by Lynn Kim Do

Havana, Cuba

cuba travel guide

Cuba is unlike any destination I have been to. One reason why Cuba is so unique is because of the travel ban that was recently lifted by Obama and then reinstated by Trump. Cuba's tourism is new. It's evolving in the face of the growing tourism. It's also a unique place because it really in it's own world. A true time capsule. And we're just living in it when we're there. Trust me, they are not living for us. The assimilation for foreigners is different. Is new. And I'm here to help you navigate Cuba (although I do encourage spontaneity and an open heart in the face of something new and challenging). This is everything you need to currently know when traveling to Cuba.

1. As of today, Trump's Cuba Ban is not in effect yet. It takes time for legislation to go through. For instance, Obama's Cuba ban lift took four months. Clearly, time is of the essence! We decided to go now in fear that Trump's Ban will be in effect sooner than later. However, keep in mind that Americans can't travel to Cuba for tourism reasons. This is still true under Obama's current law as well. However, under Obama's law, it is much easier to travel. The 12 categories of travel is loose and easy to navigate around. For example, I knew someone who went to Cuba with tons of school supplies and used the reason "Humanitarian". Others put "People to People." However, when we traveled with JetBlue, there were no questions asked. It went very smooth. 
2. Visas can be purchased at the airline you are using to get there. We flew JetBlue and paid $50 (debit/credit only) for our visa and it was a simple process. 
3. Make sure you give yourself ample time at the airport. I suggest 2.5-3 hours before your boarding time. 
4. Outlets and voltage are the same as American and European's. (110v and 220v) 
5. Exchange your USD currency to Canadian (or Euros) before jumping on the plane to Cuba. USD gets an additional tax on top of the currency exchange. If you want to exchange it at your branch, call your bank and order your currency 5 days before your intended pick up date. That's the most economic way. If you don't have the time, you can certainly exchange it at your airport. Once you arrive to Havana, there are currency exchange booths at the airport.  
6. Tap water is dangerous to consumer here. There are plenty of bottled water available to purchase. I also brought a water filter bottle to filter my water when I brush my teeth. Showers and baths should be okay! 
7. Tip is 10% and occasionally included in the check. Always check! If you feel that the service is exceptional, tip 15%! 
8. The shittier the vehicle, the cheaper the taxi. To be safe, take yellow cabs but we did take older vehicles once or twice and survived. Take caution. 
9. Don't buy Cuban cigars from the street. In fact, buy cigars, rum, and coffee from government owned stores for the best price and for authenticity. 
10. Not every public bathroom will have toilet paper, bring napkins with you before you walk into a less modern restaurant, bar, or any public bathroom. 
11. If you're going to stay at an Airbnb with a family, bring American candy, chocolates, or toiletries as gifts. They'd really appreciate it! 
12. Wifi and internet are scarce here. You can purchase wifi cards which they sell by the hour. Some hotels have free wifi, too. We chose Saratoga hotel which had free wifi for the duration of our stay. 
13. Google maps work in Cuba! When you have internet, map your destination before you go. On airplane mode, it will still tell you your current location. If you're anticipating zero wifi connection, download the free app and download Cuba's map. 
14. SnapChat does not work here! You also can not download apps from the App Store once you're in Cuba. Most apps that are already downloaded on your phone should work with minor glitches here and there. (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube works.) 
15. Book tours and excursions in advance (a month or two weeks prior) for the best price! But if you didn't, don't worry. You can certainly book something when you're there but you might not get the best prices. Scroll down more for recommended tours and excursions. 
16. It gets hot here! Even if you're not planning to go to the beach, bring easy to breathe clothes and sunscreen. 
17. The best time to go is December to May. Dry season and the hottest season is end of May to August. End of August to end of November is hurricane season.

