Things to Do in Havana, a City of Music and History
The capital of Cuba is one of the most amazing cities we’ve ever visited and definitely is an unforgettable one. As Frank Sinatra would say, it’s a city where “music is in the wind”.
With a rich history dating back to the 16th century and an impressive colonial heritage, the city of Havana is a place where time is showing its multiple characters. On one hand it has stopped ticking for many areas of the city, keeping the atmosphere, buildings, cars and lifestyle of the glorious first decades of the 20th century, and, on the other hand, it has slowly integrated progress, keeping up with the needs of the current life standards.
Visiting Havana is like being in a time capsule and deciding each moment what time period you want to experience. From medieval squares, colonial architecture, revolutionary icons or communist establishments, to modern 5* hotels or hipster rooftop bars, the city has it all and much more.
No guide can truly show the soul of this city and the many contrasts a visitor can find here. But we hope that our article will guide you through our top recommended Things to Do in Havana.
Throughout all these different times, one thing that has always been a constant companion for the locals was music. At every corner, on every street or restaurant, expect to hear many talented musicians of all ages and feel the rhythm of the Cuban music. And where there is music there must also be dance, so feel free to just let your feet follow the rhythm or just watch others dancing right there and then, even on a busy street in midday. In Havana it is always a good time for music and dance.
How to get there:
Tourists usually arrive in Havana by plane or by cruise ships. The airport lately has developed more and, despite what we have read about expecting long queues, we didn’t find anything to take too much time or be annoying. The queues were normal for a plane with 400 people on board. Also our luggage came fast and once in the public arrivals area we found more options to change money with only 5 people queuing and everything was smooth. Right outside there were plenty of taxis and we didn’t even need to negotiate when we asked the price; it was 25 CUC for the journey to Old Havana (Havana Vieja), exactly how much we were advised to pay (CUC is the currency used by tourists and has same value as the USD). The tourists that come with a cruise ship have everything arranged usually by the group guides.
Where to stay in Havana:
We really recommend to stay in the old city, as here are most of the Things to Do in Havana Vieja and everything is in walking distance. We found a very comfortable apartment from Airbnb, which was two streets away from Plaza Vieja. The owners were very helpful and friendly and they had equipped the apartment with everything tourists might need (from iron, umbrellas, minibar, to Havana guides, a local mobile phone and even power bank). We have met others that stayed in casa particulares (with local families) and they were very happy as well. There are also hotels in the area, including 5* ones, but in general they are very expensive. Also, when you stay in smaller apartments or casas you contribute to the growth of small local entrepreneurs that will really take very good care of you, so in our opinion this is a better use of the money.
Where to eat in Havana:
All the food we have eaten in Havana was very good. For reviews, we also used an app that we downloaded before our travel and proved to be very correct (Triposo – Cuba version). Prices can vary quite a lot depending on the location and how many tourists there are as customers, but we still found the food and the service worth the money. We especially enjoyed a place called Kilometre 0 (where they had a great special Pina Colada “ intense” and great live music), as well as a rooftop bar, more modern, called El del Frente, with delicious food and fancy lemonade. Another location we enjoyed was La Vitrola, in Plaza Vieja, with good food, live music and very lively atmosphere. We also had food from the street that was very basic, but good, so food will not be a problem in Havana. If you like fish or seafood you can also eat at the famous restaurant La Florida, one of the preferred places of Ernest Hemingway. There is even a bronze statue with the writer at the bar.
How to experience Havana
1. Explore the historical squares
Old Havana (Havana Vieja) is build around a series of small squares, all charming and housing many wonderful mansions or museums. The oldest square is La plaza de armes (Arms Square) and is surrounded by impressive buildings such as: El Templete (a beautiful Neo-Clasical building thought to be built on the spot where the city was founded), Palacio del Segundo Cabo (housing the Cuban Book Institute) and Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (housing the municipal museum). You can also take a break in one of the cafes and restaurants around this square.
Very close by, there is Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square), with the impressive Catedral de San Cristobal, dating back to 1748, as well as the Museum of the Colonial Art, Palacio del Conte Lombillo, Palacio de los Marqueses de Arcos and Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras. The square is still very important in the social life of Cubans, so don’t be surprised to see many events happening here, from weddings in the cathedral to romantic marriage proposals.
Another beautiful square of the old city is Plaza Vieja (the Old Square), where you can find the Casa del Conde Jaruco (used for art exhibitions), the Obscure Chamber, the Planetarium and there is always live music here from the restaurants and cafes around.
Don’t miss also Plaza de St. Francisco (St. Francisco Square) with its Andalusian character, where you can see the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, the renovated building of Lonja del Comercio (Commercial Exchange) and towards the harbor the 1914 Customs House building (pictured below).
2. Follow the late medieval fortification system
The key position of the bay constantly raised the interest of invaders so a strong fortification system was necessary. There are a series of fortresses and walls that can still be visited alongside the bay with the most famous being Castillo de la Real Fuerza, where you can also see the Giraldilla statue on top, one of the symbols of the city and part of the city’s coat of arms. Some of them have very interesting stories or legends associated and their use changed in time, because as the military capabilities advanced they were not able to serve their initial defense purpose.
