If you are in “the area” (Eg`~ Miami or Mexico) it is only a short plane trip over to Havana airport (1 hr from Cancun with flights daily). If you want a small taste of Cuba a 3 night stay in Havana is plenty. More time spent there is not necessary as there is not a lot to do. In saying that; what you will see and experience is unique, eye opening and maybe even magical. The old & colourful buildings (best viewed from a high rooftop in a mojito bar), smiling locals in derelict streets with piles of stinking garbage going about their daily lives, a gourmet meal in an charming antique style building with a winding staircase & ornate balconies. There are certainly ups and down to this city. Find out more below…
Up to 90 minutes can be spent in a line just outside the airport exit door to exchange money ! (unsure if this is normally the case or subject to flight arrivals). You will need your passport to do so. As an Australian you will have absolutely no luck in being able to use any ATM’s (do not count on it at all). There were very few Australian cash conversion booths throughout the city. The US dollar attracts a conversion surcharge which is not good value. If travelling from Mexico withdraw Mexican Pesos from the airport on departure. This seemed to be a good choice as Mexican Pesos were easy to convert in Havana.
Hotels exchange money however you may get rejected from some (who claim they only exchange for guests). Another option was at money exchange inside the San Jose Markets (Ave. del Puerto, Havana, Cuba) . You will also need your passport here to exchange money.
Area to stay:
Havana is a spread out city and has very few “hubs” where you can find dining and shops. My opinion is that the “old town” (Habana Vieja – below RHS) is the only option.I would not recommend other areas. The “centro” is very run down and daggy but a second option if you are on a budget restrictions (can also be a short walk to Habana Vieja). See more here. The Hotel Nacionale (about 10 min drive from Habana Vieja) is a very charming, huge hotel and is on the coast with views. Another great option but keep in mind there is not much around the hotel. It is also the venue for the “Cabaret Parisien show” (more on that later). Many hotels do not appear on he usual booking sites (expedia etc) but I found Cuba Travel Network was a great choice (click here).
IMPORTANT NOTE: I would certainly recommend staying somewhere over $200AUD a night as the $120 place I selected was an absolute dump and seems to be the norm when looking at the other options around that price bracket. Havana buildings are generally old and daggy which you will notice when looking at the hotel room photos.
Finding somewhere to eat is challenging in Havana. If you go for a walk generally there are not many options (the most I found were in Habana Vieja). I would definitely recommend finding an accommodation that provides breakfast (wandering out for a coffee and bite to eat seemed impossible). Restaurants seem hidden and not all of great quality therefore I can’t stress enough to do some research and mark a few restaurants on a map for reference. Fussy eaters or those with restrictions would find it difficult I imagine.
La Guarida (418 Concordia, La Habana, Cuba) is a beautiful dining experience hidden upstairs in a classy old building with high ceilings, and a great ambiance. Have drinks at the rooftop bar (pictured below LHS) before your booking (you must book). I would say this dining experience was a highlight of the trip. The views of the crumbled old buildings is a real culture shock & the beautiful interior makes you feel like you are in an old fashioned movie. The food is not Cuban (more Mediterranean) and very well priced and delicious (approx $100 AUD for a shared entree, 2 mains & bottle of wine).
La Terraza: (Prado 309 Esquina Virtudes, La Habana Vieja) is another “hidden restaurant” (I would never have come across it if I didn’t pre plan) in the Old Town. Located upstairs and with a balcony this dining experience was a little more Cuban (think giant BBQ meat skewers) and another great value for money yet great quality choice.
Al Carbon ( Esq. A, Aguacate, La Habana, Cuba) which is close to Habana Vieja is fantastic. Modern, clean and mouth watering BBQ/ meaty style cuisine. The crisp pork crackle (pictured below) had very tender juicy pork meat underneath which was served with charred vegetables. Absolutely worth it and great value for the quality.
Things to do:
This is certainly where I struggled even with some forward research. Below I have listed my experiences with a few tips
WALK THE MALECHON
Walk the Malechon?? This is the one “activity” that comes up on most web pages when you search things to do in Havana. In my opinion the Malechon is not bad (much nicer at sunset and when waves are crashing over the walls) however I would not really call it “something to do”. It is a really just a walk and very surprisingly there are no shops, cafes, bars or anything really of interest along the way. I wouldn’t set aside too much time for this and would perhaps combine it into a walk to your evening dining venue (or something like that).
CRUISING IN AN OLD FASHIONED CAR
Another cliche “must do”whilst in Havana. This activity is not difficult to arrange on the spot (try Parc Central area in Habana Vieja). You can pick your car style and colour. The general tour appears to be a 1 hour cruise around the city which includes a stop at John Lennon Park (not much here except a bench seat with a John Lennon Statue), a stop at a historic bar where you are pretty much forced (in a nice way) to have one of their famous mojitos and a stop at Plaza de la Revolucion where you can get out and have a look (won’t take long). Doing this cruise on your first day here will be beneficial so you can get your head around what is where. You could go for a longer tour than an hour but an hour seems ample. Some guides suggest cruising to the beach (Santa Maria). This is an option but obviously you will be paying for any time you wish to spend at the beach itself. To be honest I would have been disappointed if I simply just drove to the beach and not spent time there as there is not much to see / view from the road
Shops seemed to be clumped together in Havana. There are not many areas that seem to have shops either. The best bet is San Jose markets (below RHS) (plenty of well priced souvenirs, art etc) as well as Obispo street (below LHS). These were really the only 2 places I found items to purchase.
CABARET PARISIEN & HOTEL NACIONALE
Located in the Hotel Nacionale is the nightly 9pm Cabaret Parisien stage show. It is mostly in Spanish and very focused on Cuban music and tradition. It is bright and colourful but my personal opinion is that it went on for far too long and when you do not understand the language it is a little hard to follow/understand. I have read that this cabaret is better value than its competitor (Tropicana show). To be honest my fav part of this night was popping into the Hotel Naciole for a hand picked cigar and mojito overlooking the beach. The dining room at the Naciole also looked very royal and I reckon would be worth looking into. Overall a good experience and was well priced for what it was.