Havana, Cuba Travel Guide: A Romantic’s Paradise

What’s all the fuss about Cuba? Well, for the first time in fifty years, Americans can visit the unique island legally. The surge of tourists from the U.S. has begun—the first cruise ship from Miami arrived in Havana earlier this year—but it’s still a relatively new destination and one that makes for an incredibly romantic getaway. Now that you’re ready to jet, get psyched for sultry tropical weather, perfectly preserved vintage cars, fabulous musicians, and mojitos for miles. As for planning your trip to the vibrant city of Havana, look no further. We have all the details.

Accommodations

Plaza Vieja

For a full luxury experience right in Centro Havana (Habana, to the locals) along the famous Prado Avenue, check out Hotel Telegrafo, a classic, 19th century building with bright blue accents and awnings. The rooms are more modern, and the bar and dining areas boast beautiful renovations while still retaining a nostalgic style. You can also head next door to Hotel Inglaterra for a cocktail, whose Moor-style lobby and bar areas are a popular stop.

Hotel Florida_barHotel Florida_lobby

Head east from Centro and you’ll come to Habana Vieja, or old Havana, where the cobblestone streets narrow and every other corner leads to a shady plaza. You’ll be wowed by the entrance hall and courtyard lobby of Hotel Florida, whose rooms are beautifully decorated. The Hotel Los Frailes is also recommended for cool, monastery-like rooms with subtle candlelight.

In addition to hotels, Havana is famous for its myriad of casa particulars. Before there was Airbnb, Cubanos were opening their homes to tourists for a fraction of the price of hotels. If you need a more affordable option and are interested in getting to know the locals, consider one of the many casas in the city—most have high-ceilinged rooms lovingly appointed with antiques and satin comforters, and offer breakfast as well. You can book on casa sites (see below) or head to Airbnb to check out more and communicate directly with hosts.

Food and Drink

You’ll never be in want of an outdoor patio on which to enjoy a cheap mojito in Havana. Everywhere you look in Centro and old Habana there are bars, restaurants, and cafes for chilling out and viewing the photogenic street life.

CafeArcangelFor your coffee fix in the morning, head to the adorable Café Arcangel. You’ll find lots tables, a menu boasting over twenty variations of espresso drinks, and Charlie Chaplin movies playing in the background.

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For lunch, head to Café Bohemia (which is also a casa particular). Tucked away from Plaza Vieja in a quiet courtyard. The menu offers simple Mediterranean snacks to share, as well as tasty paninis—a fresh change, since many restaurants only make bland ham and cheese variations.

If you’re thirsty for an afternoon cocktail, who better to follow than Havana’s most famous boozy writer-resident? There are two main bars famous for hosting Hemmingway—in Vieja, check out the bar in Hotel Ambos Mundos, on Obispo Street, a traffic-free boulevard. Sit in the lobby by the piano and admire the wall of photos of Ernest and friends, or head to the rooftop and people watch from above, sharing a kiss and a mojito made with Havana Club rum. The other, more famous watering hole of Hemmingway is La Floridita, in Centro Habana. You’ll spot its pink exterior and neon sign right away, and probably hear the live music spilling into the street. This place is the called “cradle of the daiquiri” so choose one of ten flavors off the menu, then try to find a table amidst cigarette smoke and velvet curtains.

Floridita3For dinner, the unassuming O’Reilly 304 is a fantastic find for its unique menu choices. It can be hard to find good fish tacos in Cuba, even harder to score some decent bruschetta. Enjoy their internationally inspired menu (being sure to take a look at the specials board) and sip their gorgeously garnished cocktails (their specialty is gin, but try the Bloody Mary’s if that’s your thing). Need more options? Head to Los Nardos, across from the Capitolio, which has Spanish food for incredibly reasonable prices, with piano accompaniment and romantic lighting. Not feeling like paella? Go upstairs to its sister restaurant, Asturianito, for even more economical, very tasty Italian food.

For a nightcap (along with music and dancing, naturally) check out Restaurant Europa or La Lluvia de Oro (both in Vieja), which  are always full of lively local bands and dancing couples who pop in for some rumba.

Sights

Cubanos are art lovers, and the Museo de Bellas Artes is not to be missed. There are two locations with different collections, and the Arte de Cubano is much more interesting than the more predictable Arte Universal. If you only have time for one, head to former and browse the three-floor modern building, getting an incredible education in the expanse of Cuban art from the mid-19th century through today. Check out their gift store for a new art-inspired umbrella or shower curtain, along with antique posters.

For a more historical approach, look no further than the Museo de la Ciudad, in the lovely Plaza de Armas. Stepping into the 18th century palace is truly like stepping back in time: drawing rooms lavishly decorated in Louis XVI décor; a carriage house sporting the elegant modes of transportation; busts and portraits of generals; even peacocks lounging in the courtyard. Cross the Plaza on your way out and take a look at the Castillo d Real Fuerza, a 16th century fort, still prepared for an attack with a moat and canons.

Museums not really your thing? Museo de Chocolate might change your mind! After a day of admiring art, stop in this small haven for a cup of thick hot chocolate and take a box of chocolates back to your hotel room—we all know the mood chocolate inspires!

You can’t miss that Havana is teeming with glimmering, classic cars from the fifties and sixties. Scout one out (the drivers will likely approach you) next to the Parque Central and finish your trip with a sunset drive on the Malecon, along the north coast of the city. Nothing says Cuba more than gazing out at the sun-soaked sea from a ’56 Chevy Bel Air.

Good to know:

Don’t expect any kind of cell service—plan ahead or get assistance from tours in hotels or your local hosts.

Bring CASH. Unless you have a European-issued card, it plastic probably won’t work, except in the big hotels.

Bring Euros or Canadian dollars—there’s a high tax on American dollars (they’re still punishing us).

Bring toiletries with you—there aren’t many drugstores around.

Bring some things to hand out to kids in the street—pens, toiletries, simple toys—to widen their already shining smiles.

Helpful links:

http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/18/travel/cuba-travel-rules-explained/

http://legalcubatravel.com/

http://www.habaguanexhotels.com/

http://cubacasas.net/cities/la_habana/