Port of Havana
Cuba's capital city truly must have been one of the finest cities in the Americas in its day. Compared with many Caribbean ports of call, whose historic structures are limited to a handful of churches and musty museums, Havana and its nod to culture and history are breathtaking. It still boasts thousands of architectural treasures, dozens of top-notch museums, gracious avenues and promenades, wonderful music, friendly people, breathtaking vistas and more.
But Havana is in terrible decay. Some areas, particularly in Old Havana, have been restored, but there are numerous areas that are crumbling. These once-graceful buildings have taken a pounding from hurricanes, sea air and neglect for nearly 50 years, without the commitment or materials to preserve and maintain them. Many buildings are missing roofs; on some, you can see doorways leading to missing balconies, and on others, walls are crumbling. The most fascinating thing is seeing these dilapidated buildings in the evening. Once darkness descends, it becomes obvious that, despite the desperate state of these dwellings, people continue to live in them.
However, the city is rich with rewards for visitors. The core of "Old Havana" or "La Habana Vieja" is a treasure trove of architectural gems. Across Havana Bay, the iconic 16th-century Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle) guards the city and the harbor and provides panoramic views. The graceful and elegant avenues and mansions of "El Vedado" offer a glimpse of a wealthy past. Today, it's also the center of the modern government at the symbolic Plaza de la Revolucion.
Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was key in colonial times for its strategic location and rich agricultural base, which developed into the world's foremost sugar industry. (Today, it's almost extinct.) Havana itself was founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514, and, with its sheltered harbor, it prospered for centuries as a key center for trade.
Spain ruled Cuba for four centuries until the island gained its independence in 1899. In the 1900s, Cuba was mostly run by a series of leaders, who were greatly influenced by the United States. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow leader Fulgencio Batista, and a year later, Castro announced his allegiance to the Soviet Union and Communist principles. Thus, he alienated Cuba from the United States and, in the process, thousands of U.S. tourists that regularly visited the island.
The United States' embargo on Cuba, which began in the 1960s and has been modified several times, once prohibited U.S. citizens and U.S. companies from conducting business with Cuban interests. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton modified the embargo to prohibit subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba, and he also authorized the sale of certain specific products to Cuba. More recently, President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba, starting with those of Cuban descent and eventually allowing all citizens to visit with the ability to self-certify the cultural requirements to do so. Under the Trump administration, the certification required by U.S. citizens in order to visit is back to a group tour mandate -- but the regulations are a moving target.
The island remained politically aligned and economically dependent on the Soviet Union until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Following difficult economic times in the early 1990s (known as the "Periodo Especial"), Castro's regime began encouraging foreign investment, resulting in increased tourism -- predominantly from Canada and Europe. This marked the beginning of capitalism and renewed opportunity for the Cuban people. Cuba now attracts more than two million visitors each year.
In 2008, because of Castro's failing health, his brother Raul Castro was named president. Raul Castro has introduced changes to the island, such as allowing ownership of cellphones, buying and selling property and private enterprise, most notably in the form of paladars, or private restaurants. Fidel Castro died eight years later, in 2016.
With its convenient location, just 90 miles from South Florida, Cuba is an ideal port of call for lines sailing Caribbean itineraries. Now, due to a slow thaw, U.S. citizens are able to cruise to Cuba contingent upon taking a tour that falls under the cultural outreach visa category of people-to-people travel. These approved tours are offered through the cruise lines, and since restrictions loosened in 2016, they are heading to the once-forbidden island in droves. U.S.-based lines that now regularly call on Cuba include Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Oceania, Azamara, Holland America and Viking.
Classic cars, picturesque architecture, local music, Hemingway history -- Havana IS Cuba
U.S. currency exchange carries a premium
Cuba's capital is a must-see for visual splendor and cultural catharsis; allow several days
Find a Cruise to Cuba
Cruise ships dock at Terminal Sierra Maestra, and it's surprisingly modern inside. Since the cruise terminal is so centrally located (opposite Plaza de San Francisco in the old town), there's no reason to hang around the facility. The small souvenir shop on the first floor -- once selling only Cuban music CDs and postcards -- has upgraded to cigars and rum, if you need to grab something before your ship leaves. The terminal is also the best place to exchange your currency over to the CUC; just be sure to change any unwanted pesos back to dollars before the counter closes -- typically around 8 p.m.
