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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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
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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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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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.
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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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.
- 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.