Before starting with this complete guide for top things to do in Havana let’s put it into context.
Permanent puddles that do not disappear. Street vendors twenty-four hours. Black smoke given off Cadillacs from the 1950s and neoclassical facades falling apart. A dozen people peered at the balconies watching the time passing and another around the sidewalks. Groups of children playing catch and marbles. Discussions about any trivial topic in every corner. The smell of the salt broken by the Malecón seawall… Few cities can get to like and to exasperate so much at the same time like this museum trapped in the time called HAVANA.
And this city can not leave you indifferent. Everything is light and darkness, greatness and decay, black and white. What is undeniable, is that within those lights and shadows are found countless treasures; Some obvious and others hidden that we will try to unveil with this Havana Travel Guide.
GUIDE for top THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA
If you visit Cuba it is very likely that you will fly to Havana. The capital of the country is a chaotic place that you will love and hate in equal parts. With this complete guide, we will make you enjoy this city.
You can navigate through the following sections of the guide:
- Touring Havana – Complete guides of the 3 main districts, with all the things you have to do and all the attractions in Havana:
→ Old Havana: The heart of Havana. Here you will find the main attractions, buildings, squares and historical places of the city. Losing oneself in its streets is guaranteed to give away unique scenes.
→ Centro Habana: The neighborhood of the people. Where Cubans make their daily life apart from the tourist hustle of Old Havana. The perfect place to mingle with locals and soak up in their way of life.
→ Vedado: The newest and most remote neighborhood. The anarchic streets give way to the constructions in grid with great hotels traced by the American mafia of the 50s.
- Where to stay in Havana.
- Where to eat in Havana.
- Transportation in Havana.
- General tips to enjoy the city.
Also, do not miss the photo gallery of Lights and Shadows of Havana.
In all cities where there was a glory time, it usually begins in an area or neighborhood. In the case of Havana, this favorite area was the neighborhood known as Old Havana.
The streets are narrow, and between the buildings we encountered some of the most ancient ones of the city; where in spite of the flaking facades, we can see authentic jewels of baroque style and Art Decó. Strolling by the Old Havana is like going back to the past, imagine the city in a period in which all was grandeur. A rough diamond growing at a much greater rate than it could afford.
But nevertheless this open-air museum has a cost that is not indicated in the entrance: the tourist exploitation is extended to the last corner. The prices of restaurants, paladares and accommodations are immensely greater than those of the rest of the city. The crowds can overwhelm you and you might even feel of being a mere “dollar with legs” more than in any other area of the island.
In spite of everything, the old Havana ended up trapping us like a magnet. Finally, we visited this area the 4 days we were in the city.
Unlike many cities, the Cathedral Square is the newest square in Old Havana. With a purely baroque style, inside we can find the Cathedral of San Cristobal of Havana, with its famous asymmetric towers.
In the square itself we will not see any other points of interest other than the Colonial Museum.
Adjacent to the square we find the famous Callejón del Chorro with the rich paladar (restaurant) of Doña Eutimia and Calle Empedrado with the famous Bodeguita del Medio.
BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
Despite being a very touristy place, being our first time in Havana, we did not want to miss the Bodeguita del Medio. Although traveling as a backpacker, visiting it at least once is something you have to do in Havana.
Known for its mojitos and its illustrious visitors like Hemingway and many others, the first impression can be disappointing. The place is tiny and, as we foresaw, expressly touristy.
To avoid crowding, we decided to visit it at first assuming to take our first mojitos on the island at 11 in the morning. The mojito (5 CUC) did not feel anything out of this world. However we have to admit that the atmosphere of the bodega was unbeatable. The waiter preparing all the mojitos in line as if dancing salsa, coupled with the live music made us not regretting the visit. Especially when the orchestra asked for a song request and we ask for Chan Chan. In that moment we feel that we were in Cuba for real.
PLAZA DE ARMAS
Just next to the Cathedral Square we find the oldest square in the city; Plaza de Armas. The highlight of this square is the large book market, along with some stalls of old relics second-hand.
You will see the same books in all the stalls. This is because the books available are those that the government has officially approved since the revolution took place in 1959. In spite of being eminently propagandistic, there are several jewels like the albums of drawings cards of the Cuban revolution or the photographic books of Korda. We did not buy books but we agreed with a merchant to exchange them for medicines.
