Havana is a snapshot from another century and a postcard to a different way of life. Large boulevards intersect in the city, lined with grand old buildings that are now falling into ruins. Smaller roads twist between them filled with rickshaws and pop-up market stalls. Trees grow through empty windows, but if you look closer you’ll see someone’s washing hanging in an old foyer, and stairs leading to a lighted doorway. Buildings that would not meet the safety code elsewhere are still filled with life. Children play on the streets and people sit in their doorways to watch the world go by. Art is everywhere, and so are references to Ché and Fidel, the socialist heroes. There’s a lot of great activities that you can do in Havana, and here are just a few top things that I enjoyed.
As well as planning what to do in Havana, I recommend you read my post on what you need to know before you go to Cuba. There are so many important details that will make your time easier. It’s not a country that you can turn up to and wing it very easily, even if you’re an experienced traveller like me. The best advice I was given is to arrive in Cuba with an open mind and a relaxed attitude. Nothing works normally, being on time is not a thing, and queueing is a national sport. Just go with the flow, and order another mojito.
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Top Things To Do In Havana
Havana is a city I’ve wanted to go to for ages, ever since a G adventures rep mentioned it to me all the way back in 2011. Cuba was only just starting to open its borders and it seemed like a treasure trove of unique experiences and beauty. I watched it from afar, fearing that I was missing out on a chance to see something new before it became jaded by tourism. Then a friend announced her thirtieth birthday would be in Mexico, and I knew I would take this opportunity to skip over to Cuba and finally see Havana for myself. There are so many great experiences, so I’ve condensed them into the top things to do in Havana.
Havana Vieja Neighbourhood
The Havana Vieja Neighbourhood is the heart of tourism in Havana, it’s also the old town of the city. This is where the most work has been done on restoring the majestic old buildings to their former glory. Art galleries are next to hole-in-the-wall tourist shops, and spruikers will try and get you into their restaurant or bar (did you know they have WIFI?). It’s still a confounding mix of ruined and restored, new and old, but you can see that this area has enjoyed an influx of money. The group behind the restorations have been very careful to keep it a city for the people, and not turn it into a tourists’ playground. There are a lot of hotels and casa particulars here, and it is a popular place to explore, stay, and eat. Wander from plaza to plaza, visit the majestic cathedral, and stop at many of the other top attractions in Havana.
Take A Vintage Car Tour
You can’t come to Havana and not do a vintage car tour! There’s nothing better than touring this fascinating and beautiful city with the wind in your hair and the smell of old car exhausts in your nose. You can book your tour online before you arrive, or wander the streets and approach or be approached by the drivers. There are many different types of vintage cars, all in different conditions. Most tours usually last an hour and circle the city, taking you to the Capitol building, the José Martí Memorial, the consulate neighbourhood, and the seafront Malecon. You can choose longer tours if you prefer.
One of the benefits of booking a tour online is that if you’re careful you’ll get an informative and interesting tour of Havana, as well as a pretty car. I looked at some before I went and the reviews said that the guides were friendly, spoke English really well, and knew a lot about Havana. This would be really great way to learn about the culture, history, and people from a locals perspective. The downside is that you don’t get to choose the exact car. You can, however, pay for a convertible or non-convertible.
If you book your tour directly with the drivers when you’re in Havana you can negotiate the price. We were there in 2019 and the prices on the street ranged from forty CUC to sixty CUC. When we’d chosen our car we were able to negotiate the price from forty to thirty-five. Another positive is choosing your car. I picked ours and loved it! It was an old Chevrolet convertible and was bright magenta. When we stopped at attractions our driver had a side hustle with charging tourists for photos, because it was so popular. The downside was that he hardly spoke any English, so our tour was a one-sentence affair and wasn’t particularly informative. If I were to return to Cuba I would pre-book my tour online to get the full experience.
Wander the Malecon in Havana
Malecon means esplanade in Latin America. Any seaside town has a Malecon, and in Cuba they are usually areas where the locals hang out. Here you can find fishermen, people talking and listening to music, and market stalls when there’s good weather. Havana has a long esplanade, which is great for views of the city and the Havana Castle (it’s really just a defensive fort). There are several places to stay here, but it hasn’t experienced the same amount of restoration as Havana Vieja, so there are also many ruins. It’s an interesting snapshot of grandeur that is no more.
The Capitol Building in Havana
The Capitol is the grandest building in the whole city. It was built when Cuba was extremely wealthy from the sugar trade after WW1 by one of Cuba’s dictators. It is an ode to the power of Cuba, and a shining beacon meant to represent the peoples’ leaders. Cuba has restored it, just in time for the 500th anniversary of Havana, and the white marble shines. The area around it has many intact buildings, and the National Theatre is right next door. This is also where you can find a lot of vintage car tours. You can do a guided tour through the Capitol, and these start every hour. It’s an imposing building and definitely worth visiting.
