When we think about Cuba there are a couple of things that come to mind. The colourful architecture that is influenced by a mixture of different cultures and styles. More than 300 beautiful sandy beaches and warm Caribbean climate. The relaxed Cuban way of life, which moves to the beat of arguably one of the best rhythms in the world. All of these are really good reasons to visit Cuba — and we think that gorgeous Havana is up there with the rest of them.
Havana is the capital and the largest city in Cuba with a population of 2.1 million. This is comparable to Paris, France, which has exactly the same amount of people, and Houston, Texas, which has 2.3 million. This big city can still be considered unspoiled, as it was open for tourists in the 1990s (like the rest of the country). The reasons for opening to tourism was the collapse of Cuba's main trade partner, the Soviet Union. Cubans looked at new opportunities for revenue, and tourism was an obvious strategic choice. More than 3.5 billion dollars were invested in tourism and the number of rooms in that period (1990 to 2000) grew from 12.000 to 35.000.
Furthermore, the former leader of Cuba Fidel Castro put an embargo on all American products in the 1960s. These two combinations (implication of the embargo decision and the lack of developed mass tourism) caused Havana to be a living museum.
Havana is a true Caribbean jewel that seems as a city trapped in time.
THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA
There are plenty of interesting and fun activities that tourists of all ages can do in Havana. We list our favorites.
PLACES TO VISIT IN HAVANA
Plaza de la Catedral
Plaza de la Catedral is one of the most beautiful spots in Old Havana. It was built in the 18th century on a swampy turf and thus originally named Plaza de la Ciénaga or the Swamp Square. Today, it is one of the best preserved baroque architectural masterpieces in the whole of Cuba. The façade is a true example of the highly theatrical and decorative baroque style which is perfectly symmetrical. If you want to experience Plaza de la Catedral right now, here is a short YouTube clip which shows why anybody visiting Havana should make a stop at the Swamp Square.
Fusterlandia is a creation of the talented artist Jose Fuster, who was inspired by the work of Gaudi and Picasso. Jose started decorating his own studio in Jaimanitas, which was just outside Havana in 1975. After he was done with his own place, he started turning his whole neighborhood into a marvelous street art extravaganza. New generations of artists are still working on growing Jose's work in the 21st century. Experience the look and feel of Fusterlandia by watching a short video clip.
Fusterlandia - Havana, Source: Flickr
Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Our first two suggestions were a bit more classical, so let's spice things up with something a bit more modern. Fábrica de Arte Cubano is an old refurbished oil-cooking factory turned into the best cultural hub in Havana. In this huge complex you can find a variety of entertainment, ranging form jazz, theater, DJs, concerts and many others. Here’s a little glimpse of the Fábrica and its vibrant nightlife.
When you first look at this building, you immediately think that this is an exact replica of the United States Capitol. However, inspiration for the construction came from the Panthéon in Paris. Also, El Capitolio has richer details and is a meter longer, wider and higher than the United States Capitol. It was built from 1926 to 1929, and was the tallest building in Cuba until the 1950s. It still holds the third biggest indoor statue in the world and all highway distances between Havana and other places in Cuba are calculated from this point.
El Capitolio - Havana, Source: Pexels, Alex Azabache
Another thing that Havana has similar to the United States, or rather New York, is the Central park or Parque Central. In the heart of the park you can find a statue of José Julián Martí Pérez, who is considered a national hero because of his role in the liberation of the country. There are 28 huge royal palms that symbolize his birthday, that is on January 28th. Around the park you can be amazed by a huge number of old refurbished cars and horse/people drawn carriages. The size and the beauty of the architecture around the park, like The Great Theatre of Havana, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and la Manzana de Gómez building, will be a feast to your eyes. A nice overview of the Central Park in Havana and the Hotel Central can be found in this video.
FOOD AND DRINKS TO TRY IN HAVANA
Ropa Vieja (National Dish of Cuba)
Let's start with our favorite, Ropa Vieja, which is considered to be a national Cuban dish. This dish is more than 500 years old and it comes from Spain. Its name translates to “old clothes”. The legend has it that a broke hungry man cooked his own old clothes to feed him and his family. He prayed and, miraculously, those dirty old clothes turned into a delicious meat stew which was named the Ropa Vieja.
