Getting Funky in Havana, Cuba with HabanaLive
February 16, 2020 by Laura Fishman
A visit to Havana, Cuba’s capital city, is a journey back in time marked by historic architecture, old-world glamour and a vibrant cultural scene. Located just 90 miles south of Florida, Cuba still feels like another world compared to its Caribbean neighbors. Spanning 500 years of history, the island is steeped in influence from Spanish and European settlers and has witnessed political eras from slave trade and sugar production to serving as a base for the US Mafia and Socialism. Travelers can still see the defining remnants of the 1950’s revolutions where billboards, art and motifs continue to pay tribute to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Havana remains a time capsule where 1950’s Cadillacs and colorful vintage cars still hum through the narrow streets and locals stroll, in the same steps of their ancestors, along the famed Malecón by the sea. The island is slowly connecting with the outside world via WiFi and Etecsa, the nation’s only internet provider, yet still feels shielded from the frenzied pace of technology known to Westerners.
Havana is a soulful feast for the senses filled with plentiful activities where you never know where the day or night will take you. It is easy to get lost in the winding streets of La Habana Vieja though open-air bazaars following the beats of the infectious of Afro-Cuban, trova or salsa rhythms. While Cuba is a living muse that once inspired literary legends like Hemingway and Pico Iyer, today the island boasts world-renowned contemporary Cuban modern artists and musicians. There is a vivacious yet resilient spirit of the Cubans who are natural-born storytellers and known to share their warm hospitality, immense national pride, and family folklore with visitors.
Travel is still possible to Cuba and Cuban destination specialists, HabanaLive, can make it happen. The American owners of HabanaLive and their team are highly connected in all aspects of Cuban life. These destination experts are well-equipped to guide you through the latest travel regulations and curate insider access to unique immersive experiences with local tastemakers.
A culture of contradiction, Cuba continues to captivate travelers with its complexity, raw beauty and mystique. Here are five things to know about traveling to Havana for first-time visitors.
Accessibility to Cuba is easier than ever with direct flights available from many US cities.
There are many direct flights to Havana from major cities in the United States including Atlanta, Houston, Miami, Newark and New York operated by American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and United Airlines. US travelers are required to purchase a $50 visa and select the appropriate travel category arranged directly through the airline. One of the most common categories selected is “Support the Cuban People,” where travelers visit understanding the sustainable benefits to Cuba’s tourism trade. Once you arrive in Havana, it is a seamless process to clear Customs & Immigration. We highly recommend that travelers carry a printed copy of their itinerary with confirmations of their accommodations and pre-arranged tours for expedited service.
Photography by: Nick Onken
Havana is very safe.
Cubans are very welcoming to foreigners and enjoy striking up conversations. Generally, most Cubans know basic English but speaking Spanish makes it easier to get around. As a visitor, you can easily walk alone in the streets in La Habana Vieja (Old Town) or hail a taxi to another neighborhood using Bajanda, a new Uber-like app. For those who prefer to wander by foot, it is possible to navigate by using pre-downloaded offline maps from Google maps or Maps.me. While Americans are required to bring enough cash to cover expenses for their entire trip, we recommend being mindful by carrying around only enough cash to cover expenses for the day and leaving the rest in your hotel room safe if available. As with any other tourist destination, keep your travel money discreetly stored on person avoiding, for example, keeping a packed wallet in your back pocket or visibly lingering in an unzipped jacket pocket.
Cocktails at Oltramanera. Photography by: Phillip Angert.
The restaurant scene is burgeoning with local flavors and international influences.
Ropa vieja is a classic Cuban dish that shouldn’t be missed! Havana’s restaurant scene is also taking on a contemporary twist with menus offering international fusions plus incredible mojitos and daiquiris shaken with the famous Havana Club rum. AlaMesa is a new app that connects travelers with Havana’s variety of restaurants and makes it easier to make reservations in the city’s hottest tables. Some favorites in Old Havana are El Del Frente & its sister-restaurant Asian-fusion, Jama, in Centro Havana: La Guerida and sunset drinks on the rooftop at Malecón 663. Tucked away in Miramar, is Oltramanera. Chef Alvaro Diez left the internationally renowned El Bulli in Catalonia to establish this upscale dining oasis with his Cuban wife. It is set in an elegant home and pairs perfectly with a night dancing at Casa de la Musica. For those taking a day visit to Gaudi-like Fusterlandia, take a short walk to Santy for lunch. Perched along the waterfront in Jaimanitas, it offers the best sashimi in Havana in a quaint al fresco setting where you can observe fishermen in search of the catch of the day.
Performance by Afro-Cuban band, Cimafunk. Photography by: Sandra Selva
It’s all about the music.
There’s something electrifying about hearing Cuba salsa, rumba and Afro-Cuban beats from the steady rhythm of the drums, clavé and the jazz notes of trumpets. Music is the currency of this soulful city and there are many places to hear Cuba’s sensational singers and bands from Fabrica De Arte Cubano, Casa de la Musica and the Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht are some favorites. Michifu, located in Centro Habana, is one block from La Guarida, is a great piano bar for a nightcap with live music. It is worth planning your trip to Havana to see Afro-Cuban bands, such as Cimafunk, who are rising international stars and making waves in the music industry.
Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO Heritage Site
Havana is perfect for a long weekend getaway or more.
There is much to do in Havana to keep itineraries filled. With direct flights, Havana is a perfect place for a long weekend getaway, although you can easily spend five days to a week discovering new things or day trips to Playas del Estes, Hemingway’s home of Finca Vigía, or take a two-and-a-half hour drive west to go horseback riding in the tobacco farms overlooking the breathtaking lush cliffs and landscape of the Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Getting Funky in Havana with Unique Experiences Curated by HabanaLive:
Photography by: Eve North
Get Under the Hood:
You’ll visit the repair shop of entrepreneurs Nidialys and Julio, who maintain a fleet of 20 classic American cars. They’ll show you how they restore these automotive antiques—in a market without spare parts.
Havana on Harleys with Guevara Jr.:
Grab your helmet and fire up your very own Harley-Davidson motorcycle with your guide, Ernesto Guevara Jr., son of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Take in the Malecón’s sea breeze and wind through Havana’s forest, passing historic, pre-Revolution era mansions. Along the way, stop for a cigar and rum to hear Ernesto’s stories.
Cabaret Night For your Celebration Dinner:
Gather your closest friends for a celebratory night in Havana. The setting is the art deco loft of a Grammy-winning Cuban musician, who has revised a cabaret concept in her home. See a private performance, mingle with leading Cuban cultural figures, enjoy a dinner prepared by your private chef, and linger over rum and cigars.
La Reyna y La Real:
The hip hop-jazz duo La Reyna y La Real defy obstacles with a sound that empowers and uplifts their fans. Enter their home for a conversation about race and gender in Cuba and their difficult path to success.
Art by: Mabel Poblet
Insider Access to Artists’ Galleries & Workshops:
Enter the homes of Cuba’s premier artists for an intimate exploration of the thriving contemporary art scene. From up-and-coming young artists to living legends, step into their workspaces and private collections to hear directly from the artists about their inspiration and creative process.
Entrepreneur Round Table & Design Pop-Up:
Some of Cuba’s most exciting entrepreneurs are redefining the fashion and design landscape. Meet with leading designers for a conversation about entrepreneurship in Cuba, and then browse your pop-up bazar showcasing their products. Place a custom order with tailors on site.