Ah, wonderful Havana, Cuba. It's one of those cities that you can't begin to comprehend unless you've been there and witnessed its duality and complexity by yourself. Havana often calls forth strong feelings with people ending up either loving or hating it. In March 2020 - just before the whole Covid-19 crisis started - we spent a wonderful 24 days in Cuba. Quite a large part of our Cuba itinerary
was spent in Havana, which resulted in these 10 awesome things to do in Havana!
Havana is the capital of Cuba and a fairly large city. Most people only visit for a day from their all-in resort in Varadero, but you'd be much better off staying at least of couple of nights.
The city can be divided into several areas.
Havana Vieja: a historical area which has a very colonial feeling with nice Plazas and pedestrian streets. The entire neighbourhood is a Unesco World Heritage site.
Havana Centro: the main part of the Havana city center where you'll find the Capitolio and the bustling Parque Central - the place to go for the hop on, hop off buses and a tour with a flashy classic convertible.
Vedado: the former posh neighbourhood with large mansions and the famous Hotel Nacional. It's situated between Havana Centro and Miramar.
Miramar: this high-end neighbourhood borders the ocean and is filled with fancy estates and embassies.
10 Awesome Things to do in Havana
1. Take a classic car ride
Going in a tour with a brightly coloured classic convertible is one of the most stereotypical things to do in Cuba, but man, you just can't miss it, can you? (to be honest, we did miss ours because we were all feeling very sick. We still regret it and we'll make sure to book a tour when we visit Havana again - even though we already know most parts of the city by now.)
You can book a classic car ride in advance online or you can go to one of the hotspots in the city such as Parque Central, Museo de la Revolucion or Plaza de la Libertad and discuss your ride over there. You shouldn't pay more than 35 CUC for a 1-hour tour (that's the price for the entire car, not per person!). That's not cheap, but where else will you have the chance to drive around in and do a photoshoot with a bright pink car?
A 1-hour tour in a classic convertible should cost about 35 CUC.
2. Visit the San Carlos Fortress and El Morro Castle
One of the highlights of our time in Cuba, was a visit to the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana
. This castle on the opposite side of the water is an immense sight with its 10 hectares, both from the outside as on the inside. For a small fee you can spend a couple of hours wandering around in this former military prison.
Most people visit at nightfall because of the Canonazo - a daily held reenactment spectacle where a canon is fired at 9 PM. You should arrive early enough to make sure you have a good spot. However, visiting during the day allows you to have the place for yourself.
Entrance to the Fortress is 6 CUC before 6 PM and 8 CUC after 6 PM. The easiest way to get there is by taking the T3 hop on, hop off bus for 5 CUC.
3. Wander around Havana Vieja
A visit to Havana wouldn't be complete without at least a stroll through the old town. There's heaps to see and enjoy. From tiny little plazas to a large convent, majestic colonial buildings and colours, so many colours. These are probably the only couple of streets that are almost entirely restored and will give you a good impression of the Havana in all its '50 glory.
Havana Vieja is all about the 4 main squares: Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco and the Plaza de Armas . Step outside of this defined area and you'll be catapulted back into the crumbling glory Havana is famous for. We recommend staying just a couple of blocks outside of Havana Vieja, so you can see and live each side of the capital.
This activity is free!
4. Watch people at Parque Central
Parque Central that marks the border between Havana Centro and Havana Vieja is a feature in itself. This large square has the bustling vibe that comes with a metropolitan city combined with the easy Caribbean flow.
Find a spot on one of the benches (preferably in the shadow of a palm tree) and take everything in. There's heaps to see: the coming and going of brightly coloured classic cars, yellow coconut taxis, hop on hop off buses and horse drawn carriages (unlike in the rest of Cuba these are for tourists only). Majestic hotels (the old charm of hotel Inglaterra for example) on every side and the Capitolio in one corner. Newspaper sellers. Tourists. Business men. Locals. Watching local life would be our number 1 tip for a trip to Cuba. Give yourself the time to take everything in.
This activity is free!
5. Have breakfast at La Vitrola
In case you're staying somewhere that doesn't offer you a breakfast option, make your way to this charming restaurant that's stuffed with all things retro. Don't think it's an unknown gem, this place at the corner of Plaza Vieja attracts tourists like crazy. But while you would expect a bad tourist trap, La Vitrola offers amazing food at ok prices (not the cheapest but not over the top either).