What To Do
1. Explore Old Havana: we did this almost every single day and found something new and fascinating every single time. This area is where we found the food scene to be the most delicious.  
2. Take an Old Car Tour, a must do! And do this one your first full day if you can. It's best if you reserve a week or two in advance but we were able to get a beautiful car with a tour guide by emailing a service a day in advance. Nothing beats the feeling of being in an 40s vintage car with the roof down, seeing some of the city's most beautiful sights, and learning about Cuba's culture and history. We booked with Vintage Car Tours.  
3. Spend the entire evening at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. This is some of the best all around experience EVER. It's a restaurant / art / live music / shoppe / night club. All of those in one! I don't understand why we don't have something similar in NYC. Oh I know why. It's because we're very weird about partying and drinking around art. The place opens from 8pm-3am. Come before 9:15pm because the lines get intense! The party gets lit around 11pm. There are restaurants and cafes inside. There's also HUGE mojitos for $10 at the bar near the entrance. Good luck finishing it. 
4. Catch the sunset at Malecon and enjoy the scenic walk with booze in hand. 
5. Take a day trip to Santa Maria beach. Roughly 30 min from Old Havana.  
6. Take a full day trip to Vinales Valley. It's beautiful and it is a great place to buy coffee and get the best cigars.

Where To Stay

1. Hotel Saratoga 
2. Loft Habana 
3. Boutique Vedado 5tay8 
4. Hotel Ambos Mundos 
5. Hostal Chez Nous La Habana Cuba 
6. Airbnb - Hostal del Angel 
7. AirBnb - Boutique Apartment 
8. AirBnb - Los Balcones de Oficios. Habana Vieja 
9. Airbnb - Animas

Where To Eat / Drink
1. O'Reilly 304: One of our favorite restaurant in Cuba by far! They have amazing tapas, great live music, and their cocktails are some of the best I've had. Ever. Although their food isn't authentic Cuban food, the vibes and quality of O'Reilly's dishes are impressive. Try their gin cocktails! To eat, order their civiche and try their butternut squash soup with blue cheese chunks. OMG 
2. La Makina: We loved the quaint, intimate, and rooftop dining here. Their fried pork chops were so tasty! You must also try the frituras de malanga. Wash down your food with the freshest mango daiquiri. 
3. Sia Kara: We came here for lunch but wish we were also able to come back and see the dinner scene. Our coffees were divine and it's presentation was such a cute touch. The space itself has so much character. Order the mixed appetizer plate so you can taste a little of everything. You won't regret it. 
4. El Chanchullero: This restaurant is very popular among tourists but it's actually lives up to the food hype. Expect a wait but trust me, it's worth it. The cuisine is young and a more modern rendition of Cuban food is fantastic. Expect OD meat and being satisfied all the way through. The space is small but they have a cute upstairs section too. Oh, and the price is almost too good to be true. 
5. Habana 61: We stopped here for lunch one afternoon and found their ropa vieja absolutely delicious. Their chickpea broth with vegetable rice balls are a vegans dream come true. 
6. El Concinero: This restaurant sits right next to Fábrica de Arte Cubano on top of a working old mill. It's Brooklyn vibes meets Cuba. Reservations will guarantee that you won't wait but the bar / waiting area will give you a nice view. If you don't want to make reservations, head there around 7pm for dinner before going into the art museum next door. Their ropa vieja was also delicious. 
7. Floridita: Touristy but who gives a fuck. Go for the live music, to see Hemingway's statue sitting at the same spot he use to occupy. Order a daiquiri (Hemingways' favorite drink there). Go for the crazy amount of people jammed into one dope spot and friendly bartenders serving daiquiris in martini glasses.

One of the largest consensus I had from friends who have been to Cuba was that their food scene was not too great. The "lack of resources" made dining hard and taste even harder to come by. We'd like to disagree. We found some amazing restaurants that impressed our tastebuds, and I'd say that we're some of the pickiest eaters. You'll also learn patience on this trip because food takes time here. But it will totally be worth it. Some dishes you must try: ropa viejes, sandwich cubano, frituras de malanga.