Now that restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba have been loosened, the rush to get to Havana is on. But making a memorable visit involves know-how. For instance, travelers still need a permit to visit and the most popular category of travel—a people-to-people cultural exchange—involves a set itinerary run by an approved operator like Indagare, Abercrombie and Kent, or Academic Arrangements Abroad. Demand for flights and hotels has skyrocketed, so it can take up to eight or ten weeks to secure reservations. The top hotels in town, the Saratoga (rooms from $350; 53-7/868-1000; hotel-saratoga.com) and Parque Centrale (rooms from $154; La Habana Vieja; 53-7/860-6627; hotelparquecentral-cuba.com), are comfortable but far from five-star (the rooms resemble those at most airport hotels in the United States), and since the government tourism board controls inventory, even if you have a reservation, they can move your booking the day before you arrive, so it is always best to book through a tour company.
Highlights of a visit are vast. Tour Old Havana with an art historian (guides work privately and have to be booked via a packaged trip) to see stunning buildings that range from 16th century Colonial squares to impressive Art Deco bank buildings dating from the period when Havana was a financial capital that competed with Wall Street. Stroll the gardens at Finca Vigia (Finca Vigia Km. 12 1/2; 53-7/910809; fincafoundation.org), Ernest Hemingway’s house in the countryside, and peer into the author’s private rooms that have been preserved exactly as they were left in the late 1950s. Meet with artists like Damian Aquiles (damianaquiles.ca) and Yoan Capote (yoan-capote.com). Listen to live music at Cafe De Paris (San Ignacio and Obispo Streets) or Cafe Taberna (Calle Mercaderes 531; 53-7/861-1637), where members of the Buena Vista Social Club still play, or see a retro dance show at the legendary Tropicana (72 A; 53-7/267-1717; caberet-tropicana.com). Young locals head to dance clubs like Salon Turquino (53-7/834-6100). See a performance of the Cuban National Ballet (Paseo del Prado; balletcuba.cult.cu) or a baseball game. Dancers and ball players are treated like national treasures and have long been some of the country’s most valuable exports.
For dining, it is best to avoid the government-run restaurants; instead, head to paladares, family-run operations that are often in apartments or houses. Among the best ones: Café Laurent (257 Calle M; 53-7/831-2090), Atelier (Calle 5ta, No. 511; 53-7/836-2025), Mediterraneo (Calle 13 #408; 53-7/832-4894; medhavana.com), La Guarida (418 Concordia; 53-7/866-9047), El Litoral (Malencon 161; 53-7/830-2201; ellitoralhabana.com), Milano Lounge (Calle 3ra No. 2404; 53-1/203-4641) and Le Chansonnier (Plaza de la Revolucion; 53-7/832-1576). These entrepreneurial enterprises have sprouted up in the past decade and revolutionized the culinary scene in the city. The decor is often a mix of antiques and found treasures in family houses or apartments, and expect the menus to feature dishes that are Caribbean with a Euro twist. However, these restaurants face infrastructure issues, so can lose power, lack phone lines or run out of supplies, making even dining out an adventure. Remember, Cuba is one of the poorest nations in the world and has been locked out of Western progress for decades, so the real key to a great trip is remaining flexible and being open to discovery.