Ever since Karl Lagerfeld presented his Chanel Cruise 2017 collection in Cuba, the Caribbean Island frozen in the 1960’s has been on the bucket list of many fashionistas. A sea of 1950’s Chevys, Buicks, Pontiacs, Chryslers, bright colored crumbling buildings, men in white linen suits, with hats and cigars — the time-stopped ambiance of this city is like nothing I had ever seen before.
The sunny island has gorgeous beaches, fascinating history and plenty to see. A long weekend in Havana is enough time to discover all of its charms. Cuba is a special place but getting there can be a little difficult so I’ve shared some helpful information and tips below:
Tourist Card: Everyone entering Cuba needs to have a tourist card. You can order these online in advance here. Most airlines also offer the tourist card on the last leg of your trip to Cuba. I flew with JetBlue and purchased a tourist card at the layover in Fort Lauderdale airport.
Money/Currency: US. debit and credit cards are not allowed in Cuba so it is best to take enough cash with you and do the exchange at the airport or at one of their banks. If you have US dollars, you’re going to need to convert your USD into Euros first and then convert your Euros into Cuban dollars because USD is banned in Cuba.
Food: I eat an organic, plant-based diet so my food options were very limited since most restaurant dishes contained some sort of animal product. Fortunately, I brought plenty of protein bars and other snacks from California with me so I was okay. Even with my dietary restrictions, there are still some really great restaurants that I highly recommend down below 🙂
Internet/Wifi: Finding internet/wifi in Cuba is very tricky. I ended up only using my phone when I was at the hotel. There is one internet provider that is available at some hotels and the airport, but you must purchase an access ticket and login to use it. This is why I had to wait until after I returned from Cuba to do most of my Instagram posts…😅
Once you book your ticket, get ready to wear a flirty linen dress and roam the streets of Old Havana or hop in a colorful vintage car to explore the city with a local. Below is a list of my recommendations. While some spots may seem a bit touristy, I still find them to be an essential way to experience Havana.
Where to Stay
Manzana Kempinski: This is one of few 5-star hotels in Havana and we really enjoyed staying here. The location was right in the middle of Old Havana and vintage cars were parked right out front of the hotel so it was very convenient, and made for great photos.
Hotel Saratoga: This is another great option. I was debating between Hotel Saratoga and Manzana Kempinski but choose Manzana Kempinski because it is newer. However, Saratoga is also a 5-star hotel and Beyonce stayed here when she visited! We popped in to have cocktails and grab a bite on the rooftop which had a beautiful pool and charming city views.
Where to Eat
La Guarida: One of my favorite spots while in Havana, their menu has lots of vegan options, and the restaurant itself was very vintage and architecturally beautiful. Two old spiral staircases lead you to the very top of the restaurant and the view overlooking the city is incredible!
El del Frente: One of the locals recommended this restaurant to us and said it was one of the best in Havana. I have to agree with them, it definitely did not disappoint! It is a bit difficult to find since the entrance is quite small and discreet. When you enter, you walk up a winding narrow staircase that reminds me a lot of the little hole in the wall restaurants I went to in Tokyo.
Lamparilla 361: Tucked away on a side street, this modern restaurant has great food and a fun scene. I loved the funky decor and it has a creative tapas menu and great drinks. There’s also a park nearby that has wifi.
What to Do
Ride in a Vintage Car: This is a must in Havana! I remember seeing the first vintage car pass by our taxi while we were on the way to the hotel and it made me so excited. We ended up renting 6 vintage cars during the 3 days we were there! You pay around $80 to $100 for one hour and the owner of the car takes you around the city to wherever you want to go! I loved exploring Old Havana in a vintage car and we took many many pics as you’ll see below!
Plaza de la Catedral: Cathedral Square is one of the 5 main squares in Old Havana. The baroque façade was spectacular and it was a great spot for people watching! It can get a bit crowded around midday so if you want to avoid the crowds, go before 10am.
Paseo del Prado: This picturesque boulevard divides Central Havana (Centro Habana) and Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), beautifully lined with trees and marble benches, as well as shops, cafés, and restaurants. It is also the street where Chanel held their fashion show!
El Capitolio: This is the National Capitol Building and it was built to replicate our Capitol building in Washington DC. Go there in the morning to catch the beautiful sunrise over Capitol!
Plaza Vieja: Located in Old Havana, the historic square surrounded by elegant colonial residences is a great spot to take a break from sightseeing since there are lots of little restaurants and bars.
Floridita Restaurante & Bar: This historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar is is where legendary writer Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spot for delicious and refreshing Daiquiris. They have strong drinks, like Hemingway used to say: “There’s a lot of rum in this rum” and they have live music. Yes, it is touristy but it was also a lot of fun. Did I mention that it is located right across from Manzana Kempinski hotel?
Tropicana Nightclub: When you’re in Rome you toss a coin in the Trevi fountain, in Havana you go see a show at the Tropicana. This old school Cabaret has been around since the 1930’s and while it is kitsch, the costumes are something like a major Las Vegas show. The men get cigars and can smoke during the show while the women receive flowers. You can make a reservation on their website.
When you look through my photos, you will see a vibrant city with European influenced architecture portraying a robust and colorful Havana. The truth is, outside the tourist sector, there is another side of Havana that made me very sad.
Poverty is all around you-debilitated buildings with collapsed roofs, missing glass windows, stray dogs, and adults and children walking around barefoot. If you are reading this article and looking through these photos then you have access to a computer or smartphone, wifi and you have the ability to read.
My trip to Cuba reminded me of how grateful I am for being born and raised in the United States, a country that offers us freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free education and an economy built on capitalism. It was heartbreaking to see the effects of communism first hand, the children and families without proper housing, limited food supplies, and no clean water. So while I do hope you enjoy my photographs of the picturesque streets and colorful vintage cars, please also keep in mind these facades are hiding a sad reality that many experience every day.
Photographed by Christopher Brown