Cuba. My travel love story. Every traveler has one, and mine happens to be a stunning Caribbean island with fascinating history, a place most people will never visit just for its reputation.
When I saw a surprisingly cheap roundtrip ticket to Havana, I called my best friend Destiney and we were making plans weeks later. Like most of you, we didn’t know what to expect from this country. We only knew there were restrictions to go there and we had specific rules to follow.
The complications didn’t stop us. What a mistake it would have been if we let them.
Like most of you, we went to Cuba under the Support for the Cuban People OFAC category.
There are plenty of Support for the Cuban People itineraries all over the Internet with activities similar to what we did.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m sharing a few things we did in Cuba we feel you absolutely cannot miss and a couple places we went that aren’t listed on other blogs.
Things to See and Do in Havana
1. San Isidro Street Art Tour (Airbnb Experiences)
I typically book a free walking tour for the first morning in a new place. It gives a more general intro to the city and you can ask the guide for local recommendations for the rest of your stay.
This time, a neighborhood art tour led by a Cuban historian was only available our first morning.
Our San Isidro art tour with Claudia was the best introduction to Havana. She has so much insight to the artists and their individual repertoires.
After this tour, we saw their work all over the city and recognized it instantly.
San Isidro is just south of Old Havana, and is still off the well-trod tourist path.
Its proximity to the port made it a popular site for foreign sailors to solicit prostitution, giving the neighborhood a bad reputation for hundreds of years. The project that resulted in these murals was designed to give the area a new life, and it has made San Isidro one of the most unique areas of Havana to explore.
If you love art, history, and/or culture in general, you must do this Airbnb experience. And if it works out with your schedule, do it first so it can be your intro to Havana. Claudia is an amazing guide and will show you a place unlike any other.
You can book with Claudia here.
This was my first time booking with Airbnb Experiences and I’d gladly use it again. I think I’ll look there in the future, just in case something interesting like Claudia’s tour is there!
2. Free walking tour (Civitatis)
Since my student days in Europe, I have loved free walking tours. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, you don’t pay up front to join. Instead, you pay the guide directly for whatever you believe the tour was worth.
I booked this free walking tour through Civitatis, a Spanish company. Booking with them will make your life much easier once you’re in-country, because their website works on Cuban Wi-Fi.
Our guide, Ina, was so knowledgeable and shared the city through so many engaging anecdotes. Her tour was truly about sharing everyday life for Cubans in Havana, as well as the city’s history and culture.
The team at Havana Free Tour is unparalleled. As I mentioned above, I’ve done many free walking tours and this is one of the best.
Book your spot here.
3. Stay at Casa Azul (Airbnb)
We met three travelers in a taxi from Viñales back to Havana, and their casa particular experience was…not great.
Luckily for us, I found this casa particular on Airbnb.
We loved it so much, we asked if there was vacancy for after we returned from Viñales.
We had a different Havana casa particular booked for the end of our trip, but I cancelled it in the lobby. That was the right choice, because we absolutely love this place.
Charming architecture, comfortable beds, strong A/C, and a terrace for breakfast made this place so cozy for our girls’ trip to Havana. The girls working the front desk are so kind, too.
I know there are literally thousands of Havana casa particulars to sift through, but don’t waste your time. Just book this one.
Pro tip: After you book a casa particular, message your host to request airport pick-up. The hosts have connections with local private drivers and can get you one easily. We paid $30 per way, so $15 per person. The ride from Havana airport to the city is long and I never saw public transportation, so this is the option I recommend.
4. Try Camino al Sol, Havana’s only all-vegetarian paladar
People all over the Internet complain about their lackluster culinary experiences in Cuba, which I understand to an extent. However, the key is to know where to go.
Paladares in the most touristy areas of Old Havana aren’t prioritizing quality as much as convenience to a lot of tourist foot traffic. The entire world is like that.
To remedy this, try Camino al Sol. Even if you aren’t a vegetarian, I think you’ll be amazed by their creative flavor pairings. This area is off the beaten path, but there are taxis close by because it’s near a large hotel.
Don’t leave without getting a bag of treats from Bembé, a bakery two doors down. Trust me, you’ll smell it from the street.
The cookies taste like buttery, slightly sweet shortbread that is the perfect mix of crunchy and soft. My mouth is watering just writing this section—I still remember how good they were.
5. Cuba Libro (Google Maps)
Cuba Libro is an English language bookstore and NGO facilitating civil discourse in Havana. It’s outside Old Havana, so you’ll need to take a taxi.
They have many titles for sale at great prices, since the books are used. There’s also a café menu and a patio with lots of greenery if you’d like to stay a while.
8. Walk the Malecón
I know this has been on literally every Havana list you’ve seen, but it’s truly that magical. If it isn’t already on your list, it should be.
The indigo sea sparkles in the sunlight, as waves climb up the rocks lining the wall around the city. It’s something any visitor should witness.
I truly think you’ll love it.
7. Local art galleries
I’m being intentionally vague here, because we didn’t have guidance on where to go. We only walked around Old Havana and stepped in where we saw beauty.
Many local artists leave their doors open and enjoyed talking to us.
This mainly works if at least one person in your group speaks fluent Spanish. I did lots of translating, but it was worth the effort. We met absolutely amazing people whose ideas and dreams will make the world better.
As for the art, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Tip from a local: One of our artist friends said his favorite place in Havana is La Fábrica de Arte Cubano. It’s a space with art galleries and a nightclub. We heard many great things about it over the week, but we didn’t go ourselves. Maybe you will!
The grand finale of our week in Cuba was an outing to Fusterlandia.
