We have had our eye on Cuba ever since airlines started direct flights to Cuba from the United States. We booked our trip through Southwest Airlines and it was just like booking any other flight except we had to get a visa specifying the reason for our visit (there are 12 visa categories to choose from). Since many people had questions about getting this visa to Cuba, we thought we'd start out this post with that process.
Southwest required that we arrive at the airport 3 hours prior to our departure time to give plenty of time to process our visa for Cuba. It only took 20 minutes to get our visa and then check-in to our flight, but as we were heading to our gate, we noticed the lines were getting long. So, if we hadn't arrived early, it would have taken us much longer for the process.
We arrived at the Havana airport around 8AM. It took us nearly 2 hours to go through customs and exchange our money. As soon as we got our CUC, we grabbed a taxi in one of those old American classic cars Cuba is known for. It took about 25 minutes to get to Old Havana, where our Airbnb was located. Our lovely hosts showed us how to use the bathroom (no flushing toilet paper in the toilet and discard in the trash can) and then handed over the keys. We were so excited to stay in Old Havana right in the center of everything.
We were ready to explore and just started wandering the streets of Old Havana. The cobblestone streets and historic architecture were simply stunning. Every corner we turned, we discovered something intriguing. As we were walking, many Cubans tried to talk to us and many asked where we were from. Everyone was so friendly and we wish we would have learned more Spanish so that we could communicate better.
Our Airbnb was located right next to the Chocolate Museum, Plaza Vieja and Plaza de San Francisco. The streets were bustling with tourists everywhere. We just scoped out some places and then headed the opposite direction where there were less tourists. We walked by Hotel Raquel and the friendly employee up front asked us if we wanted to check out the rooftop of the hotel. We were excited to go upstairs in one of those old caged elevators, but it didn't actually go to the rooftop and stopped on the third floor. We were a bit disappointed at first, but the design on this floor was absolutely beautiful. We were glad we made the stop.
Afterwards, we hung out by the bar right next to our Airbnb called Cafe Habana. We didn't know it at the time, but this was the best bar in Old Havana (in our opinion). We ordered a mojito, which was only 3 CUC (~$3) and it was so fresh and delicious. They put an entire stem of mint in their mojitos (which is the thing to do in Cuba). We enjoyed our cocktails and people-watched for a bit since it was in a perfect location on the corner of Amagura and Mercaderes.
We were getting hungry, so it was time for dinner. We walked back to Plaza Vieja (Old Square) and decided to have dinner at Don Eduardo Alegre, which had a nice view of the plaza from the upstairs balcony. The ambience of the restaurant was beautiful and our server was very friendly. We ordered some cocktails like the Cubanito (Bloody Mary with rum) and discovered another tasty drink of Cuba. We ordered the Frituras de Malanga appetizer (our first time trying taro), Bolognese and Filet Mignon. The appetizer was delicious, but the entrees were average. The filet mignon was questionable as it definitely was not type of beef we are accustomed to. It seemed like it was made of several different types of meat.
Since we were still a little hungry after dinner, we stopped by the churros stand right next to the Chocolate Museum. The aroma of these fresh churros are irresistible. Crystal stopped by here several times during our stay as they were absolutely amazing and very cheap at 0,50 CUC (~50 cents USD).
We hung out at Cafe Habana for more drinks and met Junior at the bar, who spoke fluent English. We were so happy that we were finally able to carry a conversation with a local in Cuba, so we had so many questions for him. He was such a delight and gave us great tips for things to do and not to do in Cuba. He also gave us a little history on Cuba and its people and shared his life story with us. It was a great end to our first night in Havana.
Old Havana is very busy during the day, so we decided to wake up first thing in the morning at sunrise and walk around while it was still calm and quiet. There were some people out and about cleaning the streets, but for the most part, we had the streets all to ourselves.
There weren't many places open for breakfast, but we managed to find La Marina. They had a few items for breakfast such as eggs, toast and ham, so we ordered just that. The food was disappointing as the bread was stale the eggs had food scrapings from the pan it was cooked in. Good thing we had the granola bars we brought with us.
Since our visa indicated that we were in Cuba for "Educational activities by persons", it was required to book some sort of guided tour. We saw quite a bit of tour buses with large groups of people, which we didn't want to do. We were so glad that we booked a private tour with FerTours. It was an all-day tour and our tour guide, Manuel, spoke fluent English. Below are some of the places our tour consisted of:
*Hotel Nacional de Cuba
We would have never thought to visit this hotel and were so glad Manuel took us here. It was a gorgeous hotel full of history and amazing views. A lot of the American mobsters during the US prohibition era stayed at this hotel and now presidents and celebrities all come to stay here. You can also go through an underground tunnel used to spy on the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We could have spent several hours just hanging out at this location.
*Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square)
We felt that just doing a drive-by of this spot would have been sufficient enough, but we understood why Manuel brought us here. The square was a memorial to Jose Marti, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. There were a ton of tour buses here, so it definitely felt touristy.
This bar and restaurant has been in Cuba since the 1800s and was one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite places. They are known for their frozen daiquiris. We wish we could have tasted one of their daiquiris, but it was so packed that there was no room to relax and enjoy a drink. You definitely have to visit this place at off peak hours.
*Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force)
Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a very well preserved castle and one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Havana. We didn't go inside the castle, but the view here was beautiful and the surrounding areas were very interesting. The one thing we liked that was nearby was a small street made entirely of wood. This wooden street was constructed to help eliminate the loud noises that cobblestone streets generated. However, construction stopped after the realization that wood was hard to maintain due to warping and other factors.
* Old Havana
The last hour of the tour was in Old Havana. We walked around the various squares and our tour guide gave us a ton of suggestions of other places to visit on our own. Since we were staying in Old Havana, this was the perfect place to end the tour.
Before dinner, we stopped by Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is the hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived in for 5 years. There is a beautiful rooftop bar at this hotel with gorgeous views of the city. We wanted to enjoy some mojitos while we watched the sunset. This hotel is known for their mojitos, but we were disappointed with them. It didn't have that traditional mojito flavor we loved, so we barely drank the cocktails.
After cocktails, we walked around Old Havana to find a place for dinner. We came across Paladar Los Mercaderes, which was right next to our favorite bar, Cafe Habana. The restaurant had a sign outside that said it had the best reviews on TripAdvisor. It was one of our last meals in Cuba, so we decided to give it a try. We're so glad we took our chances because everything about this restaurant was AMAZING! The ambience, the customer service, the entertainment and the food were all excellent. We ordered the Frituras De Malanga, Shrimps Risotto and Sesame Crusted Pork Tenderloin. Everything was outstanding and we were so happy we finally found good food in Cuba.
Once again, we woke up first thing in the morning and walked around Old Havana to take in all it's beauty while the streets were still quiet.
This was our last day, so we wanted to spend some time looking for cigars and souvenirs in Old Havana. We found a cigar shop inside of Hotel Conde de Villanueva and wished we would have found this place sooner. We purchased cigars during the guided tour and those cigars ended up costing us double the price for the exact same ones.
We spent some time walking around the non-touristy areas of Old Havana where the locals shopped at food markets or picked up their rations at the bakery. All the locals were very friendly and inviting as we observed their everyday lives.
Our Airbnb hosts reserved a driver for us and we were on our way back to the airport. Make sure to arrive at least 3 hours prior to departure. The wait times for check-in is very long and took us more than an hour to reach the service desk.
We can't wait to make another trip to Cuba. 48 hours in Havana was plenty of time to explore this vibrant city. Next time, we would love to visit the beaches and go horseback riding on the tobacco farms of Vinales.