Complex, colorful, and musical, Cuba is quickly topping the list of exotic hotspots to visit. American travelers still cannot visit as “tourists,” and generally have tightly-planned predetermined itineraries. But, if you are one of the lucky ones who finds themselves with a free day in the effervescent city of Havana, here are ways to put that day to good use!
What to See
Havana has so much to see that trying to narrow yourself down to just a few options can be overwhelming. Luckily, many highlights are centered around Havana Vieja, the Old Town.
- Museums: If museums are what you’re after, pop inside the beautiful Fine Arts Museum or the Museum of the Revolution.
- Arts: If you have time and transportation, head out to the Hemingway House, Ernest Hemingway’s home for many years. Another fun and artsy alternative is Fusterlandia, a Gaudi-like block of artistic expression by the Cuban artist Jose Fuster.
- Sites: Saunter through Plaza de los Libros where you can pick up a second hand book in Spanish or English. The Center Square of Havana is adorned with the Colonial Arts Museum and the Havana Cathedral, which can be entered throughout the day free of charge. The Morro Fortress, which juts into the sparkling sea, will lead you to the famous Malecón, or sea wall, that runs along Havana Bay.
- People: The Malecón, known as the world’s largest sofa, is the preferred location for people of all ages to sit, chat, play music, or take a sip or two of rum.
Everywhere in this city is photo-worthy, but distinctly Havanan subjects include the Malecón, Plaza de Armas, the colorful facades of Central Havana, the Capitol building, and the view from the top of the Hotel Havana Libre. And, of course, the cars.
What to Do
Have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio in La Habana Vieja, which was a regular haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Take an hour for a tour and a cafecito in the back bar of the National Hotel in Vedado, like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner used to do. If you are spending the night, don’t miss a show at the Buena Vista Social Club. Reservations can be made online. Like to dance? Find yourself an instructor and learn how to salsa with the best of them! Catch a taxi to Revolution Square and back—the ride alone is an event since most taxis are classic American cars from the 1950s.
La Habana Vieja is easily walkable. If you want to visit other neighborhoods such as Vedado, Central Havana, or Miramar, you’ll need to take a taxi or the bus. Remember that as of now, only local currency is accepted, so negotiate the rate with your taxi driver before getting in the car. Coco Taxis, small, round, open-air, coconut-inspired transportation systems, are a fun and slightly pricier option. Buses are extremely crowded and normally run about 1 CUC (convertible peso).
While Cuba is not an epicenter for shopping, several markets will appease souvenir hunters. For the artsy crowd, the San Jose Market has everything from crafts to snacks to beautiful, handmade art. Fusterlandia has plenty of arts and crafts for sale.
State stores are the best place to buy rum (Santiago de Cuba and Havana Club being arguably the best brands), cigars (Cohibas, while pricey, are considered top notch), and authentic Cuban coffee. Note: Check government guidelines for the latest restrictions on returning to the US with these items.
Cuban restaurants tend to follow the guideline of quantity over quality, but you’ll find plenty of delicious dining options. La Moneda Cubana is one of the oldest restaurants in Havana and has a lovely view overlooking the bay. La Templeta is located along the water with great fish and steak dishes. Cafe Laurent, in Vedado, is a highly recommended paladar with live music. (Reservations are necessary.)
Rice and beans is certainly a Cuban staple, but don’t miss out on the fresh fish, pork, and rabbit dishes, and traditional ropa vieja. All washed down with a mojito, of course. Finish your meal up with some of the best flan you’ve had in your life, and a sweet yet strong Cuban coffee.