My sisters and I love traditions. They help us create a sense of home in our expat New York existance. One of our favorite traditions is packing our bags around New Year’s and zipping to a warm place – a chance to thaw our frozen bones and see how other cultures celebrate the holidays.
This year, we got up at 4:30 am on January 1st and took a quick plane ride to Havana, Cuba. We wanted to see for ourselves the unique marriage between a festive Caribbean culture and a socialist political order.
As Bulgarian citizens ourselves, who lived through Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism as children, we experienced a series of déjà vus as we made our way through the streets of Havana and observed its way of life.
Things to do in Havana:
We opted for a Casa Particular in one of the newer parts of Havana. Casas Particulares are private homes that can be rented through Airbnb or a few dedicated websites. Not only are these cheaper than Havana’s sparse selection of hotels, but they are also a chance to blend with the locals and experience a real Cuban home. For a small additional charge ($5 per person in our experience), you can also get delicious local breakfast prepared by your hosts. Speaking of food…
FOOD & DRINK
Food tourism is not what Havana is known for, so we suggest you suspend your foodie standards while visiting. Some food staples you should expect to find on any menu are rice with beans, plantains, chicken, beef, and pork. We recommend that you try these in one of Havana’s many paladares – family-run restaurants housed in real Cuban homes – for a truly authentic experience.
Our favorite culinary experience was breakfast. We said “yes” to our hosts’ gracious offer to cook for us and did not regret our decision! Breakfast was served beautifully and included coffee with milk (café con leche), seasonal fruit, freshly squeezed juice, eggs, and bread with butter and jam.
Everything was fresh and packed with flavor thanks to being locally sourced. Since we’re talking about Cuba, their coffee is truly fantastic, so don’t forget to have as much of it as you can!
As far as surprises go, we stumbled upon a beautiful Swedish (yes, Swedish) restaurant nestled in the middle of Old Havana – Casa Miglis. The gorgeous decor and interesting fusion of cuisines at Casa Miglis are certain to create a memorable experience for you.
A big part of visiting Havana is walking around the old town and looking at rows upon rows of stunning colonial architecture. While their crumbling walls may give you a tinge of sadness, you will also feel a sense of awe for the history that fills them.
Walk around the old streets till your feet can no longer carry you, then huddle in a cute little café for a coffee, mojito or frozen daiquiri. Around sunset, head over to el Malecón to take a walk along the water and people watch.
There are also a number of cultural and historical sites to visit, depending on how many days you have in Havana. We visited the popular Plaza de Armas that teems with local vendors selling old tomes of Cuban literature.
We then made our way to the Morro Castle (Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro), which is a quick cab ride away. One convenient thing about Cuba – cabs everywhere!
There are several museums to visit in Havana. We managed to see el Museo de la Revolución and Museo de Artes Decorativas, the latter of which was a stone throw away from our Casa Particular.
Set in the old Presidential Palace, Museo de la Revolución will give you a detailed account of the Cuban revolution, along with the biographies and personal correspondence of key figures. History buffs will appreciate the distinct perspective through which these monumental events are presented.
We’ll leave you with a couple of pointers that should help make your trip smoother.
Internet is limited in Havana. There are hot spots (usually hotels) where you can buy an internet card and plug in for a couple of hours. Plan your trip in a way that you are not dependent on these!
Some restaurants and grocery stores keep arbitrary hours and may be closed on certain days (we missed Fabrica de Arte Cubano, which you absolutely must see). Have backup plans or be ready to improvise.
In coming to Havana, you’ll be entering a time capsule of sorts – a culture that is slowly opening up to the rest of the world and is still living in ways some of us have long forgotten (and others never experienced). Our advice? Embrace this different world, be open and kind, and welcome whatever it has to give you.