Cuba is a hot topic trending high on every social network and newsfeed nowadays. The changes that have recently taken place and changed Cuba – U.S. relations over the last few months have the world eagerly watching and waiting for more. Cuba is high on the international radar and many are expectantly awaiting the news of further changes to be announced regarding further U.S. government relaxation allowing free unlimited travel to Cuba for American citizens once and for all.
On the other hand, many are keeping their ears and eyes peeled for further reforms in Cuba's government policy regarding a gradual move to a more free market approach, allowing for a variety of private enterprises rapidly broadening the choice of services and facilities like private accommodation and dining venues.
This could all soon spell a massive influx of American tourists in the years to come, the likes of which the island hasn't seen in over 50 years and which could further change the country's panorama. For anything of this scale to happen though the Republicans would have to favourably vote in Congress in favour of lifting the infamous embargo and Helms Burton law imposed on Cuba. With many Republicans in Congress still standing in fierce opposition to Obama's recent relaxation on Cuba policy it's highly unlikely that anything will change overnight, but still, many fear that possibility and want to see Cuba now before possible future Americanisation and U.S. intervention spoils its authenticity, uniqueness and charm.
Most dread that it will drastically change Cuba's (and most particularly Havana's) old world appeal and shabby chic allure, so if you want to see Cuba as it still stands now before any real drastic change is on the cards, this is my guide on how to do it and how to have the best time at it.
Choosing among the top lists on what to do in Cuba
Separating the quirky from the essential, the frivolous from the substantial
So, if you have already decided that going to Cuba now is a top priority that's climbed at the very top of your travel bucket list but are still undecided on where to go, how to plan your trip to Cuba, what to do there and how to organise your itinerary most efficiently so that you don't miss the very best this rather unique nation has to offer, my Top 15 should be a good starting point. And I say a good starting point because that's covering the highlights, or what I as I half-Cuban, half-Briton believe them to be, but it's by no means an exhaustive list and that's why I mention a few other things to add to your experience at the end if you have time.
I'm certainly not the first one to create a list on top priorities of what to see and do in Cuba as many have indeed rushed to recommend travellers the top things to do in Cuba right now, the hottest paladares to eat at, the most charming casas particulares to stay at, the must-see historical sites, the must-do cultural encounters, dancing venues and so on.
My aim is not to recommend one casa particular (Cubans' version of BandBs or homestays) over another or list the hottest, most popular paladares that have most recently opened (although now many firmly insist on being called private restaurants, and rightly so for this is what they have become - many evolved from the former in-house eatery they started off as to elegant full-size restaurant in their own right). My aim with this list is to list top experiences you must not miss out on having in Cuba, whether they are closely related to certain places, attractions or locations or not.
While many Top 10 Cuba lists concentrate on Havana, and some in just Old Havana (like PlanetWare's Top 10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Old Havana) and it's easy to see why given the concentration of historic colonial buildings and squares in this part of town, there are many more things to do and places to see in Cuba, not just limited to geographical areas or confined to certain places (indeed there are many things in Cuba you could – and should – do virtually anywhere) especially if you want to get the perfect balance of iconic landmarks and off-the-beaten path gems.
I am Cuban and although I've been residing in the UK for quite some time now, I have been privileged to follow the changes closely, both from abroad and from home, as I travel there every year (twice last year in fact) to visit family and friends, and, of course to get a real feel of the changes, if any. Some changes in Cuba have had a huge impact, others not so much, it depends on how you look at it and from whose shoes. As a tourist you'll have a much bigger world of choice now in comparison to a few years back and much richer opportunities for candid encounters as the country continues opening to the world, but the average day-to-day Cuban might not think much of the changes or will argue they're nowhere near enough to what they would like or are still in desperate need of. As always, it depends on perspective, which is why you should see it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
If you follow the strict guidebooks, then you'll surely overlook the surprises that a more adventurous approach may give you and this is where I aim to inspire.
So, without further ado, here are the Top 15 Things to do in Cuba, in my humble opinion anyway:
Take the time to explore Old Havana; all of it... but go beyond if you can too
Yes, I mean all of it, if you're in Cuba and have a stopover in Havana (which you should most absolutely do as a visit to the capital is essential), even if it's just for a day or two, Old Havana is something you simply must do, there's no getting out of it, not if you really want to make your trip count. You can do it in a day, or half a day, depending on how much time you like to allocate to your walks, but it can be done easily, it's best done on foot (if you have the time) and if so why the hell not do it properly and get a richer cultural immersion?
