The Cuban capital city of Havana requires no introduction. Situated in the Caribbean, Havana is the gate-way to Cuba. With a population of over 2 million (c. 2018) Havana is the cultural, historical and political hub of the country. Truly if you wish to understand Cuba, you have to include Havana in your Cuba travel itinerary. Havana can offer explanation as to why Cuba had the revolutionary past, its status with the world today and its new future. Havana’s heart is depicted in Old Havana streets – colorful, free and spirited in nature. If you are visiting Havana Cuba read this ultimate guide to the city. This Havana Cuba guide includes travel tips, sightseeing guide, restaurants and epic experiences to make your travel memorable.
Havana Cuba Travel Tips
For most international travelers, Havana is the entry point to Cuba. Jose Marti International Airport connects Havana with the rest of the Americas, Caribbean, Europe and one African destination. It is also the main hub of their national carrier – Cubana de Aviacion. For entry to Cuba, most countries have access to visa on arrival (tourist card). It is recommended that travel insurance is purchased before to arrival in Cuba (coverage up to 50,000 USD).
Currencies – Cuba has 2 sets of currencies. CUP or the Cuban Peso and CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso. CUP is used by the locals. Hence its their national mode of transaction, also referred to as the “moneda nacional”. As far as conversion goes, 25 CUP = $1 USD
Tourists use the other currency, which is the CUC. Conversion is 1 CUC = $1 USD. Tourists can only exchange currencies in the country. There are currency exchange offices in the airport as well as in the hotels, banks and exchange offices (called CADECAS) throughout Havana. Most hotels and tour agencies would have debit machines, but you are better off carrying cash. Also carry US/CAD/Euro currencies for exchange.
For more information on Cuba Travel tips, read Things to know before traveling to Cuba
Havana Hotels – Havana is a tourist spot and so there is no dearth of hotels in the city. I do recommend staying closer to Old Havana as you can walk down and explore the UNESCO heritage site or grab a bite to eat at a casa paladar (Cuban owned restaurant). Most hotels have restaurants and rooftop bars in their buildings. There are Airbnb options available as well and are offered through the Airbnb website. Airbnb are called Casa Particulars. Some hotel recommendations in Old Havana include Hotel Plaza (budget and vintage), Hotel Iberostar Parque Central, Hotel Saratoga, The Windows of Old Havana . All the accommodations listed here are very close to Old Havana and easily accessible on foot. Taxi services are available from 5-10 CUC to the Malecon or Vedado from here as well.
Local Commute – It is fairly easy to cover a lot of the city of Havana by walking. There are taxis available, including the vintage American cars. There are 2 types of taxis – state owned yellow cabs (marked by plain white licence plates) and privately owned American vintage cars (licence plates are marked with a P). State owned taxi fares tend to be cheaper and the operator has a metre that they can use to charge accordingly. You can easily negotiate prices with private owned taxis. For 30 CUC, we rented a taxi for half day and we drove along the harbor-front (malecon)
We also rode on coco-taxis (like the Asian Tuk-tuk and Rickshaw) and they are mostly used for short distances. Pissi Taxi can be rented for commute in Old Havana or anywhere where cars are prohibited. They are a tad expensive than taxis (or sometimes almost equal. In either case, you have to set the fare before the ride). Intercity buses are available. Locals use them extensively. They are usually crowded, but they do have a good bus network. For 1 CUC you can travel anywhere within the city.
For Tours outside of Havana – You can also use state taxis to reach resort towns of Varadero, Santa Marta, Trinidad from the Havana International Airport. If you booked a package trip, airport transfers will be included (just ask and confirm). Colectivos can also pick and drop you between 2 major cities/towns, but I would arrange for them ahead of time and consider local laws before availing those services.