Good to Know
Havana is a peaceful and safe city. That being said, take precautions against pickpockets and petty crimes: Do not wear lots of jewelry; avoid handling cash in plain view; keep valuables safe or, better yet, on the ship.
There are no beggars as such, but you might encounter hassles from so-called jiniteros, who are young men who will follow tourists and offer them anything from taxis to girls to a ubiquitous "cigar sale" (depending on your inclination). The best advice is a firm no, and they will move away to hassle someone else.
In many plaza and tourist areas, men and women dress in local costumes and ask for change in exchange for having their photos taken. In addition, be careful of those trying to sell cigars and rum on the streets. Often, the products are fake or of an inferior quality.
In addition, because of restrictions on locals changing currency, be wary of those asking to exchange money. The currency they try to exchange with you may be counterfeit.
Prostitution is rampant in Havana and completely in your face, but it is illegal. And, be warned that the government is not tolerant of any guns or drugs, so buying even a tiny bit of marijuana can lead to significant trouble with the law.
On Foot: Traffic has picked up in Havana in recent years, but there are several pedestrian zones: La Plaza Vieja, La Calle Obispo and La Plaza de Armas, among others. In addition, the 4-mile seafront malecon and the central marble promenade of Calle de Prado will entice and delight walkers. (Note that many of the streets in Havana are cobblestoned and/or lack conveniences for wheelchairs and scooters.)
By Taxi: Official taxis are metered and widely available at a number of taxi stands throughout the city. Official taxi services feature newer vehicles with official taxi logos on the side, uniformed drivers and, usually, air-conditioning. An hourly price of about 10 to 15 CUC can be negotiated with drivers. Numerous unofficial taxis are not metered or insured. Be sure to negotiate a price in advance. Also note that similar to Uber Pool in the States, some of these older taxis can fit a surprising amount of people inside; it reduces the rate and might spark a new friendship, but is maybe not the most comfortable way to travel.
By Classic Car: In addition to taxis (and a lot more fun), you can hail one of the vintage cars, which in recent years have become official taxis. The rate is the same, and if you can put up with the split leather seats and heat (many are open-air), they are a much more interesting way to see the city. This is a must-do while in Havana -- the range of these classic American vehicles is staggering, and owners treat the cars -- passed down from generation to generation -- as a family member. After all, this is a primary source of income for many in the city.
By CocoTaxi: These bright yellow, three-wheeled, open-air vehicles carry two passengers and the driver. They are a fun alternative for short trips, but they aren't metered, so be sure to establish a price in advance. You'll also find more standard pedi-cabs if you're not interested in riding inside what appears to be a lemon.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Two currencies circulate in Cuba.
The peso nacional, or peso Cubano (CUP), is used by locals and is virtually worthless to tourists (except for use in public phones, local buses and some cinemas).
The peso convertible (CUC) is currency used by tourists, and you can buy just about everything with it. It is pegged to the U.S. dollar, but note when you exchange it at the official exchange bureau, they will take a 10 percent commission. U.S. dollars are the only currency subject to the commission, and so you are better off bringing euros, British pounds or Canadian dollars. Also important to note that you can't buy Cuban currency before you leave the States, and it can't be exchanged back once you return.
Credit and debit cards and traveler's checks issued by U.S. banks are not accepted in Cuba, and other credit cards incur transaction fees of between 7 and 11 percent. Some establishments will accept Canadian dollars or euros.
Money can be exchanged at official Casa de Cambio (CADECA) locations throughout the city and at the airport. Check online before your visit for current exchange rates.
Spanish is the official language, although many in the tourist industry speak some English.
Food and Drink
Until fairly recently, eating in Havana could be a bit of a challenge, because of the lack of quality and inconsistency of ingredients. Most restaurants were state run (and were generally pretty awful both in terms of food and service). The few privately run restaurants (known as paladars) were subject to a slew of red tape that made them almost as bad as the state-run ones.
All of this changed in January 2011, when President Raul Castro's new privatization laws allowed paladars to seat up to 50 people (previously it was 12), and, more crucially, serve entrees beyond the traditional Cuban food of roast pork, black beans, rice and plantains.
