Courtesy of Pam Hetlinger for The Girl From Panama
It took one post on Facebook to flood my inbox. I was traveling in Havana, Cuba, and quickly posted a vacation photo when I finally found Wi-Fi connection in a hotel. When I checked my phone two days later, I returned to a torrent of messages from friends, co-workers, and people I hadn't heard from in years asking me for recommendations about the Cuban capital.
I was shocked by the overwhelming response, but I shouldn't have been. Ever since the U.S. eased travel restrictions to the Caribbean island, it's topped almost every list of trending destinations to visit. Despite its growing popularity, I struggled to find reliable and recent tips about what to actually do in Havana. You can book a flight, navigate visa restrictions, and touch down in Cuba with ease—but then what?
Now that I've returned from the five-day vacation, three of which were spent in Havana, I've put together the guide I wish someone gave me before my trip. From the best bars we stumbled upon to restaurants we learned about through word of mouth to attractions that evade crowds, these hot spots actually live up to the hype.
Ditch your guidebook. This is exactly what you should do on a three-day trip to Havana.
Start your first day in Havana with a strong cup of Cuban coffee from Cafe O'Reilly. The rustic two-floor cafe is located in the heart of Habana Vieja, or Old Town, so it's the perfect place to begin your vacation. Climb the winding wrought-iron staircase to the top level, and take a prime spot on the balcony to watch the bustling street below.
Habana Vieja is the most beautiful part of the city, so spend your first day wandering the historic streets, taking photos of the crumbling pastel buildings, and getting a feeling for the pulse of Cuba. Be sure to drop by Taquechel Pharmacy Museum, a traditional pharmacy opened in 1898 that offers a glimpse into a bygone era. Nineteenth-century French porcelain apothecary jars are displayed on cedar and mahogany shelves, providing a glimpse at what the country was once like.
Havana has a host of excellent bars, so bookmark them in an offline maps app like Maps.Me, and make the most of every night. First stop: Visit O'Reilly 304 (which is also the address if you forget to download a map), and sip some of the best cocktails in Havana. The tapas bar gets busy after dark, so head here just before sundown to secure a spot. Order a passionfruit mojito and sample as much as possible from the menu—it's all delicious.
Afterward, wander down the street to Bodeguita del Medio, Ernest Hemingway's favorite mojito bar. Jostle through the crowds to order the famous drink, and bring a pen to add to the writing on the bar's iconic walls.
Original illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Cuba has a fascinating history, and there's an overwhelming number of museums to visit in Havana. If you're only spending a few days in the capital, the Museum of the Revolution should be at the top of your list.
It's housed in the presidential palace, which was once home to Cuba's presidents, including Fulgencio Batista. Now the extravagant marble palace features exhibitions that document the revolution and has a few original furnishings, including crystal chandeliers by Tiffany & Co., which decorated the interior. Be sure to arrive when the museum opens in the morning—30 minutes later, the line will stretch out the door.
Now to venture out of Habana Vieja and into the sprawling surrounds. Flag a candy-colored 1950s Cadillac, and drive down the Malecón, Havana's famous oceanfront drive, to Coppelia. The famous ice cream parlor is housed in a flying saucer–like structure in the heart of Vedado, and has been popular among locals since opening in 1966. The ice cream isn't the best you'll ever have, but the experience makes it worthwhile on a hot Cuban day.
Continue your drive to Factoria de Arte Cubano, a gallery and performance space that attracts young Cubans and tourists alike. Reminiscent of a warehouse in Brooklyn or Berlin, it offers a glimpse into the young, emerging art scene. Arrive before 9 p.m. to avoid the queue.
Decided to stay in Habana Vieja? Head to El Chanchullero, a three-story tapas bar with gritty décor. Order a cocktail on the rooftop to watch the nightlife thrive below.
If you're staying at a casa particular, a local homestead that can be found on Airbnb, take your host up on their offer to cook breakfast. They'll serve a selection of local fruit, fresh Cuban coffee, and some of the best guava juice you've ever tasted.
Use this final day to dive deeper into the activities you've loved so far. Track down more of Ernest Hemingway's favorite haunts, wander one of the many amazing museums, or simply stroll the streets and observe the city frozen in time.
Pull up a seat at El Dandy Bar y Galería, a cool restaurant in Habana Vieja that's ideal for people-watching. Wander to Plaza de Armas, a beautiful marketplace selling secondhand leather-bound books, antique Cuban cigar boxes, and other curiosities. Skip the tourist shops, and buy your souvenirs here.
We've saved the best for last. Reserve a table at El del Frente, one of the best modern Cuban restaurants in the city, located opposite O'Reilly 304. Take note of the location—the entrance has very little signage and isn't a place you'll stumble upon. Ask for a table on the balcony or roof, and order the Havana Special cocktail and grilled lobster plate.
Finally, walk down the street to Floridita, the famed restaurant and bar. It's best known as Hemingway's favorite daiquiri bar, and while the drinks aren't extraordinary, the live performances are. Order a cocktail, and enjoy the show—you won't be disappointed.
Packing your bags for Havana? Here's what to take in your carry-on.
Next up: Six things to know before traveling to Cuba.