Here are some popular destinations to travel to from Havana –
- Havana to Varadero – 2 hours and 10 minutes (by car)
- Havana to Trinidad – 4 hours (by car)
- Havana to Vinales – 2 hours and 30 minutes (by car)
- Havana to Coco Cayo – 6 hours by car or you can take a 50 minute direct flight
Sightseeing in Havana Cuba (includes Havana Cuba Streets)
There is so much to see in Havana. Each neighbourhood in Havana city will open up its interesting history and colorful vibe. Havana in divided into the following neighbourhoods –
- La Habana Vieja or Old Havana is the historic colonial heart of Havana (located on the Eastern side of the city)
- Centro Habana or Central Havana is mainly a residential area and has some commercial buildings too (located on the northern edge by the Malecón/waterfront)
- Malecón is an esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches along the coast-line in Havana (consists of the Harbour front and Havana Port)
- Vedado is an upscale/urban mix of middle- to upper-class houses and businesses (it includes the Hotel Nacional and extends south to the Plaza de la Revolución)
- Playa is an upscale residential district, where almost all of the embassies and diplomatic missions are set up. Buildings from Batista-era make up this neighborhood. (located west of Vedado)
- Airport and Nearby – Cuba’s international and major airport area. There is not much to see around here, mostly industrial set-ups
If you only have 3 Days in Havana, read my post to craft your perfect 3 day Havana Itinerary
Old Havana UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you are visiting Havana, you HAVE to visit Old Havana. Built by the Spanish in the 16th century, Old Havana has the heart and soul of the city. Everywhere you go in Vieja Habana, you will find an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, colorful private houses with beautiful balconies, gates and courtyards. A pedestrian friendly neighbourhood, Old Havana is also the perfect place to observe and get acquainted with Cubans and their everyday life.
UNESCO declared Old Havana as a World Heritage Site in 1982. Old Havana consists of 5 large plazas each with its own unique architectural character.
The 5 Plazas are – Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza San Francisco de Asis, Plaza del Cristo and Plaza de la Catedral.
The image below is that of Plaza Vieja or Old Havana Square. Lined with beautiful buildings,this square was the site of bull-flights, processions and excursions in the past. Plaza Vieja was built in the 16th century, and was popular with the wealthy citizens who witnessed these events. Presently, it is an open square and is surrounded by cafes and restaurants.
The second most popular square is the Plaza de la Catedral. The Lonely Planet, describes this cathedral as a “music set in stone”. Havana’s incredible cathedral is dominated by two unequal tower and framed by a theatrical baroque facade. You can climb up from one of the towers, to witness some stunning city views of Havana (for 1 CUC). The remains of Christopher Columbus were kept here, but later taken away to the Seville Cathedral in Spain in the 19th century.
The cathedral can be categorized as an early Cuban Baroque facade because of its many curves and double curves and structures that are ornamental rather than structural. The interior of the cathedral is ornate with white and black marble floors, with massive stone pillars and side chapels. It is built in neoclassical style.
This square is very Spanish – you will find beautiful murals, depicting the colonial era and also amazing restaurants in a nearby alley. It is worth photographing the buildings around the cathedral – they are painted in bright blue color and can really turn out beautifully on canvas!
The other 3 squares are located further away from the Old Havana square. Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco de Asis and Plaza del Cristo are located closer to the Havana Port area, but it is still part of Old Havana.
Plaza de Armas is Havana’s oldest square which was laid out in the early 1520s, soon after the city’s foundation was set up. Filled with cobbled streets and a historic centre, this square was styled as an Arms Square in the early 19th century.
Plaza San Francisco de Asis has its origins in the 16th century. It was used as a marketplace and this square also witnessed the unloading of slaves that the Spanish brought into the country. Prior to building of the Old Havana Square, Plaza San Francisco de Asis was used as a cockfight ring. In late 17th-century and 18th centuries, many wealthy nobles built their homes by the plaza.
Plaza del Cristo was a church site where sailors once came to pray before embarking on long voyages. Presently this is a new tourist hot-spot with its edgy bars and shops. This square is also popular site for live concerts, including Cuban music.
If you happen to like Plaza de la Catedral and spend more time there, you will find your way to Hotel Ambos Mundos. Located at the intersection of Bishops and Merchants Streets in Old Havana, this hotel houses the legacy of writer Ernst Hemingway. It was home to the popular writer for seven years in the 1930s.
Another historic site of Ernst Hemingway’s fame is the El Floridita Restaurant. This restaurant sits just on the edge of Old Havana. Hemmingway frequented this place when he lived in Havana. He used to order daiquiris here – that was his favorite drink. The restaurant is very popular with tourists and they make daiquiris in batches, right in front of your eyes! Daiquiris cost 6 CUC. There is a big statue of Hemmingway inside the restaurant.
The Museum of the Revolution or Museo de la Revolucion is a museum located in the Old Havana. This museum is dedicated to the history of pre and post Cuban revolution. The Cuban revolution started under Fidel Castro’s leadership to overthrow the tyrant Batista regime. This period was marked by immense nationalism within the country and had international repercussions especially with United States. The revolution saw the overthrow of Batista rule and under Fidel Castro – a new government was formed. The museum speaks volume on the struggles during the revolutionary era.
The entry fee to the museum is 8 CUC per person. You are allowed to photograph inside and outside of the museum.