Local artist José Fuster put this neighborhood on the map. It took decades to craft this public work of art in the painstaking detail of millions of mosaic tiles.
Fusterlandia is Fuster’s house, and it’s absolutely covered in mosaic art. When you arrive to the neighborhood itself, you’ll see his work immediately. He even created mosaics for neighbors’ homes, too.
Be sure you have cash to pay the nominal entry fee. When we went in December 2022, it was just a few dollars per person. They accepted USD, Euros, and Cuban pesos. If you want to go to the bathroom, that’s a separate (also nominal) fee because there’s an attendant.
Fusterlandia was the perfect place to wind down and reflect on our amazing week in Cuba. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Things to See and Do in Viñales
I’m sure you’ve seen the multitude of Viñales day tours from Havana. After our experience, I do not recommend joining one of those. The distance from Havana to Viñales alone makes that a VERY long day, and it won’t be as enjoyable as staying overnight.
I also don’t recommend touring the valley on a bicycle. The distances are too vast to make that enjoyable. Just book a local private taxi tour instead—you’ll see more and you won’t be so worn out.
9. Stay at Casa Marielis y Felipe (Airbnb)
This is first on my Viñales list, because Marielis made our time in Viñales absolutely amazing. Without her, it wouldn’t have been the same.
Her house is technically in Los Jazmines, a community just up the mountain but still part of the Viñales valley.
In fact, you get a better view from her neighborhood of the dramatic landscapes that put Viñales on the map. You can see what I mean in the sunset video above.
We ate a few of our meals here, and we booked all our tours through her. She’s lived in the community her whole life and has great connections to horseback tour guides and taxi tours.
It’s ideal to have at least one person in your group who speaks Spanish to stay here. If you don’t, use Google Translate offline.
You can book a stay with her here.
10. Horseback riding tour
We only spent one full day in Viñales, and this horseback tour was our first outing. I’d never ridden a horse before and absolutely loved it. Adrián, a local cowboy who served as our guide, was very friendly and reassuring. He was a great teacher for a couple of brand new horseback riders.
My furry partner for the day was Caramelo. He’s named after candy.
My favorite part of this tour was going to a local coffee, vegetable, and fruit farm. Tobacco farms are a major attraction in Viñales, but that’s not really my thing.
Coffee, though? I’m only half-functional until I get that morning cup of joe. One of my favorite things to learn more about is local coffee culture.
Adrián introduced me to one of the farmers, a woman who married into the family. They’ve lived in Los Jazmines and in this part of the valley for generations.
One of the older relatives talked with me too, and he shared his memories from before the revolution. The valley was full of farms; houses dotted the land as far as the eye could see. Now, theirs is the only one left.
They made me an orange and sugar cane juice, with a shot of local rum. It was one of the most delicious cocktails I’ve ever had. The fruit in my pictures are oranges—she taught me that Cuban oranges are never orange in color. The peel is either green like these, or yellow.
I’m smiling just writing these memories for this post. If Casa Marielis is available, book that casa particular so you can meet Marielis’ community. I wish there were more people in the world like them, that there were more communities with the kind of bond they share.
11. Cueva del indio tour with boat ride
After our morning with Adrián was over, we said goodbye and had lunch (cooked by Marielis, of course!). We spent a couple lazy afternoon hours while the sun was at its peak, then we were picked up by another of Marielis’ connections for a taxi tour.
We went to all the typical sights, including the Mural de la Prehistoria. But our tour of La Cueva del Indio was better. It means the Cave of the Indian, and it’s named this because indigenous people lived inside.
There was an entry fee, but it was so low for both of us that we thought they gave too much change back. Just take cash; you’ll be fine.
When we entered the cave, it was just the two of us. It was equal parts cool and eerie.
We followed the only path available and arrived to a river inside the cave. After a few minutes’ wait, a guide in a boat came to pick us up. He gave a short tour on the water, then took us to the exit of the cave on the other side. Our driver awaited us there.
If you can, I highly recommend a tour of La Cueva del Indio. It was beautiful.
12. Tour the Viñales Botanical Garden
After La Cueva del Indio, our driver bid us adieu with a drop-off at the Viñales Botanical Garden. It’s privately-owned by a descendant of the man who opened it decades ago. He was a Chinese immigrant to Cuba, and opened the garden to plant herbs for his Chinese medicine practice.
Our tour guide is a local English teacher and a writer. We bonded over our love for literature. He knew the name of every single plant, including what it does and where it came from.
He’s like an encyclopedia of botany. I love flowers and gardens, and this was my favorite botanical garden experience. It was also my favorite experience of our afternoon taxi tour, followed closely by La Cueva del Indio.
Even if you don’t go through a taxi tour, you can easily find it from Viñales center. It’s just south of the main square with the yellow church.
You may have noticed by now that most people have a love/hate relationship with Cuba. They have a few things they loved strongly about their trip, and a few things they absolutely hated.
I only have love for this place. Yes, the nation has its problems. So do all the others, albeit to varying degrees.
What makes Cuba so special to me is the people we met there. We wanted to learn about them, and they wanted to learn about us. People would come up to us in the street and strike up a genuinely curious conversation. They made it easy to love Cuba.
I know in many ways, our experience cannot be replicated. But I do know this place has its own adventure in store for you. You and only you.
There’s only one way to find out what it is.
Read more Cuba travel guides:
- Cuba Travel Guide for U.S. Citizens: What to Know Before You Go
- Cuba Pre-Departure Checklist
- At Dusk in Havana, I Fell in Love
- Havana, the Art Sanctuary
- When It Destroys, It Starts with Us
- The Elephant in the Room: Socialism in Cuba