City Guide: Havana, Cuba

The Lazy Gal's Guide to Backyard BBQs.png

Havana, Cuba is a city filled with vibrant colour, constant upbeat noise and a variety of cultural and culinary experiences. Known for it’s beautiful architecture and busy historic district, the city is a geographically sprawling space settled against Cuba’s northern coast. Home to more than 2 million people, Havana’s tourism industry is booming and its food and restaurant industry is starting to take off as well.

As a Canadian, traveling to Cuba was very straightforward. The only things I needed were my passport, valid proof of health travel insurance (which I bought through Sun Life), and my suitcase! I’m not going to get in to the restrictions on traveling for Americans, but I highly recommend checking in with your country’s government websites if you’re considering traveling to Cuba to keep up to date on travel restrictions or the necessary steps you need to take in terms of getting Visa’s. The last thing you want is to arrive at the airport and realize you don’t have something you might need. If you’re Canadian you can just click this link right HERE to find out more.

How To Get There

Since not all of my readers live in Halifax, or even Canada for that matter, there’s only so much advice I can give on how to travel to Cuba. I flew with WestJet from Halifax to Toronto, and then Toronto to Varadero, and the same route back. It made for some pretty long days of travel, but it was the easiest (and cheapest) option, and all in all things went smoothly. We had no flight delays and, in a very bizarre turn of events, all of our flights actually landed earlier than their scheduled times. In total I paid $567.44 CAD for flights.

Since we didn’t fly directly into Havana, when we landed in Varadero we weren’t totally sure how we’d get from there to Havana, since its quite a far distance away. Luckily almost the moment we stepped off the plane we found a bus that was headed to Havana, and spent 25 CUC each to get to the city. On the way back from Havana to Varadero, our lovely Airbnb host (who I’ll talk about more further down) drove us to a Viazul Bus Station in Havana where he said we’d be able to find a cheap shared taxi to Varadero. We managed to pair up with a couple from Holland and each paid 20 CUC to get from Havana back to Varadero.

From what I’ve read you can also buy Viazul bus tickets in advance or at the stations/airports to get to and from Havana. The tickets usually cost about 10 CUC. Unfortunately the bus schedules didn’t work with our landing and take off times, but this is definitely an option for some people.

What To Bring

  • Money - I stayed in Cuba for six days and brought $420 CAD with me. My bank in Canada wouldn’t exchange for Cuban tourist currency, so I waited until I arrived at the Varadero airport to get it changed. It came out to about 305 CUC. In retrospect, I probably should have brought a little bit more cash. While food is relatively cheap, there are so many activities to do and places you can’t reach on foot, so having a bit of extra money for transit would have been useful. If you end up not having enough money, bank cards - at least Canadian ones - do work. My boyfriend took money out using a credit card from an ATM and had no problem doing it.

  • Clothes - I traveled to Havana in February, and it was sunny and hot every single day of our stay. I would recommend bringing light, summery clothes like shorts, dresses, sandals and t-shirts. Definitely bring a good pair of walking shoes because you will be doing a lot of exploring on foot. I brought a pair of heels that I never ended up wearing because the streets are quite uneven and there are a lot of cobblestones.

  • Health Insurance - As a Canadian you have to show valid health insurance to get into Cuba. I purchased mine through Sun Life and it came out to about $25 for a week of coverage. It was a very easy online process that only took about 5 minutes to complete, and then I just printed my documents and packed them in my carry on.

  • Sunscreen - There are a few places where I saw sunscreen for sale in Havana, but they were few and far between. I recommend packing your own. I flew with only carry on luggage so I just went to shoppers and purchased small travel-size bottles to bring.

  • Internet/Phone Plans - As most people know, internet has historically been pretty hard to come by in Cuba. It’s still not the most straightforward process in the world to get web access, but it’s definitely becoming easier. I personally didn’t buy any kind of phone plan, and to be honest I’m not sure if you even can. While in Havana we would go to public parks where people were selling internet access cards for 2 CUC for an hour of access. My boyfriend and I bought two or three of these while we were there so we could look up restaurants and directions. The cards can only be used in specific areas, so we really only used them in one particular park called Parque Cristo.

