Step Back In Time – A Travel Guide to Cuba

Classic Cars at the Capitol - Havana

Classic Cars at the Capitol – Havana

Old Havana

Old Havana

Cuba and most notably Havana is the gem of the Caribbean. Havana in its present day is absolutely fascinating.  Bustling with rich history, art, culture, music, and nightlife.  The streets are bright, lively, colorful and glittered with classic cars.  What makes Cuba especially wonderful is its people; warm, kind, and always welcoming.  Havana is like no other Latin city I have ever visited, and I have been to many.  Now is the time to visit Cuba, still steeped in the past yet making slow progress to enter the 21st century.  Get your passport stamped and quickly head down to Cuba, a place where time has stood still, but maybe not for long.

Streets of Old Havana

Streets of Old Havana

Cuba is full of culture, creativity, art, music and dance. In its glory days pre-revolution, we can just imagine what a cultural hub it must have been, like a mini Paris of the Caribbean.  Well not much has changed, the buildings are run down, pot holes everywhere, and scarcity of products and technology, but the art scene is thriving and can rival that of many major cities.  Talented painters are at every street corner, live music in every bar, and mesmerizing dancers(salsa/ballet/modern) occupy the city. You don’t have to seek out music and dance in Cuba, it will grab a hold of you.

Old Havana

Old Havana

Below is an itinerary for you to follow along and use as a resource for a week in Cuba.  The country is constantly changing and evolving so please check timings, openings and availability before traveling.

DAY 1

1.  AM – Put on your most comfortable walking shoes and spend the morning exploring the four squares of Old Havana.  Stroll through the cobblestone walkways and taste street food, drink mojitos, pop in at the artisan shops, and stop and view the local talents on the streets. Start with a walk through Plaza de San Francisco and take in the church and sculptures.  Then head over to Plaza Vieja(Old Square), the historic center of the city. When in the Plaza Viejo, stop in at Bodeguita del Medio, an old watering hole that Ernest Hemingway frequented and made famous by declaring their mojitos the best he ever had. Supposedly this is also the bar where the first mojitos were concocted.  Next head over to Plaza de La Catedral, and take note of the architectural details of the square with its stain glass windows and historic church. Finally end in Plaza de Armas, Havana’s oldest square-built in the 1520’s.  You can wander the streets admiring the Baroque architecture or  relax under the royal palms and people watch.

Old Havana

Old Havana

Bodeguita del Medio - Havana Cuba

Bodeguita del Medio – Havana Cuba

Bodeguita del Medio - Havana Cuba

Bodeguita del Medio – Havana Cuba

2. PM – Have lunch on the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos.  The restaurant boasts lovely 360° degree views of Old Havana overlooking the harbor.  Take a ride up the historic 1920’s elevator to room 511 where Hemingway regularly stayed.  Room 511 is now a museum dedicated to the great author.  The room has beautiful views and is the place where Hemingway wrote several chapters of “For Whom the Bells Told”.  The guide in the room will even give you the sultry details of the lovers that Hemingway entertained in Room 511.  After lunch head over to the Markets of San Jose located in the Port of Havana. Local artisans sell leather goods, paintings, sculptures and ceramics.  On the outer edges of the market you will find talented street artists selling quality paintings.

3. Late Night –  The Tropicana is one of the most famous Cabaret Show in the world. Everyone makes a homage to this Vegas style venue when in Havana.  One of the more touristy attractions, but is one of those places that you go once, just for the history. The club has hosted legendary performers such as Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker.  Enter the Tropicana forest and experience for yourself the lights, the glitz, the music, the dancing and the elaborate costumes.  The Tropicana is an open air theater so be sure to go on a nice day.  Not much has changed since the Tropicana first opened its doors in the 1939.  Come witness this magnificent spectacle for yourself.

Day 2

1. AM – Spend the morning in Hemingway’s footsteps – Hire a classic car and head ten miles outside of Havana to the Hemingway House, Finca Vigia.  It is here that Hemingway wrote three highly acclaimed novels, “For Whom the Bells Told”, “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Movable Feast”.  The Cubans are huge fans of Hemingway, so the sprawling estate is beautifully maintained, exactly as Hemingway left it.  Everything that the iconic author loved is well-preserved, the home, the library, his typewriter, his boat, Pilar and his cat graves.  It was  like Papa was still there.