At one end of the square is the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of the oldest fortresses in America, where there is a sailing museum.
Another of the old squares of Havana, originally designed for military exercises. There we can see one of the most striking architectural areas of Havana with both baroque, neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings, and in this case restored and colorful.
Within the square there are also several museums such as the Photo Library of Cuba and the curious quirky playing-card museum.
In addition, on one of the corners of the square is La Factoría, a craft beer factory with a large terrace and live music where you can refresh yourself from the heat of Havana.
PLAZA DE SAN FRANCISCO DE ASÍS
In the area closest to the coast we find this square. There you can find la Fuente de los Leones and the church and monastery of San Francisco de Asís. Inside the square is also the Rum Museum and the house museum of Alexander Humboldt, a German scientist well known on the island.
El Floridita is the cradle of the Daiquiri and, like La Bodeguita del Medio, is known for keeping the great Hemingway well hydrated.
The Daiquiris are not exactly cheap (6 CUC), and we did not find anything out of this world either. But it is one of those places we wanted to see at least once.
El Floridita is wide, with many tables to sit in and a 1950s style. It has a small stage where there is always live music and a figure of the man who made it famous.
RAFAEL TREJO’s BOXING GYM
Another of the places we visited was Rafael Trejo’s Boxing Gym. Boxing is one of the national sports on the island, so watching live training is something you have to do in Havana.
The gym is a historic place where great Olympic champions were trained. However the coaches take advantage of the situation trying to charge to see the children training.
Almacenes SAN JOSÉ ARTISANS
The other point that we found at the south of the old Havana were the Almacenes de San José Artisans. Although advertised as an artisan product market we found that most of the stalls had the same souvenir items, so we do not think that they are a must either.
OLD WAREHOUSE OF WOOD And TOBACCO BREWERY
Just a few steps from the Almacenes there is a brewery installed in an old warehouse of wood and tobacco. The value for money did not seem good. However the interior decoration is very cool as they have a lot of instruments used in the brewery.
OTHER CORNERS OF OLD HAVANA
For us, the true wealth of Old Havana was not in its main monuments or in its plazas, but in the streets. Arranged in grid, most are long, straight and narrow. In them you will find from the typical souvenir shops, restaurants and markets to hairdressers, mechanical workshops and schools.
If you go through them repeatedly, it is inevitable to learn the names; Lamparilla, O´Reilly, Amargura, Habana, Aguacate, Compostela, Muralla… all are full from common to unusual things.
Within them stands the pedestrian Calle Obispo, acting as the main artery of Old Havana. In this one we can find the main tourist shops, with a CADECA and an ETECSA internet point between them.
If Old Havana is the historical heart of Havana, Centro Habana would be the engine of the city.
In Centro Habana we will see monuments and tourist sites such as Paseo de Prado, the Capitolio or the Revolution Museum. However, we will also see zones and spaces outside the tourist world, where people are employed in their day to day life and where we can breathe a much more authentic and original Cuba.
Centro Habana will always be a special place for us, especially Calle Industria, where the private houses where we were staying were located.
In a building as historic as the old presidential palace, is one of those iconic and unique places which visit is definitely worth it: the Revolution Museum.
The Revolution was the most important event in the history of Cuba, so you could not miss a museum in its capital to address the issue. Without revolution nothing in Cuba we know would be what it is.
In the museum you will find from rooms about the revolutionary beginnings, to several rooms that talk about battles of the revolution itself. In addition a lot of personal objects of the main fighters are exposed.
The museum is clearly propagandistic, with special emphasis on the economic and social achievements of the communist system.
We found all the elements of the museum very curious; And some even funny like the so-called “Corner of the Cretins”. There are drawn giant caricatures of Bush father and son, Batista and Ronald Reagan.
PASEO DE PRADO / JOSE MARTÍ
Acting as a backbone joining the coast from the Malecón to Central Park, the Paseo de Jose Marti (mostly known by its prerevolution name Paseo del Prado) is the main avenue of the city.
By day there are several stalls of paintings, antiques, photographs, etc., while late afternoon and evening becomes a common and pleasant area to take a walk.
This small park is located just in the middle of Havana, between Capitolio, Paseo de Prado and Old Havana. It is also surrounded by other great sites such as the Gran Teatro de la Habana and the neoclassical Hotel Inglaterra.
