Start your journey in the vibrant capital city, Havana! The place is changing fast, so take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a city halted in time in certain respects, but speedily racing into the future in others. Visit Havana now if you want to see a society on the brink of change. For in the capital city of Cuba Classic American cars are inching through potholed streets, while music flavor oozes out from bright-colored houses with the continuous rhythm of construction work and renovation in the background. I find it dynamic. I find it beautiful. I find it unique.
Things to see and do in Havana
Explore the cuisine
Use the day of your arrival to gently let the city open up to you. Have a meal on one of the terraces serving local food or in one of the many trendy restaurants. I recommend Río Mar if you are interested in international food with a Cuban touch to it. If you, however, are in for some even bolder fusion food (Cuban food along with Mediterranean, mainly Basque dishes), go to Café Laurent. For those appreciating a really ambient place where there is a plethora of choice from the simplest food to the most complex one, there is El Cocinero.
Visit the sights
Walk in Old Havana, where time stands still inside and outside of the walls of graceful buildings constructed in Spanish colonial style. Visit El Capitolio, Cuba’s national Capitol building, one of the main landmarks of the city, which bears a striking resemblance to its American counterpart. Its dome is one of the biggest in the world and it is a national monument of Cuba.
Three religious places you might want to see are: San Cristobal Cathedral with is majestic Baroque Facade and asymmetrical towers, the Cathedral of Havana (Cathedral of Virgin Mary of Immaculate Conception) and El Templete (a small 19th-century church which nevertheless had an important influence on the architecture of the surrounding buildings).
Castles and fortresses
Castles and fortresses abound, and some of them are must-see. Your top choice should be the Castillo de Real Fuerza (the Castle of the Royal Force). It is a famous Unesco World Heritage Site and is the oldest fort in all the Americas. Built in the shape of a four-point star with impressive military architecture, it proudly preserves its time-hardened walls and houses a History Museum worth exploring. Another impressive edifice is El Morro (the Castle of the Three Kings of Morro), a 16th-century fortress in the bay of Havana with a romantic 19th-century lighthouse.
If you are one for Museums and art, there are two Museum of Fine Arts for you, one dedicated to Cuban arts, while the other one houses universal art. Another museum recommendation is the Museum of Revolution preserving artifacts starting from the 15th century to our days.
Do not plan too much for one day, instead, stop anytime you see a beautiful ‘plaza’ (square), get a snack from the many street vendors offering their delicious merchandise, and simply take the place in.
Make sure to visit one of the cigar factories. Book a Cigar Factory Tour. Cuba is world-famous for its quality cigars. They think that tobacco is an ambassador, it brings people together. Cigar production for them is the melange of culture, wisdom, and tradition. Some factories may require tickets bought in advance at certain hotels instead of selling them at the entrance. If you want to sample as well, which I recommend, go to Casa Abel, Cigar Bar and Restaurant, where they pair the tasting of fine cigars with Santiago Rum.
At the end of the day relax in La Bodegita del Medio. It is touristy but it is a must. This place has the most authentic mojitos in the world. Follow their way of being prepared up close, then enjoy.
During one of your evenings in Havana walk along the Malecón. This seawall, stretching for more than 4 miles is sometimes called the longest sofa in the city, where the whole place comes to meet, sit and interact. The Malecón is touristy by day but really comes to life, teeming with local vibe and color at night. Grab some street food, a beer and be part of the city.
Music flows in the blood of all Cubans. Enjoy the rhythm of the country at Siá Kará Café. In this authentic local bar, people are famous for singing together up to 2 a.m. As they say, nobody, who comes alone, is alone.
If you are in for something more modern, go to Lá Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Arts Space. This is currently the hub of Havana’s contemporary art life. You can find all forms of art and entertainment there. Some people go there to see films, others for its music, clubbing, visual arts or theater. It is a trendy place where you will not only enjoy the show but will have the opportunity of meeting lots of interesting folks.
Sometime during your stay in Havana go to a close by beach.
Close to the western part of Havana, there are a couple of good, but rocky beaches. If you, however, prefer sand, like I do, hop in a taxi and relax on Playa del Este, for example, or Guanabo Beach. Enjoy the sugar-white beaches and let your muscles relax in preparation for the next part of your journey.