I don't just mean squares and museums, by all means see them all (especially the Museum of Fine Arts - don't give that a miss - and all four main squares: Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and Plaza de la Catedral), make a few stops along the way to take some amazing photos to show off to your friends along the way, try your creative ways with your camera angles to get some unusual effects only possible in Cuba and exclusive to this part of town. But go beyond too, at least once deviate from the tourist trail route and get lost in some back street or alleyway to take in the local atmosphere, the decay, the livelihood, the poetry lurking behind the general mayhem. Stop, smell the roses, but not just the perfectly manicured and landscaped ones.
Gasp in awe at magnificent buildings like the Capitolio, the ancient Inglaterra Hotel (the oldest in Cuba) but take the time to show some love to the crumbling ones too. If you've got an eye for unique photographic moments, there's nowhere better to capture the sharpest of contrasts than in Old Havana, and perhaps also Centro Habana, although the latter offers less contrast in the sense that much less has been restored to its former glory. While the Casco Historic (historic centre) in Old Havana is in an ongoing process or restoration, it's hard to find out anything in Centro Habana that stands out from a shabby and crumbly state. Still...walls peeling off a formerly grand building, balcony rails that retain the beauty of exquisite ironwork even when stripped to the very bone, a vintage Cadillac casually strewn about and an inconspicuous local looking bored, dreamy, wary or suspicious of the camera lens – and you've got the perfect frame for capturing and encapsulating an instant of Cuban essence.
Meet the locals – better if they're from towns or rural areas outside Havana
Some like Michaela Trimble's Five Ways to See Cuba Differently concentrate on the whole engaging with the locals experience and give you a few pointers on how to get closer to the average Cuban, take the opportunity to meet their families and even join them on a private house party. While we advocate that encounters with Cubans can be truly eye-opening and touching, and while many are indeed genuine characters you'll feel instantly richer for having met, you must beware of scammers trying to instantly become your "best friend in Havana" and then using their overly friendly and persuasive ways to take you dining to specific places (where they'll get a commission and you'll foot the bill for his meal) recommend you a cheaper way to buy an authentic Cuban cigar (in most cases they're not authentic but cheaper versions).
This is much less so the case outside Havana, where people are naturally inclined to be kind, warm and hospitable with no hidden agenda on the horizon. Perhaps this is why some of the most special encounters happen in rural areas where the rural folks, far removed from the fast-paced urban life of the capital take a gentler more natural and kindred approach to everything. The only drawback is that the further inland you get, the less people you find able to speak English or anything other than Spanish. Having said that, most will attempt at communicating the best way they can.
So, yes, by all means engage with the local people at every opportunity you can, this will be made even easier if you can muster some Spanish, but try to discern from the genuine warm hospitality Cubans are known for and the opportunistic scammers that may see you as easy walking money or try to profit from your foreign naivety and credulity. Like Michaela says on her list, definitely do let them show you around and be your guide for the day, if you don't smell a rat at any point, you'll feel extremely lucky and privileged for such insightful encounters. The best way to avoid an opportunistic hanger-on? Be the first one to make an approach and be careful with those that come to you out of the blue and instantly seem too eager to take you somewhere or sell you something. In this instance just decline and walk away, they are not in the least dangerous and will leave you alone.
Cigars: don't just smoke one, roll your own
Whether you're a smoker or not you're bound to be at least intrigued by Cuba's unique status as a world leader in the quality of its aromatic tobacco leaves and fine cigars. The expression "smoke a Cuban" never gets old even when it's often heard in old Hollywood movies (ironically Americans were forbidden to enjoy this fine product for many decades) and if you want to immerse in local cultural, you must dig deep in Cuban cigar history and heritage. You don't have to be a cigar connoisseur at the start of your trip but after a visit to a Cuban cigar factory or tobacco field you could easily leave as one.
