4 DAYS IN // Havana, Cuba

With a big birthday coming up for me, at the end of December we decided that all the family would take a trip to Cuba to celebrate. We spent the first 4 days of our holiday exploring Cuba’s capital, Havana, before going north to relax on the beach for the week.

We all loved Havana; the city is a brilliantly vibrant, colourful city, full of life and soul; it truly is like stepping back in time.

img_1278

Here’s my top things to do with 4 days to explore, as well as a few things to avoid (that we learnt along the way).


Magnificent 7 // Havana Cuba

1. Take a tour in a classic American Car

2. The Museo de la Revolución

3. Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market

4. Romeo y Julieta Cigar Factory

5. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

6. Visit the Hemingway bars

7. Simply wander and explore the streets!


Getting there –

A short note about José Martí International Airport. It is about 15 km southwest of Havana and was easy to navigate and it was relatively fast getting through passport control.

Then came baggage collection… maybe our experience was abnormal, but it took a long time for the bags to come through and then a few would arrive, then after 5 minutes another batch would appear. We were at the carousel for well over an hour. One of our party only took hand luggage and was well and truly in the smug zone.

One other thing to note is that you have to fill out a customs form. The airline (Virgin) did not give us a form, they were on a table after your hand luggage was scanned in the airport.

Where we stayed –

We stayed at the Iberostar Parque Central, which we all agreed was a great choice of hotel. It is located right in the centre of Havana, about a two-minute walk from El Capitolio, as well as the classic photograph opportunities you will have seen of the line up of old cars and the coloured buildings. One thing to note – the hotel is made up of two buildings, conjoined with a passageway; the old side of the hotel is far superior in appearance to the new. Unfortunately we were in the new side, but went over to the old side to enjoy the lobby, so if you are able to choose, I’d suggest staying in the old part!

img_7201

The hotel also offers a few restaurant choices, and arriving late at night at our hotel after a 10 hour flight we simply did what most people do, and, frankly, we should know better: we ate at the hotel. The food was average at best, and I’d avoid it and simply go next door to Sloppy Joe’s, a far better choice.

If you are looking for a more authentic experience of Havana, a popular choice is to stay in a Casa Particular; private home stays where you can get a real feel for life in Cuba. Whilst we didn’t go for this option, it is a common choice for accommodation, and is definitely one to consider if you are planning a trip.

To Eat and Drink –

1.) Habana 61 – this was the best meal we had during our whole trip. The location of this restaurant is… yes, you guessed it – down a street called Habana and the number is 61. Great, traditional food, excellent prices and an intimate atmosphere.

2.) La Bodeguita Del Medio – a great place for food and drink – I will talk more in-depth on this later!

3.) Cafe Paris – A lively bar we stumbled upon one evening. One of our favourite things about Cuba was the music and the dancing –  it’s everywhere! Cafe Paris had a great live band and spontaneous salsa dancing bloomed as the night wore on.

To note –

  • Currency – there are two different currencies used in Cuba – CUCs which is the tourist currency, and CUPs which is the local one. As a tourist you will pay for pretty much everything in CUCs, it is only if you buy something, for example, from a local street vendor, that you may be charged in CUPs. You cannot get Cuban currency beforehand, so take as much cash as you will need and convert it in a bank or at your hotel when you arrive. Take either GBP or Euros, avoid dollars, to get the best conversion rate.
  • Weather – We visited Cuba in December, a popular time to get enjoyably sunny weather in the high 20s (Celsius). However, for our first 2 days we experienced huge storms and torrential rain pretty much non-stop. Whilst this seemed to be abnormal for this time of year, I definitely would not forgo packing an umbrella or a raincoat, just in case!
  • Wifi – Free wifi is not a thing in Cuba. Our hotel, as well as, I imagine, all the larger hotels, instead offer wifi cards. The card costs 2CUCs and gives you an hour of internet (which doesn’t have to be used all at once). If you aren’t a guest you can still get a wifi card to use in the lobby (but they will charge you 5CUCs unless you nicely ask a hotel guest to get it for you!) so that is the best bet if you are desperate to get onto the internet. Otherwise, simply enjoy a break from the endless scrolling on your phone, and save updating social media until you are home!
  • Shops – There didn’t appear to be supermarkets or many shops when walking down the streets, and there are certainly items that are hard to get in Cuba in general, due to the lack of imports. Therefore, make sure you have any medicines you may need as well as toiletries, sunscreen, etc. as, unlike in most cities, you can’t easily pick these up if you forget!