A more accurate telling of the story is connected to the Sephardic Jews who were back than situated in Spain. As they could not eat during the Sabbath, the Jews would slow cook the stew — and a delicious meal was born.
This colourful meal is a mixture of shredded beef which usually comes from cow's flank and a variety of vegetables.
Ropa Vieja - Havana, Cuban national dish, Source: Pikrepo
One of the best places to try Ropa Vieja in Havana is a place called Porto - Habana. For about 13 euros/11 dollars you can try this must-eat Cuban dish.
All cuban street food but EMPANADA especially
Cuba is not as famous for its street food as some of the other tourist countries but we recommend trying their street food. You can find a variety of food, ranging from pizzas, plain sandwiches and empanadas. A good choice for many is the mixto, a classic Cuban sandwich. It consists of sliced roast pork with ham, cheese and pickles, all wrapped in Cuban bread.
Most common fruits that can be bought on the streets are oranges, mangoes and pineapples.
Cuban cocktails — Cuba libre & Mojito
There’s a big chance that you already tried at least one of these delicious tropical cocktails. They are both rum based, even though Mojito is nowadays made with different variations, like tequila and gin.
How to make a Mojito?
If you are somewhere outside of Cuba, let's try to bring Havana to you. Mix white rum, lemon juice, mint, sugar and sparkling water with tons of ice cubes and voila — you are a bit closer to Cuba.
Interesting story is connected to the making of Mojito’s name. It is believed that none other than Ernest Hemingway mispronounced “manojito” (referencing the “mint sprig”) as “mojito” when drinking his favorite drink in a local Havana bar. Later, this story was declared false. As reported, the story started as a joke at the La Bodeguita bar and was spread around like a wildfire. A good story always sells and thus the bar got good recognition — today everybody wants to try the special “Hemingway's Mojito”.
What about Cuba libre? Well, why stop at Mojito when you can try the second most famous Cuban cocktail.
How to make a Cuba Libre?
Water down the glass in which you drank Mojito. Take some fine white rum, coke and lime. And that is it — the most basic but delicious Cuba Libre there is.
In addition to its taste, the drink has a historical significance as it was popularized in the beginning of the 1900s after the Spanish - American war. As the Americans won the war in 1898, Coca Cola was imported for the first time and was introduced to the general population. The name Cuba libre means “Free Cuba”, which was a slogan of the Cuban independence movement.
FUN ACTIVITIES TO ENJOY IN HAVANA
Havana car tour
If you scroll down an Instagram profile of somebody who was in Havana or Cuba, you will probably find some pictures of old vintage cars. These are mostly old American car brands like Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Chrysler and Ford. Refurbished and renewed, these cars are a delight even for people who usually don't like cars.
Old classic car in Havana, Cuba; Source: Pexels, Nate Cohen
Why are there so many old cars in Havana?
After the already mentioned Spanish - American war, the Cubans didn't just start to import Coke, but American cars as well. The United States became the main provider of cars for Cuba and remained that way until 1959 when the Cold War started.
From that point the relationship became hostile and people could not buy new cars from their now foes Americans. Furthermore, not even car parts nor screwdrivers could be bought. These factors meant that Cubans had to be creative if they wanted to keep their cars running.
As these cars were means of transportation, they started fixing their old American car parts with newer parts, mostly from the USSR and Soviet bloc countries, like Lada or Volgas. When the 1990s came and tourism started to flourish, people realized that their old cars can be used to attract and transport tourists. These big financial opportunities were an incentive meant that a lot of Cubans renewed their cars.
Today, there are about 70.000 of these cars on the streets of Cuba and most of them are in Havana (watch this video in 4k which shows all the beauty of Cuban classic cars).
If you are in Havana, a good tour recommendation is a Havana Vintage Car Tour that has a good service and a unique way of presenting the cars.