It is undoubtedly the most grandiose and iconic building in Havana. It was built after the First World War, taking advantage of the economic boom in Cuba thanks to the sale of sugar.
It inevitably remind us of Washington, and from the beginning it was used as the seat of the Cuban Congress. However after the revolution was recognized as the headquarters of the national library of science and technology.
During our visit the dome was being refurbished. It has taken so long and is not known for sure when it will reopen. Maybe you have more luck and you can see the building fully renovated.
In front of Capitolio (Capitol) are buildings with renewed and colorful facades. Probably this postcard is one of the most photographed in Havana.
Chinatown is another of those unique rarities of Havana, that you can not stop exploring.
The origin traces back at the beginning of the 20th century when because of the active Cuban labor market and the distinct plantations, a lot of Chinese pleople migrated to the island establishing in this neighborhood. Soon it turned into the biggest Chinatown of all of South America.
The strange thing is that actually there is not any single Chinese living there. As it was to expect they left the island because of the economic crisis and the Revolution.
The government made a few years ago a neighborhood restoration plan, so you can see the huge Asian pagoda they built, as well as the street names in Chinese and other decorative elements.
Filmed in countless movies, the Malecon (promenade) may disappoint you. The first impression is that of a bare seafront, of cement without ornaments, palm trees, or even benches; just streetlights and cement along its five miles.
It was built in several sections starting from the Castle of San Salvador de la Punta to the neighborhood of Vedado where it arrives today.
This boardwalk would go unnoticed anywhere in the world. But not in Havana where the fact that it has become an icon is no accident.
By day is a transit ride and a wide avenue full of cars with lots of noise and pollution. However as soon as the sun begins to fall on the horizon of the Vedado and the Hotel Nacional, the Malecon is filled with local people, becoming a nerve center.
One of the top things you have to do in Havana is going along the boardwalk at sunset.
CALLEJÓN DE HAMMEL
Getting away from Centro Habana, we come to another of the most curious spots we can find in the city; el Callejón de Hammel .
It is a small alley fully inspired by the Afro-Cuban culture.
The project was started in the 90’s by the painter and sculptor Salvador González Escalona; an eccentric Cuban artist who has since given life and light to this alley. There you will find murals, sculptures, phrases, poems, etc. with a complete relationship with the Afro-Cuban religion and the values of the island.
We can also find a bar and an underground room where there are several pictures of the painter for sale. When we went, we were able to see Salvador completely immersed in one of his works.
We visited it during the week; but if you can, go on Sunday, since that day live Afro-Cuban music does not stop in the alley.
The area of Vedado was perhaps the area that we explored less, but not for that we overlooked it since there were certain places that we wanted very much to see.
This neighborhood arose late compared to Old Havana and Centro Habana; in that era of splendor when copying the American model of grand avenues, hotels, and Cadillacs.
Historically it is recognized by all the influence that it had of the time of splendor in which it arose. The scenario in which it developed was very different from the post-revolutionary: cabarets, casinos, big hotels, American mafia managements, etc.
COPPELIA ice cream
We enter the neighborhood of Vedado after crossing the Malecón. Afterwards we continue our route ascending by the 23rd Avenue where you will find the University of Havana and the celebrated Coppelia Ice Cream shop, famous mainly for the film “Fresa y Chocolate”. They have three flavors which change every day, and although it has a reputation for having large lines we went at noon and they were ready to serve us.
NECRÓPOLIS DE CRISTOBAL
After Coppelia we continue along Avenida 23 until arriving at the Cemetery of Cristobal Colón. The entrance to the Necrópolis was 4 CUC. The most interesting thing is the grave dedicated to firefighters.
After passing through the Necropolis we arrive at the Revolution Square. With its 72000 square meters, it is one of the largest in the world. However, there is nothing there except the statue in honor of Jose Marti and the famous building with the relief of Che, accompanied with another relief of the guerrilla Camilo Cienfuegos in a nearby building since 2009.
However, we are obliged to put this place in its context, especially since the Revolution, where we can imagine thousands and thousands of people gathered to listen to the eternal speeches of Fidel Castro, or the concentrations that take place every May 1st here.
OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST IN VEDADO
Within the neighborhood of Vedado we had two important things to see:
- The National Hotel of Cuba. Here Fidel Castro ruled in his first two years of government after the Revolution.