Where To Stay

Like any other big city in the world, there are HUNDREDS of options for accommodation in Havana. There are some lovely hotels and some well-reviewed hostels, but speaking from my experience I would 100% recommend staying at an Airbnb or a Casa Particular (private home rental). This way you get a more authentic experience AND you give back to the Cuban economy. Since there are so many Airbnb’s and private rental properties available, you’ll be able to tailor your accommodation perfectly in terms of location and cost.

The Airbnb we stayed at was right in the heart of Old Havana, complete with a beautiful balcony overlooking the busy street below and outfitted with a bathroom, kitchen, little living area and bedroom. We had closet space, storage space, and a refrigerator. Our host was incredibly welcoming and kind, and gave us a few free water bottles upon arrival and even had someone come in to clean part way through our stay. He really went above and beyond to make sure we felt welcome. The are we stayed in was quite loud and lively, but we actually found this to be a bonus because it made our stay feel more authentic and fun. If you’re considering traveling to Havana, you can check out the Airbnb I stayed at by clicking HERE.

In total we paid $262 CAD for 5 nights in Havana (which was split in half between us). We also spent one night at an Airbnb in Varadero so we’d be closer to the airport for our flight. That Airbnb (link here) cost $69 CAD, and we paid an additional 5 CUC each for an incredible and MASSIVE breakfast of eggs, fruit, toast and smoothies. The Varadero Airbnb was a hostel-style house, with each room rented out to a different group. It was very safe, very clean, and only a two minute walk away from the beautiful white sand beach. We had our own bathroom, shower and mini fridge, which was stocked with various drinks you could pay extra for.

What To Eat

Because of the U.S. blockade, Cuba’s culinary industry has sometimes struggled in terms of access to ingredient and mass supply. But that hasn’t stopped a group of enterprising chefs and restaurateurs from taking full advantage of the country’s natural food supply and creating incredible culinary experiences for tourists and natives. Tacos, pina coladas, and pineapples abound in this beautiful city, but incredible seafood and unique cooking practices also result in some very interesting and less touristy options.

  • El Dandy - This hip little bar/restaurant is nestled right in the excitement and bustle of Old Havana, but is far enough away from the central touristy restaurant area to have a true authentic Cuban vibe. This restaurant is vegetarian and vegan friendly, and has great menus for all three main meals as well as drinks. My personal favourites on the menu were the vegetable tacos and the pina coladas, and I found everything to be very fairly priced.

  • El Cafe - This little cafe is easy to miss. It’s hidden amongst the overwhelming colour and architecture of Old Havana and it doesn’t have a sign on the door. It was recommended to us by our Airbnb host, and man did we ever love it! El Cafe is an ideal breakfast spot for travellers, offering a wide range of options (vegetarian and vegan friendly) and quick, pleasant service. I had a great egg, tomato and avocado breakfast and an AMAZING iced coffee.

  • Chinatown - This quirky little area of the city is super cool to explore, but also offers some lovely Chinese and Asian cuisine restaurants. Set in a beautiful little alley that feels like you’ve stepped into another country, the main strip of Chinatown is incredibly cool and vibrant and lined with restaurants like Restaurante Guang Zhou and Restaurente Tien Tan.

  • Cafe O’Reilly - This iconic cafe on historic Calle Obispo is beautiful, outfitted with a picturesque patio that overlooks the bustling street below. It’s a great place to stop first thing in the morning for a cafe con leche or an Americano or for a mid-day sandwich or snack.

  • Vitriola - Set right next to Havana’s historic and beautiful Plaza Vieja, this is a busy and fairly priced locale with great breakfast food (especially the fruit salad) and good drinks.

