How to Travel to Havana Like President Obama
Following in the footsteps of a sitting president—to state dinners, private meetings, secured locations—isn’t something the average American can do. Not so for President Obama’s historic visit to Havana, where most of his 72 hours in country were spent out in public. What’s more, traveling like the head honcho is do-able in Havana, no matter your budget. (Those prime seats behind home plate for the baseball game Obama attended with Cuban President Raul Castro, for example? $3!)
Here’s how to tour Havana like a world leader—because now that Obama led the way himself, there’s less holding back curious Americans than ever before.
Take Yourself Out to a Ball Game
The historic baseball game that President Obama took in with Cuban President Raul Castro—a few precious hours of “baseball diplomacy,” meant to represent the thaw in relations between the two countries—was held at Havana’s 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano. Baseball is a national obsession in Cuba, though tourists rarely visit the stadium for games (it’s in a lesser-visited area, about a 15 minute cab ride from the popular Old Havana area). But if you do, the experience is a treat—and it won’t cost you thousands to sit in the best seat in the house. There’s standard plastic stadium seating and concrete slabs, and tickets range from $0.75 to $3 for a seat like the one Obama had. There are snacks, cheap and plentiful, like churros with dipping sauce and cold TuKola, the national (and only) cola drink of Cuba.
Pay attention, and you’ll notice that even the scoreboard carries a subtle political message: The traditional runs-hits-errors tabulation, “R-H-E” is arranged to spell out “C-H-E” instead—the nickname of revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The substituted “C” stands for carreras, or “runs” in Spanish; hits and errors follow the English spelling.
And if you truly stick out as foreigners (as our group of two Americans and two Danes surely did!) you might even be mistaken as talent scouts... an amusing experience that led a supposed actual scout in the crowd, “Tito,” from Miami to ask, over and over, “Really, who are you here to see?”
Eat at a Paladar (or Several!)
For their first dinner on the island the Obama family chose to dine at the San Cristóbal paladar, or private, family-run restaurant. Located in Central Havana, San Cristóbal is on the bottom floor of a 20thcentury mansion and known for its Cuban-Creole mix (the Obamas reportedly had sliced steak and vegetables). And they’re not the only celebrities to visit this top-rated paladar— Beyoncé and Jay Z stopped in during their controversial Cuban visit in 2013, too.
Paladares are some of the most visible signs of Raul Castro’s economic reforms of 2010, which removed limitations on the amount of seating, types of offerings, and workforce available for an at-home restaurant. Today, they’re one of the better places to spend your money (versus state-run restaurant), interact with Cuban locals, and experience a new wave of culinary creativity. In addition to San Cristobal, check out the elegant La Guarida (Concordia #418, Havana Centro), located in the majestic, decaying mansion where Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea set the Oscar-nominated film Strawberry & Chocolate, or innovative Cuban-Continental fare at Atelier (Calle 5, #511, between Paseo and Calle 2, Vedado).
Tour Old Havana on Foot
It’s unlikely you’ll have crowds chanting, “USA! USA!” at you while walking through Old Havana like the Obamas did, but you’ll still want to take your time exploring this World Heritage Site. This 500-year-old historic quarter of the capital, filled with crumbling colonnaded streetscapes, colonial plazas, and 1950s-era cars, is the original city center. To follow Obama’s lead, don’t miss the city’s oldest square, the Plaza de Armas (Paseo de Martí), where you can walk past waving palms to see a central statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a Cuban planter credited with declaring Cuban independence in 1868. Don’t miss the bustling secondhand books and antiques market, which is open every day except Sunday.
On the western end is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Calle Tacón), a stunning example of Cuban baroque architecture and the home of the Museo de la Ciudad (Calle Tacón No 1). Here, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln was brought out specifically for Obama to see; you’ll likely view a carefully preserved assembly of the city’s history, including old horse-drawn carriages, artillery pieces, and a marble statue of Christopher Columbus presiding over it all.
The Obamas also visited Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Cathedral (Plaza de la Catedral) to meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a role in talks between the US and Cuba. The building, considered one of the best examples of baroque architecture in Cuba, supposedly once held the remains of Christopher Columbus. Peek inside and you won’t see any bones—but you will see impressive frescoes, paintings, and statues.
Visit the Gran Teatro de la Habana
It’s here, at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso (corner of Paseo de Martí & San Rafael) that Obama spoke, declaring, "I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” to cheers and applause. The theater is an excellent spot for speeches, if you’re so moved, but also the place to see the Cuban National Ballet (it was recently renamed for Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso), the Cuban National Opera or to take in an art film. Even if you don’t see something there, it’s worth walking by simply to see the building’s beautiful stone and marble facade.
Stay at the Melia Habana Hotel
The Obama family and staff stayed at the Melia Habana hotel in the upscale Miramar neighborhood for the duration of their short trip, a place chosen for its security and proximity to the airport. Located about 15 minutes from the city center, the hotel is styled like a resort, with more modern amenities (like a swimming pool with a bar, sauna, and $1-per-hour wi-fi) than most Havana accommodations. Other spots you can stay with notable names attached include the Art Deco-style Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which hosted guests such as Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, and Marlon Brando to name a few, and the luxe colonial style Hotel Saratoga, where Jay Z and Beyoncé bedded down on their trip to Cuba in 2013. Alternatively, stay in a casa particular—a family-owned bed-and-breakfast—for a more unique experience in a local home.