- The House of Music of Miramar. The other house of music in Havana, in Centro Habana, was under construction and we could not see it either. Nevertheless this was a minor evil since we had planned to go to the house of the music of Trinidad on which they had given us better opinions; specially of the one in Trinidad.
OTHER top THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA
Havana’s “Shows” are well known; live music and dance performances have been taking place in the city for decades. Some are very famous and have very high prices such as the Tropicana, while others are more affordable but perhaps less spectacular.
We decided to go to Guajirito, where the show cost was 30 CUC with 3 drinks. In the shows you can choose either a combo of dinner more show or just the show. The dinners are not at all recommended, since they are expensive and with a fame of poor quality. If you wanted a dinner the price was 50 CUC.
The Guajirito show consists of former members of the celebrated Buena Vista Social Club. Although at first all the performances were known songs and dances, little by little they were interacting more with the attendees. In the end, all the audience get up on stage dancing the conga with the performers.
This act is done each day at 9 pm, from the Fortress of San Carlos. It symbolizes the cannon fire done in the 18th century daily like a signal to close the doors of the city. This was because at that time Havana was a walled city at war.
WHERE TO STAY IN HAVANA
In Havana there are many types of accommodation and in the entire price range. As we already told in the Guide to organize your trip to Cuba we only stayed in Casas Particulares. This is the best type of accommodation if you travel to Havana as a backpacker.
Most tourists want to stay in Old Havana. However the accommodation here is much more expensive and older Prices ranged between 30 and 40 CUC.
In Centro Habana are more affordable and new ones. Prices do not exceed 30 CUC. We stayed in two different houses in this area and it was a total success. The rooms had their own bathroom, air conditioning and comfortable beds.
WHERE TO EAT IN HAVANA
In Havana we can find from local restaurants with very basic food and ridiculous prices to paladares where we will pay a large sum of money.
In the local restaurants, the food is very basic and repetitive. The base is rice, beans and chicken or pig in some occasions. The positive point is the low price that you pay. In addition to the restaurants, there are locals by the street that serve coffee, ice creams, bakery, etc. were locals go and which prices also are very low. In these places, you can pay with the national currency CUP.
A paladar is a private restaurant. The concept is something like a family home where you can eat homemade local food prepared by the family that lives there. However, many of them especially in Havana, over the years have become famous restaurants.
We alternate paladares and more “tourist” restaurants with local restaurants.
Doña Eutimia is located in Callejón del Chorro, next to the cathedral. We came by recommendation and the truth is that the quality of the food was very good. In this paladar we enjoyed a real Cuban rice and other delicacies for no more than 25 CUC for two people.
However our favorite place is El Chanchullero. A building with three floors looking much more modern, thug and transgressor than the rest.
The first picture when you enter already prays a phrase that invites you to stay. “Hemingway has never been here” in clear mockery and contrast to the mass, expensive and tourist Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita.
The prices are very cheap but not for that the quality is lower. The food was scrumptious and the mojito in our opinion looked rather better than the one at La Bodeguita and at half the price.
The public is younger and although it is frequented mainly by tourists you can also see local people. The downside is that sometimes is difficult to find a table, especially on the terrace on the top floor.
O’REILLY AND EL DEL FRENTE
For cocktails and snacks, we especially liked O’Reilly, on the street with the same name They always serve potatoes with pickles as a very tasty appetizer. If it is full or you want something a little cheaper but with the same quality go to El del Frente (the one in the front). The place is called that way and they are the same owners as the neighbour in front, never better said. The menu is almost identical.
JACQUELINE FUMERO CAFÉ
Although every day we had breakfast in the private house where we stayed one day we decided to try something different. We opted for the Jacqueline Fumero Café, next to the Museum of the Revolution. There we had a breakfast in the purest Parisian style, also in the price.
TRANSPORTATION IN HAVANA
In Havana we can find all the means that we already appoint in the Guide to prepare your trip to Cuba; official Taxis, shared taxis, bicitaxis, cocotaxis, buses, etc. Besides the tours in Cadillac very typical in the Havana.
But without a doubt the means that we found most original and authentic was with no doubt by bicycle. Especially to explore Vedado, since the neighborhood is quite far from the downtown to do it on foot.
