You're finally en route to the island that has been essentially forbidden to US tourists for the past 50 years and want to make the absolute most of your time there, right? Now that we're on the same page, be sure you don't miss the following:
1. Put on your dancing shoes!
Caribbean countries, dance, be it the cha-cha, mambo, or many others, is an integral part of Cuban culture. Head to Casa de la Música (with locations in Central Havana as well as Miramar) and you're guaranteed a fun-filled evening spent with Cubans and foreigners alike. If actually hitting the dance floor isn't your cup of tea, another option is to take in an evening of dance at a cabaret at the Hotel Nacional's grand 1930 Hall. Of course there’s also the historical Tropicana that offers the chance to go back in time and experience the famous shows of the 1940 and 50’s.
2. Walk along the Malecón, especially in the evening.
If you want a first-hand snapshot into life in Cuba, there’s no better place to go than the Malecón, Havana’s 8 kilometer seaside waterway. Somewhat comparable to a beach boardwalk, this large concrete structure stretches from the harbor in downtown Havana all the way up to the neighborhood of Vedado and is without a doubt the place to see and be seen in Havana. The best time to go is in the evening, when you’re guaranteed to find groups of friends huddled around someone strumming the guitar or sharing a bottle of rum, fledgling couples cuddled up on the platform, or even young people swimming in the water (swim at your own risk!). Don’t be afraid to go up to people and chat or just take in the scenery including the waves crashing against the concrete structure (fair warning: you may get a little wet!) as well as an incredible sunset.
3. Visit the fine arts museum.
Cuba is an incredibly artistic country and the fine arts is no exception. Right off of the bustling street, Paseo del Prado are two impressive buildings, one housing the Colección de Arte Universal (Collection of Universal Art) and Colección de Arte Cubano (Collection of Cuban Art). While the former is worthwhile, the Cuban collection is an absolute must-see. The museum is filled to the brim with a wide-ranging array of Cuban art including incredibly contemporary exhibitions that can be surprisingly avant-gard. Well known Cuban artists whose works are prominently featured include Wilfredo Lam, René Portocarrero, and Raul Martinez.
4. Eat at a paladar.
Private enterprise is something that is fairly recent and still not very common in Cuba, a country where you couldn’t buy or sell your own home or car until very recently. However small businesses are slowly but surely coming into the picture and one of the most delicious ways is via paladares. A paladar is a restaurant run out of someone’s home. You’ll find many in large cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba and they can certainly be found in smaller cities, too. They run the gamut from practically being in someone’s living room, to a more spacious patio area. Regardless of the setting, they are known to serve up some of the most amazing food to be found in Cuba. The paladares offer a much-welcomed respite from the somewhat bland and ubiquitous rice, beans, meat, and salad found at the state-run restaurants. Opinions on favorites include the Malecon-waterfront Vista del Mar in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana and El Gijonés on Paseo del Prado in Havana Vieja.
5. Listen to some of the most amazing jazz you’ll ever hear.
In addition to the dancing and art, Cuba is home to many world-renowned jazz musicians. At places like La Zorra Y El Cuervo or the Jazz Café you just may see some of those musicians, or else those on their ascent. Ask a local for recommendations as to when to go and get ready to be blown away!