In 2015, President Obama eased travel restrictions with Cuba allowing US residents to travel to Cuba legally for the first time in decades without special permission from the US Government. For now, unless Trump changes the travel policies, it is permitted for US residents to travel to Cuba provided that your travel falls into one of 12 permissible categories. The categories are so broad, basically anyone with a U.S. Passport can travel to Cuba without issue.
Before you head to Cuba, make sure you check out #HelloWorld: How To Get To Cuba Before Trump Shuts The Whole Thing Down on information on how to book your flight and everything you need to know before you go or you will be caught out there, guaranteed.
WHAT TO SEE
Old Town- The Old Town is bustling with architecture wonders, Cuban cafes, and churches. Hire a pedi cab to take you around the Old Town, and make sure he speaks English so he can share some of Cuba’s best kept secrets that might not be on a tourist’s map. Feel free to contact my tour guide, Luis on Facebook, he was entertaining, spoke great English and most of all knowledgeable (Facebook: Luisito Viera).
After the old town, wander around Parque Central, stop into Alicia Alosno Grand Theatre of Havana to see if the Cuban Ballet is performing that week and grab a $20.00 ticket or just wander around inside of one of Cuba’s most stunning buildings. Stop by the Hotel Inglaterra to listen to their ever present Cuban bands and check email while grabbing a cocktail on their famous verandah.
The Museo de la Revolucion is the place to get your history on. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the time of their dance classes, you will get your LIFE! If not, wander around Cuba’s most famous museum housed in the former Presidential Palace that takes you through the earliest settlers in Cuba through the tumultuous Cuban revolution to events of the present day. The Museum and its collection are stunning, from Castro’s office, to Cabinet meeting rooms to an entire wing focused on the revolutionary Che Guevara, if you’re a history buff this is not to be missed. When you’re reading the inscriptions and events, peep how the point of view is strictly Cuban and differs vastly from how events are presented to us in the US. It’s definitely all about #perspective.
Other not to miss spots are Ernest Hemingway’s house (Finca Vigia), where the eclectic novelist lived from 1940-1960. The house, which consists of the main house, a tower/writing room, and the pool was dedicated as a museum two years after his death. No Hemingway jaunt would be complete without a visit to La Floridita, Hemingway’s daily watering hole. It is home of the Daiquiri and the winner of “The Best of the Best Five Star Diamond and King of the Daiquiri” award. You can get other cocktails too and the food there is good, so make a reservation in their dining room before you go to ensure a seat (we did not and literally had to beg our way in). The bar itself is a party with live music and drinks freely flowing. Cuba’s best variation of a Day Party!
Right next door to La Floridita, you’ll find the famous Havana Club, which is actually a museum about evolution of rum and its role in Cuban culture. They have exhibits, and tastings, or you can skip this and go into their store upstairs for no charge which features a vast array of official Cuban cigars and several variations of Cuba’s most famous libation.
At night, definitely take a walk along El Malecon, Havana’s famous seaside boardwalk that stretches for 5 miles from Old Havana to the neighborhood of Vedado. El Malecon is teeming with Cubans listening to music, dancing, cuddling and just chilling on the boardwalk. If you miss this, you are missing the spirit of Havana, so take a little midnight stroll to walk off some of that yummy Cuban food.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Speaking of food—where to begin? There are so many places to eat, I am going to give you my top 2, each at different ends of the spectrum.
I’d have my travel card revoked by anyone who’s visited Havana if I didn’t put LaGuarida at the top of my list. Located along a nondescript street, in what looks like an abandoned building with no signage, get out at Concordia No.418 and walk up 3 flights of stairs, and you’ll think you’re in the wrong building until you hear the music and smell the food wafting from the kitchen. Walk up one more flight and you’ve made it to arguably the most famous restaurant in Havana. Soak up the evening with a drink on the rooftop then head downstairs for your table. Ask to be seated on the patio, which overlooks the city, and take your pick from the vast menu of meat, fish and lamb. The food was as good as you’ve heard, and dinner with a drink will run you about $100 per person, which is more than twice the average Cuban’s monthly salary, but it’s worth it. Reservations are highly recommended, which you can make online or by calling the restaurant.
