What made me fall in love with Havana, Cuba

We left Chicago on a chilly gray day and landed in a lush, green country full of life. A border patrol agent checked our passports and took our photos. After feeling a little nervous throughout the whole planning phase, we were glad to receive little pink stamps in our passports saying “Republic de Cuba, 26 Oct 2018, José Martí.” (If you love passport stamps as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know we got another upon exit.)

View of Havana, Cuba from an airplane

Havana, Cuba is a busy, bustling place from the moment you arrive.

Past the checkpoint, we saw that the outdated airport was buzzing with people. Women in nurses hats half-interestedly looked over our health cards, talking amongst themselves each other instead. Noisy cab drivers waited at the exit. We found our driver, standing with a sign with our name on it, ready to take us into the city.

Some people say Cuba is like another world. It definitely feels like a place frozen in time. It’s charming, colonial, and decaying. Still, despite years of uncertain economic circumstances, the people there are full of energy. Everywhere there are neighbors in the streets chatting, bartering, smoking, and playing.

Here are some of the things I enjoyed most about the enchanting city of Havana.

Beautiful, amazing, tragic architecture

I’ll start with my favorite—the architecture of Havana. Building after building, throughout the whole city, the architecture absolutely captivated me.

From the colors, to the style, to their untouched quality, I loved very mile of them. Many are now crumbling but still retain so much of their original charm. If you have any interest in architectural photography, you need to spend time just walking around Havana with your camera.

Casa particular culture

All throughout the city, there are plenty of options for staying in a casa particular. This is a unique set up that’s similar to an Airbnb where you will likely be staying in an apartment or a room of someone’s home.

View from casa particular in Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
View from our casa particular in Habana Vieja (Old Havana)

In fact, as of a couple years ago, you can book many casas through Airbnb. Read my reviews of the three different casas we booked through Airbnb here. This was the perfect option for us because debit/credit cards aren’t accepted in Cuba. Airbnb helped us so avoid carrying thousands of dollars in cash.

Beaches, beaches, everywhere

When our first casa particular host told us we could hop on a bus in Havana’s main square (Parque Central) and access all the country’s best beaches, we almost didn’t believe her. As it turns out, she was right.

The T3 bus leaves from downtown about every 40 minutes. You can buy your ticket on the spot, in cash, for 10 CUC which covers your trip back too. This option is far cheaper than taking a taxi and is even more comfortable. It stops at all the major beaches and you can get out at the one of your choosing!

I honestly don’t feel like you could make a bad choice. They’re all beautiful white sand beaches. Once you get there, you will likely find people on the beach selling anything you could need: hats, fresh coconuts, snacks, beer, water, etc.

Lots of not-so-special restaurants… and a few hidden gems!

If you’ve already started researching your trip, you probably have found that Cuba is not well-known for its amazing food. I love adventurous international cuisines and spicy food.

Generally, this you will not find this in Cuba.

Instead, you often find some kind of pork as the main course with rice, black beans, and avocado on the side. With a full meal, you will likely receive a lettuce or cucumber salad with vinegar and oil.

At home, I eat vegetarian but I am flexible while I travel. Though many other blogs say otherwise, I felt like eating vegetarian would be very difficult in Cuba.

El Chanchullero was the best restaurant we visited in Havana and probably all of Cuba too. The interior of the restaurant was also beautiful in a cheeky, boutique-style way.

Food at El Chanchullero in Havana, Cuba

Cheap Cuban cocktails

Even at the not-so-special restaurants, the cocktails all over the city consistently tasted amazing. A traditional mojito made with fresh mint and white Havana Club rum became my go-to. They cost about 2-3 CUC ($2-3 USD). You can also find Cuba Libres (rum & Coke) and piña coladas at this price. Some of the boozier drinks I came to enjoy after my rooftop cocktail making class like the caipirinha cost just 0.50-1 CUC more.

Salsa dancing classes

Our cocktail making class at Casa Alta in Havana—you do not need to be an overnight guest to take the class—was combined with a salsa dancing class. Because dance badly, the combination worked well for us. We really needed some drinks to calm our nerves. It didn’t help that we went directly to a class just a few hours after we landed in Havana.

Nevertheless, our talented instructor was patient and encouraged us to have fun, so we did. Other classes can easily be booked as “Airbnb Experiences.” If you would rather not book ahead of time, your casa particular host will likely know of a good place you can try out that—like many of the best things in Cuba—isn’t listed online!

11 thoughts on “What made me fall in love with Havana, Cuba

  1. I absolutely love Havana when I went a couple of years ago. I didn’t take any dance lessons or visit the beach, so I’d love to go back and do those things next time 🙂

  2. I really really really want to go to Cuba. A couple of my friends went recently and absolutely loved it! Thanks for the AirBnB tip. (And I am also very happy that you got an exit stamp in your passport)

  3. Awesome post! I feel warmer just looking at your photos!

    I LOOOOVE the idea of staying in a casa. I really enjoy meeting people and really learning about the culture when we visit. My husband is less keen though…I’ll have to attempt to persuade him before we ever go to Cuba!

    Yay for decent mojitos too! It used to be my go-to drink to test if a bar is decent (although I’ve given up here in Vancouver as all the mojitos I’ve tried here have been a disappointment.

  4. Great tip for using Airbnbs to avoid carrying cash – I didn’t realize credit and debit cards aren’t accepted. Wow, those beaches! Another great tip to use the bus to see them.

  5. I heard Cuba is quite an amazing adventure, I am soooo pining to get there, that old world architecture and the old cars would have me in heaven for days, ha! Thanks for sharing!

    Valerie

  6. Oh I’m so glad to hear you had such a great experience! I just spent a few weeks in Cuba and completely fell in love. I am so happy to see more and more positive juice going out about it!

  7. It’s a shame about the food although everything else sounds great (epecially those cocktails). I’ve never been to Havana or Cuba generally but have heard about the architecture and the place being ‘frozen in time’ too. Would love to visit!

  8. I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba but I really doubt it now because I keep hearing that the food is no great. I think not having amazing food would ruin any vacation for me.

  9. This is perhaps one of the most compelling posts I’ve read about Cuba to date, honestly. And thank you for the food recommendations and showing us your reviews on the airbnbs, super useful info!

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