3. Imagine the glamorous days of Havana
Now that you have an impression of the old city and the colonial evolution, it’s time to experience the luxurious life of the rich people in the first decades of the 20th Century.
The industrial progress, the American influence, as well as the increasing interest of the American gangsters in the area, supported by corrupted local politicians, were slowly transforming Havana into a paradise for the rich.
In the ’20s and ’30s a lot of extravagant buildings were built and Havana was regularly visited by lots of personalities from all over the world. Examples of this period can be seen all around the Central Park of the old town, surrounded by magnificent buildings in the neoclassical style. Take a look at the famous buildings such as the Inglaterra Hotel, the Kempinsky Hotel & the Manzana de Gomez commercial center, the Paseo del Prado promenade, intending to be a “Las Ramblas” de Havana, Gran Teatro de La Havana and of course the Capitolio, a close replica of the American Capitolio in Washington DC. It is very interesting to see how the buildings in the area are now in totally different stages, some being recently renovated and looking wonderful, while some others being close to collapse. It is worth saying that the Capitolio is now under renovation and will be open in Feb 2018, exhibiting the original 25 carat diamond in its original place in the main floor.
4. Take a city tour in a vintage car
Havana’s streets and parking are like a vintage car museum. Everywhere you look you can see wonderful vintage cars, in bright colors, still running and shining. Some might still have all original parts, but in many the engine has been replaced with more modern ones.
In any case they are a delight for the eyes and we really recommend a city tour in one of them. Depending on the weather, the preference of most tourists goes to the convertible ones, as you can see better the surroundings and feel the warm sun. You can take this tour from the main parkings, but most of the nice cars are in front of the Gran Teatro de la Havana, near the Central Park. We advise you to select the car you like most and then negotiate the price. We were asked 40 CUC/car, but we negotiated to pay 30 instead. The tour takes one hour and it goes from Havana Vieja to central and modern Havana (Vedado). The tour also includes seeing modern places such as the University of Havana, the Revolution’s Square, John Lennon’s park, while the return to Havana Vieja is by the sea, on the famous Malecon. This was really one of our favorite Things to Do in Havana.
5. Visit the Museum of the Revolution
Leaving behind the glamorous decades, our suggestion is to visit the museum of the Revolution, to understand better the struggle of the Cuban people for their liberation from the corrupted regime and the transformation that Havana followed after.
The museum is located not far from the Central Park, towards the sea, and is hosted in the former presidential palace.
In the courtyard of the museum you can also visit vehicles used during the revolution, including the famous Grandma yacht, which brought Fidel’s revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba, including the famous Comandante Che Guevara.
6. Find out why Hotel Nacional is an iconic landmark of the city
Another place not to be missed when visiting Havana is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, located by the Malecon. The hotel was built for the rich guests and its architecture is impressive. Inspired by the chess play, the hotel has many small towers and wonderful sea views.
Here you can also see and imagine Havana during both the glamorous decades, but also after the revolution. The hotel’s great halls once hosted a casino, the Mafia conference of 1946, but also other important events and gatherings. The front garden is hiding bunkers from the 60’s and especially linked to the missile crises.
The hotel is open to tourists and you can get a short guided tour that costs 5 CUC/person, but also includes a drink in the hotel bar or garden. We were lucky enough to see also some historical rooms, like the one used by Frank Sinatra or Lucky Luciano.
7. Discover present Havana: the Malecon, Central & New Havana (Vedado)
Moving from the historical areas of Havana it’s time to also explore how Cubans live their current life in the city. If you go further than Paseo del Prado, you will see that most of the buildings here need significant repairs, but the area still houses some interesting places such as China town or the old city walls. Even further, modern Havana (also called Vedado) is the business and administrative district, with more modern neighborhoods, buildings and squares. There are also more hotels here and more restaurants with lots of different cuisines. If you have more time you can spend one day in this part of the city, otherwise you can have a fast look during the vintage car city tour. But a walk on the Malecon is also a recommended activity. During the day you can see different buildings and monuments and during the night you can socialize with the locals over a bottle of Cuban rum. Either way, the Malecon shows another special side of Havana.
8. Enjoy Cuban music and dance
To feel the heart of the city you must feel to the Cuban rhythms. In almost every cafe, restaurant or bar you will hear Cuban music and you can dance. It doesn’t matter if you are a good dancer or a beginner. People here are enjoying the experience and will appreciate your interest in their culture, so feel free to just go with the beat. Most of the bands will also have CDs to sell, but you don’t have to buy if you don’t want it, you can simply live a small tip instead.
9. Learn more about local ron (rum), Havana’s and Cuba’s most famous drink
If you like rum or are interested in the fabrication process, an interesting museum to visit is the Havana Rom factory museum, located in Havana Vieja. The tour will explain the process, from early times to the modern period, and will also include a tasting at the end. In the inner courtyard you can also taste Guarapo, the fresh juice of the sugar cane, which is highly perishable, so should always be drunk freshly squeezed. The entrance is 7 CUC/pers.