The common thing is to visit this neighborhood by taxi or in the typical tourist bus that stops at the sites of interest. However, we, aiming at trying to do something different decided to rent bikes to tour this part of the city at our pace. This, which may seem very simple in any city in the world, in Havana is not easy. There are hardly any bikes, and there are extremely old ones.
Close to our private house, we met a guy who rented bicycles for 15CUC a day. Surprisingly the bikes were new and fully equipped. The guy got the great opportunity to study in Germany and brought several bicycles from there.
For whoever wants to live this so rich and different experience as it is to visit Havana in bicycle, do not doubt in contacting with Yuri by his Facebook page. Also, you can write him to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The bicycles are in Consulado Street Nº61, aprt 2, between Genios and Refugio Street. Centro Habana.
Hereunder you can find a video of our experience biking Havana.
GENERAL TIPS TO ENJOY HAVANA
Havana is a vibrant and very large city. The time that you want to dedicate to it already depends on many factors and personal tastes. We consider that 3 days is the minimum to visit the city and adapt to its pace. From your first hours in Havana to your last day, there is a world on how you analyze and see the city. This usually happens in all destinations but in Havana it is magnified.
We hope the following tips will help you to adapt to Havana as soon as possible.
WHERE TO CHANGE MONEY IN HAVANA
You will surely fly to Jose Martí airport in Havana. Once there, you will not be able to use foreign currency to pay, so you will need to have convertible Cuban pesos (CUC).
We recommend NOT to change at the airport beyond what is strictly necessary to pay the taxi to the city and a little more. If you do not want to start off on your wrong foot on your trip do not fall into the same trap as 90% of tourists. The exchange rate is very disadvantageous at the airport. You will save a lot if you exchange most of your money in the downtown CADECA in Obispo Street.
HOW TO AVOID MISTS
Cuba is one of the safest countries we have ever been. The feeling is of complete confidence both day and night.
However, although the chances of robbery with violence are practically non-existent, care must be taken with theft by carelessness and with scams where they can take advantage of the picaresque to take a few pesos; picaresque that although it might happen anywhere, it is exacerbated in Havana by being more used to crowds of tourism.
The best thing you can do is to know what these types of scams consist of so you can cut them as soon as they start. Here we tell you some funny anecdotes of encounters with the so-called jineteros.
Whether with a DSLR camera, a compact camera, or simply the mobile camera, Havana offers endless photographic possibilities, especially as far as Street Photography is concerned. Photographing its life is a top thing that you have to do in Havana.
The neoclassical and art nouveau buildings, the Cadillacs. of the 50’s, the colors of the streets and the people’s clothes. Groups of children playing in the street … Everything offers a perfect frame to take photographs not only of great beauty and contrasts but also pictures which tell stories.
Havana provides with photos with “soul” and not the simple documentary photographs that are usually seen in the vast majority of travel reports.
The first and most important advice you should bear in mind is that Havana is a city with a lot of action; the speed of it is exponential to its beauty. In the twinkling of an eye, a scene changes completely.
TIPS FOR ANY DEVICE:
- Keep your eyes wide open and be watchful. The action happens very fast and if you look closely you will see sites and stories that are worthwhile. Have the camera and the mobile always at hand.
- Do not just stay with the tourist or already known sites. The capacity to surprise Havana has no limits and there are photographic opportunities in every corner.
- Do not be ashamed to mingle with people. Talk to them and ask for a portrait. Cubans are very friendly and open and they offered without hesitation.
IF YOU USE A RÉFLEX CAMERA:
- Do not be overwhelmed about having to always shoot in manual mode. As we have commented, the action is very fast so the priority mode to open or automatic can become useful.
- Regarding lenses, medium focal lengths ranging from 20 to 70 are the most practical.
- The tripod is not very necessary for such a changing environment. We only used it for one of the sunsets at the Malecón.
- Although the improvisation and visualization factors are especially important, do not forget to plan locations of places that you want to go. Flickr, 500px or Instagram can help.
TO SEE OUR BEST PHOTOGRAPHS OF HAVANA DO NOT DUDE TO GO TO OUR PHOTO GALLERY OF “LIGHTS AND SHADOWS OF HAVANA”
Havana is a special city, full of unique moments, that is worth exploring and feeling. Due to its strong personality, it does not usually admit average terms as far as tastes are concerned. You will end up loving it or hating it, but it is certainly an experience that you should live once in a lifetime at least.