You certainly don't have to smoke a cigar either, although few pass up on the opportunity to do so, but you can still visit a factory to learn about the stages involved in the cultivation, harvest and drying of the leaves, the processes of putting it all together and the meeting of the artists themselves – those who sit there for hours on end and have made an art out the a rolling of a cigar. Witness their swift hand movements in awe and become an artist yourself for a day if you so wish. You can attempt to mimic their skilled rolling as some factory visits do include the opportunity to try your hand at rolling a Cuban cigar. One that will then will be yours forever to do as you wish with it: smoke it, frame it and display it in your living room, gift it to someone special or treasure it forever. Oh, the possibilities! It won't just be a Cuban original, it will be YOUR own Cuban original – 100% rolled by you!
Dance, by all means you must dance in Cuba, and do it in the street
Now this is my favourite one, I found it recommended by Victoria Philpott on her article 10 of the Coolest Things to Do in Cuba and I love it because while most people advice to hit the locals' most frequented nightclubs or attend a concert by a contemporary Cuban salsa band (which yes, you should be doing anyway), nobody mentions how Cubans love to engage in impromptu dancing sessions on the street and if there's one place in the world where you won't be judged for doing it, that's Cuba. Yes, Cubans will stare but they will also clap and dance along, you might find that you're soon surrounded by other walkers-by-turned-dancers stretching their hand for a dance or two.
Of course, I wouldn't dare to recommend you keep yourself away from the clubs and limit your dancing to spontaneous street moments of inspiration, I'm just advising you that the best place to let music take you over and be carried away by the rhythm, that's Cuba. Free yourself from judgement and dance among onlookers, you'll cherish it forever. Dance in one of Old Havana's cobbled streets to the music of a live trio or head to the lively Callejon de Hammel on Sundays to join the crowd of street dancers (although this place has become too touristy and commercialised for my liking nowadays). Virtually anywhere in Cuba you can come across impromptu dancers on the street that will be happy for you to join in so it's hard to recommend a specific place or time. It's all about spontaneity, catching the moment and losing yourself in it.
By all means also do attend as many salsa lessons, concerts or live gigs as you can and to get the most rounded experience don't limit yourself to just salsa (or reggaeton) and go catch a live jazz session or fusion music performance). Regardless, nothing beats the freedom and joy of dancing in the street without needing an excuse like a carnival or street party. This is Cuba!
Go for a ride in a classic car – a pretty one and a rundown one (Ladas and almendrones)
Now this is where I coincide with almost every other top list that recommends it, but while most concentrate on you going for a tour around the city on of the immaculately preserved American vintage beauties of the 50s) I say you should broaden your riding horizons to experience far more Cuban authenticity on four wheels.
Yes, go for a ride on one of the freshly painted, convertible vintage cars that are neatly arranged in lines facing the Capitolio building in Old Havana, and which look like they've just come out of a 30s, 40s or 50s Hollywood film. They're certainly beautiful to look at, roomy and comfortable to sit on and they make for a wondrous experience touring around the city (and you can go where you choose to once agreed with the driver). BUT don't forsake those clanking, noisy, falling-to-pieces classic cars that are way past their glory and have seen much better days, they have a story to tell and you should listen.
These more run-down vintage versions often operate as taxis for the locals running specific routes along Havana and they are affectionately called "almendrones" for their large, cumbersome shape and noisy drone (in fact all vintage cars in Cuba are often grouped in this term). These are also known as "carros de 10 pesos" as 10 Cuban pesos (CUP not CUC!) is what they charge per route. Yes, you might be crammed with other passengers, health and safety might not be the best on these (well most cars in Cuba don't have seatbelts anyway, you'll find none on the Soviet models either like Lada, Moskovitz or Polski) but you'll have the most eye-opening authentic experience. Drivers and passengers are often happy to exchange words with tourists and the journey though hot and cramped is certainly lively and unique.
The same goes for Ladas or any of the Soviet models still running in Cuba; these don't often operate as taxis, but some do (ask around and they'll point you in the right direction). You can always walk up to a Soviet car owner and ask if you they wouldn't mind to drive you around for a bit. Most will be happy to oblige if you give them a tip as thanks.
I can't vouch for your health insurance covering rides on these, but hey, you only live once and accidents involving almendrones, Ladas and tourists are unheard of, so there's really no major risk and a lot to gain.
