Havana (Photo:Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)
2018 Top-Rated Western Caribbean & Riviera Maya Destinations
4.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

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.

About Havana


Pro

Classic cars, picturesque architecture, local music, Hemingway history -- Havana IS Cuba

Con

U.S. currency exchange carries a premium

Bottom Line

Cuba's capital is a must-see for visual splendor and cultural catharsis; allow several days


Find a Cruise to Cuba

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.

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.

Language

Spanish is the official language, although many in the tourist industry speak some English.

Shopping

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.


Havana Awards

Cruisers’ Choice Destination Awards

2018 Top-Rated Western Caribbean & Riviera Maya Destinations