Visit the Playas del Este beach
Havana has a lot to offer and it can be an exhausting experience, especially for first time visitors. If you are looking for a place to relax, look no further than Playa del Este beach.
Just 20 minutes from Havana, it is an ideal beach getaway for tourists and locals. If you do not have a car, there is a cheap local bus that will take you directly to the beach for 6 euros/5 dollars per person. The bus drives every 30 minutes to and from the beach. The last bus leaves the beach at 6 pm. Private cab prices will depend on your negotiation skills but good prices would be around 17 dollars.
As Playas del Este is in fact more than one beach, it is good to think about what you want to do beforehand.
- Bacuranao - one of the best beaches if you want to go snorkelling, as there is a beautiful coral reef in close proximity
- Santa Maria del Mar - the largest beach with more than 9 km of beautiful sand and perfect turquoise water (it is the most developed in regards to how easy it is to get umbrellas, chairs and kayaks or try some other fun water activities)
- Guanabo - if you are looking for more of a local experience, go to Guanabo, home to 15.000 locals and great restaurants and markets
Havana, Playa del Este
You can experience everything in Havana — the history, the culture, the city AND the beach.
Tropicana - the night that you will never forget
Havana has many great nightlife places but if you want to experience something magical and unforgettable, visit Tropicana. This great club offers a world famous Cabaret show with a great mixture of dancing, singing and colourful costumes, which emphasize all the best stuff from the Cuban culture.
The prices vary depending on picking just the show or a dinner and a show.
- Show - the prices are in three categories
- Standard show ticket - 80 euros/94 dollars - the package includes 1 welcome drink, ¼ bottle of Havana Club Special old rum, 1 soft drunk and some peanuts
- Plus show ticket - 90 euros/106 dollars - the package includes better table position than the standard show ticket and everything else from the standard show ticket
- Premium show ticket - 100 euros/117 dollars - the package includes better table position than the plus show ticket and everything from the standard show ticket (the difference is in drinks as well, as you can choose between 1/4 bottle of Whisky or 7-years old Havana Club Rum)
- Dinner and show - the prices are in three categories
- Dinner + Standard show ticket - 100 euros/117 dollars
- Dinner + Plus show ticket - 110 euros/130 dollars
- Dinner + Premium show ticket - 120 euros/141 dollars
Tropicana Cabaret Cuba, Source: cabaret-tropicana.com
Dinner and show packages are the same as show packages (only dinner is added, which is the same in all of the packages).
Dinner usually starts at 8 pm and the show at 10 pm.
Consider that minors (under 18) are not allowed to the show, as there is some eroticism. Try to dress formal and elegant to get the most authentic experience possible.
WHERE TO STAY IN HAVANA
Havana is a big city and offers great accommodation for everybody from a business person to a student backpacker on a budget.
There are 15 town districts in Havana and all offer some type of accommodation. As in all cities, the closer you are to the center, the coast or some type of a cultural or historical landmark, you will probably need to pay more.
Let's dive a bit more into the two districts which are among the most visited neighborhoods.
Habana Vieja, also known as Old Havana, is a great place to stay because of its great location and cultural significance.
Local recommendations in Habana Vieja:
If you are looking for something that is relaxing and has a great Cuban vibe, do not look any further than “Carpe Diem”. This nice Airbnb is located in the heart of Old Havana and just a couple of minutes away from the ocean. It’s in great proximity to some of the most beautiful landmarks, like Plaza de la Catedral Artisan Market and La Bodeguita Del Medio. Everything else is in close proximity as well — you will not need to walk far to get to some nice art galleries, museums and local restaurants.
Apartamento Chacón 201 has everything you will want for a nice stay in Old Havana. Great location, beautiful decoration, clean space and nice balconies where you can relax while you’re drinking nice Cuban rum and listening to Havana’s street noise.
Centro Habana is considered a great place for all kinds of travalers, as it offers great architecture, local bars and restaurants, plus plenty of shopping outlets.
