My birthday has come and gone, just like my trip to Cuba.
In truth, I admittedly wasn't the most excited about Cuba when I booked the flight, which sounds strange because why book a trip for your birthday to a place you're not that excited about? Yes, the thought did cross my mind, but then I went ahead and booked the flight anyway.
At the time, I saw it as an opportunity to go somewhere that was previously unaccessible to me and see what all the Cuba hoopla is about. I'm also not sure access to Cuba for Americans will stay as it is under our new administration, so I decided to go for several days now rather than wait until something potentially changes for the worse later.
So, though I started off not that excited about Cuba, I had a feeling that my feelings would change.
This is not the first time I've gone somewhere and been only mildly excited about it. Last year, those honors went to Edinburgh and Lisbon. They were nowhere near the top of my travel bucket list, and it was sort of through circumstances and availability that I went to both places. And I'm so glad I did. I now have an obsession with Lisbon (I only write about it every other week on this blog), and I loved the time I spent in Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands. So, though I started off not that excited about Cuba, I had a feeling that my feelings would change.
And they did.
To me, Cuba was all about the senses — the sight of the brightly colored classic American cars and colonial architecture, the sound of rhythmic music that flowed throughout the streets, the taste of Cuban cuisine and that famous Havana Rum and the smells — mostly good — that snuck up at random times.
All this to say, I enjoyed Cuba. Part of me felt a comforting sense of recognition for the Caribbean island and its surroundings, which at times felt identical to Jamaica. The other part of me felt like everything was completely new and exciting. I didn't go to Cuba for long, but like with many of my trips, I made my time there extremely worthwhile. Here are some tips on what to do, see and eat in Havana, Cuba:
- Walk around Old Havana aka La Habana Vieja: This is simply a must. You cannot get a feel for Havana without visiting Old Havana. Some parts are most certainly old and crumbling but overall it's a colorful and beautiful place to wander. My favorite places in Old Havana were Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral and the area around Calle Chacón and Calle Compostela (especially at night).
- Take a one-hour convertible tour: Yes, its touristy but so worth it. I felt like I saw different parts of Havana that I would not have seen otherwise, plus you're in a classic American convertible car. Imagine the wind whipping through your hair with your shades on while you take in this vibrant city. Now stop imagining it and go do it, but make sure to compare prices so you're not overpaying.
- Soak up all the music that is everywhere: I swear there must be speakers in the streets of Old Havana. I heard music constantly, whether it was live or streaming from a radio (though I preferred the live). Take some time to visit a place with a live band and enjoy the sounds of Cuba.
- Visit the museums: Havana has so much historical and cultural information to learn and absorb. One great way to do this, besides talking to people, is to visit the museums. I went to the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana and the Museum of the Revolution. Both were educational in their own ways.
- Hotel hop: The hotels of Cuba are interesting in themselves and worth stopping by, even if you're not staying there. While in Cuba, I checked out the lobby of Hotel Ambos Mundos, the mezzanine bar at Hotel Saratoga, the rooftop at Iberostar Parque Central and the garden at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
- The classic cars of Cuba: This is a given since you can't not see the classic cars of Cuba when you're in Cuba. They're everywhere and are amazing to see, both up close and from afar. In fact, I found myself content to just stand outside and watch the colorful cars as they drove around. It's like watching a rainbow on wheels – fun and fascinating.
- Cuban art: Havana is an artist's and art lover's dream. I literally stumbled across galleries and intriguing displays of art while walking around Old Havana. Then you have unique places like Fábrica de Arte Cubano that celebrate art in interesting and fun ways. Even if you don't think you like art, Havana will make you like it.
- A musical or dance performance: Cuba has so many incredible options for musical and dance performances. I went to the stunning Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso to see the Ballet Español de Cuba perform, and it was beautiful. Another fun performance: Sundays at Callejon de Hamel. The crowds are crazy but the Afro-Cuban beats make it worthwhile.
- Ernest Hemingway's haunts: Hemingway had a few places he liked in Havana. Of them, my favorite was El Floridita, home to the best daiquiri I've ever tasted, and I don't love daiquiris like that. El Floridita is touristy — there are t-shirts for sale on the wall — but the daiquiris are excellent, the plantain chips are flowing and the live music is constant and infectious.
- Viñales: No, this isn't in Havana but I'm adding this in here because I think Viñales is very much worth seeing. It's about 2.5–3 hours away from Havana, so a bit of a trek, but this place is too beautiful to pass up. So, find a day trip (I went with Havana Journeys) and do it. If a Jurassic Park-looking countryside isn't your thing, head to the beach instead.
EAT (OR DRINK)
- At a paladares: Before I went to Cuba, I kept hearing the food was bland and to not expect much. Nothing could be further from the truth! I loved the food in Cuba! It's most definitely not bland and is the same as visiting almost any other city, in my opinion. There are some good places and some not-so-good places. A nice experience in Cuba is eating at a paladares, which is a privately owned restaurant. My absolutely favorite (and a place where the Obamas ate) is Paladar San Cristobal. Beautiful atmosphere and great food (best rice and beans I had the entire trip). You can't go wrong. But like with many of the other popular paladares, you need to make a reservation in advance.
- A Cuban sandwich: Truth - the Cuban sandwich didn't actually come from Cuba, but that's okay because they're really good. A Cuban sandwich is typically made of ham, pork, swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. There are a few places (many of them touristy) in Havana where one can get this faux Cuban meal. My personal favorite was the sandwich at the Iberostar Parque Central hotel. It felt like the ones I get in Miami, which, again, are not authentic but taste great!
- Cuban pastries: I have a raging sweet tooth, and though I didn't indulge it nearly as much as I thought I would in Cuba, I did get to try the occasional Cuban pastry and dessert. Let me tell you, they are worth it. Just make sure you walk some more to burn it off, but do yourself a favor and try a Cuban pastry.
- Ice cream: On a hot day, there's nothing like a cone of ice cream. And Cubans seriously love their ice cream. I saw many people slurping their cones as early as 9:30 am. Ice cream for breakfast? Sure, why not. When in Cuba, I say. One place to go for that ice cream fix: the well-known Coppelia.
- The famous beverages of Cuba: I had to squeeze all the beverages of Cuba into one bullet point. I'm talking Cuban coffee, the mojito, the daiquiri, the Cuba Libre, Cuban rum, guava juice and I'm sure there are more I'm missing. It's safe to say Cuba does beverages well. Very, very well. So drink up.
I know I only got a taste of Cuba, so I very much look forward to going back one day and exploring more of this beautiful country.
Have you ever been to Cuba? If so, what do you like to do, see and eat there?