Have you always dreamed of visiting Cuba? We certainly had, and jumped at an opportunity to travel on a World Monuments Fund trip * highlighting watch sites in Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Just 90 miles from Florida, the island of Cuba feels worlds away—a fascinating country with a storied past and newfound hopes for a promising future. Now is an ideal time to visit, to witness first-hand the thawing of a bitter divide and the precarious renewal of ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Walking Havana’s cobblestoned streets is a thrill--a sensory overload of old cars, 16th century grand squares and crumbling, neglected buildings. Restoration work is everywhere; this is truly a city rising from the ruins. With new direct flights from New York and Miami, travel to Cuba is finally easier, though not easy. Our advice, go soon and book your trip in advance with a respected tour operator or travel agent.
Packing List - the dress everywhere in Cuba is very causal, and as it’s a poor country, be sensitive and leave your ‘jewels’ and extravagant attire at home. Throw in a light raincoat, as the chance of rain always exists. Bring layers--days tend to be very hot, especially if you’re in the sun, but a sweater may come in handy early mornings and evenings.
Bring our own mini toiletries and any medications you might need, there’s no running out to get what you forgot at the corner pharmacy.
You should bring enough US dollars or Euros for the entire trip, which can then be converted at the airport, your hotel, or at a local exchange hub. Credit and debit cards may work at major hotels and some restaurants, but are otherwise unreliable in Cuba.
Butterfield and Robinson provided this excellent reading list from Longitude Books, experts in travel literature, for hours of inspired reading before your trip. And here’s a great article on the present US-Cuba relationship.
Watch Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) is an international hit film (nominated for an Academy Award in 1994) set in 1979 Cuba with scenes shot at Coppelia and La Guarida.
Stay: The Hotel Saratoga is our number one choice with an ideal location bordering Old Havana and the Capitol Building. It’s authentic and comfortable with an eclectic style. There is Wi-Fi, though slow, throughout the hotel—an added plus in Cuba. Don’t miss a visit to the rooftop bar and pool for killer views over Havana. If the Saratoga is full, book a room at the Parque Central, considered by many to be the other top choice.
Walking Tour: Start your trip wandering Old Havana, (Habana Vieja) a neighborhood best explored on foot. It’s lively, vibrant, and chaotic and just so much fun to get lost in. Photographers will be giddy, every direction ripe for another picture--the sun hitting the peeling facades of buildings, old women fanning themselves on dilapidated balconies, schoolchildren in crisp uniforms heading to school, and everywhere an abundance of architectural details. The streets are heavy with tourists, frequenting the many open-air bars and restaurants. Sightseeing highlights include: El Capitolio, Plaza de la Catedral, Gran Teatro, Museo de Revolution, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and Museo de la Ciudad.
Cruising to Vedado: A good way to get orientated to the larger city is to jump in one of the vintage taxis---perhaps a Buick convertible or a DeSoto and head over to the El Vedado neighborhood. Havana’s residential and business district is home to many embassies housed in grand old mansions. The drive will take you along the Malecon and around the Plaza de la Revolución, one of the world’s largest city squares dominated by the José Martí Memorial and Korda’s famous mural of Che Guevara proclaiming “Hasta la victoria siempre”. Other things to do in El Vedado include:
Walk along the 5-mile Malecon, Havana’s waterfront boulevard, atmospheric and fun for a stroll during the day or evening.
Channel the glory days of the 50’s as you sip a Mojito and enjoy the view at the Hotel Nacional, overlooking the ocean.
Walk along 23rd street (La Rampa) lined with bars, cafes and dancing venues. Join the locals on line at Coppelia , Cuba’s famous ice cream shop.
- Visit Cuba’s most important cemetery, the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón dating back to 1869. As impressive as the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, the 150-acre cemetery is home to hundreds of mausoleums, chapels, vaults, and galleries laid out in a grid of main avenues and smaller side streets.
Views: For sweeping views of the Havana skyline head to the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, an 18th century fort overlooking Old Havana. Go in the early morning for the best light.