Check out the variety of impressive architecture, and not just colonial gems
Everyone who goes to Cuba or reads about going there or starts planning a visit there, gets excited by or raves about the outstandingly preserved colonial architecture there's to be witnessed in cities like Havana, Trinidad (the best preserved of all), Cienfuegos and Camaguey. Indeed there is and quite remarkable too but that's not the only kind of impressive architecture Cuba offers and you shouldn't restrict yourself to just taking pictures of colonial building after colonial building – not when there's much more to admire besides.
You might not be aware of it but Havana's famous for of its stunning Art Deco architecture, so much so that it was chosen to host The World Congress on Art Deco in 2013. So, click away at as many colonial wonders as you're enchanted by in Cuba but do devote some time to admiring and discovering Havana's finest Art Deco pieces (my blog piece – linked here - on this is a handy guide to which ones you shouldn't miss). From the magnificent Bacardi building to the decaying Lopez Serrano building, the Teatro America and the Teatro Fausto in Old Havana. And take the time to take a sneak peek inside one of these buildings too as the design marvels are also present in the interiors.
But even beyond colonialism and Art Deco, Cuba also has some fine example of other art movements present in its architecture, with both modernism and eclecticism movements leaving a strong mark all around the city. We can't leave out baroque and neo-classical influences either and they're sometimes present in the least expected corners.
In fact one of the beauties about Cuba is how its mixed culture extends to its mixed architectural styles, often blending and fusioning with each other, as is the case with the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba, exhibiting Art Deco's clean straight lines but also incorporating neo-classical and neo-colonial elements that coexist in perfect harmony with visible Moorish Arabic influences in its interiors. An architecture lover's fantasy dream!
Eat in as many private eateries as you can, try ropa vieja and yuca con mojo
You must experience traditional Cuban food, no doubt on this one, but there's no reason you have to do it repeatedly when you're in Cuba, not when now there's so many more choices to treat your palate and every other sense too. Because dining in Cuba is as much about the food as the ambience with the latter taking over and sometimes even making up for the food where it lacks.
But a hearty traditional Cuban fare is first and foremost and if there's anywhere you should do so it's at a paladar, a famous one with a long history of popularity and satisfied customers like Dona Eutemia or San Cristobal. But of course, there are many more specialising in Cuban cuisine or offering a mix between international and Creole dishes, you can do your own search and. Local dishes you must try are the ubiquitous black beans and rice (or it's equally tasty alternative version of congri), any of the pork main dishes variations, plaintain fritters (the thick tostones or the crispy think mariquitas), yucca con mojo (cassava with a tasty garlic and lemon marinade), strips of stewed beef with vegetables known as "ropa vieja" (which could translate as "old clothes" simply because the dish visually resembles rags) and malanga puree or malanga fritters (the latter are old favourites of mine, yum!).
Do expand culinary horizons while in Cuba though and don't restrict yourself to eating at traditional paladar after traditional paladar (unless you really want to of course, in that case you could try them all and do your own ranking of the best paladares to eat the most authentic, most flavoursome Cuban dishes). Instead make sure to devote one or two lunchtimes or dinnertimes to tying out some of the latest, more inventive, quirky and creative private eateries that have recently opened up all over Havana. These are as much about the food as the unique ambience, and I mean truly unique. You can check out some of these at my 7 Quirky and Unique Places to Eat in Havana and find some inspiration or you can do your own research online and find out about the latest innovative eateries that have opened in the city.
Attend a live performance: Latin jazz, Tropicana, contemporary Cuban dance or ballet
When the suggestion to watch a live Cuban show in Cuba is made most people probably concoct the image of scantily-clad mulatas in full feathery and flowery head gear seductively swaying their hips to hypnotic rumba or conga rhythms. That's all very well and good, indeed Tropicana's cabaret show is one you shouldn't miss if in Havana (it's much superior to its smaller version in Varadero) but this stereotype is but a tiny fragment of Cuba music and dance variety that often overshadows other fine Cuban musical assets like Grammy-winning jazz, a world-renowned national ballet school that created international dancing stars like Carlos Acosta and a contemporary dance company that has had a weighty influence on Cuba's dance styles in general and on Cuban dancers.
