The Perfect Weekend Getaway to Havana, Cuba

 
 

If you’re looking for the perfect mix of culture, adventure and relaxation, then Havana is the place for you!

Stefan and I were lucky enough to jet off for a much-needed long weekend to celebrate my birthday in style a couple weekends ago and I’m so excited to share all that we saw, ate and did so that you can plan the perfect weekend escape to this wonderful city.

This post is in collaboration with Cayman Airways and the Gran Hotel Kempinski Havana.

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We were blown away by Havana’s elevated charm, safe and friendly neighbourhoods and surprisingly good food; all things we’d been totally fear-mongered against!
 
 
 

How To Get There

When planning a long weekend away, it can be a little tricky to find the perfect flights that don’t eat into precious vacation leave but give you enough time to enjoy a new city.

The current Cayman Airways flights were ideal, leaving on Friday at 12:45pm arriving into Havana at 2:50pm (Havana is one hour ahead) and the flight time couldn’t be shorter at an unbelievable 45 minutes! The return flight leaves Sunday at 3:50pm landing at 3:55pm Cayman time so you arrive at a decent time to settle back home in time for a restful Sunday evening.

Breezing through the airport, grabbing an obligatory Island Taste patty, we were whisked onto the plane in no time and ready for our Cayman Airways rum punch special.

As an experienced and rather spoilt Caribbean traveller, it’s not often that take my phone out to snap the journey but the views en route from Cayman to Cuba were like I’ve never seen before! The aerial view of the beautiful islands near Isla de la Juventud on the way into Cuba felt like a real-life fluid art painting and it got us so excited for what was to come.

Coming into land at the José Martí International Airport, you’re immediately struck by the lush green landscape and rich colours of the earth. You feel far away from city-life despite only being a 30 minute car ride away!

Through our hotel we’d arranged for an airport transfer (US$20 I believe) and it meant we were greeted by our English speaking airport chaperone remarkably before being escorted through Immigration, security and airport arrivals. He then set us up at the “VIP” waiting area whilst he collected our baggage, allowing us to nip to the toilet, charge our phones and grab some free bottled water.

This relaxed first welcome into what is a hustling and bustling airport was a really lovely touch and something I’d highly recommend to start your holiday off on the right foot. The airport is approximately 30 mins by car (approx 12 miles) into the centre of Havana and it was a really enjoyable drive through farmland, then more industrial areas before entering the pastel-painted streets of beautiful Havana.

 
 

Where To Stay

The typical holiday stories you hear about Cuba are often linked with staying with a family in a casita and although this would perhaps be a more authentically Cuban experience, if I’m being honest I wanted to go a little more luxe for my birthday. Truth be told I was also a little fearful of the horror stories around bad food and tummy problems in Cuba, hence why it took us so long to visit!

Luckily, our reality couldn’t be further from this. We stayed at the newly renovated and absolutely stunning Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski in Old Havana and it was truly breathtaking. Set in the heart of Old Havana, and surrounded by some of the prettiest UNESCO World Heritage buildings of Havana, this 5* luxury hotel has all the historic charm you’d hope for combined with all the most fabulous amenities you could wish for!

Check-in began with a welcome daiquiri before our credit card was pre-authorised for any expenses during our stay. We had failed to notify our bank so this didn’t go as smoothly as it should although we got there after a quick call home to the bank. (See below for a note on exchanging money and using credit cards).

Once checked-in we were escorted to our Junior Suite on the third floor which was absolutely gorgeous. Two large windows with balconies opening up to overlook an art museum as well as El Parque Central and all the fabulous vintage cars waiting to take you for a spin. Our suite had a lovely soaking tub (with a changeable see through/blurred internal window to the bedroom!) and separate shower, bathroom, spacious living room, TV and cool air-conditioning; perfect for that much needed afternoon siesta away from the heat.

 
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My top 3 reasons to stay at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski

Besides the beautiful newly furbished decor, all the first-class amenities you could hope for including hotel-wide WiFi and an in-house luxury spa, there were three major selling points that made this hotel really stand out for me: the staff, the pool, and the breakfast.

The Staff

It’s really worth noting how helpful staff and friendly the staff are here, to the extent that there’s a dedicated team, the Ladies In Red, who are there for your every beck and call. When things are going to plan, it’s easy to say a hotel has great staff but for me, the real measure of good service is how things are handled when they don’t go perfectly to plan - eg our credit card denial. Instead of holding up our check-in, the team at the Gran Hotel worked with us to get to the bottom of why our pre-authorisation hadn’t processed and after a call to our bank and one authorization code later, it was cleared up.

The other point worth mentioning is the genuine advice we received by the staff, again something that doesn’t always come true in every hotel you stay in. We wanted to book a two-hour vintage car tour and being overwhelmed with options, we turned to the concierge who made sure to book an English speaking, professional tour guide in the name of 24 yr old Alejandro who was extremely friendly, educated and trustworthy in his recommendations during our city tour, which turned out to be a real highlight of the trip (see below).

The Rooftop Pool

The Gran Hotel’s rooftop pool is fast becoming the latest Instagrammer spot, and it’s clear to see why. The stunning infinity-edge pool overlooks El Capitolio, one of Havana’s most iconic buildings, as well as El Parque Centrale and all the vintage cars, artists and tour guides. You’ll be relieved to hear the pool is exclusively for guests of the hotel, but if you’re not staying, there is a rooftop bar and restaurant that’s worth visiting for the view and pleasant refreshments as you enjoy seeing the city from a different angle.

