It consists of shredded beef in a chili, tomato, onion and cumin sauce and is usually served with fried plantain and rice. YUMMY!
After dinner we took a taxi over to Casa de la Música in Miramar for some live music and salsa dancing. After all, did you really experience Cuba if you didn’t get to make a fool out of yourself and salsa dance with the locals? This is a great place to listen to live music from local Cuban bands and performers, just make sure to get there early to grab a spot in line. The doors don’t open until 10PM, but the tables fill up fast. Also, depending on the night there is usually a 10-15 CUC cover, but the experience and the music is well worth it!
Day 2: Explore Old Town and Bar Hop
On our second day, we took to the streets to explore what makes Havana, well, Havana. Not having an agenda or itinerary can either be anxiety provoking or entirely liberating in the right hands – we chose to be of the latter.
Top things to see on your walking tour of Havana:
El Floridita: the birthplace of the daiquiri
As rumor has it, Constantino Ribalaigua Vert was the bartender credited for inventing the frozen daiquiri at this iconic restaurant in the 1930s. El Floridita is also known for being a frequent hangout of the Nobel Prize-winning Ernest Hemingway, now displaying many noticeable memorabilia of the author.
La Bodeguita del Medio: the birthplace of the mojito
La Bodeguita lays claim to being the birthplace of the mojito, although this is disputed. The walls are covered by signatures recounting the island’s past – see if you can spot any of the famous visitors this place has seen!
El Capitolio and Havana’s “Rainbow row:”
El Capitolio is the National Capital Building of Cuba, where the government resided until after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It is now the home of the Cuban Academy of the Sciences. Completed in 1929, it was the tallest building in Havana until the 1950s and houses the world’s third largest indoor statue.
Directly across the street from El Capitolio on Paseo del Prado you can find one of the most colorful buildings and one of the most instagrammable spots in all of Havana. While I don’t think this strip has a name, I call it Havana’s own “rainbow row” after the rainbow row of Charleston, SC.
The Galician Centre of Havana:
The Galician Centre of Havana is located on Paseo del Prado just next to El Capitolio. Originally constructed to serve as a social center for Galician immigrants to Havana, it now is home to the Cuban National Ballet and the International Ballet Festival of Havana.
Tip: Make sure to check this sight out once the sun goes down. While its intricate details can be studied in daylight, this building is a sight to see all lit up at nighttime.
La Plaza de la Revolución:
At first glance, the plaza may appear as a glorified parking lot, but the history behind the structures and the past events that have been held here give it its true significance. The square was the place of many political rallies as well as the place of addresses to the Cuban people by Fidel Castro and other political figures.
On one side of the street, you’ll find the José Martí Memorial in front of a 358 ft tall tower, that houses an elevator to give you one of the tallest views of the city. Opposite to the memorial are the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications, featuring steel memorials on their exteriors of the two most important deceased heroes of the Cuban Revolution: Che Guevara, with the quotation “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) and Camilo Cienfuegos (often mistaken for Fidel Castro), with the quotation “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel).
In an attempt to make you less of a “basic” American tourist, I’ll give you a quick history lesson:
Ernesto “Che” Guevara, named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, guerrilla leader, diplomat, and military theorist, but is remembered as the most photogenic idol of the Cuban Revolution. His image, now one of the most reproduced images of all time even giving the Mona Lisa a run for its money, plastered on t-shirts and bumper stickers all over the country has become a symbol of rebellion, anticapitalism, and the ultimate icon for peaceful social activists all over.
Camilo Cienfuegos Gorriarán, known as the “Hero of Yaguajay” after winning a key battle of the Cuban Revolution, eventually became one of Castro’s top commanders and was appointed head of Cuba’s armed forces shortly after the victory of Castro’s rebel army in 1959. He was presumed dead when a small plane he was traveling in disappeared during a night flight from Camagüey to Havana later that year. Cienfuegos is remembered in Cuba as a hero of the Revolution, with monuments, memorials, and an annual celebration in his honor.
José Julián Martí Pérez was a Cuban national hero and important figure in Latin American literature. During his life, he was a poet, essayist, journalist, revolutionary philosopher, translator, professor, publisher, Freemason, political theorist, and supporter of Henry George‘s economic reforms. Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol for Cuba’s bid for independence against Spain in the 19th century, and is referred to as the “Apostle of Cuban Independence,” he dedicated his life to the promotion of liberty, political independence for Cuba, and intellectual independence for all Spanish Americans.
Originally called Plaza Nueva, meaning New Square, emerged as an open space in 1559, and was the site of executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas all witnessed by Havana’s wealthiest citizens, who looked on from their balconies.
Plaza de la Catedral:
The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception (known in Spanish as La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana) is located in the Plaza de la Catedral in the center of Old Havana. The church serves as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Cristobal de la Habana.
Museo de la Revolución:
Museo de la Revolución gives an interesting insight in Fidel Castro’s rise without putting not-so-regular-museum-visitors to sleep
But the greatest thing you can do…
The greatest thing you can do is simply enjoy the vibrant culture and take in the beauty all around you. Stop at a restaurant on a side street and taste the rich flavors of Cuban cuisine. Find a hole in the wall bar and try to find the best mojito in all of old Havana. Follow the sound of music and dance in the streets with the locals. Stop by Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas, the cigar factory located just behind El Capitol and taste one of the world renowned Cuban cigars.
Go out and explore and let your sense of adventure guide you!
As for the night life…
If you happen to find yourself in Havana Friday – Sunday night, make sure to head over to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, otherwise called the F.A.C. By day, it is a modern art museum equipped with a restaurant on site. By night, it turns into one of the best clubs in Havana populated with both tourists and locals. Make sure to grab your vase sized mojito (best shared by two) on your way to one of their many bars and party rooms. Also, don’t forget to stop to check out the art along the way!
Tip: Make sure to get there early! Even by 10:30 – 11PM, the line can go around the corner and down the street, making you wait close to an hour to get it.
Day 3: Santa Maria Del Mar
After a very full day and a half of exploring and tasting our way through the capital of Cuba, we chose to spend our last day lounging along the Caribbean coast working on our tan lines. We hopped in a 20 minute taxi and headed over to one of the biggest and best known of all of Havana’s beaches, Playas del Este. After researching our options, we decided on settling at the main beach, also known as the “party beach,” Santa Maria del Mar. Beware if you’re visiting from June to August of the large crowds looking to join the party; however, in February, it was actually perfect – not too hot and barely crowded at all. More $1 Presidente’s and rum coconuts for us!
As I sat in the airport sipping on my last cheap beer, taking full advantage of still technically being on vacation, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a perfect weekend it had been. It was perfectly relaxing, adventurous, cultural, and fulfilling all at the same time. What more could you ask for? My only regret was not extending my trip to visit the cities of Vinales and Trinidad, but we both had to get back to work. To play hard, you have to work hard right?
There you have it though! A weekend itinerary packed with history, adventure, and so much culture. I can’t believe such an amazing place is just a couple hours off the coast of the U.S. So in conclusion, if you haven’t been.. YOU NEED TO GO!
Last tip: save this post to your notes app in your phone to keep it available when you’re offline 🙂