So, do make time to attend a ballet production at the Gran Teatro Nacional (the building itself is enough of an attraction on its own) performed by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. If no production is running at the time of your visit try your luck with Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and look for a performance you can catch during your time in Cuba. To ensure you do you can check the cultural calendar ahead of travel (the International Ballet Festival of Havana usually takes place between late October and early December and the International Dance Festival in April sees plenty of contemporary dancing taking over Old Havana's streets) but if neither ballet or contemporary dance are on show, Latin jazz always is and you'll find live performances frequently staged at popular jazz joints like La Zorra y El Cuervo and the Jazz Cafe.
Check out local artists' galleries and community projects, but also museums
National Geographic's article from travel photographer Erika Skogg, Just Back: Havana Cuba strongly recommends that if you like museums you should devote at least two hours to fully admiring the Museum of Fine Arts. I fully second that opinion, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (as it's officially called) certainly has undeniable appeal as the one place housing the largest collection of Cuban plastic art from the 16th century onwards. It's certainly impressive not only for its interior contents but for the building inside which it all stands, a grand piece of architecture in its own right. With over 45,000 original pieces and an onsite library with over 120,000 volumes, no other Latin American museum of its kind comes even close – take my word for it - there's no other with such vast and fine collection of homemade art and collections from Latin America and the Caribbean as well as some pieces from ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt.
But to get a closer encounter with Cuba's contemporary artists of today you're better off exploring local artists' private studios and perusing local art right from its origins. You can also buy any piece that strikes your fancy right there on the spot and straight from the hands of the artist but entrance is free and you can linger as long as you like. Some of the most popular include Marta Elena's in Old Havana and the private studio of Cuba's most famous and highly acclaimed contemporary artist Alexis Machado (better known as Kcho), both of which support local institutions and other local artists who don't have the means or space to showcase their art. Furthermore these studios also give back to the local community in which they stand, so if you buy an original from either of these you know part of the money will stay right there in the vicinity, supporting the most vulnerable there, usually youth and the elderly. The Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is a cultural project that also devotes space to promoting emerging artists as well as well-established ones.
But there are many more private galleries to visit in Havana, even when they don't support anything other than themselves, like the avant-garde Esterio Segura's studio, as is Studio 61 in Playa and the Estudio Figueroa-Vives, the small but beautiful Galeria Villa Manuela and the bunker-style studio of the Capote Brothers (El Bunker), all in Vedado. Old Havana alone is so full of private galleries of all sizes you won't have to venture far from it to get a full immersion of local contemporary art, but if you are an art lover it might be worth it to go beyond.
Outside of Havana, the Casa-Estudio Jose Fuster in the artist's hometown of Jaimanitas is an interest one to visit - it's not quite a museum nor really a typical studio but an artist taking over an entire city, as his pieces extend beyond the confines of his studio house to further impregnate the neighbouring vicinity with his displays of public art, in which the local neighbours have lend a hand. Having decorated over 80 houses and parks in this peaceful town sitting on the outskirts of the capital, Fuster has made a major contribution to the place with dozens of murals, paintings and sculptures adding unique character, colour and flair to the town.
Head to the beach, not necessarily Varadero or the keys
One of the suggestions I found on Huffington Post's article where Canadian travellers offer Cuba travel tips mentioned not missing the beach of Varadero whatever you do, and whilst I agree to a certain extent I wouldn't go out of my way to do it, especially when Havana has some gorgeous beaches (even if they can't be quite compared to Varadero's seven kilometres of carpet-like white sand) and you might be time-constrained to plan a trip to Cuba's most famous beach enclave.
Yes, Varadero is just under two-hours' drive from Havana but if you go there it's better to linger at a resort for a few days and go for the full pampering, escape-the-world experience and not a one-day visit, trust me you'll feel like it's not worth it, especially when Havana's Playas del Este (eastern beaches) are a 30 to 45-minute drive from the city centre and offer a unique immersion into local holiday life away from the over-commercialised resorts visited by tourists en-masse. Santa Maria is a popular one, probably the closest to the city centre, but fantastic little beaches with plenty of local charm in Havana also include El Megano and Guanabo.
If you visit on a weekday outside of the summer holiday period you're likely to have the beach practically to yourself (which makes quite a difference from popular, tourist-laden Varadero) and if you're there on a weekend it will offer you a glimpse of how Cubans enjoy their leisure time and their beaches – expect some people bringing their own music and playing it aloud for everyone to enjoy. If you visit during the winter months of November to March you might find the beaches equally isolated even on weekends, as 20 to 25 degrees Celsius is too cold for Cubans to go for a dip at sea and the waters are sometimes choppier.
