Cuba’s isolation makes it an amazing destination for travelers seeking an authentic and memorable experience, yet exploring Havana requires a bit more planning and knowledge than other cities, especially in the Caribbean.
Cubans tend to love Americans, and Cuba is safer than most cities in the US. If you need directions, smile and ask anyone and you are likely get your answer with a returning smile (smile in Spanish is “sonrisa”).
So if you find yourself in Havana without a tour guide or if you prefer the intrepid style of travel, here’s an itinerary for you:
We suggest a stay at the Hotel Saratoga if the health of your wallet permits. If not you can start just outside the entrance of the hotel at this sign across from the Parque de la Franternidad. Hire a horse and carriage.
Ask the driver to take you to La Plaza de Catedral (Cathedral Plaza). It’s about a ten minute ride filled with great Havana landmarks.
Plaza de la Catedral is one of the five main squares in Old Havana and the site of the Cathedral of Havana from which it takes its name. Originally a swamp, it was later drained and used as a naval dockyard. Following the construction of the Cathedral in 1727, it became the site of some of the city’s grandest mansions. It is the site of the Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum) and a number of restaurants. This plaza may seem like a tourist trap, but it has retained its authenticity and charm.
Next to the plaza is the Taller Experimental de la Gráfica, a graphic arts studio, where Michelle Obama visited in 2016.
Find Isolina Limonta, an artist at the Taller. She sold her art to Michelle Obama.
Explore the many other art galleries and shops located at or near the plaza. Several blocks away are two former Ernest Hemingway hangouts. La Bodeguita del Medio is a typical restaurant-bar in Havana. Personalities with a history there include Salvador Allende, the poet Pablo Neruda, the artist Josignacio and, of course, Ernest Hemingway. La Bodeguita claims to be the birthplace of the Mojito cocktail, prepared in the bar since its opening in 1942.
Also nearby is Hemingway’s home before he bought one in Cuba, the Hotel Ambos Mundos. You can even see the room were Hemingway lived and wrote several novels. Across the street, you can find street musicians performing in public.
For lunch, go to paladar (private) restaurant Doña Eutimia, located next to Taller Experimental de la Gráfica back at the plaza. You may want to make a reservation in the morning when you arrive at the plaza.
After lunch, seek out spontaneous musical engagements with typical Cubans. Most Cubans know how to play an instrument (or can sing) and love to share their gifts with visitors. Be sure to expand diplomacy by contributing a CUC (Cuban currency) or two ($1 or $2) if you like the music.
Next, take your art and climb into a Cocotaxi, a rickshaw-type taxi found only in Cuba. The driver (missing) sits in the middle.
Drop off the art at your hotel and head over to the Hotel Nacional. There you will find great views of the Malecon (a wall and promenade along the sea), several bars and a Casas del Habano, Cuba’s fantastical national cigar bars.
There is always something happening at the Nacional. We came across a fashion shoot one day.
Walk down to the Malecon and enjoy the seaside. This is a famous place for Cubans to hang out, especially at night.
You must be exhausted keeping with this itinerary. Go back to your hotel and take a nap. Here’s a typical room at the Hotel Saratoga.
Now it’s time for dinner. We suggest Cafe Laurent, a paladar (private) restaurant located in the penthouse of an apartment building. Location: Penthouse, 257 Calle M. Try the grilled lobster.
After dinner, head over to La Zorra y El Cuervo (The Vixen and the Crow) located at: Calle 23, entre N y O. You can’t go to Cuba without experiencing live jazz. The entrance is a phone booth located in the sidewalk.
NOTE: If you don’t like cigars, you can instead hire an antique convertible and driver for a tour around old Havana. This is my driver looking for a receipt (in Spanish “recibo”) in front of Hotel Nacional.