Contradictory, confusing and ultimately charming, a trip to Cuba will make your senses spin and your mind boggle. Because there is hands-down no other place on earth like it. Combining old-world elegance with Communist curiosities, if, like me, you only had a handful of days to spare in Cuba, make Havana your first stop. While there's much to explore on this tiny island, a short sojourn on the island isn't complete with a stay in the country's capital. Teeming with fascinating history, stunning architecture and classic '50s American cars, the bustling city has much to offer in the way of entertainment. Here, I share my brief (and by no means exhaustive) cheat sheet to the country's capital city.

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Getting there
While there are a few ways to get there, most people fly via Mexico or the Bahamas. It's easy enough to organise a trip (including transfers and hotels) with a travel agent, but it can be just as easy (and much cheaper) to book flights with a travel agent and find your own accommodation and catch a cab to the city once you arrive. 

Where to stay

Only in Cuba: why Havana should be on your ultimate travel hit list

There are two main options for accommodation in Cuba - hotels or Casa particulares aka home stays in the spare room of a local Cuban family. Many of the hotels in Havana, like Hotel Saratoga (where Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed), the slightly run-down Hotel Plaza (where I stayed) and the more regal Hotel Inglaterra or five-star Iberostar Parque Central (which boasts a rooftop pool) are government owned, so if you're looking for a way to support an actual Cuban household, choose the casa particulares option.

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Only in Cuba: why Havana should be on your ultimate travel hit list

There are thousands of casa particulares  dotted around the city, usually marked by a blue and white sign above the door, marked 'Arrendador divisa'. While casas are government regulated, staying with a local grants you access to Cuban customs, home-cooked food and recommendations you likely won't score from a hotel. While many vary in price and facilities, you'll generally always get a private room and bathroom - some larger ones might offer your own kitchenette, too.

Don't be fooled by the cuisine of nearby Mexico, Cuban food ranks as almost non-existent on the spiciness scale. Thanks to the harbour, Havana offers tons of great seafood options and other common menu items include pizza, Cuban sandwiches (ham and cheese on a white bread roll) and plantain chips (green bananas, thinly sliced and fried).

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Only in Cuba: why Havana should be on your ultimate travel hit list

Of course, Havana offers tons of great restaurants serving Italian, tapas, Caribbean and French cuisine, too. For relaxed dining on the water, book a table at Rio Mar - this excellent restaurant boasts delicious Italian fare, a modern décor and great service. It may be a bit of a hike from the old town, but it's worth the trip.

To do

Only in Cuba: why Havana should be on your ultimate travel hit list

I'd highly recommend booking either a guided city tour or at the very least - asking a driver with a good grasp of English to take you on a drive around the city. Not only will they take you past all the important historical landmarks such as Plaza de la Revolución, a tour will also show you the city's three main areas - the beautifully restored Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Centro Habana and Vedado - as well as answer the many questions about Cuba you'll probably have. Our tour also took us to a cigar shop where we witnessed the art of crafting a cigar first-hand; Ernest Hemingway's old drinking haunt La Bodeguita del Medio (where tourists scribble on the walls); and then onto Hem's first residence, Hotel Ambos Mundos where we enjoyed a mojito on the rooftop bar.

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Only in Cuba: why Havana should be on your ultimate travel hit list

Try to organise a cruise down the Malecón (Havana's iconic boulevard that stretches along the harbour) in a convertible at sunset. Love to dance? Salsa dance classes are everywhere - and (so I'm told) tons of fun. Cliché as they are, no trip to Cuba would also be complete without sampling some Havana Club rum (best enjoyed in a mojito), visiting a cigar shop (avoid buying them off the street - they can often be fakes) and taking in some live music or a cabaret performance.

Only in Cuba: why Havana should be on your ultimate travel hit list

Must-read tips
- If you're travelling with an Australia SIM card, prepare to forgo phone reception during your stay in Cuba.

- While Cuba does have internet, it's not everywhere. We had access in the lobby of our hotel (Hotel Plaza), and one-hour internet cards are available for purchase at most major hotel lobbies. It's popular, so prepare to wait in line for an available computer!

- Havana is outfitted with ATMs, although there's no guarantee your card will work (mine didn't) so pack cash - credit card/EFTPOS facilities are not very common. You can also exchange foreign money in a bank with your passport, too.

- While Cubans speak Spanish with a different accent to, say, their Mexican neighbours, any grasp of Spanish will only enrich your stay in Cuba. While some Cubans speak English, don't bank on getting by without a bit of basic Spanish. Pack your phrasebook if you're a novice.

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