Unlike Michaela Trimble on Five Ways to See Cuba Differently, I won't advise you to simply stay away from resort beach towns. Varadero is absolutely beautiful in ways that can't compare to Havana's beaches but that's not the point I'm trying to make here. Not entirely. If you're in Havana I encourage you to go to a local beach to feel the local vibe and enjoy the beach the Cuban way. Of course you don't have to choose one over the other, at least in an ideal world you could get the contrast of both. If you can extend your visit to Cuba to spend a few days on virginal keys like Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo or Cayo Largo....well, that's just pure, undisturbed paradisiacal bliss in near isolation.
See the countryside – cycle, hike or drive through rural areas
Even if just for a day, to get just a little taste or a glimpse of rural Cuba, the strong recommendation is: do it, definitely go for it if budget and time allows. If based in Havana a day trip to amazing Vinales and its eye-catching mogotes will suffice and this is where I agree with the suggestion made by CNN's Insider Guide: What to Do in Havana who also recommends you stay in Las Terrazas (an eco-friendly village in a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with hiking and birdwatching trails as well as waterfalls), and I couldn't agree more on that too. The closest of breath-taking rural places to the capital of Havana at just under an hour from the city centre, Las Terrazas is also the only place in Cuba where you can do canopy zip-lining along the treetops and see the remains of one of the earliest surviving coffee plantations in Cuba.
Bathe in waterfalls and visit the orquidearum at Soroa if you venture further inland into the province of Pinar del Rio, also home to beautiful tobacco fields and where you can go on guided (or unguided) hikes and cultural tours, taking in plantations and the local rural way of life. Central Cuba offers the lush Escambray Mountain Range, home to the Parque de Collantes Natural Park and the impressive Salto del Caburni waterfalls. To the west of Cuba you have the island's highest peak to climb if you're so inclined (Pico Turquino) and the beautiful city of Baracoa (Cuba's oldest settlement and first capital). The training and hideout grounds for Fidel Castro's rebel army can also be explore in the Sierra Maestra Mountain range. This is where much of Cuba's guerrilla war took place. Don't forget to meet the lovely people on Cuba's countryside and rural areas – they're the loveliest!
Go beyond Havana – get a full dose of Che in Santa Clara, feel time-warped in Trinidad
Even if not to explore the wild rural Cuban landscape, it's perfectly acceptable to escape Havana for a day trip excursion to other cities brimming with cultural and historical value. Trinidad is certainly one of these and with the entire city having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site you can't find many arguments against seeing it. It's quiet, it's sleepy, it's a piece of nostalgia unmoved and unchanged by time and this is what makes its charm unique in the world. Day trips to Trinidad are ideal, as would be a two-night or three-night stay maximum - it's beautiful to immerse in the tranquil, laidback way of life amidst the amazingly preserved colonial houses, but there isn't much else to do besides, so if you haven't time a full-day excursion will certainly do, and for those really pushed for time, half-day trips from Havana and Varadero are arranged daily.
If you want to fully experience Ernesto Che Guevara's legacy in the Cuban Revolution a stopover in Santa Clara is a must, where you can visit his mausoleum and memorial, check out the nearby museum and admire the Che Guevara monument presiding over the entrance to the city.
But if you want to visit the most revolutionary of all cities, the cradle of the revolution itself, then nothing but Santiago de Cuba will do. Here you can visit the famous Moncada Barracks, the site of a failed attack by Fidel Castro army of rebels which holds great significance in the history of the Revolution and also take in the amazing music heritage of a city that's the cradle of son, bolero, guajira and danzon as well as the birthplace of many of the members of the Buenavista Social Club.
Take an obligatory stroll along the Malecon, spend a memorable evening there
One of the best places to people-watch in Cuba is undoubtedly the long Malecon promenade extending for nearly eight kilometres along Cuba's most scenic seaside avenue. This broad esplanade and seawall is the favourite romancing spot for couples in the city, of all age groups and sexual orientation. While at night it is often frequented by Cuba's LGBT crowd (yet another experience there) it's also a favourite for local musicians serenading the nights away and creating a unique, sultry, irresistibly seductive ambience.