Local recommendations in Centro Habana:
You will not be disappointed if you book “The Albear House” for your stay in Havana. It is perfect for younger people, students and backpackers, but even families would enjoy its nice art and plants on the patio that could make the stay even more memorable.
“Apartamento vista al mar” is another great find in this part of Havana if you are on a budget. It is strategically placed near the beautiful Malecón. This long sidewalk (8 km/5 miles) could be your new place to chill after a busy Havana day of exploring.
BEST TIME TO VISIT HAVANA
Havana is beautiful to visit nearly any time of the year. Still, it is recommended that you plan your trip when the weather is the nicest and there are more cultural activities to experience.
Some of the most important events and festivals are:
- Habanos cigar festival in February. It usually lasts 5 days and is a true celebration of the Habanos cigars and an interesting education about its production, distribution and history. You can visit different tobacco factories and even try different cigars.
- Havana International Jazz festival in January. If you enjoy a good jazz jam, you should visit Havana during January. It was founded by just a couple of good jazz musicians and is now the most famous jazz festival in Latin America.
- Havana Carnival in August. It may not be as famous as the Venice or Rio de Janeiro carnival but it is as exciting. First carnivals were held back in 1573 and are still an excellent opportunity to see Cubans go wild. This is a great festival of joy, music, dancing and celebration. A glimpse of the Havana Carnival experience can be found in this video clip.
Havana Carnival, Source: pxhere.com
HAVANA - THINKING ABOUT WEATHER
Havana has a mixture of tropical monsoon/rainforest climate and has only two seasons — dry and wet. The dry season lasts from December to April, with November and May still considered to be more dry than wet. The wet season lasts from May to October, overlaps with the hurricane season and has a higher chance of rain during the day.
The average temperature in Havana will never go under 20°C/68°F and you will experience mostly warm weather during the whole season. During March and April there is a nice mixture of low rainfall and delightful temperatures of 27-29°C/80-84°F during the day.
Havana monthly weather, Source - Hickersbay
WHAT TO PACK FOR CUBA
When considering visiting Havana, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when packing. We will cover the most important items that you don’t want to forget.
The only two things that you must not forget:
- Cash - one peculiar thing about Cuba is that you will not be able to use your credit or debit card while you are on your trip. Take all the cash that you plan to spend from your local bank when you are back home. When you come to Havana, look for Casas de Cambio or CADECA, where you can exchange your money for Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC. You will have to pay a fixed tax for this transaction but it sure beats paying this tax versus changing your money in the black market.
- Visa or Cuban tourist card - depending where you come from, you should have a Visa or a Cuban tourist card. You should check with your local authorities which specific Visa requirements are applicable for Cuba. For most of the visitors that come from the US, Europe and Canada, Cuban tourist cards will have to be bought. The cost of the Cuban tourist card ranges from 20-70 euros/25-85 dollars. In general, you will need the following: valid passport, travel insurance and an itinerary, application form.
Other items that you should pack:
- Spanish dictionary - if you are going alone or without a guide, it would be a good idea to bring a Spanish dictionary. Some Cuban people speak English really well but most Cubans prefer speaking Spanish. It can be a fun activity to try mastering Spanish while trying to make friends with the friendly Cuban people.
- Convenience kit - it can get really hot, so bring a high-quality sunscreen. Don’t forget a mosquito repellent, as Havana climate is suitable for the little devils. A hand sanitizer was a must even before the virus pandemic and should not be forgotten back home.
- Lightweight clothes - this will, of course, depend on when you’re planning to go but it is fairly warm during the whole year. It is a good idea to take a light jacket as well, especially in the dry season when nights can be more fresh.
4 DAY ITINERARY IDEA FOR HAVANA
There are tons of things to see in Havana and you can spend a whole month trying to experience Havana to the fullest. Most tourists, however, tend to spend 4 to 10 days in this vibrant city, so we’re giving you an idea for a 4-day stay in Havana.
Start your day with visiting Old Havana at the Plaza de la Catedral. It is a nice place to start as you will be in the heart of Havana and all the other best attractions are just a walking distance away.
