What comes to mind when you think about Cuba? For me now: Classic American cars. Empty grocery store shelves. Beautiful beaches. Delicious food. Long lines at the bank. Great people. Socialism. And embargoes.

I spent a long weekend in Havana, Cuba. I loved it.

Two people smiling and wearing sunglasses with ocean / beach behind them

Rachel and I are sun-kissed and happy at the beach in Havana, Cuba. This was actually within the city limits of Havana!

Click here or scroll down to read my 5 must-do suggestions in Havana.

I saw a totally new side of the city. My girlfriend’s childhood friend showed us around town.

Two women wearing sunglasses and smiling

Maile and Rachel after a day at the beach. They grew up together in Oregon. Now Maile is living in Havana doing research with the American Studies program at Yale University.

Here are my best photos and random observations.

Menu

5 Must-Do Havana Suggestions

  1. Sign up for the bike tour that we did.
  2. Eat dinner at Otramanera. But first: make a reservation.
  3. Plan a half-day beach adventure. Ask locals for advice or head towards where we went.
  4. Go to Fabrica de Arte Cubano one night. Ideally go at 8pm when there are no lines. Inside, order the “chicken fajitas” at the tapas bar.
  5. See the Cámara Oscura in Old Havana. It is located in Plaza Vieja on the roof of a building.
White plate with grilled fish, lettuce, limes. Beach sand and waves in background

Lunch on the beach for $12 pesos (CUC), USD $12. Grilled whole fish, avocado, and rice.

How Americans Can Travel To Cuba

It is 10 times easier than you think to visit Havana.

We visited Cuba on a “Support for the Cuban People” visa. We engaged in a full-time schedule of activities supporting that goal.

“Support for the Cuban People” means that we stayed at Airbnbs, ate at paladares (semi-secret, non-government restaurants), did an amazing employee-owned bike tour, and even took some random toiletries (toothpaste and nail clippers) to give away to the Cuban people.

Visiting Havana, Cuba for the weekend was easy. Before I went, I was stressed about it. Now, I’ve been twice (Jan 2018 and Nov 2019) and both were positive experiences. I wish more people knew how easy it is to visit Cuba. Read the basic rules online, email me if you want, and just do it.

Photos: Best Beach in Havana

We went to the beach near Santa Maria Del Mar via private taxi. It was an excellent adventure.

Three white people at the beach, with sand and ocean in the background

Rachel, Maile, and Jackson on the beach in Havana.

I say this was the “Best Beach in Havana” because:

  1. It was not crowded.
  2. We could swim in the water.
  3. There was a restaurant nearby.
  4. We rented a cabana for shade ($15 CUC) and chairs to sit on.

The exact location of where we were was about .5 km east of the gay beach, sorta near Santa Maria Del Mar.

Palm trees, sand, and ocean with waves

Beach view. This actually feels crowded; most of the day it felt like we had the whole ocean to ourselves.

Two women smiling with a very old green car

We’re going to the beach! Rachel and Maile and the old car that served as our taxi. We paid $25 CUC each way (USD $25).

Do This Bike Tour

We did the Havana Underground by Bike Tour and loved it. Book it here: Citykleta home page, or Airbnb Experiences.

Two men standing and smiling for the camera with a bicycle

Me and Yasser, founder of Citykleta – the best bike tour company in Havana, Cuba.

Man wearing glasses and laughing wearing a shirt that says El Bosque Encantado

Bryan was our tour guide for the Havana Underground by Bike experience on Airbnb.

It was an excellent bike tour because:

  1. Savvy local guide. He answered all of our questions and showed us great things we never would have seen by ourselves.
  2. Great bikes. High quality in great condition. With helmets, too!
  3. Adapted to our needs. We requested many photo and coffee stops.
  4. Employee-owned and operated.
Two orange bicycles

Preparing for our Havana bike tour. The sun in Cuba was HOT, even in November.

Restaurants We Enjoyed

  • Restaurante Otramanera. Hands-down the best quality food and fanciest dining experience.
  • Amigos del Mar. Tasty seafood, but a bit out of the way, hard to find, and you’ll need to walk 10 minutes to Fábrica de Arte Cubano to find an easy taxi home.
  • The tapas restaurant inside Fábrica de Arte Cubano. I loved the “chicken fajitas” which were like homemade Chick-fil-A nuggets.

Pro tip: order the “ropa vieja” anywhere in Havana and it will probably be delicious. I had it twice, at two different restaurants, and both times were fantastic.