It's best to get there in time for sunset or sunrise, with the former being the livelier time as people come here to relax after a day's 8-to-5 grind, to meet up with friends, to stroll hand-in-hand or to do impromptu parties – there's no rules, if there's somewhere in the city where you can breathe bohemia it's certainly here. Join a local crowd, applaud the musicians or simply stand back and people watch as the sun sinks into the horizon. There's no rehearsal, no time mindfulness, no one watching the clock, it's as if time stands by for the while habaneros are there, in the breezy saltiness that's so contagious. It's a spectacle as authentic as you get in the capital.
Sample the local rum, have a rooftop cocktail in Havana
Here I definitely agree with Michaela Guzy's Top 7 Ways to Have a Dream Trip in Cuba when she advocates for enjoying a rooftop cocktail in Havana, whereas she says you should have it at La Guardia for the absolute best views, others argue it should be at the top of the landmark Inglaterra Hotel in Old Havana, at the rooftop pools of either the Capri Hotel in Vedado or the Saratoga in Old Havana, and even at the Hotel Nacional's beautiful gardens. I say all of them are equally fantastic venues and vantage points, each unique in its own way. So, take your pick but definitely have a Cuban cocktail at one of these rooftop bars with amazing views over the city and the sea beyond. An exceptional vantage point from which to take it all in.
You must definitely try Cuban rum, on its own (they do rum-tasting tour in Havana's Rum Museum) but specially as the essential ingredient in Cuba's original signature cocktails like the Mojito and the Daiquiri, both born right here in two different Havana locations. While you should have your first mojito (it will set the bar for the rest) at the iconic La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar where it was first created, you should taste daiquiri at its birthplace of El Floridita. Both are historic joints once frequented by the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s Hollywood elite and international celebrities like American Nobel-prize novelist, Ernest Hemingway, which was famously quoted as saying "my mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in EL Floridita".
Experience the old world charm of a colonial building by staying in one
I don't just mean a casa particular, although that might be far more enchanting and special for many peculiar reasons, but any old colonial building of great historical and architectural value will make for an unforgettable experience in Cuba. It's not quite the same to spend minutes photographing a colonial beauty from every exterior and interior angle as staying in one and having a live-in experience as brief as it might be.
For this, any of Habaguanex's beautifully restored former colonial mansions will do. Brought back to life and updated with modern comforts while keeping every original feature down to the very antique furniture and decor; these colonial dwellings, once the homes of marquis and counts but now converted into fully operating hotels are a true work of art. Each of this has unique character and charm, while the Raquel Hotel pays tribute to Cuba's Jewish community, the Hotel Ambos Mundos is famous for being Hemingway's residence for months on end (his room is still kept intact as a museum) and the Hotel Los Frailes perfectly captures the atmosphere of a monastery with monk-residence style rooms and hotel staff dressed in friar robes. Pope Benedict XVI even bless the welcome cocktail offered here to newly-arrived guests! How's that for personality and character? The best part is that part of the room rate goes back to the City of the Historian Office to support more refurbishment projects in Old Havana, which but also the restoration of crumbling buildings for local families in the local community.
If you don't mind forgoing the comforts and convenience of a hotel, like I was saying earlier, there are also fantastic colonial private mansions that you can stay at, in some of these you'll have an individual room with en-suite facilities but will share the living space with local hosts, while in others you'll be able to rent the entire house for yourself. How's that for living in Cuba like a Cuban in a totally genuinely Cuban vintage abode? Surely nothing tops that!
And here it ends, my official top 15 on Cuba, a ranking but not an exhaustive one as Cuba can't possibly be contained in a Top 15 list...not even in a Top 20. Regardless of how many things you choose to do in Cuba or how many you're able to do, there's one thing I definitely agree with Christopher Baker on his Insider Guide: What to do in Havana, whatever you do in this city, make sure you do it now...it won't remain unique and unspoiled forever.
Other non-essential but whimsical things to include in your Cuban itinerary:
I'm not going to include the following in the "Top" category simply because if your holiday in Cuba is short or limited, you shouldn't clear out time of your precious itinerary to do these; unless of course any of them specifically appeal to you more than the other "must-do" ones and they cater to your needs in some way that's unique to your interests and you as an individual traveller. They're certainly not essential, but since they're interesting and quirky, I'm listing them anyway...we all know that we don't all fall in the "average tourist" category so here they are. Happy planning!