Vinca Figia - Hemingway's Home - Cuba

Vinca Figia – Hemingway’s Home

Hemingway's typewriter at Finca Vigia

Hemingway’s typewriter at Finca Vigia

From Finca Vigia, take a short drive to the fishing village of Cojimar, the setting for Hemingway’s book and movie “The Old Man and the Sea”.  Stop in for lunch and daiquiris at La Terraza a small bar and restaurant.  The restaurant invites you in with live music and turquoise daiquiris.  The walls are lined with pictures of Hemingway, from his fishing expeditions to contentious pictures of Hemingway and Fidel Castro.

Hemingway's Hangout La Terraza

Hemingway’s Hangout La Terraza

2. PM – Head back to Havana and explore Cuba’s sizzling hot art scene.  Head over to the Museo de Bellas Artes, a must see.  This fine arts museum boasts art dating back to the early 19th century and houses a collection that compares to other world-class museums.  If you are an avid lover of the arts you will also want to visit the Museo de Artes Decorativa, tucked away in the Vededo neighborhood.  The beautiful estate itself is an architectural site, filled with a collection of furniture, paintings, sculptures and decorative items.  The museum is an extravagant palatial mansion which gives you a feel for the upper class lifestyle of the pre-revolution era.  After the museum, stop in for daiquiris at Floridita, another favorite of Hemingway.  This classy, upscale bar has a life-size brass statue of Hemingway seated at the bar.  Stop in for the perfect daiquiris, which Hemingway claimed to be the best in the world at Floridita.

Floridita - Old Havana

Floridita – Old Havana

La Floridita - Daiquiris

La Floridita – Daiquiris

3. Late Night – An absolute must do in the evening is Fabrica de Arte Cubano(FAC).  To experience the edgy hip side of Havana’s art scene put on your dancing shoes and head over to this art factory.  FAC is a nightclub for intellectuals to experience art, music, dance, film and fashion.  Mix, mingle and dance with the artist in this huge space that is a former warehouse.  Drink and dance your way through the many art galleries throughout this expansive warehouse and experience Havana’s vibrant and creative night scene. You may just forget you are in Communist Cuba.

Day 3

1. AM – Start your morning with a visit to Fusterlandia.  A Gaudiesque neighborhood, where one of  Cuba’s most famous artist, José Rodriguez Fuster has transformed his local run down neighborhood into life-size community art project.  Fuster known as the Picasso of the Caribbean made the streets his palette and filled it with bright mosaics and sculptures, reminiscent of Park Güell in Barcelona. Fuster has adorned over 85 houses with colorful murals, paintings and ceramics.

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia

After Fusterlandia, head over to the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba for lunch and mojitos.  We had the best Cuban sandwiches at the Hotel Nacional. A national monument, this 1930’s art deco hotel has a lobby reminiscent of The Breakers.  The approach and the entrance are quite spectacular.   The grounds are lovely though the rooms are in need of TLC.  Walk around the property and take in the rich history. We were fascinated by the bunkers, trenches and canons, from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The history of the hotel is astounding and was frequented by many famous people like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayward, Marlon Brando to name just a few.

2. PM – Visit the many cigar factories sprinkled throughout Havana.  Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás is one of Havanas oldest and most famous cigar factory founded in 1845. Spend the afternoon smoking cigars, drinking rum and watching people roll cigars.  Then head over to the Museo del Ron Havana Club, not a distillery but an informative museum on the rum making process with a tasting at the end.

Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás

Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás

Museo del Ron Havana Club

Museo del Ron Havana Club

In the early part of the evening be sure to seek out your favorite classic car and go for a drive along the Malecón in a classic convertible with the sunset in full view and lively Cuban music blasting in your car.  Havana is an open air museum for these gorgeous cars. You will feel like you have truly stepped back in time in your pink Cadillac or red-hot Thunderbird.  You will have your choice of cars, as they are all over the city for hire around $30 CUC for one hour.

Old Havana

Old Havana

3. Late Night – Dress up for the evening and head over to Casa de la Música de Miramar, situated in a beautiful mansion. If you are a Salsa fan, then this is a must do.  The club offers two opportunities to dance; during the day or at night.  The nightlife here is vibrant and you can dance into the wee hours of the morning.  Casa de la Musica is known to host some well-known bands.  The venue offers a great atmosphere for salsa dancing. Though a bit on the pricey side for the locals, you tend to have more of a tourist crowd here.

Day 4 & Day 5

Head outside the city to central Cuba and experience the rich heritage of the colonial town of Trinidad.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trinidad is a lively town with brightly painted buildings and cobblestone streets.  Take a cultural walking tour of Plaza Mayor, spend the day on the southern beaches of Cuba or visit the many waterfalls in the area.  Take Salsa lesson in the square or for a more rugged experience hike the Escambray Mountains.  After an active day or just lounging on the white sand beach of Playa Ancon, enjoy the night life of Trinidad and visit Disco Ayala or visit Casa de la Musica in Plaza Mayor and take in some dancing and local music with live Salsa bands.

