Havana or like the locals like to call it La Habana is by far the biggest city and also the capital of Cuba. A city surrounded by myths, from Ernest Hemmingway’s home for 21 years, to a Mafia hangout, to ban on tourism and now a tourist dream destination, La Habana has seen it all.
Just to be clear, Havana is not an untouched gem that a lot of travellers dream of The Old Town of Havana. La Habana Vieja is heavily touristy.
The newer parts of the city are experiencing a boom of new international restaurants and boutique hotels opening up every week. There´s a Swedish restaurant serving Swedish meatballs with imported Swedish sauce. I even visited a “local” restaurant with Norwegian Salmon on the menu. Hence, I didn’t miss my Scandinavian cuisine during my visit to Cuba ?
So if you’re dreaming of visiting Havana to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps and finding your own little bar to read a book while drinking ice cold Old Havana rum, you are at least 5 years late.
Long gone are the days with only American classical cars better known as the Yank Tank driving around the streets of Havana. These days you will see many newer Asian cars occupying the streets. But there´s still tonnes of things to do in La Habana.
Here´s my list of the Top 10 things to do in Havana.
1. Get Lost in La Habana Vieja.
The charm of Havana lays in the small back street in the old part of the city. This is where you will experience the local life and how you probably imagined Cuba. It´s here that you will experience the romantic side of Havana. But all of this is changing fast. You will find a lot of fancy shops with imported stuff since local families are getting money from their relatives overseas.
2. Discover The Local Craft Beer Scene.
Havana and Cuba are famous for their rum than beer but that might change in the future. There are already 2 microbreweries in Havana, and both are popular locals and foreign tourists.
The quality of the craft beer might not be up to western standard as yet, but it’s still damn good after you been walking around in the strong sun all day.
3. Take The Red Double Tourist Bus.
I’m not a big fan of The Red Double Tourist Bus – the shuttle for tourists to see sights in the big cities around the world. But the one in Havana is worth your money. It also comes cheap with the ticket price of 10 CUC.
It doesn’t just drive you to the important sights in the city but also takes a route to parts of Havana you would never have seen otherwise.
Just remember to put on sunblock if you decide to sit on the roof. I got seriously sunburned after my trip.
4. Visit The 4 Historical Squares.
There are four historical squares in Old Town Havana, all with their own rich history.
Plaza De La Catedral is one of the most famous landmarks of Havana, the Catedral de San Cristóbal.
The Catedral and most buildings here date back to the 18th century, one of the best and most romantic restaurants in Old Havana is also located right here.
Plaza Vieja (The Old Square).
Laid in 1559, Plaza Vieja was earlier known as the New Square. It was originally used for military exercises, later it served as an open-air marketplace. These days it´s the most vibrant and touristy Square of Havana. Most of the buildings these days host modern restaurants, coffee houses. One of the two craft Beers in Havana is also located in a building surrounding this Square.
Plaza De San Franciso
The Plaza de San Francisco is the second oldest square in Havana. It is located right inland from the harbour, where the big cruise ships docks while in town. This square is the first sight many tourists see after arriving in Cuba. That´s why the restaurants located here is some of the most expensive ones in the country. The old stock exchange and main post office are also located here.
Plaza De Arms
Havana’s oldest square was laid out in the early 1520s, soon after the city was founded. First named Plaza de la Iglesia after a small church that stood here until 1741, when it was destroyed following the explosion. It got a new name Plaza de Armas during late 16th century when the colonial governor used this square to conduct military exercises. Most of the buildings around it date from the late 1700s.
There´s a second-hand book market held here from Tuesday to Sunday; you can pick up and old treasure here. There´s tonnes of old Cuban classic books which are out of print now, magazines dating back to 1940’s and 50’s. You will also find newspapers and posters from the revolution days.
5. Take a trip in a Yank Tank around Havana.
Your trip to Havana is not complete without taking a tour around the city in an old American cabriolet. The price vary from 15 CUC – 30 CUC for an hour around the city. Just remember to negotiate hard.
6. Visit The Revolution Square
Another Square but not as historical (yet?) are the 4 Historical Squares in the Old Town. This is the Square where Fidel Castro used to host political rallies. Probably the most famous art photo of Che Guevara and the national hero Jose Marti Memorial is also located here. The Revolution Square is one of the main stops if you take the Red Double Decker tourist bus.
7. Visit Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro (El Morro).
This the famous landmark that guards the entrance to Havana, built in between 1589 and 1640, to protect from pirates and foreign invaders. The fort offers impressive views of the sea and Havana. Today It´s home to Maritime museum of Cuba.
8. Drink in Hemingway’s footsteps.
The legendary American writer Hemingway was a big drinker. It seems like he visited almost every bar in Old Havana and most of the bars really know how to cash in on this trivia. Unfrurtently some of his old drinking joints have turned into a tourist trap these days by selling extremely overpriced daiquirís.
The daiquirís at his favourite hangout, the El Floridita, was probably my biggest disappointment during my trip. There is a bar next door selling much better daiquiris for less than half the price.
While the El Floridita is very overrated, the rooftop of the Ambos Mundos Hotel is highly recommended. The food and drinks here are expensive but great. Also, the panoramic view is one of the best in the city. It´s easy to understand why Hemmingway enjoyed this place.
9. Smoke a Cigar.
I’m a nonsmoker, but even I tried a few cigars during my visit to Cuba. There´s some legendary Cigar houses in Old Havana. It feels like you get offered Cuban cigars from the minute you leave the airport. Just be aware when locals approach you with ‘authentic’ Cohiba cigars. Unfortunately 99,9% of them fake. Visit a proper Cigar House. You will have many options. Let shop expert teach you how to cut it, while having a glass of Havana Club rum.
10. Visit the Craft (Tourist Market)
If you want to bring back a souvenir from your visit to Cuba, go to Almacenes De San Joe. They have art craft from all over the country. Paintings from local artists to the hand-made humidor. Even Cuban cigars are sold for a very cheap price. Just remember to bargain hard.
NOTE: If you get tired of the shopping or just tired of you wife/girlfriend going trough all the shops, visit one of the Microbreweries located in the next door building.
11. Watch the sunset on The Malecón.
The Malecón is Cuba´s most famous street. It’s an 8km avenue long sea drive. It’s the place where locals and tourists hang out in the evening to watch the beautiful sunset. It´s a great place to hangout for people watching while enjoying a cocktail or cold beer sold from one of the small street stalls. Unfurtuently if you are a single man walking or hanging out here, you will be approached and annoyed by prostitutes .
12. Visit a Beach.
There´s no beach inside the city limit itself, but there´s many beaches easily reachable in less than 30 minutes away by public transportation. They might not be as impressive as the famous resort beaches in Cuba, but they are still good enough to enjoy a day if you want a break from the city life. They are not really set up for foreign mass tourism, but they are still popular for locals. It didn’t take many minutes before I was invited over by locals to enjoy a cold beer with them.
Additional Information about Havana.
If you are arriving Havana at the airport, taxis are the only way to reach the city. The price should be 20 CUC.
There´s two official money changers at the airport, offering the same rate as the money changers in the city. There´s NO ATM at the airport. So you will need to exchange money.
There NO free Wifi in Havana and Cuba if you want to get online during you visit in Havana check out this Guide.