Havana is a city in renaissance. It’s a city that clings to its past, parading their classic 1950’s era cars up and down historic cobblestone streets. At the same time, renovation and remodeling construction is everywhere, preserving history and ever so slowly bringing Havana into more modern times. And surrounding it all is the city’s stunning Baroque, art nouveau, and art deco architecture.
Sharlyn and I had the distinct pleasure of cruising the Norwegian Sky to Havana – their third such cruise since travel restrictions were relaxed in 2016. At the time of this writing, however, U.S. travelers must meet one of 12 cultural exchange conditions. Norwegian was very careful to make sure all of their Cuba excursions complied with this legal requirement.
There were two big highpoints for us over the two days in port – a walking tour with a focus on Old Colonial Havana and a visit to Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the National Museum of Fine Arts. Cuba was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage to the Americas and then became a Spanish colony. Fortunately, the Cuban government mandated the preservation of their colonial heritage for the benefit of their citizens and travelers alike.
This was also evident in the National Museum, which showcased Cuban artists from colonial through modern times. The museum’s carefully curated works proudly displayed each artist, showing how their artistic vision evolved over their lifetime. Our guide was diligent in tying each visual portrayal to Cuba’s historic events at the time. This trip also took us to Muraleando, an amazing “community project” in which volunteers help develop local artists.
6 Things You Need to Know
Since traveling to Cuba is still new, it’s constantly changing. But here are some details that we found helpful during our trip.
- Customs – Cuba requires U.S. travelers to get a special visa and Norwegian helped us get it for a fee. Over the two days in port, we had to go through Cuban customs six times. Don’t worry, they are very efficient.
- Excursions – We were told that the Cuban government runs the tours and we were encouraged to “act like travelers, not tourists”. This is a nice way of saying things may change without notice. They can and do, so expect it.
- Weather – Think hot and humid whether you are wandering the streets of Old Havana or inside most of their buildings. Air conditioning is very limited except on the tour busses, which are modern and very comfortable.
- Shopping – Some of the excursions include shopping. One of our tour guides took us to a government store where we could purchase coffee, rum, and cigars. There’s also an open market near the port. A little bit of shopping is available at the port terminal.
- Money – Speaking of shopping, no credit or debit cards are accepted. While everything Sharlyn and I read said you should exchange U.S. currency at the cruise terminal, we found that everyone took U.S. dollars (though maybe a couple more of them).
- Jaw Dropping Moment – rounding a corner on a narrow cobblestone street and walking past an open doorway that led to a small courtyard where a very talented opera singer was performing for a well-dressed crowd at 10:30 AM.
As a couple of travelers who mostly thought of Cuba just in terms of 1959 to today, this Norwegian cruise to Havana was an amazing and humbling adventure. It’s the people! The visual splendor of old cars and incredible architecture pales behind the warmth, knowledge and friendliness of Havana’s proud people. That’s evident in their love of music, dance and community and the inspiring expressions of their storied cultural heritage.
UPDATE (July 2018) – we just returned from a second trip to Havana and loved it just as much as the first! But, as can happen with American travel overseas, the rules and restrictions appear to have changed. As of this date, travel is still legal, but there are updated regulations. So do your research before you book your travel! Ask your tour operator, cruise line or the State Department to know all legal restrictions. For us, it was still another amazing adventure! I’m sure yours will be too.