Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba

Whether you’re looking for delicious food, vintage car rides, architectural gems, or lively dance, Cuba has it all. Here are the best reasons to visit Cuba…

1. Tour Havana in a classic American car. Drive through Havana in a vintage Chevrolet convertible for a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Adolfo, our guide/driver of a bright pink Chevy, tested our Spanish by explaining details of each site. Highlights include: the stunning view of Havana from La Cabaña (The Fort); photo ops in front of a massive marble statue of Jesus Christ, called Cristo de la Habana in Spanish; sampling delectable scoops of ice cream for four cents at the government run Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor; and meeting the official “Lennon glasses guardian,” Juan Gonzalez, who is in charge of putting Lennon’s famous wire-rimmed glasses on his statue.

old cars of cuba
Vintage American taxi

2. Drink a fabulous Cuban mojito or daiquiri. Mojitos are refreshing Cuban drinks with five key ingredients: rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water, and mint. Outstanding mojitos are available at nearly every restaurant or bar in Cuba. My favorite mojito was at 5 Esquinas (5 Corners) Restaurant in Old Havana because I got to watch the bartender make it! Daiquiris are cocktail concoctions with three key ingredients: rum, lime juice, and sugar. Bananas or strawberries can be added to the mix for additional flavor. Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Havana joint, El Floridita, also known as “The Cradle of the Daiquiri,” whips up frozen daiquiris, made with blended ice and maraschino liqueur.

3. Smoke a Cuban cigar. Even if you’ve never smoked in your entire life, there’s a first time to try everything! Start with the best by trying a Cuban cigar at a family-run tobacco plantation in the town of Viñales. However if you have smoked, or are a smoker and you’re wanting to quit the tobacco but you’re not sure if you can quit “cold turkey” looking into vape products as well as different Vape Juice could be the first step to quitting tobacco. Vaping products are becoming increasingly popular due to the wide acceptance that they are a safer alternative to traditional methods of smoking, like cigarettes and cigars. Vapers also have access to a plethora of flavors to enjoy from premium brands like Nasty Juice have won many awards.

A tobacco farmer in Viñales shows how to make the perfect Cuban cigar.
A tobacco farmer in Viñales shows how to make the perfect Cuban cigar.

4. Dine at a traditional Paladar. Paladars are intimate family-run restaurants with a delightful ambiance. These cozy restaurants serve traditional Cuban food, along with wine and delicious desserts. I had a lovely dinner at Paladar Los Mercaderes, located inside a charming colonial building in Old Havana. I walked up a staircase with pink rose petals and took a seat at my table underneath stained glass windows. As I enjoyed a scrumptious meal of succulent lobster with pineapple sauce, I listened to a violinist and guitarist strum “Guantanamera” in the alcove. For dessert, I enjoyed a layered chocolate and wafer treat with a caramelized edge.

5. Stay at a family-run casa particular. These bed-and-breakfast-style casas are everywhere in Cuba. A casa particular typically has a few private rooms, each with its own bathroom, situated inside a family’s home or apartment. You can rent the room at a very reasonable price, usually around $30 per night. The casa’s family members cook breakfast, assist with luggage, and even pick guests up from the airport or bus stop. Staying at a casa is just like visiting a relative for the holidays, except you get to chat about life over mojitos and learn a few rhumba dance moves from the family! It’s a fun experience and you get a chance to bond with local Cubans.

6. Walk along the Malecón and watch an incredible sunset. The Malecón is Havana’s famous thoroughfare where locals gather to chat with friends and enjoy spectacular ocean views. From here, you can see gorgeous sunsets and watch the Malecón’s colonial buildings light up in bright pink and orange. Everyone I met in Havana told me that if you haven’t visited the Malecón, you haven’t seen Cuba!

A couple admires the view from the Malecón.
A couple admires the view from the Malecón.

7. Dance. In a small Havana alleyway called Callejón de Hamel, crowds gather every Sunday at noon to take in the energetic rhythms of Afro-Cuban music. Here, people dance to the beats of pounding drums, spirited singers, and enchanting rhumba dancers moving their hips to the beat. If you’re lucky enough to sit close to the stage, you might find yourself dancing with the group!

8. Visit the town of Viñales. Here, you can photograph soaring evergreen trees and giant limestone cliffs at the magnificent Parque Nacional Viñales. It’s also designated as a UNSECO World Heritage site. Viñales is famous for tobacco plantations, historic caves, and beautiful greenery. Take some time to relax in a rocking chair on the porch of your casa particular and watch the world go by.

A rainbow peaks lights up the limestone cliffs of Viñales.
A rainbow peaks lights up the limestone cliffs of Viñales.

9. Admire Cuban architecture. Only in Cuba will you find a mix of different architectural styles ranging from baroque to modern art deco. Stroll past ancient churches, narrow alleys, and cobblestone plazas to admire the colorful architecture. In an open top bus tour (which is only $5 per person), you’ll drive by art noveau buildings in central Havana’s hip neighborhood of Vedado.

