With impressive architecture, old city charm, and a lively harbor, Havana is a splendid dichotomy of classic meets modern.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Travel Date(s): February 17–19, 2017
Time on the Ground: 50 hours
Pizza Rating: 0/8 pizza slices – Our first meal off the plane was a quick bite at a small pizza joint. We're not even sure it deserves the name "pizza." Stick with the typical Cuban fare.
Airport Rating: 1/5 stars
Airplane: Airbus 319
Walkability: 4/5 stars – You can catch a cab from the airport into Old Havana for a reasonable $25. Getting around in the city is also easy by taxi, although it can get expensive if you are staying away from the sights of downtown Old Havana. You can also take a ferry across the harbor, which we highly recommend as it was a great way to see the city from a different perspective.
Free Walking Tour: 3/5 stars – The tour guide was informative and was nice enough to walk us back toward the capital to the delicious Los Nardos restaurant (more on that that later); however, I think he was a little put off that we were the only two people to show up for the tour.
Things to Remember
Bring cash: There are two currencies in Cuba—the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). You will exchange your national currency into CUC, which follows the U.S. dollar. Remember, no businesses (including banks) will accept USD or American credit cards, so be sure to bring cash to exchange to CUC if you are traveling from the States.
Lay of the Land
Havana, the capital of Cuba, is located on the northwest side of the island. The José Martí Airport is located approximately 35 minutes southwest of Old Havana.
Old Havana refers to the section of the city east of Paseo De Martí (the main avenue that runs south through the city from the Castle of San Salvador past the Capitol Building) over to the harbor. It is known for its historic architecture and old city charm. A number of city sights are walkable within this area, although a few sites (including Hemingway's house) are further from the city center.
Large-scale tourism is still fairly new to Cuba, so there are few hotel accommodations available. Rather than trying to find an expensive hotel, we opted to rent a room in a local’s apartment through Airbnb. The Cuban government allows registered citizens to rent their rooms, and it is a great way to get to know the locals during your visit. Often, hosts arrange taxis, provide directions, and even offer breakfast as an option with your stay.
Arrival and Check-In
Once we made it through Customs, which was a relatively painless hour, we made our way out to the curb to find a cab into town. There we ran into our first “Cuba-ism.” To get CUC to pay for the cab into town, we had to wait in one of two lines to exchange money. Similar to many other aspects of the visit, it didn’t seem like anyone was in a hurry! These two windows are located on each side of the doors exiting the terminal. It took us a while to realize we had to go outside the airport to find the money exchange windows. Remember, if you are visiting from the U.S., you cannot exchange into Cuban CUC or CUP until you arrive in Cuba, so be sure to include that in your timeline when scheduling your trip.
With cash in hand, it was easy to get a cab and agree on a price before heading into town to our rented apartment room. One thing we have found very useful when traveling by taxi is agreeing on a price up front (or at least getting an estimate). This not only saves you money, but also ensures the driver knows where they are going before you get in the car.
Once we arrived at the apartment building, we tried to find our way to the unit based on directions from our host (in Spanish) and speaking our own very broken Spanish. (One day we’re going to proficiently learn Spanish. In the meantime, we won’t let that hold us back.) As you can imagine, this was quite an interesting 10 minutes that involved Stephen accosting a stranger he thought looked like the picture of our host on Airbnb (turned out it wasn’t, oops). Finally, we found what we thought was the right unit, though no one was home. In what was such a quintessential Cuban experience, our host’s neighbor welcomed us into her home and even offered to hold any luggage we wanted to leave with her (at least we thought that’s what she was saying). Something we found consistent throughout the entire trip was that the Cuban people were over-the-top welcoming and, in general, very excited to share their country and culture with us. After a quick meal at the cafe downstairs, we returned to find our host (and luggage) in the correct unit.
The first thing we did once we checked in was head over to Ernest Hemingway's house. Hemingway is a well-known American author who moved to Cuba in 1939 from his home in Florida. While he first stayed in Hotel Ambos Mundos, he soon rented and eventually purchased his home approximately 15 miles from central Havana, which now stands as a monument to his legacy. During his time in Cuba, Hemingway wrote and produced one of his most prolific novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Since the house is located a fair distance out of the city center, the cab cost about $40 and took close to 45 minutes. Important Note: Be sure to tell your taxi driver to wait for you during your tour. Because the organization running the house does not permit vacant taxis to wait on the property and the house is out of the central tourist area, it is impossible to hail a cab back to Old Havana on the streets.