A few steps away from the museum is the Granma Memorial – the Granma memorial has the yacht (real, not a replica) that was used to transport 82 fighters of the Cuban Revolution from Mexico to Cuba to overthrow the regime of Batista. In the memorial site, there are other vehicles and aircraft remains from previous struggles and movements.
Situated close to the Granma Memorial is the National Fine Arts Museum of Cuba. This museum is not very crowded. And if you like fine arts and would like to learn about the arts during the revolutionary period – this is the place to visit.
Amateur boxing is popular in Havana. Just like cigars, mojitos and classic cars – boxing is also part of Cuban culture. There is a hidden gem in Old Havana where you can actually visit and check out amateur boxers! And that is the Rafael Trejo boxing gym. We are told that there are world class athletes and amateurs who frequent this place. This was an interesting place to explore. A ring full of athletes – professionals, amateurs and kids – practicing this art alongside trainers and having a great time!
If you are exploring Old Havana and have time on your hands, consider visiting this boxing gym. Boxing lessons in Havana will certainly make for an unexpected yet an interesting memory.
Outer Old Havana
Right outside Old Havana, you will see a square, with a statue of Jose Marti. Jose Marti was a Cuban National Hero and he was very politically active, and is considered an important symbol of Cuba’s bid for independence against Spain in the 19th century. (This memorial is different from the Jose Marti monument at the Plaza de Revolution). This square is an open area where locals sit and have a healthy banter and debate. The square is lined with vintage cars that you can rent. (Hint: This is the spot where you will find all your Instagram-worthy Havana Cuba pictures)
Located very close to the Jose Marti Square is the Great Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso (also called Gran Teatro de La Habana). The theatre is named after Cuban’s first ballerina – Alicia Alonso. It is also a living theatre. Much of the architecture and chandeliers/ interiors are from Galicia in Spain. You can book for guided tours of the theatre for 5 CUC. The inside tour of the theatre is totally worth it – as you can capture some unforgettable memories from the theater’s balconies!
The exterior of the theatre is as stunning as the interiors. At the front porch, there is a restaurant as well.
The interiors of the theatre are beautiful with the frescoes in the auditorium, ballroom and designs on the wall. There is a painting and exhibition hall located inside as well.
El Capitolio, also known as the National Capitol Building of Havana, was the organization of government in Cuba until 1959 (after the Cuban Revolution). Its design is compared to that of the United States Capitol, but is not a replica of it. The Capitolio was one of the tallest buildings at one point of time and also housed the world’s third largest indoor statue. It is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
Centro Havana – Central Havana
Centro Havana is similar to Old Havana in its general feel and density. Many of the buildings date back to the colonial period and has some interesting mix of old and new structures. Although not a UNESCO heritage site, you can still find some edgy and cool buildings to photograph. In central Havana, you will have commercial office spaces and the area is a little crowded as Cubans venture out and about to make a living.
It’s a safe, middle class neighborhood where tourists can experience the “local” life. You will not find a ton of restaurants, bars or shops that cater to visitors in this area. Central Havana didn’t receive much TLC like Old Havana did, you will find many buildings here that are in varying states of disrepair and some deserted or even crumbling down.
Callejon de Hamel is a narrow alley located in Central Havana, dedicated to the Afro-Cuban cultural heritage. Hamel Alley is filled with lively colorful murals and sculptures made from bathtubs, hand pumps, and pinwheels. The buildings are lined with brightly-colored paintings and objects, which depict rituals and deities. This alley was the brain child of Cuban artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona. This colorful lane with bright messages (including the popular story of Happy Prince) makes this site very unique and special. This alley offers visitors to Cuba’s capital a taste of the city’s local art.
Rumba is very popular as the art is dedicated to the Afro-Cuban relationship. And every Sunday, there are rumba sessions held here for tourists to enjoy. (The alley is located about a 15 minute walk east of the Hotel Nacional)
Malecon – Havana Habour Front
The Malecón area consists of the esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches along the coastline in Havana, Cuba. It includes the Havana Harbor to the north side of the Centro Habana neighborhood and ends in the Vedado neighborhood.
You will find Cubans enjoying a walk along the 8 km coastline on a hot day, to enjoy the breeze from the waves. Most of the cruise ships to Cuba dock here for a day tour of the Havana city.
The Malecon has private business centers and also historical buildings. These historical structures from the Spanish colonial era include fortified gates, and these buildings that were later used by the Cuban revolutionary players, including Che Guevara. One of the architectural site was – El Morro or the Morro Castle (the image is below). The city of Havana needed protection from pirates and enemies of the sea, so the Spanish rulers constructed the Morro Castle to protect their land. Entrance to the El Morro costs 6 CUC and it is totally worth it to capture some amazing views of the Caribbean sea and also the nearby La Cabana Castle.