Magnificent 7

1. Take a tour in a classic American car

The best way to see the city, in my opinion, is cruising around in an old 50’s classic car, being shown the sights of the city by a local who knows their stuff. Tuti, our driver, had a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. Her grandfather bought in in 1958 and lovingly kept it in pristine condition and it is a family treasure. She was a wonderful tour guide, pointing out all of the must see sights as well as filling us in on her knowledge of the city. All five of us fitted in the car, no seat belts, a fantastic sounding horn, the smell of leaded petrol in the sunshine – a terrific way to see the city! The cars are easy to find, simply walk to the Parque Central and you will be offered a tour by a number of people within minutes. We paid for a 90 minute tour and it cost us 60 CUC.  Only 10 CUC more than the hop-on/off tour bus (more on this later), but the experience was worth every peso. It truly gladdened the heart with images of Happy Days swirling around (if you have never heard of Happy Days look up the Fonz/Happy Days on You Tube and you will understand what I mean).

IMG_3607.JPG

2. The Museo de la Revolución

This museum is a great way to learn all about the history of Cuba and should be a definite on your list of things to do, although it is worth bearing in mind that the museum clearly promotes Communism/Castro and so doesn’t provide a hugely balanced account of their history. Cubans are proud of what Fidel achieved. Fidel’s rise to power, how the revolution was achieved and how society prospered is shown in depth. A fact that struck me was that land was redistributed from the elite 8% who owned all land in Cuba, to all citizens of Cuba. The spectacular rise of literacy rates and the free health care are clearly charted. As is the Bay of Pigs fiasco. If you are a fan of the CIA you may not like some of the exhibits, but to us it was an enlightening view of Fidel Castro’s vision. There was no mention of the Cuban Missile crisis in the 60s, evidence that the view is a little sanitised, but again worth every peso. The males in our party particularly liked the outside exhibits, showing the vehicles and equipment used in the revolution.

IMG_7188.png

img_7194

3. Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market

The Artisan Market, located down on the harbour side, is a great place to while away an afternoon, and pick up a few souvenirs to take home from your trip. Havana in general is very un-touristy; you won’t see the usual tourist-tat shops you see elsewhere, but the market is mainly tourist-focussed. The market is packed with Cuban art, the obligatory Havana-themed tee shirts, cigar cases, jewellery and musical instruments. The market is close to a cruise ship port so prices are not bargain basement, but be prepared to haggle the price down (they very much expect haggling), and you can find yourself some great gifts and souvenirs to remember your trip by.

IMG_3575.jpg

Whilst you’re exploring the market, why not pick up a fresh coconut from one of the many vendors: a refreshing drink for only 1 CUC. For an extra CUC they will put some rum in it – be warned: there are no unit measures in Cuba and it is powerful stuff. If after all that shopping you are getting a bit peckish, there is a huge beer hall next door, that is a great place to get a bite to eat, drink a cold beer and listen to some live music.

4. Romeo y Julieta Cigar Factory

Cuba is known for cigars. We went to the Romeo y Julieta Cigar Factory (only open week days) and found it an interesting insight into both the process of cigar making and the realities of Cuban factories. Something I found particularly interesting is that they have newspaper readers, quite simply a man who will sit and read the news throughout the day, to help with the monotony of the job. I learned more than I ever need or want to know about grades of cigars, but if you are interested in cigars the tour will definitely provide you with a wealth of knowledge. I found the factory itself more interesting – the building was almost industrial revolution-like in its layout and must be unbearably hot most of the year. Interestingly they make 25000 cigars a day and younger workers go into a training room, where they are expected to meet their quota – around 50% do not make the grade and are asked to leave.

img_2468

5. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

I, myself didn’t actually visit the National Art Museum, however, my wife and youngest daughter did, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. The museum is actually made up of two separate galleries, located on two different sites – one containing international art and the other is purely Cuban art. My wife and daughter chose only to visit the Cuban art gallery, as this was what they were interested in seeing, and if you are pressed for time this is said to be the better of the two. The gallery itself is a great place to enjoy – it is hugely spacious and has a green courtyard area in the centre. Whilst the art wasn’t all necessarily to my family’s taste, they found it incredibly interesting to be able to see how Cuban art influences have developed over the year, and it was certainly an enjoyable place to spend a couple of hours.