The National Capitol Building in Havana
The National Capitol Building in Havana

10. Check out the art. It’s everywhere. Cuba’s art scene is vivacious and unique. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (The National Museum of Fine Art) hosts intriguing exhibitions from Cuba and abroad, including a recent art show from the Bronx. I was in town for the Havana Biennial art celebration in May, so all the galleries had amazing art shows on display. I also visited a hip, new gallery called Clandestina, started by a young graphic designer named Idania del Río. Her shop in Old Havana is full of colorful posters, T-shirts, and other fun items.

Havana Skyline

Havana Biennial represents a changing Cuba

The air buzzed with excitement outside the Factoría Habana in Havana Vieja. Cubans and people from around the world, gathered outside the gallery, eagerly awaiting the opening. Right away, art aficionados dressed in trendy outfits, streamed into the building. Within minutes, the entire gallery was full of people looking at art, chatting with friends, taking pictures, and listening to the woman DJ spin music.

I couldn’t believe I was at a cool gorgeous art gallery, full of cool, gorgeous people right in the center of Havana. Everywhere I looked, I saw young fashionistas admiring the art from hanging iPads to a giant sign made with plastic rulers.

Change is happening in Cuba. During the 12th Havana Biennial this year art galleries and museums displayed never-before seen work. One of the most interesting scenes was along the Malecón, a popular sea-facing stretch of road where people gather to enjoy the view. For the biennial it became a massive outdoor art gallery featuring everything from an ice skating rink to a fountain with barbed wire.

In Havana, art was on display everywhere from a dilapidated bicycle factory to fancy art galleries! In the words of an organizer on the festival’s website, “It won’t be a Biennial for collectors or gallerists, but rather to make a connection with the city. There will be no official opening or specific venues; art will spill out of the galleries, bursting into the streets which will be bubbling with ideas.”

A former bicycle factory turned into an art gallery during the 12th Havana Biennial.
A former bicycle factory turned into an art gallery during the 12th Havana Biennial.

On my last night in Havana, I met Cuban artist, Rachel Valdés Camejo. She’s the artist behind the magnificent “Blue Cube,” a giant plastic blue box on the Malecón. Upon entering the blue cube, I could see the dark blue ocean and the clouds in the sky above. Rachel explained the inspiration for her cube, along with another installation she has on display at the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña. She excitedly talked about how this type of art can impact all Cubans. Even though Rachel studied and lived in Spain and the United States, she wants to be a part of the Cuban art scene. She said the Malecón was the perfect venue for people of all backgrounds to view and interact with the art.

Rachel Valdés Camejo's incredible sound, mirror, and light installation on display at the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña.
Rachel Valdés Camejo’s incredible sound, mirror, and light installation on display at the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña.

During the biennial, the entire city of Havana became a living art museum. I noticed hidden gems such as a wall full of tiny sketches in an abandoned building. In a former bicycle factory, I saw pieces of silver embedded in the wall. I was impressed that many of the artists stood next to their pieces and eagerly interacted with the audience.

During the 12th Havana Biennial, the entire city of Havana became a living art museum. I noticed hidden gems such as a wall full of tiny sketches in an abandoned building.
During the 12th Havana Biennial, the entire city of Havana became a living art museum. I noticed hidden gems such as a wall full of tiny sketches in an abandoned building.

Along the Malecón, Moroccan artist Safaa Erruas displayed a Moorish shaped fountain with hundreds of white barbed wire poles emerging from the center. When people looked down into the fountain, they could see a reflection of themselves. She told me that her piece represented borders and “at first, you don’t see the borders, since nothing appears at first as what’s reality.” Her piece emphasized how politics often creates boundaries. Another Moroccan artist, Mounir Fatmi’s installation of poles painted with American flags represented the U.S.-Cuba relationship. I met a curator who told me that many of these art pieces were created before the U.S. and Cuba formally engaged in dialog in December 2014.

Moroccan artist Safaa Erruas displayed a Moorish shaped fountain with hundreds of white barbed wire poles emerging from the center titled, "Fuente de Espinas," or Fountain of Thorns," in English.
Moroccan artist Safaa Erruas displayed a Moorish shaped fountain with hundreds of white barbed wire poles emerging from the center titled, “Fuente de Espinas,” or Fountain of Thorns,” in English.

Many Cuban artists raved about the New York exhibition, “Wild Noise,” which debuted at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes). In this exhibition, The Bronx Museum gathered more than 80 pieces from American artists. It was an amazing experience to see this collection from New York debut in Cuba for the first time in fifty years!

The Havana Biennial represents a Cuba that is quickly changing. This year, over 200 artists from 44 countries across Latin American, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States presented their art pieces in Havana to the world. Cuba is such a fascinating country and I hope to visit again for future art and culture celebrations.

Art piece displaying U.S. and Cuba flags at the Zona Franca exhibition, held inside the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña during the 12th Havana Biennial.
Art piece displaying U.S. and Cuba flags at the Zona Franca exhibition, held inside the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña during the 12th Havana Biennial.

The Havana Biennial runs until June 22.