Overall, the property was spectacular and we highly recommend trekking out there for a visit. Situated on a beautiful hilltop away from the hustle and bustle of central Havana, the house is filled with remnants of Hemingway’s life in Cuba. Although you can’t enter the house itself, the numerous windows and doorways provide plenty of vantage points into Hemingway’s and his family’s life. Be sure to also spend time exploring the grounds to see his beautiful wooden boat “Pilar,” his extravagant pool, and even where the family pets are buried.
In hindsight, we would have probably looked for an organized tour of the property to learn even more about his life. There were limited markers and staff available to answer questions in English, although there were a few private tours wandering the grounds that we caught some facts from as we walked around. The website for the property says that tours are available but when we asked upon arrival, we got the type of “no” that makes you think tours haven't been given there in a very long time. (They looked at us like we were crazy for asking!)
Exploring Old Havana
After another long cab ride, our driver dropped us off in Old Havana. We spent the evening walking the streets, poking our heads into restaurants and shops, and even took a ride in a 1950s pink convertible Oldsmobile. Although pricey and definitely touristy (we paid around $50 for 30 minutes), it was a great way to take a step back in time and also see more of the outskirts of Old Havana. The tour included a stop in front of the José Martí monument, where several other car tours stopped. You can get out and walk around to see the old cars and take pictures with them. Again, we found this touristy, but where else can you be surrounded by so many old 1950s cars in such beautiful condition? One of the most common questions we’ve received since our trip to Cuba is whether the locals really drive those old cars around everywhere. The answer is yes, although there are three tiers of cars—the best are promoted for tours of Old Havana, the second operate as cabs (although they charge a premium over other cabs), and the third are in tough shape but Cubans still drive them for personal use.
The next morning we took an English walking tour to obtain a historical perspective on the streets we walked the night before. Cuba has an extremely interesting history that, in many ways, is still evolving today. Our tour guide explained how he has seen changes firsthand in the past 10 years with more and more restaurants and shops becoming privatized rather than government owned. That was another consistent theme for the trip. Although in many ways the city is still in the mid-20th century, in other ways it seems like another Colonial-era city similar to the older sections of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The tour was informative and lasted a couple of hours. The best part was that our tour guide pointed us in the direction of Los Nardos, which is a restaurant near the Capitol building. If you are in Old Havana looking for a place for lunch or dinner, we highly recommend you check it out (and try the pork)! It was one of the best meals we have had while traveling and was an incredible deal at less than $20 USD for the both of us—drinks included.
Other Recommended Sights to See
Havana is one of those cities that you could spend days just wandering and people watching, so there are several other items worth seeing on your trip to Cuba’s capital city!
Malecón: This is the main street that runs along the coast and is a popular hangout in the evening for locals. It is a great place to get a glimpse of the Cuban culture and lifestyle, whether you walk it or take a 1950s cab along it. We took a seaside ride in a convertible cab which turned out to be a great way to to see how Cuban’s spend a Saturday evening.
San José Artisans’ Market: Although there are numerous shops in Old Havana, the San San José Artisans’ Market had the best selection and prices by far. A simple $5–$10 cab ride away from Old Havana, depending on where you are, it is a great place to pick up souvenirs for family and friends back home.
Morro Castro: This is a large fortress across the harbor from Old Havana that is also worth a visit if you have the time. You get great views of the city that cannot be seen from anywhere else. When we visited, there was an international book fair taking place, so we enjoyed spending a couple hours wandering around and people watching. Because the festival was taking place, we were not able to tour the fortress from a historical perspective, but we still enjoyed taking in the sights high above the city.
The people of Cuba were overwhelmingly hospitable on our visit. They went out of their way to befriend and welcome us into their world. Havana was like stepping back into a time machine in many ways, but it was also a reminder that the United States is not the only source of tourism. While many parts of the city were certainly rugged, there was a defined tourist area near the port where cruise ships have been bringing tourists from Europe and other parts of the world for decades. These streets were chock-full of outdoor restaurants, bars, and shops.
Further away from these blocks near the port, there was a strange juxtaposition of beautiful buildings that are well maintained right next to buildings that were in ruins, falling into the street. This remarkable mix of old and new illustrates the Havana of today—an alluring city of the past metamorphosing into a bustling international travel destination.
If we were to do it all again, we would’ve stayed closer to Old Havana. When we selected an Airbnb to rent, we picked one slightly southwest of the ports of Old Havana. However, in reality, our apartment was about 4 miles west of the center of Old Havana. We ran up a much higher taxi bill going to and from the city than we originally planned for. Other than that, the only thing we would have done differently was stay longer. (We’re coming for you, Viñales!)