Inside El Morro, there is a exhibition hall and a church as well. Right across from El Morro is La Cabana Fortress.
La Cabana was built in the late 18th century as an upgraded fortifications to the existing El Morro fortress. La Cabaña was the second-largest colonial military installation in the New World by the time it was completed in 1774. Over the next two hundred years the fortress served as a base for both Spain and later independent Cuba. La Cabana was used as a prison by the government of the leaders Fidel Castro. Che Guevara also used La Cabana as a headquarter and military prison for several months.
The complex is now part of a historical park, along with the El Morro fortress, and houses several museums open to the public. Every night a cannon is fired at 9 pm, the so-called “El Cañonazo de las 9“, a custom kept from colonial times signaling the closure of the gates in the city wall.
The Christ of Havana or Cristo de La Habana is located in the Havana suburb of Casablanca near La Cabaña. The Christ of Havana is a large sculpture representing Jesus on a hilltop overlooking the bay in Havana.
Locals suggest that the statue was sculpted to depict a cigar in the right hand and a mojito in the left hand, honoring popular Cuban culture
Vedado is a large residential neighborhood a few miles west of Old Havana. Vedado has upscale/urban mix of middle- to upper-class houses and businesses (it includes the Hotel Nacional and extends south to the Plaza de la Revolución)
In the mid 19th century, this area which is now Vedado, was covered by forests. “Vedado” means “forbidden” in Spanish and it was aptly named so as it was non-navigable. With residential establishments and numbered streets now, Vedado is one of the easiest places in Cuba for outsiders to navigate.
Vedado landmark hotels like the Hotel Nacional (pictured below) which is an iconic landmark of Havana. The hotel has its links to the infamous Havana conference of 1940s, were a historic meeting of United States Mafia and Cosa Nostra leaders was held in Havana, Cuba. The hotel has also inherited its association with the pre-revolutionary period, as witnessed with the bullet holes in the hotel’s dome/entrance. The hotel has a historical tour that runs from 10:00- 06:00 everyday except for Sundays.
One of the most popular historic site in Vedado is the Revolution Plaza and the government offices.
Plaza de la Revolution is an important square in Havana. The square was built in the 20th century and has been used for all political rallies since Fidel came to power. The square can house more then 1 million attendees. Pope John Paul II, during his 1998 first visit by a Pope, and Pope Francis in 2015, held large Masses there during papal visits to Cuba.
The square has a big statue of Jose Marti – he is idolized in Cuba and in most historic places you will see references to Jose Marti. The famous image of Che Guevara from one of the government buildings is located right across the square. There is nothing much to see here, other then the statue and the images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro from across the square. The square is not crowded so you can take great pictures, minus the tourists.
The abandoned US embassy is located in Vedado, facing the Malecon.
Miramar and Playa
Playa is an upscale residential district, where almost all of the embassies and diplomatic missions are set up. The municipality of Playa has a very modern feel – the streets appear to be planned, lined with trees and flowers. This neighborhood is also very clean. It is worth driving by this area as you will find some interesting monuments and buildings along the way.
Restaurants and Food in Havana Cuba
Now lets talk food and drinks! Old and Centro Habana, Vedado has lots of options for food, bar and restaurants. In Havana, there are state owned restaurants and private restaurants or casa paladars. The state run restaurants are cheaper as compared to private own restaurants. Private/in house restaurants, called casa paladars offers authentic Cuban food. By US or Canadian standards the food is still cheaper. The cheapest meal that I had was for 5.5 CUC which included a drink, dessert and a full meal. This was at Old Havana – at the El Pina del plata Restaurant (located beside El Floridita)
Popular Cuban dishes include black bean rice, plantains, roopa vieja (shredded meat), chicken tomato or pork salsa – they all tasted great. Pork and beef are popular dishes, followed by shrimps and chicken.
If breakfast is included as part of your hotel deal, it will most likely include baked items, fruits, salad, pork sausage.
Some of the tried and tested restaurant recommendations are –
- Bianchini (located by the Cathedral Square, you will find the best cappucino here)
- El Pina del plata Restaurant (Shredded beef vieja with rice, my favorite)
- Cafe Suzia and Ron Habana Club (balcony restaurant served the best Chicken Salsa and plantains)
- La Luz (another coffee place in Old Havana, serves the best coffee, side cafe)
- Chen Chelia (delicious lunch in a colorful shack, tried Chicken Tomato)
- Ruinas del Parque (Roast Chicken and Rice, plain but decent portion, food was okay. Ambiance was great)
As far as bars and drinks goes, Mojito is popular in Cuba, along with rum. I have tasted one of the most refreshing mojitos in Havana. Daiquiris and Pina Coladas are popular too. Popular beer include Cristal and Bucanero.