Famous Hemmingway Bars in Havana
What would the bars of the world have done without Earnst Hemmingway to make them famous? Two very popular bars in Havana are famous due to their literary patron. La Bodeguita del Medio was frequented by Hemmingway while he was writing in Cuba. This bar is famous for its mojitos and is visited by fans of the author and the drink. This place is right in the heart of the Havana Vieja neighbourhood and gets super busy. The second Hemmingway bar is La Floridita. This place is closer to the Capitol and is a large pink building on a street corner. The inside is dark wood with tables all squished together. There is a bronze statue of Hemmingway at his favourite end of the door. His drink of choice, and their most famous cocktail, is the Daiquiri. Try the many flavours and listen to live music.
Museum of the Revolution
Knowing the history of Cuba is one of the first steps to understanding this fascinating country. The Museum of the Revolution is a great way to start. You’ll learn about Ché and Fidel and José Martí and the many great things they did for Cuba. You don’t go here for a nuanced and impartial history lesson. This is a celebration of the triumph of socialism and the great country of Cuba. It’s full of propagander, but sometimes this can be a truer lesson if you read between the lines. There is memorabilia, and tanks and planes are part of the exhibits.
Fusterlandia was designed and built by the Cuban Gaudí, José Fuster. During a tour of Spain Fuster was introduced to Gaudí’s buildings in Barcelona. Inspired by the natural lines and bold colours he returned to Havana and began tiling his house in the impoverished neighbourhood he was living in. He eventually branched out to tiling his neighbours’ houses and businesses and Fusterlandia was born. It is a vivid dream of mosaics and strange curves. It is an inspiration for art improving life, and a great tourism magnet for the neighbourhood.
La Guarida is the most famous restaurant in Cuba. It featured in the popular Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate and is an institution in Havana. Bookings are recommended as it is very busy. It’s in a large, old building, and still shares the corridors with residents. The restaurant has a beautiful old staircase up to the main dining room, which has become popular for Instagram photos. The food was tasty and focused on showcasing Cuban ingredients with a modern twist. We ordered watermelon gazpacho and yuca chips with a garlic sauce, and the obligatory mojitos. The cost to eat here is higher than most places in Havana and ranges from 15 – 25 CUC for a main.
Visit An Art Gallery or Artists' Studio
Cuba is famous for its art. The government encourages creative pursuits and many Cubans use it to make a living. In the touristy areas, there are many souvenir shops where you can buy the same paintings, usually a salsa couple or the Capitol Building. If you want something more authentic and unique there are several artists’ shops and galleries scattered through the streets of Havana. One of the most famous and unique is the Fabrica de Arte Cubano. It’s in an old olive factory and has multiple styles of art on display and artistic performances. Another in the Vieja district is the Taller Experimental de Gráfica. It’s a large warehouse teaching and selling graphic art. There are a number of resident artists, and the work is unique.
Buy Socialist Literature From A Havana Book Shop
Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. According to surveys 99.75% of adult Cubans are literate. All schools are free, right up to university, and it is encouraged to study and get a degree. Books and bookshops are everywhere in Cuba. A lot of what they sell is around the socialist agender. Browse through the racks of a bookshop crammed to the brim. You’ll find many books on Ché, Fidel and José Martí, the founding fathers of modern-day Cuba.
Secondhand Book Market In Plaza Armas
I tried twice to see this market, but I think it must be closed in the low season (August). Plaza Armas is a leafy corner near the Malecon in Havana. Almost every day there’s a secondhand book market here filled with pre-loved books. These are always an easy souvinir, especially from a country so focused on literature.
Catch A Baseball Game In Havana
The national sport and obsession in Cuba is baseball. Apparently, some of the USA’s best baseball players have defected from Cuba. All games are cheap for Cubans, as the government encourages attendance. I have been told the atmosphere at the games is electric, with people shouting, and dancing, clapping and cheering. If you have time I recommend seeing if you can get tickets, as this would be a truly local experience.
The Cubans Love Dominoes
I didn’t know this before going, but the Cubans are obsessed with dominoes. Not the stacking game where you knock them over, but the scoring game where you try and get rid of all your tiles. The games are usually communal on the street and will draw spectators. It’s serious stuff and the concentration can be tense. Poker faces are required and loud shouts and bangs when you play your tile (to scare the opposition). Dominoes is a great souvenir from Cuba and you can buy sets of them from markets or the tourist shops.