10. Create a photo journal of Havana
Havana is the perfect place to take wonderful photos. It really doesn’t matter what camera you use, the beauty and fascinating characters of the city can be found at every sight and are different depending on the eyes of the beholder. Globalization is already happening with a fast pace and soon Havana will face another big transformation. So take as many pictures as you would like and try to best capture the moment.
Useful information and tips
- Be aware of local scams – Havana is a very safe city, as all Cuba. You don’t have to worry for your safety or belongings, as long as you don’t show valuable items unguarded. But there may be different scams: people on the street trying to recommend and take you to different places where you will pay extra to cover the commission for your “guide”. It is better to not follow anyone you don’t know. Also there will be many people asking you money or products, think twice who you consider to be really in need and when you want to give money. Don’t give if you feel pushed and uncomfortable, especially near shops. Other scams are related to selling on the street local products such as cigars or rum. Always buy from a trusted source and not from the street.
- Get familiar with the double currency – you will not need to use the CUP, that is only for the locals, but check first how it looks, so you won’t risk getting the change in CUP instead of CUC. It didn’t happen to us, but it’s good to be aware.
- Get the best taxi fare by either negotiating with the driver or if you travel longer distances you can share the journey cost with other people by taking a “taxi colectivo”. These are old cars with 6-8 places and you can arrange your journey at the tourist information centre near of Havana or with the casas particulares.
- Be prepared for rain and mud – Even in the dry season, rain is no stranger to Havana. Even a short powerful rain can get you soaking wet or flood the narrow streets. We recommend to have an umbrella with you or a rain coat at hand. The shoes should also be ready to step in water or mud, as the sewage is not efficient and the streets can get quite dirty. No need for white sneakers if you will be sorry to see them covered by mud.
- Don’t count on local punctuality – time for Cubans is relative and should be taken as an estimate, not as a sure moment. Sometimes taxis can be even one hour late, so make sure you have plenty of time and patience. Local busses can have even 3h delays, especially when they don’t have very strict stations or time tables.
- Use mosquito protection and sunscreen – although the mosquitoes are not always obvious they can be quite aggressive. It’s enough to have one around to be uncomfortable with annoying bites in the next days. So use strong mosquito protection even if you are wearing thin socks for example. The sun is very hot in Havana, so it is advisable to use high factor sunscreen
- Download a few useful apps that work offline – the ones we used most of the time were Maps.me for local maps, Triposo – Cuba version for where to eat and what to see, and if your Spanish is not very fluent it is good to have a translation app downloaded as well
- Expect that one Internet card in general might not be used in more sessions – although theoretically you should be able to connect and disconnect from your session as many times needed during the one hour period, the log off page is almost never properly working and you will spend your time trying to disconnect instead of using the internet connection. Our advice is not to spend more than 5 min to try to log off and be ready to use all your time at once if you are not able to disconnect. Internet cards can be purchased from the reception of hotels and cost between 3-5 CUC /one hour card, depending on the hotel. They can only be used in locations with wi-fi connections.
- Get useful medicines with you – although there are pharmacies in Havana, they might not be very well supplied or not in the close proximity. So it’s advisable to take with you all the things you might need (plasters, stomach pills, etc)
- Bring gifts to locals and prepare to leave some clothes there – in Cuba products are limited and any gift is highly appreciated (from chocolates, pens, make-up or anything small that you can bring). If you have clothes in good condition that you no longer need it this is also a good opportunity to bring them to Cuba and leave them here. They will find a happy new owner.
- Plan a journey to Vinales – Depending on the time available to visit Cuba, not far from Havana is an amazing area that should definitely be visited: the Valley of Vinales. The landscape here is considered by many as the most beautiful in Cuba. The journey to Vinales takes about 2.5 hours from Havana and can also be done as a one day trip, either as an organized tour from the local travel agency, or privately using taxi colectivo (shared taxi). The landscape of the valley is spectacular, as it blends tropical vegetation with impressive limestone formations called “mogotes”. In the area you can visit local farms, tobacco plantations – where you can learn about the tobacco making process, but also natural attractions like caves with underground rivers.
- Check other attractions and beaches outside Havana – there are also many nice places or beaches to go near Havana, such as the house of Ernest Hemingway (Finca La Vigia) or Santa Maria beach, but we didn’t have more time to see them as we chose to travel further in the country to Trinidad and Varadero.
Cuba is a genuine and amazing experience and we encourage you to visit more of the country than just Havana. For example, located at a 5h journey from Havana, Trinidad is a must see place that will reveal the colonial life of the sugar lords and on the sugar plantations. You can read about the Top 10 reasons to visit Trinidad in a separate post. So let Havana be the starting point of your Cuban cultural experience and visit this wonderful capital with enough time and patience, because it will exceed your expectations.