- A 1-minute walk from Plaza de la Catedral and worth visiting is Museo de Arte Colonial — you will get a good insight of the colonial architecture and other items like furniture, glass doors and dinner collections.
- A 5-minute walk from Plaza de la Catedral you will find Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a 16th century star-shaped museum and a fort. You will get a glimpse of Cuba’s seaside life and how people in the 18th century lived on the ships.
- An 8-minute taxi drive from Plaza de la Catedral and through the Tunnel de la Habana you will come across Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro. This beautiful castle has well preserved walls with a great historical importance. Try to visit it in the morning or the afternoon to get a good view of Havana's Old town.
A good place to go for lunch or dinner and get a full Latin experience are:
- Habana 61 is a great little restaurant in the heart of Old Town. Their service is top-notch and all of their seafood meals are a must-try. Their grilled lobster seems to be the most mentioned meal in the reviews.
- Mojito Mojito is one of the most liked restaurants/bars in the whole of Havana. Besides the excellent vibe and food, the restaurant offers their signature drink, Mega Mojito. It is best to try it after an exhausting day of sightseeing and to share it with somebody, as it is really huge.
After you have experienced Old Havana, it is time for a more modern experience. In the morning you can start with Vedado district, which is the main business district in Havana. This urban part of the city has a more modern vibe and it is nice to visit:
- Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón is one of the most famous and biggest cemeteries in Latin America. Named after Christopher Columbus, this large 136-acre cemetery will leave you breathless with countless mausoleums, tombs and sculptures. The best way to enjoy this grand site is to take a tour, as you will not be able to grasp the historical importance of the cemetery if you walk through it alone.
- John Lennon Park is a nice small park just a 15-minute walk from the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. This park was named after arguably the most famous Beatle, John Lennon, whose statue sits in the center of the park. There is a plaque with a writing: "Dirás que soy un soñador pero no soy el único", which translates to "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one". You will maybe not spend a tone of time in this park but this is a great spot for a picture with one of the world’s musical icons. Interesting trivia is that there are no famous round-shaped glasses on Lennon's head because they have been stolen several times. If you want to take a picture with a glasses-wearing John Lennon, look for a security guard in the park. He may help you with the glasses.
- Plaza De La Revolución square is just a 20-minute walk from the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. This 72.000 square meters/ 18 acre square is as big as is historically important. The square was a host for more than 1.000.000 Cubans listening carefully to the every word of Fidel Castro. There are a couple of architectural gems in the square — the two matching steel memorials on the facades of the buildings are Che Guevarra and Camilo Cienfuegos, the most famous heroes of the Cuban revolution.
After a day in Vedado, check out Fábrica de Arte Cubano, as there is always something exciting happening in the cultural center of Havana. If hungry, you can always grab a bite in El Cocinero, which has a beautiful rooftop terrace.
A nice idea for day three is embarking on a memorable Havana tour. One of the most popular tours is the Havana car tour with which you can see all of Havana.
In the afternoon, make sure to visit Fusterlandia (if you haven’t seen it in the previous tour). Finish your day with a sunset at the Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo).
You may be a bit exhausted after three days of exploring Havana. It is time to have a relaxing day on the beach. Among the nearest beaches are Beach Santa Maria del Mar and Guanabo.
Easily accessible by a taxi or a bus, it is just a 30-minute ride to this sandy heaven. As soon as you get on the beach some of the locals will offer you a beach chair and sunshade, which can range from 2 to 10 dollars depending on your negotiation skills. You can arrange that they serve you food directly to the beach as well but this is usually more costly.
You can get a glimpse of Santra Maria beach in this YouTube slideshow. While you’re up there, you can try out various water sports or just chill.
After you’re tanned and totally relaxed, go to Tropicana for a dinner and a show in the evening. This will be a perfect way of spending your last day in Havana.
With this great itinerary we have finished our Havana travel guide. There is really a lot to see in Havana and it is one of the best cities in the world. Even if you do not follow this guide, you will surely find something that can make you happy there.
Just relax and enjoy your trip.