4 Things That Surprised Me in Havana

  • Logistically, getting the Cuba entry visa was simple. We paid $75 for it at the airport during check-in 90 minutes before our flight took off. It took 2 minutes to fill out. For flights: it’s simple to get to Havana from New York City. JetBlue and United have daily non-stop flights. Delta flies direct from Atlanta, and JetBlue and Southwest and American also fly daily from cities in Florida. These are normal flights and you can book them online.
  • Mobile data has arrived to smartphones in Cuba. Residents are no longer forced to only visit public parks to get online via $1/hr Wifi connections. But mobile data is very, very expensive. I met expats who routinely spend more than $100/month for what I would consider basic internet access from their phones (under 5GB of 3G or LTE). Taxi drivers using Bajanda, an Uber-like local app for ride hailing, frequently shut off the mobile data on their phones after accepting a ride to save data charges. So you don’t get accurate GPS tracking of the driver’s location as they are coming to you. But at least they have mobile data now!
  • We were able to buy items with the local currency (CUP) with ease, such as breakfast, coffee, sandwiches, juices, and fruit. Some places would even accept CUC (convertible tourist pesos) for CUP-priced items.
  • Private transportation is very expensive but plentiful. Short local private taxi rides cost USD $5. To-and-from airport rides are USD $25 or $30. When you compare this to other local charges – like USD $.10 for an espresso or $.05 for a bus fare – you can see why only tourists are using private taxis. Because we never had to wait more than five minutes to get a taxi on the streets of Vedado. Negotiate your fare: it should be around CUC $5 (USD $5) in and around Havana Vieja for short rides.

Local Stuff: Grocery, Cafe, and Market Visit

I was incredibly excited to visit a few low-key local spots. I wanted to see more about how residents of Havana lived.

Grocery Store

This was depressing. The shelves were empty or full of all the same products. There were long, slow-moving lines. I also saw long lines outside of banks.

Interior, people, shelves

Waiting in line at a Havana, Cuba “grocery store” in the Vedado neighborhood.

Shelves with bags of beans

Bags and bags and bags of beans inside a Havana, Cuba “grocery store.”

This grocery had apples in stock. Everyone was buying apples.

We learned that when something is in stock that you like, even if you don’t need it, if you have the money: you buy it. Because you never know when it will be available again.

Cafe: La Familiar

On the bike tour our guide tried to take us to a European-style cafe in Havana Vieja. It was a Brooklyn-esque cafe where we would pay USD $3 for coffee. I had been there before.

“Please take me to a locals-only type place,” I said. He took me here:

Yellow sign with green text that says “la familiar” pa comer y pa llevar

“La familiar” is a local restaurant / cafe chain in Havana where you can pay with the national currency. Things are crazy cheap. And tasty.

Inside was a limited menu which included:

  • Espresso: USD $.10
  • Espresso with milk: USD $.15
  • Breakfast egg sandwich: USD $.25
  • Pizza: USD $.80

Cubans seem to love pizza. We saw it for sale at many locals-only spots.

I loved it here. I ate an egg sandwich and drank two espressos. I also drank one of these:

Silver can of soda with old American car on the front q

Cuba’s answer to Diet Coke is Fiesta Cola Light.

Market Visit

Next, I wanted to visit a produce market. I wanted to see where Cubans buy fruits and vegetables and meats.

Maile took us to a market in Vedado that was filled with people and vendors. I made friends with one of them.

Two men posting for the camera, both holding coconuts

Me and Santos the coconut salesman at a local Vedado market. I gave him about 35 mini travel tubes of toothpaste that I had brought to share with Cuban people because supplies like this can be hard to find. He gave me a free coconut and coconut meat.

Colorful inside market showing watermelons, eggplant, peppers

This local upscale market in Vedado neighborhood of Havana, Cuba had many vegetables and fruit for sale.

Things to Do Before You Go To Cuba

  • Download the MAPS.ME app for iPhone or Android for easy offline use. Then, inside the app, download the Cuba maps.
  • Bring twice as much cash as you think you’ll need. I underestimated our cash needs because I rarely use it. When nobody accepts your American credit cards, it turns out that you use a LOT of cash.
  • Download the Google Translate app. Then, inside the app, download the Spanish language for offline use.

More of My Photos from Havana

City view from 16th floor looking out at sunset, lots of old buildings

View of Vedado neighborhood in Havana, Cuba from the balcony of our Airbnb.

Colorful book that says FIDEL CASTRO READER

I appreciate the cover art and use of bold fonts.

10 or more black and white photos of Che

Assorted pictures of Che. We saw things like this frequently around Havana.

Old building, two women outside

Rachel and one of the founders of Capicua fashion shop outside their store at 55 San Lazaro in Havana.

Outside pic with chairs on a balcony and columns

Spacious and airy porch / balcony where we did yoga with Maile in Vedado, Havana, Cuba.

White telephone handset with large buttons

Landline telephone handset as seen inside a local resident’s home. ETECSA is the state telephone and internet company.

Conclusion

I’m glad that I went.

The best parts were:

  • Meeting Rachel’s friend Maile, her husband, and getting them to show us around from a more local perspective.
  • The food! We ate so many delicious dishes. I have spared you, dear reader, from dozens more food pics.
  • Thinking about socialism and seeing a totally different form of economy.
  • Learning about how things worked for day-to-day life with the trade embargo and socialism. (I still love capitalism!)

The worst parts were:

  • The heat and the sun, even in November.
  • Feeling stressed about our cash management because I didn’t exchange enough money.

Links and Mas Information

BONUS PHOTO: thanks for reading to the end!

White man holding a cup of black coffee wearing helmet with green bandana

Instagram vs Reality: my sun-safe bike helmet during the Havana bike tour.

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