Cuba is a new frontier for American cruisers, and the colorful capital of Havana is the star. When Fathom’s Adonia pulled into port in early May 2016, it was the first U.S. cruise ship to call on Havana in nearly 40 years. More than a dozen cruise lines are eager to follow suit and have announced plans for itineraries between the two countries.
Our take: It’s worth the trip. Old Havana is a veritable time capsule with sun, sea, and culture. On a cruise, the day (or days) in port may fly by and seem like a Havana crash course. You’ll want more time, but the bottom line is that a cruise might just be the easiest way to get there.
What We Love
The People: Like many of their Caribbean neighbors, Cubans are warm and friendly. They’re also excited and anxious for American visitors. Access to the island nation is still restricted, but recent changes now permit Americans to take people-to-people trips with the express purpose of getting to know the locals. If an organized visit isn’t your speed, spend a night hanging out on the Malecón — the most popular avenue in Havana is a gathering spot after dark for locals.
Cuban Cuisine: From ropa vieja to rice and beans (or really arroz con anything), Cuban food, with Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, is simple and delicious. Skip the state-run restaurants and choose to dine at one of the many paladares. The privately run restaurants can sometimes be found in local homes and are a unique and charming dining experience.
Best Known For
Classic Cars: Havana residents sit behind the wheel of classic American cars straight out of the 1950s. Cadillacs, Chevys, Fords … the vintage cars are a staple on the streets of the capital and many are used as taxis. Visitors can hire one for about 35 convertible pesos (CUCs) per hour and get a tour of the sights from the driver.
Ernest Hemingway: The great American author spent nearly 22 years of his life in Cuba. He also wrote more novels on the island than in any other place. You can follow in Papa's footsteps and grab a daiquiri at El Floridita or a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana. True fans must visit Cojímar, the small fishing village that was the inspiration for "The Old Man and the Sea," or his home, Finca Vigía. Located nine miles from Havana, it is now a state-owned museum.
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Who It's Best For
Architecture Lovers: Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its crumbling beauty. The old city has been around since the 16th century, and its buildings showcase diverse architectural styles — Spanish colonial, neoclassical, art deco. Decades of economic hardship has led to deterioration, but restoration efforts are being carried out (slowly) throughout the city. Our tip: One of the most interesting ways to see the city is from above at the Camera Obscura in Plaza Vieja.
Music Aficionados: Salsa, rumba, mambo … it’s hard to paint a picture with sound, but live music is woven into the fabric of Havana. Music greats have long been influenced by the sounds of Cuba, and the lively tunes still pour out into the streets of the capital.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
It’s Hot!: With temperatures from the mid-60s to the mid-90s, Havana is warm all year long. High humidity and bright sunshine can make the summer months unbearable. MSC and Celestyal cruise seasonally and avoid the brutal days, but Fathom sails its Cuba itinerary year-round. Pack the sunscreen and be ready for the heat.
Cash Is King: Credit cards are not widely accepted. Travelers should bring cash to exchange for local currency and brace for a 10% surcharge when switching out U.S. dollars.
Kristen Boatright is the New York City-based senior video editor of ShermansCruise.com.