Top Five Reasons to Book a Trip to Havana, Cuba
Hot off the press from Cuba: A Guest Article by Celeste Leich. The Top Five Reasons to Book a Trip to Havana
Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is home to some of the friendliest and most endearing people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Lively, get-up-and-dance melodies stream from open windows, filling the hot air with the sounds of jazz and the Spanish guitar. Restaurants and bars spill over with patrons socializing, while vendors sell one-of-a-kind artwork. Meticulously cared for baby blue, shiny red, and bright yellow classic cars cruise the streets – the fedora on the drivers’ head bobbing along with the music and – yeah, the potholes! Yet, this mix of old and new is exactly what makes a trip to Havana so uniquely interesting!
Nowhere else in the world have I found such a strange but serene mix of calamity and calm. Even with our histories, the Cuban people warmly embrace American tourists. Everyone I met – and I love the chance to talk with locals – was excited to answer questions and show me around their beautiful city. In Cuba, positivity and optimism reigns – the Cuban people are clearly excited for a chance to grow and develop. Tourism is providing an income to many that have suffered over the years, and they are embracing the change and new opportunities.
Have I caught your attention yet? Do you see a trip to Havana in your future?
Until very recently, Cuba – one of the last remaining socialist countries in the world – has been inaccessible to most Americans. (Although other nationalities have enjoyed this gem of an island for years!). This Caribbean country is a hop, skip, and a jump from South Florida. However, it may as well have been a world away due to strict travel restrictions. But now Americans can visit Cuba under new visa regulations. Now is the time to book a trip to Havana!
If I haven’t already convinced you, read ahead for my top five reasons to book a trip to Havana, Cuba:
1. THE INCOMPARABLE CUBAN NIGHTLIFE
No trip to Havana is complete without a night of dancing! The number one recommendation from each friendly and outgoing Cuban I met was to spend an evening dancing the night away at the ultra-hip Fabrica de Arte. This art gallery and nightclub is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. Set in a former oil factory, the grounds are expansive with fascinating rooms and exhibits to explore. Be sure to get there before doors open at 8pm to avoid the lines that wrap around the entire block.
Once inside, discover the unique and thought-provoking Cuban artwork while swaying to various genres of music by local DJs and live bands. Each room has a different vibe and feel, sure to have you dancing the night away! The famous (and strong!) mojitos will soon have you socializing with the eclectic crowd.
Although incredibly popular, I found a minimal wait at each bar for a cocktail, and plenty of room to dance or talk with friends. Need to recharge? Simply wander the premises to find an interesting documentary, performing theatre troupe, or photographer’s latest gallery.
My number one tip? Don’t misplace the drink ticket provided upon arrival! As you order cocktails, the bartenders will stamp this card with the balance due when you leave. If you lose your card, be prepared to pay!
2. DINE AT HOME STYLE RESTAURANTS
A trip to Havana wouldn’t be complete without a delicious home-cooked meal. In-home restaurants, or paladares as they are called in Cuba, are all over Havana. I found more interesting culinary fare at these locations versus the government-run restaurants. Legalized in the 90’s, paladares are a sort of speak-easy eatery run by a strange set of rules. And, not everything served can be listed on the menu. (Don’t hesitate to ask if you have a special meal in mind!) But one thing is certain – some of the best food found in Havana will likely be in someone’s dining room.
As you explore Old Town Havana, don’t be alarmed when someone thrusts a homemade menu into your hand. It may seem uncomfortable at first to follow a local into their home for a meal, but this is where the best dining experiences in Havana are born. The wait staff at most paladares do not speak English, but they were some of the most welcoming and hospitable people I met during my visit.
3. THE FAMOUS MALECON
The Malecon is an extremely popular and well-known waterfront street lining the north coast of Havana. Along this drive are the remnants of the glamorous mob-era hotels built by the rich and powerful in the 40’s and 50’s. You’re sure to see locals enjoying a walk, fishing for their dinner, or playing music and dancing on the sidewalk.
The best way to experience the Malecon on a trip to Havana, is by riding in a perfectly restored 1950’s classic car. My bright purple 1954 Buick convertible was the perfect ride. These classic cars are lovingly and meticulously cared for by their owners, as they offer significant income opportunities. I found that families have passed the cars down from generation to generation, and for many they are the most prized possession.
Another perfect way to explore this fascinating street is to stroll along the glimmering water at sunset. Be sure to make a pit-stop at the lovingly restored, world-famous Hotel Nacional for a cocktail. You’ll feel like a celebrity as soon as you step into the swanky lobby. And, if a romantic evening is in the cards, do not miss the stunning oceanfront views from a one of the many seafood restaurants lining the Malecon.
4. IT IS HOME TO THE MOJITO & DAIQUIRI
One of the most famous Cuban residents in history was Ernest Hemingway, who called Cuba home for over 30 years. He wrote seven of his novels in Havana, including the Old Man and the Sea.
Another favorite pastime of Hemingways? Drinking. Lots of drinking. Most notably, he enjoyed his daiquiris and mojitos. On your trip to Havana, wander through Old Town. It won’t take long for you to find both El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio – two of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes. They are both still in business today, and extremely popular stops for tourists. I found the strawberry daiquiri at El Floridita so tasty, I stayed for three! The downside is that the service can be slow, but you’re sure to enjoy some wonderful live music and interesting people watching. Even better – both are within walking distance of any of the Old Town Havana hotels.
Well, not exactly. But stepping foot on Cuban soil is SIMILAR to traveling back in time. Due to the U. S. embargo, there is limited commercialism and no American chain restaurants on the entire island. (OK, there’s a McDonald’s on the Navy base, but that doesn’t exactly count). There is limited advertising, and Internet access is sparse with only about 5% of the population online. It’s one of the only places I’ve traveled where total relaxation is possible, because there really is no other option! (Do you have a work-a-holic spouse who never fully unwinds? Plan a trip to Havana, Cuba!) Horse-drawn carts pull workers and tourists alongside the 50’s-era classic cars. Street vendors and live music are widespread, and the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming.
I’ve found that – in travel and in life – the best experiences and memories are made in the most unexpected places. Taking a once in a life-time trip to the REAL Havana, Cuba, will be an experience you won’t soon forget. Be prepared, remain flexible, but most importantly be open to an incredibly unique experience. I am certain that you will remember your step back in time and the Cuban people fondly.