As relations with the US have thawed, a spirit of optimism and a budding entrepreneurial zeal now holds sway within the Cuban capital.
While the big hotel chains and international brands are starting to make their move, Havana still revels in its raw authenticity – which can be both thrilling and exasperating in equal measure.
Here’s how to stay one step ahead, and plan the ultimate trip in Havana.
Mafia-era monoliths, pastel-hued Art Deco palaces, and boutique hotels carved from restored colonial buildings… Havana’s hotels are more than just a place to put your head down for the night.
During the 1950s, Havana’s glitzy hotels provided a haven for US capitalists and mobsters lured by rum, roulette wheels, and tropical sensuality.
Nowadays, it’s quite a different story. Many of the city’s state-run hotels are on life support and standards vary considerably; a five-star hotel in Havana won’t deliver the same comfort and amenities common to their five star peers in Europe and the US.
Still, if you can put up with a few glitches and you don’t get too hung up on shoddy maintenance, a handful of historic hotels can claim decent resort-style facilities and creature comforts.
Hotel National is a national monument and as much a part of Havana’s history as any museum; Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra stayed here.
But, if you want to get under the skin of Havana, by far the most economical and culturally-rewarding option is to tap into the buoyed private market.
The effusive owners of casa particulares, (or private homes) often host their guests in restored buildings, adorned with paintings and eclectic artefacts, which ooze old world splendor.
For more privacy, the next step up is to rent a private villa or apartment. Independent travelers should always make sure they book their first few nights, at least.
One thing’s for sure, Havana is not a foodie’s destination.
Food shortages and state-owned restaurants with disinterested (often surly) staff, bland ingredients, and lack-luster menus are hardly a formula for culinary stardom.
What you do get is a great story. Whether it be a Hemingway haunt, the site of a revolutionary plot, or just stunning views, in Havana the setting for each meal is everything.
Cuba’s national dish is congrís (rice and black beans) served with hunks of pork and yucca (cassava) or fried plantain.
For more innovative fare and character, the way to go is the paladar system. A growing number of enterprising Cubans have transformed their homes into restaurants and are now licensed and taxed to serve meals to 12 diners (most paladar owners tend to fudge this number).
Here, you will be served excellent, often gourmet, meals in evocative dining rooms ranging from gorgeous colonial mansions to eclectic townhouses decorated with contemporary Cuban paintings. And, best of all, you can exchange stories with some of Havana’s most colorful characters.
One of Cuba’s most emblematic choices, La Guarida, the original and still one of the best paladares, gained global attention when it appeared in Tomas Gutiérrez cinematic masterpiece Fresa y Chocolate.
Getting around Havana is a cultural experience unto itself.
The most expedient and prosaic options are the modern tourist taxis managed by Cuba’s Ministry of Transport under the umbrella of Cubataxi.
All tourist taxis have meters, but always be prepared for the ‘my meter is broken’ ruse.
Expect to pay around CUC$1 for the first kilometer, and then between CUC$.60-.80 for each additional kilometer.
Get a better rate from local taxis, or yellow Soviet-era Lada taxis (CUC$0.40 per km).
Or, for the romantically inclined, you can negotiate a horse-drawn carriage ride (from CUC$5 to CUC$10 per hour), which can be picked up on Parque Central, by the Hotel Ingleterra.
The quirky option is to zip around town in an open air, bright yellow cocomóvil, which unmistakably resembles a large eggshell on wheels.
For a local experience, you can take a shared colectivo taxi (classic Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and Chevys) which operate on fixed routes and will only pick you up at unmarked ‘stops;’ the most central pick up is by Prado Y Neptuno restaurant on Parque Central. You pay your 10 pesos (moneda nacional) as you exit the vehicle.
Another cheap option, bicitaxis (bicycle taxis) are technically illegal for tourists, so beware you will have no come back should any mishaps occur.
Always be sure to fix your price beforehand, and expect a fair amount of surreptitious behavior on the part of the driver.
Classic car lovers can contact Gran Car which rents antique-cars such as a Chevy ’55 or a Mercury ’54, with a driver, for around CUC$25 per hour or CUC$125 per day.
Outdoor adventures in Eastern Cuba are aplenty. Here’s how to climb Cuba’s highest peak, dive among shipwrecks, and find the best waterfalls.
Once you’ve flown into Cuba, getting around is actually quite easy! Our friends from Goats on the Road share their essential tips on transport and arriving in Cuba.