Day 6 & Day 7

Spend the last few days of your Cuban immersion unwinding and relaxing on Varadero Beach, considered by the locals to be the pride of Cuba.  It is Cuba’s largest resort town two hours east of Havana in the Hicacos Peninsula.  Come relax and unwind on the calm, white sand, turquoise beaches of Varadero.  Varadero has golfing, hiking, water sports, shopping, museums, galleries, craft markets, rum bars and cigar lounges.  Many local and international resorts line the beaches.  Travelers have their choice of local hotels or international names like Riu, Melia, Barcelo and Iberostar.  For lunch stop in at the majestic estate of the Dupont Mansion on the beach.  Built in 1927, the estate is named Xanadú Mansion.  The Dupont estate is now a hotel and golf club. The hotel has a restaurant, a wine cellar for private dining, a lovely bar on the top-level, a restaurant with a veranda overlooking the turquoise waters, and 6 colonial style rooms with antique decor.

Varadero Beach

Varadero Beach

Dupont Mansion - Varadero Beach - Xanadu Mansion

Dupont Mansion – Varadero Beach – Xanadu Mansion

Varadero Beach

Varadero Beach

On the drive back to Havana make sure you stop at the rest area at Bacunayagua Bridge(the tallest bridge in Cuba).  The rest area is known for the best fresh Piña Colada in the entire Caribbean, we would even go as far as to say the best in the world.  The bar serves one thing in this rest area, freshly made Piña Coladas.  Typically Piña Coladas are made with rum, cream of coconut(Coco Lopez) and pineapple juice.  The Piña Coladas here are extra special, made with fresh coconut water and coconut milk, plucked from fresh coconuts. The key to their greatness  is that they are made with fresh chunks of pineapples, not pineapple juice.  And here is the best part, the bartender just hands you the bottle of rum, you top it off with however much or little rum your heart desires.  It is not just any rum, it is quality Havana Club 7 Years.   Sip on the best Piña Colados served in hollowed pineapples and take in the gorgeous views of the ocean, the bridge and the lush green rolling hills.  Bacunayagua is a must stop on the way to and on the way back from Varadero.

World's Best Pina Colada at Bacunayagua Bridge

World’s Best Pina Colada at Bacunayagua Bridge

Hotels

Cuba has a shortage of good quality hotels and supply is low relative to demand, so plan ahead. We stayed at The Meliá Cohiba and thought it was one of the better properties in Havana.  We also visited the hotels listed below.  Keep in mind that all these hotels are rated 5 stars, but a 5 star rating is a Cuban rating and in our opinion not a global standard.  Even the best of the best hotels in Cuba are more of a 3 or 4 star experience.

Hotel Saratoga

Hotel Saratoga

Iberostar Parque Central  – The location of Iberostar is ideal.  Centrally located and in walking distance to everything.  The hotel boasts a rooftop pool and quality entertainment.

Hotel Saratoga – Ideally situated near the Capitol, this hotel is in walking distance to many attractions.  Hotel Saratoga is a small boutique hotel with spacious rooms and an elegant and inviting lobby and bar.  The hotel has a rooftop pool and lounge.  It has become popular, mainly because Jay-Z and Beyonce stayed here during their stay.

Meliá Cohiba – This hotel is located in downtown Havana directly on the Malecon.  The hotel boast a beautiful lobby, pool, cigar lounge and several restaurants.  Melia Cohiba offers delicious sprawling breakfasts with live music, a wonderful way to start your day.  The Club Level service is outstanding.  The hotel is a large property with many amenities.

Meliá Habana– This high quality hotel is 10 minutes from Old Havana and boast beautiful ocean views. A lovely hotel, with a lively lobby and lush grounds overlook the ocean.  The club level is the way to go for premium service.  Live musicians perform in the lobby throughout the day.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba – You will fall in love upon entering, the grounds are lovely and the hotel is steeped in history with its long list of visiting dignitaries.  This art deco hotel is classically decorated with lots of lounge space, bars and terraces.  The property is nice but the rooms are very dated.

Casa Particular – Casa Particulars are Cuba’s version of B&B’s.  Stay with a local, and eat Cuban food, drink local rum, and learn about its art, history and culture first hand.  These accommodations can range from a basic one room apartment to an extravagant colonial home.  There is something to suit every budget.  The best way to book is through Airbnb.

