Wow. What an experience! We've been back from Cuba for 3 weeks now and whenever people ask me what the country was like, the word interesting always tumbles out of my mouth. Havana was the most visually and intellectually stimulating place I've traveled to in a long time. People often describe Cuba as frozen in time and for the most part, it definitely had that museum-like vibe.
For a quick history lesson: Relations with the US were crumbing towards the end of the 1950s, we stopped providing financial aid to Cuba in 1961 and the official embargo prohibiting all US imports was fully in effect by 1962.
Meaning that any "American" items you see in Cuba (up until just a few years ago when relations started to normalize) are literally relics, carefully and lovingly preserved for the past 50+ YEARS! That blew my mind! Which explains all the cool, old-school cars. Most of the taxis and personal cars of locals are the 1955 and 1956 Cheverolet Bel Airs. Can you imagine still having your Grandfather's car in the family (using it as your primary vehicle) and bartering for leftover parts from other cars and even tractors to keep it running?! And these cars were pristine. Fresh paint jobs, new upholstery.... you could feel the love they put into their belongings there because there was literally no other option. Amazing. I'm totally not a car person by nature, but what it symbolized spoke volumes to me.
With its multi-layered, complicated history and relationship with the United States, I was of course curious about how they would treat us "Americans". Surprisingly, the locals were not even phased. Cuba has been closed off to the US (and vice versa) for almost 60 years now, but has kept normal relations with almost every other country in the world. In downtown Havana, there were huge plazas and cathedrals that had a very European influence. Restaurants had infusions of flavors from neighboring Caribbean islands. African culture is evident in the music and roots of most Cubans. While we Americans have this idea of it being a closed-off bubble, it actually felt very much like a global melting pot. The architecture, building and roads are where it feels frozen in time. Crumbling, yet sufficient.
There's an over-arching joy and kindness that surprised me about the Cuban people. Always smiling and welcoming, despite knowing that they are at a turning point in history, where once the flood gates from America truly open up, they will be inundated with visitors. Even with this knowledge, there was a general warmth and gratitude for our presence. Definitely no bad vibes against Americans that we experienced, at all!
Luckily, we had the expert tour guide in our corner. "Havana Lana" aka my Auntie Lana from Halifax Canada who has spent a few months a year in Cuba for the last 10+ years invited us down for a visit. My husband's parents had Cuba on their travel bucket list as well, so we all joined forced and met for a week of exploring this forbidden country.
A few girlfriends have since asked me if it's safe for a girls trip. Yes, absolutely! A few things that amazed me were how safe, clean, and healthy the country felt. I think a girls trip is totally OK and would be an awesome adventure! We traveled with my baby girl Luna in tow, who was only 7 months old at the time. The Cuban people absolutely adored her!
For the ideal Cuban experience, if you want to cover all bases of educational, relaxing, and adventurous, I would spend 5 days in Old Havana and 4 or 5 days enjoying the beaches of Varadero, Cienfuegos, and Cayo Coco. And if you're into it, there's also a really cool countryside area called Valle de Vinales where you can go horseback riding through tobacco farms and learn the art of rolling their famous cigars.
Here are my favorite photos from our Cuban Adventure, and be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom for a list of my favorite restaurants and not-to-miss places in Havana!
Havana Vieja ~ Old Havana
- Classic Car Convertible Tour: yes, it’s touristy but it was so much fun and such a highlight – also a great way to see the city. We did the four hour option with an English speaking guide and it was worth every penny. If you do 4 hours you go to Fusterlandia Art Gallery located out of town – it was fun and funky art space.
- Night out at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC): Located in Vedado neighborhood of Havana. A huge multi-purpose art space with galleries, stage for performances, DJs, theater, and bars. Open only Thursday - Sunday.
- Dinner at El Cocinero: right next to FAC in Vedado, must have a reservation. Get a table on the rooftop terrace. Best plan is to make a dinner reso here for 7 or 8pm, then head next door to FAC for drinks after.
- La Guarida: a classic fancy dinner spot, nice if you want to splurge. Very popular, for a reason! Must have a reservation.
- Castro Pol: restaurant on the famous malecon as you leave/enter downtown Havana. Perfect location for a long lazy siesta or dinner with a sunset view.
- 1830 Bar (Mil Ocho in Vedado): Gorgeous restaurant, literally ocean front! Open-air Salsa bar with a live band and then DJ some nights. Not to be missed!
- 304 O’Reilly: My husband, baby Luna and I stopped in here for tapas and mojitos in the middle of a long day walking around Old Havana. Perfect location in the middle of everything. Tightly packed restaurant resembling an English pub. Definitely no room for a stroller or baby gear but the staff was so nice and made room for us :)
Other great spots that came highly recommended to us
Shout out to Christine Seisun and Lis Meyers for these super helpful lists! Gracias chicas!
- Habana Mia 7 (restaurant in Vedado)
- Museo del Chocolate
- Sia Kara for cocktails
- Museum of the Revolution
- Clandestina: boutique and art store
- Havana Club store in Old Havana: do a tour of how they make rum and taste test!
- Casa Del Musica: classic Cuban salsa and live music spot, not to be missed! Ask a taxi driver to take you to the one in Miramar.
- Sunset stroll on the Malecon! Lots of Cubans come out to enjoy the sunset. Also a fun nighttime walk. People will be drinking and playing music – an unforgettable experience.
If you need help planning your Cuba Adventure
Especially if traveling in a group from the US, contact my Aunt Lana via her website.
She specializes in corporate training and team-building, and sustainable Edu-tourism in Cuba, and can assist you with the proper government forms needed and/or help you book out your itinerary.