Despite coming from similar Cayman heat, for us, the pool was a dream addition during our hot summer stay. It was one of the first things we did after landing in Cuba, a couple of hours earlier, to officially turn on 'holiday-mode’.  Our second day, we relaxed over a sundowner and enjoyed a sunset swim after a busy day exploring and on our last morning we even had time for a quick post-checkout dip before hopping into a taxi for our departing flight on Sunday afternoon. I’d say it’s one of the best features of this hotel and certainly not to be missed.

The Breakfast

The third highlight of our stay at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinksi was the buffet breakfast (US$30 per person). When you hear about Cuba, unfortunately, it’s rare that someone speaks highly of the food. Well, I think that might be changing! We had some fantastic food in Cuba, and to start each day on the right foot, we enjoyed a beautiful breakfast at our hotel.

The hotel’s buffet and a la carte menu provides everything you could want - fresh coffee, juices and tea, made-to-order eggs benny, full intercontinental breakfast options, pastries, a huge selection of fresh fruit, veggie options, salads, cheeses and meat platters as well as bubbles if you want to celebrate early!

 
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Where To Eat

Unfortunately, Cuba doesn’t have a first-class reputation for food and you’ll often hear people groan about past dining experiences. However, after so much recent growth in tourism, it’s safe to say you can definitely enjoy some great food in Havana. We actually had fantastic food wherever we went so I’d highly recommend eating at these spots:

La Guarida

With a longstanding history as one of Cuba’s top restaurants, in recent years La Guarida has attracted some of the world’s most famous stars, and for good reason. This understated gem starts on the second floor of an unassuming residential block that opens out into a beautiful, family-style restaurant and roof top bar spread across two floors. This was by far the best food we had in Havana, and it coincided with my birthday. Make sure you book ahead by email and ask for a window seat if just for two, it’s definitely worth the semi-elevated price tag: a three course dinner for two with a bottle of rosé, two glasses of port and a coffee for around US$175 including grats.

O’Reilly's 304

This modest, warm and inviting restaurant is well touted as one of the most consistently good meals in Cuba and it’s well-founded. Fabulous cocktails are paired with modern, Cuban cuisine set in a packed two-tier dining room. The staff here are fun, attentive and you can tell they love working together. Come for a meal or just sit at the little bar and watch the bartenders work their magic. The ceviche comes highly recommended as do the daiquiris.

El Del Frente

Located directly opposite O’Reilly’s 304 (and owned by the same people) this is considered 304’s trendier, younger sister with a modern rooftop and fun-loving staff. Fresh fish, fabulous cocktails and a relaxed atmosphere, perfect for an early drink, full dinner or few cocktails before a night out.

 

What To Do

  • Take a two-hour convertible tour of the city (US$100 for two hours)

  • Visit the Almacenes San José Art Market

  • Stop in for a daiquiri at Floridita or try a guarapo. It’s raw sugar cane juice that’s been extracted from palm-tree sap, and also the most delicious drink you can find in Cuba.

  • Tour El Capitolio - El Capitolio, or Cuba’s Capitol Building, was built in 1929 and based off of the US Capitol in Washington DC. It has been closed to the public for the last 8 years for a big restoration project — but just recently re-opened.

  • Visit Cámera Obscura In Old Havana - you can get a brilliant 360-degree panoramic view of Old Havana from the top floor of the Gómez Vila building in Plaza Vieja, the tallest building in Old Havana. It’s got the only “Camera Oscura” in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

  • Explore Havana’s Green Forest - if you go on a two hour car tour this will be one of the spots and it is well worth it. El Bosque De La Habana (the Lungs of Havana) is a gorgeous forest home to the Almendares River and 300-year-old banyan trees covered in green vines.

  • Visit Plaza De La Revolución - One of the largest public squares in Cuba, Plaza de la Revolución is where Cuba’s most important government offices are located and where the iconic murals of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos sit proudly. You’ll visit this as a part of a car tour for sure!

  • Go to dinner and a show like that of Tropicana Nightclub Show

  • Experience Fabrica De Arte Cubano (if it’s open) - The Cuban Art Factory was founded by famous Afro-Cuban musician X-Alfonso, and is one of Havana’s hippest spots to soak in modern Cuban culture. It’s a mix between a nightclub, gallery, and performance center that promotes local Cuban artists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers. Unfortunately it was under renovation whilst we were there.

What To Pack

  • Sunglasses, a sunhat, and sunblock

  • Floaty dresses for city touring that turns to cocktails

  • Dancing shoes (but no proper heels as the streets are cobbled)

  • A pack of tissues and hand sanitizer for the bathrooms which can be hit or miss

  • Imodium (just in case)

  • Plenty of petty cash in USD

A note on money:

Make sure you give your bank a heads up regarding your travels, like the more organised traveller that you are! We brought USD cash to exchange to CUC at the hotel and we’d recommend you do the same. Although USD is subject to an extra 10% fee which no other currency gets hit with. If you can easily bring other money (without getting hit with a double exchange rate) it might make sense, but not if you’re exchanging from Cayman Dollars it won’t. If you go to Cuba today with $100 USD, I believe you will get back CUC$87.00 (10% American free + the 3% standard exchange fee) so it’s worth noting it won’t be a ‘cheap’ destination as a tourist…unless you have a local connection.

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