Literary: Head east out of Havana (approximately a 20 minute drive) to Finca La Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home for more than two decades. The house, set high on a hillside overlooking downtown Havana has been lovingly restored after years of neglect. In fact, it feels like Hemingway has just stepped out for a moment, soon to return. At Finca La Vigia, Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, two of his greatest novels. Peer into his private rooms, stroll the gardens and be sure to visit the Pilar, Hemingway’s deep sea fishing boat, dry docked on the property. The Cuban people have tremendous love and respect for Hemingway’s work and his choice to live here in San Francisco de Paula amongst the people he fished with.
Artful Afternoon: Just west of the city get lost in the surreal streets of Fusterlandia. Here Jose Fuster, a famous Cuban artist, has transformed his home and many of his neighbors’ homes and businesses using mosaic's. It’s whimsical and colorful, reminiscent of Gaudi’s Park Guell, with everything from street signs to bus stops to a neighbor's roof all designed by Fuster in his bold style. Tour his home, a psychedelic fantasyland with spiral walkways, a tiled pool and numerous fountains. This is public art at its best and guaranteed to make you smile!
Havana Eats: In the last few years the government has eased the restrictions for privately owned restaurants (paladares), and the culinary scene in Cuba is heating up. Book a table at magical La Guarida, the hottest reservation in Havana. The dramatic entrance through a decaying 19th century apartment building stands in sharp contrast to what awaits—a chic rooftop dining area with excellent food and service. Save this for your last night as nothing can close to topping La Guarida, truly an experience equal to any in the world. Other excellent choices include:
Ivan y Justo—A small charming chef driven restaurant in an old building close to the Museo de Revolution. Order the paella or suckling pig for a memorable meal.
Café Laurent Considered one of the top local spots, enjoy Basque cuisine in a 1950’s style penthouse suite reached via an antique elevator.
D'Giovanni- In this exquisitely restored 18th century mansion you’ll find some of the best pizza in Havana.
El Templete- This seafood restaurant with a head chef from the Basque country is dripping with gastronomical accolades. Though the restaurant may not rival its competition in terms of location and design, the cooking more than makes up for it.
Hanoi—Looking for great Cuban cuisine this is your spot. Feast on the Cuban classics of chicken, plantain, and moros y cristianos.
La Bodeguita Del Medio- One of many restaurants that claim Ernest Hemingway’s patronage, it has a well deserved reputation for serving excellent food. Famous and frequented by travelers from around the world, La Bodeguita is one of Old Havana’s hotspots. Stop by after 4 PM for live music and mojitos in the street.
La Cocina de Lilliam- Lilliam and her daughter create delightful Cuban flavors in this lush, garden restaurant. Expect great service, delicious cuisine, and a relaxing atmosphere.
San Cristobal-Follow in the Obama’s footsteps and eat well in this delicious restaurant in the heart of Centro. The décor is a mix of Cuban, African and Spanish memorabilia all jumbled in a somehow charming mix. Newly adorning the walls is a painting of Obama and a framed letter from the First Lady.
El Cocinero- A trendy restaurant and rooftop bar in Vedado near the F.A.C.
Drinks: Have a cocktail before dinner at El Floridita, Hemingway’s watering hole and the reported birthplace of the daiquiri. (La Guarida always makes an excellent daiquiri)
Evening Hot Spot: Fabrica de Arte Cubano, commonly refereed to as F.A.C., is a huge multiple art and performance space housed in a former cooking oil factory. It’s part art collective, part club, and the hippest, hottest place to be in Havana on the weekends. Roam the galleries, drink in hand, and get caught up in the younger, edgier spirit of the city today. The current exhibit featured works by emerging contemporary artists that was both political and daring. The F.A.C. is only open on Thursday-Sun nights from 8pm-2am—go early to avoid the guaranteed long line that snakes around the block.
**Travel with World Monuments Fund: As the leading non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of cultural heritage sites across the globe, World Monuments Fund offers travel programs of enriching experiences that are as much about people as they are about places. The mix of fascinating local guides, WMF experts, and fellow travelers all enhance the journey. Beyond exclusive site visits to their projects, the hallmark of their trips is insider access to private places that only WMF can provide.