Today, there are paladars popping up all over the city offering cuisine and service to match any restaurant in the Caribbean. The older ones are often quirky in terms of hours and service (they are often family run, with older members cooking and waiting tables). The post-2011 paladars are modern, hip and funky.
La Guarida: The most famous paladar in Havana , was featured in the popular Cuban film "Fresa y Chocolate," and much of its reputation rests on this. Half the fun is getting there: It must be reached via three flights up a poorly lit, steep staircase in a building that anywhere else in the world would have been condemned by now. Signature dishes include ahi with sugar cane glaze, mutton braised in papaya juice, seafood risotto and more. (Concordia 418 e/ Gervasio y Escobar; open noon to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight daily)
El Templete: A few blocks from the cruise terminal, just off the Malecon, is El Templete, one of the oldest restaurants in the city. This eatery offers fine views over the bay. It's known for the freshest seafood and shellfish in the city and offers an impressive array of appetizers, as well as a wide variety of main dishes, but it's not cheap. (Avenida del Puerto, no. 12-14, esq. Narcisco Lopez; open noon to 10:30 p.m.)
Dona Eutimia: One of the best-known restaurants in Havana is this paladar that serves up reasonably priced, generously portioned traditional Cuban dishes, with great service (and very attractive staff) in a prime spot opposite the Cathedral. (Callejon del Chorro, Plaza de la Catedral)
Azucar: This swanky snack bar and lounge (punctuated with three explanation points in its official name) offers a stellar view to the plaza below and proves that Havana eateries have gotten trendy. Nosh on Cuban charcuterie plates while a bartender with a drink trolley makes you a custom gin and tonic -- in perhaps the largest individual drink glasses we've ever seen. It's a tad pricy, but worth it for the location, the ambiance -- and did we mention the G&Ts? (Mercaderes 315 Teniente Rey and Vieja, Muralla)
Waoo: If you fancy venturing further afield to the Vedado area, then you'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to places to eat. One of the standouts is Waoo, which offers fresh, simple food from just 2 CUCs, including empanadas as well as larger dishes. The venue is lovely: a wooden house with shuttered windows and a large L-shaped bar. It's located right in the heart of hip, happening Vedado. (Calle L, no. 414, cnr. Calle 25; open noon to midnight)
As for the best cocktail in Havana, it's a toss-up between three of Cuba's famous rum concoctions: the Cuba Libre, the daiquiri and the mojito. The Cuba Libre is basically rum and cola and is rumored to have been created by U.S. Soldiers during the war of independence in 1898. Note that, although Coca-Cola products are not common in Cuba, there is a local "Kola" that is available both in regular and diet versions. The daiquiri is a frozen drink that's made with rum, lime, sugar and maraschino cherries. It was invented by miners in the Cuban port town of Daiquiri. The mojito combines rum with sugar, muddled lime and mint and is served over ice with sparkling water.
The most popular local beers are the relatively light Cristal and the stronger Bucanero.
Hemingway, who made Cuba his home for a time, has created mystique around numerous island bars. At one end of La Calle Obispo is El Floridita (Avenida de Belgica esq. Obispo 557; open 11 a.m. to midnight), one of his legendary haunts; he developed quite the taste for daiquiris there, and there is an oft-photographed statue of the American author at one end of the bar. (El Floridita claims to have perfected the recipe and calls itself the "cradle of the daiquiri.")
Near the cathedral in Old Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily), another Hemingway haunt, is regarded as a temple to the mojito and is probably Havana's most famous restaurant. Its walls are covered with photographs, graffiti, drawings and people's signatures (you can add yours if you find space). It's usually crowded and touristy, but it's great fun and definitely worth a visit.
While serving up a perfectly tasty drink, these popular Old Havana bars are generally overpriced when it comes to offering fairly average food and mediocre service; El Floridita's entrees range from 35 to45 CUC. La Bodeguita del Medio is more moderately priced, but also serves simple meals.
The most popular souvenirs are rum, cigars and coffee, as well as arts and crafts. The most widely available rum is Havana Club, which comes in several varieties. It is recommended that cigars be purchased in reputable shops, as many street vendors try to sell knock-off, low-quality or fake cigars. U.S. citizens are allowed 100 cigars and 1 liter of rum per person to bring back home.
Wood carvings, papier mache, musical instruments, items made from shells, paintings and other arts and crafts are available at a number of street markets and shops.