Cuba is already a big destination for tourists from all over the world.
According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, 2.9 million people visited last year, and more people went to Cuba in the first nine months of 2014 than any Caribbean island except the Dominican Republic. While recent steps by the U.S. government to open relations with Cuba aren’t providing carte blanche for tourism, it’s likely that, for the first time in five decades, it will soon be easier for Americans to go and legally spend money there.
But the political and ethical considerations of traveling to Cuba are complicated and personal. If you choose to visit, it’s important to be informed about the country’s history, respectful of the people who live there, and aware of how you spend your money. What follows is a list of things to see and do.
Stay up all night on The Malecón.
The Malecón is to Havana what the strip is to Vegas, the place to be from sunset to sunrise. For five miles, the Malecón seawall runs along Havana’s Atlantic-facing coast. At night, musicians, gallivanting teenagers, lovers, and street vendors take to the Malecón for a chill hang or to drink rum and party to a mashup of breaking waves and eclectic beats.
Visit University of Havana.
Founded in 1728, University of Havana and its 60,000 students occupy a good chunk of central Havana. In the 1950s, the university, which is the Castro brothers’ alma mater, was the site of major anti-government protests. It remains a site of political and social organization and the city’s nexus of contemporary youth culture today.
See live music — everywhere.
Ask any Cuban which countries contributed most to the democratization of music and they’ll tell you, “the United States, Brazil, and Cuba.” Visit the famous club La Zorra y El Cuervo, or just stop into the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists, and you might find a Grammy winner on the sax. Beyond jazz, there’s also amazing son music (think Buena Vista Social Club), trova (nuevo trova Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez is the Bob Dylan of every Latin American lefty’s heart), danzón, and more. Ask a local where you can find those styles of music and GO.
Feast on delicious street food.
Small businesses are cropping up all over Cuba’s streets and many new entrepreneurs are focusing on street food. Try pork hamburgers, fruit milkshakes, and coconut pies, to name a few. Here are five street foods you should try in Havana.
Wander and admire the architecture in Vedado.
Vedado, the residential area to the west of Central Havana, is home to early 20-century mansions that were once stunning family estates and are now crumbling palatial structures. Habana Vieja, the downtown city center, is also full of amazing colonial-era buildings, and other parts of town are full of brutalist 1960s and ’70s architecture that are interesting in their own right.
See Interactivo perform.
With famed jazz pianist Roberto Carcasses at its helm, the collaborative group Interactivo sells out shows wherever it performs. On Wednesdays, catch them at Berto Brecht theater in Vedado and prepare to be blown away.
Learn to salsa at 1830.
To many Cubans, salsa moves seem to come as natural as walking. But don’t let their professional-level skills deter you — the dance culture in Cuba is all about doing it together. For a crash course, hang out during salsa night at the outdoor club 1830 and fall into step with a local.
Hang out in Plaza Vieja.
From art galleries to a beer museum, Havana’s “Old Plaza” has tons of culture going on. The outdoor cafes are a great place to spend an afternoon (though this is definitely one of the more touristy activities on this list) sipping from three-foot-high beer towers — or only slightly smaller mojitos.
Take a bus to Baracoa.
Baracoa sits on the opposite side of the island from Havana. This is part of Guantanamo province, and where Columbus first landed in Cuba. Chocolate and cacao are an important part of Baracoa’s economy, so munch on some while you take in the the view of El Yunque, a 575-meter-high table mountain, across Baracoa Bay. To get there, you can fly to Gustavo Rizo Airport from Havana, but flights are infrequent. Most people take a bus, which leave from Havana on alternate days. (Note that this, like all public transport schedules, is worth double-checking before you go.)
See a dance show at Teatro Nacional.
Even if your trip doesn’t line up with Havana’s annual ballet festival, you should see a dance show anyway. The National Theatre houses many of the island’s preeminent performers, but a stroll down Linea Avenue will provide you with a host of theatrical options. For non-Spanish speakers, dance is a great place to start.
Take in the sunset from El Morro.
El Morro — a 16th-century fortress that was also used as a prison for many years — now serves as an excellent vantage point where you can catch beautiful Atlantic sunsets. Every night at 9 p.m., a ceremonial canon is fired from the fortress walls.
Hike the highest point on the island of Cuba: Pico Turquino.
Head to Varadero and hit the beach.
Varadero is Cuba’s most illustrious resort town, and with over 3,000 miles of coastline, you can have your pick of beach spot, from bustling locales near Havana to hidden gems on the island’s less-frequented stretches. The beaches near Havana are a more affordable day trip, as are the beaches in all the provinces. Varadero is like Cuba’s South Beach — more of a destination.
Eat dinner at La Guarida.
First, some homework: See Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1994), the Academy Award-nominated period piece and darling of Cuban cinema. Then, make a reservation at La Guarida, the Central Havana haunt with excellent fare that serves as the stage for most of the film.
Spend a day in Trinidad.
Stop into the colonial beach town on the island’s south side, where the crystalline waters are turquoise and there’s an active nightlife.
Visit Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigía.
Go to a baseball game at Estadio Latinoamericano.
Home to two Cuban pro-league teams, the stadium is as big or larger than most MLB stadiums in the U.S. Grab a strong Cuban coffee from one of the vendors, and enjoy the nation’s favorite sport.
Visit the Museo de la Revolución.
Housed in a former presidential palace, The Museum of the Revolution is one of Havana’s most popular attractions, and features a fascinating (albeit partisan) look into Cuba’s political past.