First Timer’s Guide to Havana, Cuba

Havana, ooh na-na! Whether Camila Cabello inspired your trip or you have always wanted to experience the rich history and culture, there is something in Havana, Cuba for everyone. This tropical city attracts over a million tourists annually, and we get why. Descending into Jose Marti International airport overlooking the turquoise water and red tobacco fields is an exciting and unforgettable experience. But before you go, just like when traveling to any foreign country, make sure to exercise caution and check travel advisories before you visit. Keep reading for housekeeping items you need to take care of for our US travelers plus some fun activities to enjoy while you’re there.

1. Visas & Required Insurance 

Before you travel from the US, you need to obtain a visa under one of the 12 categories of travel. Be sure to check with an official site for all of the information (US Travelers see here). We traveled under a “Support for the Cuban People” visa, which can be accomplished by adhering to a few things:

  • Eat at local restaurants & support local businesses which you’ll want to do anyway! See #7 for more.
  • Avoid staying at certain hotels and instead stay at casa particulares (we loved ours, see #2).
  • Don’t spend money at military-owned business. We didn’t run into any of these so this one was easy to follow (see full list here). 

After booking your ticket, your airline can help with the visa process and the price will vary depending on what airline you fly. Ours was an additional $50 on Southwest, we purchased online and it was delivered upon check-in at our departure airport. You will also need mandatory Cuban health insurance to enter the country, required by the Cuban Government. This was was included in the cost of our airline ticket, so check with your airline.

2. Where to Stay 

The best way to experience how the locals live and for US travelers using the “Support for the Cuban People” visa, is to stay at a casa particular. AirBnB now operates in Cuba and we highly suggest using it as a way to experience local Cuban culture. We stayed in an authentic Cuban house in the heart of Vedado. Your host can assist in building an itinerary for your trip, help navigate Havana, and also arrange transportation to and from the airport. Cubans are old school and everyone is friendly. You can feel at ease and comfortable relaxing here. Don’t be surprised if they feel like family by the end of your trip.

3. Bring Cash 

It is important to bring enough cash for the length of your trip because US debit and credit cards do not currently work in Cuba and there are no ATM machines. Plan accordingly, because if you run out of cash, you are out of luck. There are two currencies in Cuba – CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and CUP (Cuban Peso). In our experience, CUC is widely used, whereas CUP was only used in super local spots. There are currency exchange stations at the airport in Havana for your convenience.

4. Shopping 

Havana has some of the best antiquing in the world. Picture houses covered floor to ceiling full of beautiful antique dishes, silver, one-of-a-kind artwork, rare jewelry and fascinating furniture. Many pieces are from the pre-embargo era with many unique collectables that are truly special. It is unbelievable that some of these items have survived for so long.

5. Don’t Expect Cell Service 

Cell phone service is pretty much non-existent, but you can find WiFi in a few spots around the city. You can purchase internet cards that are good for 30 minute increments. Having no cell service – what a beauty and a curse! We promise you will survive without uploading an Insta story for the weekend!

6. Exploring the City 

Have fun! Bring comfortable walking shoes and explore the entire city. Make sure to check out Old Havana, Plaza Vieja and Vedado. You may stumble upon something you never would have seen otherwise, like Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of Cuba’s oldest castles!

7. Other Things to Do 

Drink Cuban coffee and relax, people watch on the El Malecon, visit local museums, drink cervezas with the locals, hop in a vintage taxi, eat jamon and queso sandwiches from a paladares (small family-run restaurants) and find a cool rooftop restaurant and order a cigar from the menu to enjoy under the stars.

In a city full of adventure and wanderlust, we could imagine no two Cuba experiences will be the same. There is something special here for everyone, which is why we also included Havana, Cuba in our Top 5 Destinations for 2018. Check out the post to see our other top destinations, and we hope we’ve inspired you to start planning your next trip!