Go on a leisurely stroll along the Christopher Columbus Cemetery in Havana
This one may sound rather odd but Havana's Cementerio de Colon is a hidden treasure not many tourists take the time to visit but definitely should. The exquisite magnificence of some of the tombs is a sight that lingers on your memory.
Scuba dive in Jardines del Rey or, even better, Jardines de la Reina
Cuba's outstandingly rich marine life includes the world's third largest coral reef barrier at Jardines de la Reina. The island's marine biodiversity is so amazingly preserved and abundant it has been called the "Galapagos of the Caribbean" with myriads of endemic species and untouched coralline life.
Go on a mojito-sampling tour along as many bars as you can possibly manage
You can award your personal seal of approval to the place serving the very best. Will its birthplace do it justice or other less well-known has stolen its crown...an exciting contest for you to be the judge of.
Do the Hemingway tour, on your own
Since we're on the topic of cocktails (Hemingway is famously known for having enjoyed a tipple or two) if in Cuba you can easily spare some time to following the Hemingway trail - from visiting his favourite haunts in Havana, his room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos where he spent several months writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, to his permanent residence in Finca Vigia, now a museum where all his possessions are immaculately displayed as if he was still inhabiting his beloved Cuban dwelling.
Do a Revolutionary billboard count
As you probably are already aware of, and if you aren't it will become evident once you arrive in the island, Cuba is full of communist propaganda lining street walls and occupying the space on large billboard prints that once, decades ago were devoted to advertising commercial products like toothpaste or cars. Quite unique in the world to see a place completely devout of any commercial advertising, as Cuba still is (God knows probably not for very long though).
Stay at a casa particular
In whatever configuration you can, there's plenty to choose from and it all depends on what you want to get out of your experience. If you don't find it easy to strike up conversations with strangers on the street, or to engage with the locals like we suggested above, then the one sure way to definitely establish contact is by staying in a casa particular where the hosts live onsite and personally greet and welcome guests.
Get some CUPs and buy food off street vendors
Cuba's peanuts vendors (a.k.a maniseros) are so beloved, so legendary and so traditional that there's even a 1930s song dedicated to them, one that every Cuban can hum or sing the lyrics too. In fact whenever I see one of the iconic old men standing in a corner clutching a bouquet of paper cones tightly concealing a few salted and roasted peanuts, the song immediately starts playing in my head. It's so melodic and full of nostalgia you should download the original version of El Manisero and listen to it on your headphones while walking around Old Havana, if you spot a manisero while doing so it'll feel like an extra special treat. After all, together with Guantanamera, El Manisero is the most famous piece of music created by a Cuban musician, so you should definitely see it come to live in Cuba. That said, there are many other street vendours, not as iconic but still tempting passers-by with homemade sweet and salty snacks. From popcorn to hard candy sticks, cone-shaped lollipops (called pirulis these are really vintage and I personally haven't seen many lately for quite a while in Cuba) to the addictive peanut turron (turron de mani), which you might find it sickeningly sweet or simply divine - you'll only know after a bite; there's plenty of lovingly made local treats to try on Cuba's streets.
Go on a cycling tour
WOW Cuba are currently the only ones doing cycling tours in eastern Cuba, taking you along Havana, Santa Clara and Trinidad but already there are other companies arranging more of these kind of tours with new itineraries extending beyond the eastern part. Do your research before you go; our amazing Cuba Adventure on two wheels tour is a fantastic option.
Oh and whatever you do, make sure to bring back home some quality Cuban goods, whether you prefer a couple of handcrafted bongos, handmade wooden decorations, original paintings, fine Cuban cigars or a pair of bottles of aged rum. But bring something other than photographs to make your sensory experience of Cuba last that little bit longer.
Of course there can be a myriad of variants and sub-categories gathering the Top 10, 15 or 20 things to do in certain cities in Cuba, beach resorts or confined to certain interests. The lists could be endless and ongoing, and perhaps we'll get around doing a Top list for many of these sub-categories and niche interests that it's impossible to cover in a single generic Top 15 list, in the meantime, here I leave you with the Top of the top of it all.