  • Esto No Es Un Cafe - If you’re tired after a long day of exploring Havana, this wonderful little restaurant is the perfect place to stop. With great service, good prices, and a very straight forward American-style menu, it’s an ideal spot for vegetarians, vegans, or picky eaters. I ate a vegetarian sandwich and had some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had here. Between my boyfriend and I, we only spent 22 CUC total on a very nice dinner with two beers, two meals, an appetizer, and ice cream.

  • Hotel Kempinski - Located just off of the city’s central park and very close to the capital building, Hotel Kempinski is one of the fanciest locations in all of Havana. The hotel boasts a beautiful rooftop bar, restaurant, spa and swimming pool with one of the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen. While it’s a lot pricier than many other places in the city, heading up onto the Kempinski rooftop for a quick Pina Colada is very worthwhile.

  • O’Reilly 304 - The best meal of my stay in Havana was at O’Reilly 304, a hip, modern restaurant in the heart of Old Havana. While definitely more expensive than many of the other places I ate, O’Reilly 304 was very worthwhile. The portions are generous, the drinks are delicious and original, and the quality of the cuisine is amazing. I ate an incredible seafood pasta and could probably have eaten three more bowls if they’d been put in front of me. And don’t even get me started on the hot sauce. If you’re looking for a fancy dinner or something for a special occasion, this is the perfect place. But we warned, it’s a very popular spot so you may have to wait for 40+ minutes and share a table with another couple (we met the sweetest couple from Japan and had a great time with them). Try to book in advance if you’d like a private table.

I’m also going to mention that bottled water can be purchased in little water shops scattered around the city. We made sure to be stocked up on bottles at all times so we had enough to keep us hydrated while walking around in the hot weather and for brushing our teeth and getting ready for bed at night.

What To Do

  • Take a tour in a vintage car. - Havana is a huge city geographically, and walking for your whole trip will get a bit tiring. For anywhere between 35 and 40 CUC you can spend an hour touring around the city in a beautiful vintage car. We took one that was hot pink, and it was one of the most fun, entertaining and exciting parts of the trip. Our wonderful driver showed us some of the places we wouldn’t have been able to get to otherwise (the the University of Havana and Revolution Square) and filled us in on some very interesting history.

  • Walk the Malecon. - This beautiful waterfront boardwalk is the perfect place to lounge for an afternoon or visit for sunset. The nice breeze and beautiful scenery make it one of the most tourist-friendly places in the city.

  • Tour Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts. - Prolific writer Ernest Hemingway spent a chunk of his life living in Cuba, and some of his favourite spots have become fairly famous landmarks. His favourite bar, called Floridita, is always packed, and Hotel Ambus Mundo, the beautiful bright pink hotel where he stayed in Old Havana, has preserved his room as it would have been when he stayed in it. You can take a tour to his home just outside of the city or drive along the coast to his favourite town called Cojimar, which is believed to have inspired The Old Man And The Sea.

  • Explore the city’s old fortresses. Across the bay from Old Havana are two beautiful historic Spanish fortresses called Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña and Morro Castle that are well worth a walk-around. They are probably the best places in the city to get a scenic photo, and offer some insight into Cuba’s incredible and long history. You’ll pay somewhere between 10 to 20 CUC for cabs there and back, or you can take the ferry and make the long walk over to the fortresses.

  • Visit the Capital. - The beautiful capital building - inspired by the one in Washington D.C. - is located right beside Havana’s central park. Hang out on the steps in the shade of the building or explore inside the building before venturing into the park for ice cream or a break in the shade.

  • Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory). - If you’re looking for an evening activity, check out the Cuban Art Factory where you can catch art installations, theatre and live music.

  • Explore Fusterlandia. - Explore the beautiful tilework art of Cuban artist José Fuster in his former neighborhood. The exhibit is free, but if you’re staying in the old town you’ll have to find a way to get to there, whether it be a taxi or other public transit. The exhibition is reminiscent of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona’s Parque Guell.

Total Cost Breakdown:

  • $25 for health insurance

  • $567.44 for flights

  • $165.50 for Airbnb’s

  • $420 cash for spending

Final Total: $1177.94