The other end of the dining spectrum is La Juliana. I’d heard about the food from a friend, but nothing prepared us for what we got when we walked in. It’s very reminiscent of an Atlanta strip club (don’t ask), with neon lights, a juke box, and black tables with vinyl chairs. We knew we were in the wrong place and almost walked out until the table next to us was served their food. And Oh! My! God!! EVERYTHING! No wonder this place is a legend among locals. A full Cuban meal with rice and beans, salad, and in my case, lobster, and 2 rounds of drinks—was the best $20 I spent in Cuba! Get thyself to La Juliana!
After dinner, would be a great time to take that stroll on El Malecon to Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the once infamous hotel owned by the former dictator Batista and the mafia. This hotel was the site of the Havana Conference of 1946, a meeting of the most powerful mafia syndicates from the U.S, and has history oozing from its walls. Here, you can reserve a room where any of its famous guests from Errol Flynn, to Frank Sinatra and Ava Garder or Rita Hayworth stayed. As you wander around to the hotel, be on the lookout for a bronze bust of Nat King Cole as homage to the crooner who was refused as a guest at the hotel because he was black as were such legends as Josephine Baker, Joe Lewis and Jackie Robinson.
The hotel has evolved past its mob roots and has a lovely garden out back overlooking El Malecon and the sea where you can grab light bar fare or a cocktail while people watching.
HIT THE BEACH
About a 2 hours’ drive from Havana, you will find Varadero, a stunning seaside enclave with over 10 miles of powdery white sand beaches and turquoise waters. The so-called “Blue Beach of Cuba,” Varadero is home to Cuba’s only 18 hole golf course, Varadero Golf Club and has over fifty hotels. If you go for a day trip, book a day pass at any of the all-inclusive hotels, where 85 CUC per person gets you unlimited food, drinks and beach access (we chose the Melia, right next to the golf course). Remember to bring your passport (or have a photo handy in your phone as I posted in an earlier story) as foreign hotels require a passport for every person checking in, without exception. In addition to golf and beaches, Varadero has the greatest number of first class shopping and hotel facilities, has an abundance of restaurants, snack bars, diving shops, caves and a host of other touristy things to do. In spite of the bustling environments, it didn’t feel crowded or cheesy, and it was the perfect respite from the Havana.
On the way back to Havana, make sure to stop at Penon del Fraile, which is another legend among Cubans. This place is known to make the world’s best pina coladas, and they’re served in freshly cut pineapples. No matter what time you go, it’s a party. This little roadside shack also has an affordable gift shop where you can buy souvenirs, toiletries, beach towels and swim suits, all things the government is known to overcharge tourists for, so anything you need, get here.
There isn’t enough I can say about the music in Cuba, which was everywhere, in the parks, street, restaurants. The Cuban men are fiiiineee and will often grab you for a dance anywhere there’s music so don’t be offended, just go with it. If you want to go for a proper dance night, take a cab to Miramar, a lovely upscale seaside suburb (about 10 miles and 15 CUC taxi ride from Havana) to Casa de la Musica, which is a favorite of the locals. You pay a 10 CUC cover but the drinks are cheap (1 CUC water, 2 CUC beer, 6 CUC mixed drinks) and the music is mostly by local bands. People are dancing alone, with strangers– everywhere and everyone will happily teach you to salsa. It is a fun time, but be prepared for people to drop it like it’s hot, because they definitely get it in!
There is so much to do and see in Cuba, this barely scratches the surface, but these picks were unanimously declared winners amongst my friends. The most important thing to do to prepare for your trip is to be prepared. With sun, rum, cigars, beaches, gorgeous men, music, you honestly can’t go wrong! Cuba will leave you wanting more!
Lisa Bonner, a travel aficionado, is a veteran Entertainment Lawyer with offices in New York and Atlanta. Her work has appeared in theGrio, Yahoo! Travel, Ebony and Essence. Follow her on social media @lisabonner