6. Visit the Hemingway bars

Obviously Hemingway is part of the tourist fabric of Havana; he was known to frequent many of the bars around the city –  the biggest two of these being La Floridita and La Bodequita del Medio. We visited La Floridita on a Saturday night and it was buzzing! They had live music playing, and we struggled to find a table as it was so popular. La Floridita is known for their Daiquiris so of course we had to sample a number of the different flavours they had on the menu. The amount of rum put into each drink was more than generous, but as with most sweet cocktails, sudden movement after too many is not recommended. You can even take a selfie with a life size Hemingway statue situated at the corner of the bar. La Floridita is definitely a tourist-centric bar, but it was nevertheless a fun evening!

img_7331

La Bodeguita del Medio is the other infamous Hemingway haunt, and our favourite of the two. Here mojitos are the specialty drinks. This bar is tiny and hard to get into, however, people tend to spill out on to the streets. There was a great atmosphere, with lots of people dancing out on the street. As well as the bar at the front, there is a restaurant at the back (simply walk into the bar and down the side corridor and you will come to the restaurant). Being that the bar is so popular with tourists we were not expecting much from the meal, however it was delicious and one of our best meals of the trip! The food was typical Cuban creole cuisine – rice, beans, potatoes, and we particularly enjoyed the shrimp dishes. The restaurant had a great ambience, the prices were really reasonable and the decor was unique – the walls are completely covered with pictures of famous faces who have visited the restaurant as well as signatures filling in any wall space!

IMG_7245.JPG

7. Simply wander and explore the streets!

This doesn’t require much explanation, but one of our favourite things to do in Havana was to just wander and explore the streets. The architecture in Havana is unlike anywhere else I have been; it is a hugely eclectic mix of beautifully well-maintained colonial buildings that sit side-by-side with buildings that crumble before your eyes. As well as exploring all of the main squares and streets of Old Havana, put away the map and get lost down some back alley or street. Everyone we came across was friendly and we felt safe at all hours, so this is the perfect way to truly take in the sights, sounds and colours of Havana.

IMG_7359.JPG

img_3577

img_2453Sephardic Jewish Synagogue


Lessons Learnt!

1.) Avoid the hop-on, hop-off bus tour 

On our first day in Havana we wanted to go on a walking tour. We had googled a free tour and it met downtown outside the Saratoga Hotel. We waited with another person for the tour guide, and gave them a generous 45 minutes to show but they didn’t turn up!  So we did what we thought was the next best thing, a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. It was easily the most disappointing thing we did in our four days. There was no hopping on and off (although this may have been due to the stormy weather when we went), the commentary was poor and the route uninspiring.

It is worth noting that there are actually two different routes, one of which takes you around old Havana, and the other (which we were on) toured new Havana. We did not realise this was the case, and the woman leading the tour certainly did not inform us, as had we known the only real sight to see was the Revolution Square, we would have saved our 10CUCs per person to spend elsewhere. Perhaps the other route was more inspiring, so if you are still desperate to view the city this way at least choose the route that has the things you want to see.

2.) Avoid La Familia restaurant

We were helpfully led to this restaurant as we could not find the restaurant we had been recommended, and were informed by said ‘helpful’ local that it was closed on a Sunday anyway (it wasn’t – we looked it up later!). Be aware that this is a total tourist trap – locals (it seemed to be mostly the guys that drive the small bici-taxis around) have a deal with a restaurant where they get a small cut for bringing in customers. You can’t blame them for wanting to make a few extra CUCs, and it was our fault for not researching the restaurant well enough beforehand. However, this restaurant was particularly awful, the bill was expensive, they were out of a lot of options, and the food really was bad – easily the worst meal we had in our four days!


If that is all we had to complain about though, I would say it was a pretty great trip. Do your research so you don’t fall into the same traps we did. Explore the city with open eyes and an open mind, and you will undoubtedly fall in love with it as we all did.

IMG_7341.jpg

Ultimately – Go! Before the city changes, as it undoubtedly will with more emphasis on US tourism likely in the coming years. Experience Cuba in its raw state, as there really is nowhere else quite like it!

Fun Fact.  The John Lennon Statue in John Lennon Park is not currently wearing his trademark round-lens glasses as they have been stolen or vandalised, several times.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s