Antique cars. Historic architecture. Lively music. A trip to Cuba is high on many travelers’ bucket lists. Why not cross it off in 2017?
In 2016, travel restrictions were eased and, for the first time in decades, commercial travel to Cuba from the U.S. has become a reality. Several airlines now offer regular, affordably priced flights to Havana, as well as Holguín, Camaguey and other Cuban cities.
Do keep in mind that visiting Cuba after 50 years of embargoes feels like going back in time. Leave your smartphone at home, count on using cash and get a good-quality map. You’ll also need a visa, called a tarjeta de turista, and travel insurance with emergency medical benefits (it’s mandatory), which Allianz Global Assistance offers for covered situations. Ready for a Cuban adventure?
Don’t plan a week of sunbathing on Varadero Beach. American tourists must have an approved purpose for their trip, such as visiting close relatives, studying in an academic program, conducting professional research, participating in public performances or sports competitions, recording music or creating art.1
The best option may be to sign up for an educational tour which offers a sampling of all the best things to do in Cuba. Road Scholar offers more than 20 different tours; the 12-day Best of Cuba tour lets you meet local artisans and dancers, visit a cattle ranch, explore historic towns and even play dominoes with a Havana league. Joining a group is not mandatory, however. You can also plan a “people-to-people” trip, with or without the help of a tour operator. This means spending your trip meeting and learning from locals.2 Just be sure to document all your activities.
Whichever option you choose, here are a few can’t-miss things to do in Cuba:
One obstacle to traveling to Cuba from the U.S. is booking high-quality hotel rooms. While American chains like Marriott are beginning to enter the market, most hotels are independently run; and despite a lack of online booking services, rates are soaring.3
There are several standout hotels in Havana. Built in the 1920s, the Hotel Ambos Mundos was a favorite of Hemingway’s, who pounded out several stories in room 511. The rooms are basic, but the Old Havana location is ideal. The Hotel Nacional Cuba is the place to stay in grand Cuban style. Harbor views and historic charm more than compensate for dated room décor. Or, if you can’t live without modern comforts, book a room at Havana’s Hotel Saratoga. This boutique hotel offers elegant rooms, satellite TV, Wi-Fi and a rooftop pool.
But if hotel rooms are booked and you’re wondering where to stay in Cuba, there’s an easy answer: casas particulares. These guesthouses are private operations run by Cuban families. Travelers rave about the casas particulares’ comfortable, clean rooms, hospitable owners and home-cooked meals. You can book some in advance, or simply look for the little signs on people’s homes.
If your idea of Cuban cuisine is a café con leche and a pressed pork sandwich, prepare to be wowed. While some people say Cuban food lacks variety — the standard meal is a heap of meat, rice and black beans — a tasting tour of the country will reveal delights like:
In Cuban beach towns, try locally caught lobster or shrimp in coconut sauce. You’ll find the best food at paladeres — home restaurants. A few of the best-known in Havana are La Guarida, which serves modern Cuban cuisine; Atelier, where guests praise the lobster and black beans and rice; and Ivan Chef Justo, where Cuban meets Spanish flavors.