Try opting for a roof top bar for a memorable Havana experience, with mojito or a daiquiri. Most restaurants and bars will have open space for table or roof top tables. Some of the options to consider as Bar Nautica (Hotel Nacional), El Floridita, Roof top Bar at Hotel Parcque Central Iberostar, El Pasillo.
In the evenings, most restaurants have live music/band. It really provides a great Cuban experience, with some nice Rumba music in the background. Food at restaurants with live music are priced slightly higher then restaurants that don’t.
Havana Experiences for Cuba Travel Itinerary
Havana travel and itinerary is incomplete without some special experience. There are lots of options to make this trip memorable. Some of the options include – taking a cooking/drink class, classic car ride, going to a cigar factory and watching the process, Spanish legacy of Cuba at Malecon, amateur boxing, etc. I enjoyed the 3 handpicked experiences – making a mojito, watching amateur boxing practice and my favorite – classic car ride!
Mojito Lessons in Old Havana Cuba
Who doesn’t love a refreshing mojito on a hot and a humid day? And how about learning how to make a mojito? Well, you can bake your cake and eat it too. In this case, learn to make an authentic Cuban mojito and relish it too. Locally Sourced Tours has mojito classes that are conducted at Casa Alta, in Old Havana. They teach you to make the drink with fresh ingredients like lime, mint & spearmint, Havana Club Rum, brown sugar, sparkling water and ice.
Recipe: Start with squeezing lime into the glass, add fresh spearmint/mint and press them to release juice. Add sparkling water and brown sugar (1 spoon-full), stir it. Add ice and top it off with Havana Club rum. Garnish with spearmint leaves!
Did you know Mojito is a Cuban drink and originated in Cuba?
Amateur Boxing is popular in Havana. There are rings and practices studios where tourists are allowed to watch or even participate. Men and women alike can participate in boxing. Women can only compete at a regional level.
Classic Car Ride
When you travel to Havana Cuba, do not skip this : get a classic car ride! This experience is like no other. I don’t think there are very many countries in the world where you can ride in a 1950 Chevy (pink, green, yellow – any color you like). Book or hire an open classic car, drive along the Havana port or the Vadedo area and enjoy. From old Havana to Malecon or Vadedo would cost around 8-10 CUC. Always fix the fare first before you ride. If you are planning to do some sight-seeing, these cars will also wait for you while you get all the exploring done. One of the taxis offered us a half day ride within the Havana city for 30 CUC!
Havana Cuba Tours
You can experience Havana on your own, but if you like the company of a Cuban to take you around, then I do have some recommendations. Locally Sourced Havana Tours is one of the best in town. We did take one of their full day Havana tours and we completely enjoyed it. Our guide was Roberto who was very friendly and he shared many unknown facts about Havana and life in Cuba in general. If you wish to get up close and personal about Havana, booking a tour is a way to go. Also remember you are helping a Cuban – tourism is the only and the most profitable business here.
Another way to experience Havana is by taking a City Tour bus. The city tour lasts about 2 hours on an open top bus and it takes you on a tour to the waterfront, the city center, revolution plaza, embassies, Vedado and more. It doesn’t cover Old Havana as its inaccessible by vehicles, however, you will pass by Plaza d’ Armas, Old Havana port and the biggest hospital in Cuba. All of this for 10 CUC. You can find the Havana City tours departing from the Jose Marti Memorial Square in Old Havana, every 2 hours. (the last tour starts at 07:00 pm)
If you are feeling adventurous, don’t be afraid to explore Havana on your own. Cubans are friendly and if you know where you wish to go, they will help you get there. Also download maps.me – a free non-wifi gps app. This app will come in handy, especially when you are trying to venture into Old Havana, the first time.
Perfect time to Visit Havana Cuba is NOW!
We returned from Havana a few months ago and had an amazing experience in the city. The people are warm and friendly and it is a safe place for tourists. Most paladars or your food will costs less then what it is in most countries. Flying from Canada, we didn’t face any visa or entry issues at the Havana airport. We did meet a lot of travelers from Europe, South America and the Caribbean countries. With changes in the political scene, tourism is on the rise, but Havana still has its vintage charm. It is worth it to visit Havana right now and experience its colorful streets and culture, before it gets too commercialised.