If you’re like everyone else who has the case of wanderlust happy-feet for Cuba, but want to see it before tourism takes over, I’ve got the perfect list of secret local spots for you to check out!
After wandering around Havana and other parts of Cuba by myself for about a week, I brushed up on my Español and made friends with the jovenes to find out where to go to really experience Cuban culture, and get in touch with my roots!
The results: a list of awesome spots to share with other fans of the road less traveled! A little word of advice before you grab your passport — English is not spoken fluently in Cuba, so brush up on your basic Spanish vocab before you go!
1. Stay in a “Casa Particular”
There are plenty of hotels to stay in if that’s your style, but if you really want to experience Cuban culture, stay in a “Casa Particular”. That translates to “family dwelling” and is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll stay in one of the authentic Cuban homes that has been restored to be rented out to guests, and usually will include meals if you pay a little extra.
You’ll also meet other travelers if there are other rooms being rented out, which is always an interesting experience! These are also a lot cheaper than hotels — mine was only $35 per night!
2. Eat at “Los Paladores”
This translates to “home restaurant”. These are literally restaurants that are made in the houses or mansions that are all over town. Many times you’ll notice that multiple families live downstairs while the restaurant runs upstairs.
Go to “Calle 13 Entre de E y F” in Vedado (just repeat that to your taxi driver) and check out the Mediteranean restaurant for the best seafood and pasta in Havana, or the cheaper option across the street that’s set up on the lawn of an old, enourmous mansion.
3. Have Drinks and Chat Along the Malecón
So…technically the Malecón could be considered “touristy” BUT that’s only if you’re going there to take pictures and whatnot. The Malecón is a stone wall that separates the epic architecture of Havana from the taunting ocean waters below it.
It is also historically notorious for being a meeting spot for couples, friends, families, and anyone else who wants to sit along its edges to chat, drink, and enjoy life to the fullest.
4. Hang Out at Fabrica del Arte
Now this place you HAVE to see! It’s not only an insanely fun time, but it’s a major movement for young people, and life in Cuba in general. It’s an old olive oil factory that has been converted into a gallery-discoteca…hence the name. On the first floor there’s art throughout, and a live band in the middle. Upstairs is a full art gallery, followed by an indie film theater, and another bar that also offers pastries!
Go out back and you’ll find a wooden deck that most of the guests hang out on, and back downstairs from there you’ll find a little “food truck” made from an old shipping container! Behind that is the discotech (AKA nightclub) that you can bailamos your butt away in all night!
5. Watch a Fashion Show at La Maison
This place was interesting. While trying to learn about fashion in Cuba, La Maison was recommended. Like many places, it’s an old mansion converted into a venue, and in this case, it’s an outdoor fashion show! Tables are set up in front of the runway, and you can order food and drinks while you watch the male and female models showcase la moda de Cuba (the fashion of Cuba).
6. Observe Vedado’s Old Mansions
I know, I know, I keep talking about all of these old mansions…but you HAVE to see them! It’s insane! Imagine the homes of the biggest mafia and mob leaders from the 1920’s, sugarcane plantation owners, even the founder of Bacardi! But it’s more than just block after block of big houses. These big houses are the same ones that existed when time froze in 1958, and most have not been restored since. Not by choice. Go see them while you can!
7. Discover Villa Tarará
I debated sharing my secrets about this place…but decided that since I’m not able to go there everyday, I might as well let other people enjoy it. I had actually read about Villa Tarará when I was brushing up on my knowledge about the history of the Revolucion and Che.
I read that Villa Tarará is the “…only gated community in Cuba, where Che had a house that he recovered at after suffering from a violent asthma attack.” It is also where he wrote Guerilla Warfare, and rumors are that Hemingway had a house there too.
I couldn’t find it on a map, but coincidentally when I was meandering around by myself, I found a touristic bus that had a stop in Villa Tarará and only costed 5 CUC! What I found (and by “I”, I mean literally no one else got off at this stop,) was a private beach with Aspen-white sand and crystal clear water. OH, and only two other people.
8. Experience Life in Santiago de Las Vegas
This is another place you won’t hear about when you’re looking up things to see in Cuba. However, it happens to be where my grandparents were born and raised, so of course I had to see it! If you want to see an amazing little town that is a prime example of life in the 1950’s, go to Santiago de Las Vegas.
It’s 30 minutes south of Havana and right next to the airport. It’s a great example of how life is AND was for many people in Cuba. I found a bookstore on the way into the little town as well as a few markets and little cafeterias and bars! Be sure to let me know if you go…I know a GREAT tour guide (my second cousin).
9. Dance at Casa de la Musica in Miramar
There’s a good chance someone will recommend that you go to Casa de la Musica, and you 100% should. BUT, keep in mind that there are two of them! One is in Centro Habana (Central Havana,) and is considered the more touristic one, and the other is in an area called Miramar. You want to go to the one in Miramar.
As soon as you bypass all of the people out front trying to hustle you for rides after the club, you’ll be able to salsa the night away to live music in one of the most notorious discotecas in Cuba.
10. Visit the Caves in Viñales
Viñales is definitely a place you’ll hear about when you’re looking up places to go in Cuba, but it will probably talk about the tobacco fields first. While you should definitely see those as well, and possibly smoke (or buy) a cigar, you should also look into the Viñales caves at the coastline. Be sure to tag me in the pictures you take so I can be jealous.
Bonus points if you also have time to check out the caves in Veradero as well!