Restaurants

Traditional state-run restaurants are a thing of the past.  Paladares, privately run restaurants are popping up all over Cuba.  The country is experiencing a much-needed change in its dining scene.  The Paladares go through a lot of change and turnover, so please call ahead to confirm. One thing to note and point out about the dining in Cuba; lobsters are abundant, fresh, and inexpensive.  Prepared in many various styles, we had lobster everyday.  For dessert we highly recommend flan (try a variety of flavors, caramel, vanilla or coconut)  Almost every meal ended with a rich, creamy, dreamy flan.

Cuba has abundant and fresh lobsters

Cuba has abundant and fresh lobsters

Palador Vista Mar

Palador Vista Mar

La Guarida – Dine at one of Havana’s most elegant Paladar and one of the cities most famous restaurant.  The restaurant is like a scene from a movie set, this Paladar is so picturesque that it was the setting for the movie “Fresa y Chocolat”.  La Guarida boasts great views, great Cuban cuisine and outstanding service.

Paladar Vista Mar – One of the most memorable meals we had in Havana was at Vista Mar.  On the second floor of a private residence, this restaurant directly overlooks the ocean, with an eternity pool that overflows into the water.  Come for the beautiful Havana sunsets and the fresh seafood.  For dessert the flan and lime pie were simply the best.

Paladar Atelier  – This restaurant in set in a beautiful 19th century mansion with lovely artwork. Antique typewriters, radios and clocks make up the deocr.  There is the option to dine both indoors or outside on the terrace.  Take a few minutes walking the grounds and you will realize the plants are all potted in toilet bowls, a touch you may miss if you are not observant.  The food is contemporary fare and the menu changes daily.

Paladar Le Chansonnier  Eating here is like eating in an art gallery, all the artwork is for sale.  This would likely be a restaurant to spot Hemingway if he were was around today.  A Parisian style restaurant offering caviar, duck, lobster and European fare.   The paladar is elegant and charming and is inside a 1860 home.  A wonderful meal here but the wine list needed much improvement.  While dining make a visit to the bathroom as it’s facade is the most beautifully designed by a local artist.

La Dolce Vita – La Dolce Vita is a chic restaurant that is a recent addition to Havana’s dining scene. This trendy new spot has the ideal location on the Malecon.  Dine on the outdoor terrace and take in the sunset.  The pastas, risottos and seafood specials are delicious.  The restaurant serves modern Italian fare with a nice wine list.

Sloppy Joe’s –  Come for the drinks and the decor, not the food.  The place has a unique history that the waiters will gladly share with you.  It is one of Havana’s most famous pre-revolutionary bars, that was frequented by celebrities such as John Wayne and Clark Gable.  Definitely touristy but if you have time then come in and see the Original Sloppy Joe’s for yourself, it reopened in 2013 after nearly 50 years of being closed.

Havana Nights - Sunset on the Malecon

Havana Nights – Sunset on the Malecon

Nightlife

One of the many things that makes Cuba so special is the music.  You will find live music everywhere in Cuba; street corner, bars, restaurants, hotels, almost anywhere that people congregate.  Havana’s nightlife is thriving and music and dance are everywhere.  Keep moving, grooving and shaking till the wee hours of the morning.  The governments affinity to supporting the arts have enriched the Cuban art, music and dance scene to a point where many artist have world-wide acclaim.  So be on the search for the next Buena Vista Social Club, they could be playing at the local bar around the corner.

Happy Hour - Varadero Beach

Happy Hour

Tropicana – Take in a show at the legendary world-famous Tropicana.  Experience the glitz, music and extravagant costumes in this elaborate Caberet. (more details up above on Day 1)

Fabrica de Arte Cubano – Art meets nightlife.  The hippest place to be in Havana. An old oil factory has been converted to a new performance and art space.  See my comments earlier in this article. (more details up above on Day 2)

Casa de la Música de Miramar  – Casa de la Musica in a situated in a mansion and is known to host some well-known bands.  Offers a great atmosphere for salsa dancing. (more detail up above on Day 3)

Jazz Cafe – The Jazz Cafe is a hot spot where all the locals frequent for  jazz and salsa.,  With top-notch bands, this is the spot to appreciate local Cuban talent.  The cover is only $10 and include two drinks.  Come here to cool down, relax and unwind with a drink and live music.

Old Havana

Old Havana

Fresh Pineapples on the Street Carts of Old Havana

Fresh Pineapples on the Street Carts of Old Havana

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