As I wandered down the cobblestone streets with old time jazz music singing in my ears, the smell of fresh churros wafted from a stand on the next corner. Clothes hung on lines strung between third story windows, and neighbors spoke in passionate Spanish between their ornate balconies. The early afternoon sun was reflecting off of the faded pastel paint that coated each building yet seemed to bounce more vibrantly from the vintage cars that would meander past us every few minutes. Like a trip back in time, our trip to Havana was shocking, inspiring, and a special treat that few have partaken in. Although I was only in Cuba for three days, it was just enough to learn the top ten things that I think a traveler has to do in order to get the full Cuban experience!
Take a Weekend Trip
The flight from the Tampa International Airport to Havana is only a few minutes above an hour. So, when I was daydreaming about where I should go for my 21st birthday, Cuba was actually the easiest destination on my bucket list to hit! November 4th landed on a Sunday this year, and since I’m still in college, a weekend trip was my only option. I quickly learned that this amount of time is perfect for someone who wants a taste of Havana before jetting off back to the States. Before I knew it I was in a vintage car heading towards my casa particulares.
A casa particulares is Cuba’s version of Airbnb, before Airbnb took hold here. Prior to the times of short-term rentals and apartment sharing, Cuba’s tradition was for local’s to open their homes to backpackers so that they could get an authentic experience. Funny enough, I found mine on Airbnb, but as I explored Havana there were signs everywhere directing to popular backpacker locations. If you are a super adventurous expeditioner, you can book your flight, take a cab to the middle of the city, and then find your accommodation through word of mouth. I’m not quite at that level yet, so I booked my stay about eight weeks in advance. One tip - make sure it has a balcony, because they’re a signature in Havana!
Wander Old Havana
You can find all of the iconic symbols of Cuba in Old Havana, or Havana Vieja if you want to try out some Spanish. You’ll quickly see why Havana is sometimes called the City of Columns, because neoclassical architecture is everywhere. The narrow roads, multi-colored buildings, palm trees, and artwork make this traditional city an Instagrammer’s dream. You’ll be tempted to whip out your camera every time you turn a corner. Make sure to visit the plazas, because you’ll find great food and historic landmarks in each.
Walk the Malecon
The Malecon actually surprised me! I didn’t expect to love this strip of sidewalk so much, but it gives travelers stunning views of historic forts, the sea, locals hanging out on the ledges, and churro and ice cream carts galore.
Ride in a Vintage Car
Does this even need explanation? Cuba is known for the cars that are frozen in time, and even as someone who is definitely not a ‘car person’, I absolutely loved it. You could hire a personal car for an hour to drive you to all the Havana sites, which costs $60, or you can just have one take you to dinner. These cars make a fantastic edition to date night, and you’ll get an awesome picture to boot!
Have Dinner at La Guarida
La Guarida is one of the most famous restaurants in Central Havana, and for good reason. The interior design paired with the captivating entrees makes for a dinner you won’t soon forget. Seats fill up quick, so I’d suggest making a reservation online about two weeks before you plan to eat there. Also, show up about ten minutes before, so you have enough time to explore the building before sitting down to eat.
Cuban rum is favored all over the world, so while you’re here you might as well drink up! Every restaurant I visited had a drink menu twice as long as the food menu, with the craziest drinks I’ve ever heard of. My personal favorites were the classic daiquiri (very refreshing after a day in the sun), limonade (don’t be fooled, it definitely has some kick to it), and the Cuba libre (super fun, super strong). And don’t fret - the prices were awesome too! I usually only paid $2-$4 for a large drink, which made me a very happy birthday girl.
Explore an Old Fort
My second day led me into an old fort that lives right off of the Malecon. It’s been turned into a museum, but didn’t have any of the fancy ropes or taped-off artifacts. From guns found at the bottom of the ocean to replicas of historic ships, this museum was really, really cool. My tip is to climb to the top of the stairs, which will lead you onto the roof and give you stunning views of Havana
Listen to Music
This one can’t really be helped, because Cubans love their music. No matter where you are, you’ll hear someone’s radio or a grandmother’s lullaby through the open windows. Every restaurant’s vibe will be defined by the music it plays, so pay attention and listen up, because you might hear a song you recognize.
Talk to the Locals
Finally, Cubans are the best storytellers. Everybody wants to talk to you, ask you where you’re from, tell you their favorite places in the city. They want to know all about your life too! If you’re open, you can make some really great connections right at the bar.
Did I miss something? If you’ve been to Cuba, or this post has inspired you, leave us a comment below. Click here to be a part of our Acanela Cuban expedition!
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