During the day and evening, the obligatory live music turns a tad loud (it's great, but you won't be able to conversate), but in the mornings it's still calm and gentle with some soft violin and guitar. That's why it was our favourite breakfast spot. It's also the only place in the Havana Vieja neighbourhood where you can eat before 10 AM, a great feature if you're visiting Havana with kids!
The European breakfast at La Vitrola costs 5 CUC, this includes a fresh juice, toasted bread, butter, marmalade and a ham&cheese omelet.
6. Get an ice-cream at Coppelia
Eating a scoop or two of ice-cream at all-time Cuban favourite La Coppelia
, is something you can't miss when you're spending a couple of days in Havana. Located just around the corner of Hotel Nacional, it's well worth combining both of this Havana classics (maybe drink a cocktail at the former mafia hotel?).
The UFO-shaped building that houses La Coppelia is one of the largest ice-cream shops in the world and can seat up to 1000 people! But as per usual in Cuba things get a little weird. There is a separate service for locals and tourists. The former wait in line for about 2 hours and pay very very little (1 CUP per scoop, which is about 4 cents). Tourists are served more quickly but pay in CUC and thus much more.
Full disclosure: the service tends to be bad, the ice cream isn't the greatest anymore and the lines are very long. But it's a classic and sometimes you just have to experience things because they'll only ever happen in Cuba.
A scoop of ice-cream costs 1 CUP (change your CUC to CUP at a Cadeca money exchange office) or 1 CUC if you wait in the tourist line.
7. Visit the Museo de la Revolucion
If there's one museum you should choose when you're out exploring Havana it's the Museo de la Revolucion. Learning more about a country's history is one of the most important and educational parts of travelling and for Cuba that history is unmistakably connected with the revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
The museum is housed in the former presidential palace but apart from a visit for the stunning architecture and decor, it offers insight in the events leading up to the Cuban Revolution at the end of the Fifties. Information in available both in Spanish and English, but pay in mind that it was originally meant for locals and thus holds a lot of propaganda.
Adjacent to the museum is the Granma Memorial where you can find the yacht Granma - that was used to transport 80 revolutionist from Mexico to Cuba before the failed first coup - and many other revolutionist vehicles.
The admission for the Revolution Museum is 8 CUC.
8. Watch the sunset from La Malecon
Do as the locals do and head out to the Malecon to enjoy the sunset. While a seaside avenue might sound enticing, it really is just a grey block bordered by one of the main roads in Havana. True, you can have lovely views over the water and can see the waves splash up (don't get wet!) against the walls, but the Malecon in itself is nothing extra-ordinary.
However, watching the Cuban daily life is the true spectacle. Residents come out to the waterfront promenade to relax and enjoy their evening - some even call it "the living room of Havana". This is the real Cuba at its finest, so don't miss out!
This activity is free!
9. Take the hop on, hop off bus
Another fun way to discover Havana is by taking the T1 hop on, hop off bus. The bus brings you from Parque Central to the Malecon and Vedado with its huge Cristobal Colon cemetery to the large mansions of Miramar and the beachfront property and luxury hotels.
On the way back, the slightly different route takes you through the heart of Vedado and Havana Centro allowing you to hop off and discover sights such as the Coppola ice-cream shop, hotel Nacional and the voodoo/Afro-Cuban culture street Callejon de Hamel.
A hop on, hop off ticket for the T1-line
will cost you 10 CUC for a day.
10. Go to the beach
You might love to visit all the best beaches in Cuba
if you're in the country, but if there's only room in your itinerary for Havana (and maybe Vinales and Trinidad), spend a day at one of Havana's close-by beaches of Playas del Este. They're only a short hop on, hop off bus ride away (take the T3 though, not the T1. It's 5 CUC for a round trip).
The towns of Santa Maria or Guanabo offer some chill beach vibes with a couple of restaurants and water sport facilities. The Playas del Este are very popular among Habanos but they're not invaded by tourists (yet).
A hop on, hop off ticket for the T3-line will cost you 5 CUC for a day. Taking a shared taxi is another option, this is about 3 CUC pp each way. A private taxi will charge about 15-20 CUC each way.
See also: Why Backpacking in Cuba is Different