If you’re eager to travel to Cuba—especially now that U.S. airlines are preparing to reestablish regular routes and travelers can take a solo trip to the island—you’re not alone. The most exciting destination of the year is at the top of everyone’s bucket lists: including President Obama and The Rolling Stones. And while you can easily spend a week or more exploring the island nation (taking a “social impact” cruise with Carnival or an epic journey) there are a few can’t-miss sights and attractions you have to see, even if you only have one day in Havana.
We followed pro-traveler Jamie around for a day while he overnighted in Cuba’s capital, and his experience highlights all the fun things to do in Havana. Get a lay of the land by driving down the Malecón, a five-mile esplanade dividing the coast from the city. On hot days, you may find children cooling off in the sea baths carved into the wall. And come evening, the Malecón becomes a popular hangout spot for locals who come to talk, drink, and play live music against the ocean backdrop.
Drop your bags at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, one of the most luxurious and iconic hotels in the country. The property has long attracted celebrities, diplomats—even gangsters. Even if you’re not bedding down here, you’ll want to drop by for an al fresco music performance and a mojito on the Garden Terrace.
Cuba’s cuisine doesn’t have the best reputation, but it’s not impossible to find a great meal. Jamie grabbed lunch at Corte del Principe, a charming paladar, or private restaurant, owned by Sergio. He serves surprisingly authentic Italian fare, and you’ll want to ask him about his daily, fresh-made pasta. Believe us: you won’t miss the rice and beans.
Next up on your must-do list is a visit to Callejón de Hamel, a neighborhood easily recognized by its sprawling murals and sculptures. It’s especially easy to find the two-block shrine to Santeria on Sundays, when the sound of live rumba seeps out into the surrounding streets.
Of course, no trip to Cuba is complete without sampling some of the country’s famous cigars and rum. Avoid kitschy storefronts and head instead to the secret cigar shop inside Hotel Florida. If you’re looking to take home a souvenir, get a Cohiba. Known as Fidel Castro’s cigar of choice during his early years, one Cohiba can set you back as much as $50. Later, grab a sunset cocktail (mojitos, daiquiris, and Cuba Libres) at the famous paladar, La Guarida, which once starred in an Oscar-nominated film.
Enjoy dinner at El Cocinero—once a cooking oil factory—that shares a space with the hip multi-media arts center and restaurant, Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Late night parties are easy to find at Jardines de la Tropical. Once a beautiful, 19th-century estate, the abandoned property is now a popular spot for outdoor parties, concerts, and picnics.
If you’ve been out partying until dawn, you’ll want to reboot with a Cuban coffee: the most important part of any local breakfast. Order a cortadito (espresso sweetened with sugar, topped with steamed milk) and drop by the local fruit market. The mangos in Cuba are impossibly sweet, though plantains are cheap and abundant. Just make sure you select a ripe one: look for a peel that is almost entirely black.
Even if you’re just looking to catch a ride to the airport, make sure to do so in one of those iconic vintage cars. The streets in Havana are crowded with old Ford Fairlanes and Chevy BelAirs. Locals have gone to incredible lengths to maintain and restore these vehicles, as the country has been closed to car and part imports since the embargo.