After decades of being closed off to many parts of the world, Cuba is finally pulling back the curtains and revealing the mystery behind this beautiful and culturally-stimulating country. Attracting a greater number of foreigners in the past few years, Cuba is becoming a top destination for many. In particular: Havana, the capital of Cuba. What should be at the top of your list for must-do’s during your visit?
Ride in a 1950’s Convertible
A notorious trademark of Havana, riding in an old 1950’s car is a bit of a cliché, but it’s still a must-do. Where else in the world will you have the chance to cruise along the coastline in a classic car? Today, most of these vehicles are used as taxis or private cars so hail one down and don’t forget to snap a photo.
Visit a Cigar Factory and Learn the Ways of Cigar Making
Cuban cigars are considered among the finest in the world and it would be a shame to miss out on a factory tour while in Havana. You don’t even need to be a cigar aficionado to enjoy this 30-45 minute tour where you’ll learn about the entire growing and cultivation process of tobacco and witness the skilled workers rolling the perfect cigar before it moves to quality control and grading. The top two factories to visit (at the time of this writing) are La Corona Cigar Factory and the Partagas Cigar Factory. Note that photography is not permitted and you will need to pre-purchase tickets at an official tour agency in a major hotel.
A common misnomer is that food in Cuba is not that great. I would debate this, especially when it comes to the seafood. Havana boasts deliciously cooked lobster, fish, and shrimp. Plus it’s quite affordable at a mere $10-15 USD for an entire seafood course. While presentation can still use some work, the taste is tantalizing! A favorite restaurant of mine in Havana was Paladar Los Mercaderes located in the center of Old Havana in a beautifully renovated colonial house.
Walk Through the Plazas in Old Town (Habana Vieja) Then Take a Seat and People Watch
Walking is the best way to see Havana, particularly Old Town Havana–the ideal place to feel the vibe of Cuba. The Old Town is a UNESCO world heritage site with a unique atmosphere and historical feel. Founded in 1519 by the Spanish, the city was built in baroque and neoclassic style. Take a stroll through the plazas on a self guided tour using this guide from thewokabout.com or Google Maps Old Town Walking Map, which is also available offline. When you need a break from the sensory overload of the Old Town hustle and bustle, grab an outdoor table at a restaurant or cafe to sit back and take in the scenery around you.
Delight Your Tastebuds with Piping Hot Churros from a Churro Cart
While you’re wandering the cobblestone streets of Old Town Havana, use your nose to guide you towards the scents and smells of the fragrant Churro Cart, serving up fresh hot Churros (a Spanish fried dough pastry) topped with sugar and even a douse of chocolate if you so choose. Keep your eyes peeled for the line of salivating customers as they watch, mesmerized by the operator piping churro dough into the hot oil and skillfully flipping the coils before cutting into segments. The hot churro segments are packed into paper cones, dusted with sugar and presented to the next customer eagerly waiting their turn to revel in this cone of warm deliciousness. A cart is usually stationed right outside the Museo del Chocolate (at the corner of Amargura and Mercaderes Street).
Beat the Heat with Some Helado
What better way to cool down than with a scoop (or two) of Helado (ice cream)? Though Coppelia is the more well-known spot, the ice cream at Helad’oro is (in my humble opinion) better quality and taste. With flavors that change daily from Mexican Coffee or Mango-Ginger to Mojito or Nutella, the options are endless! Or if you’re just desperate for something cool, grab a coconut flavored ice cream from the many street vendors; it’s even served in a coconut!
Drink Like Hemingway
Havana boasts two of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite watering holes: La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita Bar. During the 20+ years that Hemingway resided in Havana, he would frequent the two bars. Despite being extremely touristy today, both bars are worth a visit. La Bodeguita del Medio, located in the old Havana district, is the birthplace of the Mojito. Grab a bite of some traditional Cuban food to go with your Mojito as you take in the curious objects decorating the walls. The classier El Floridita has a more sophisticated atmosphere and is known for having the best Daiquiri cocktail–“The Cradle of the Daiquiri” is what they call it. You’ll have to visit to determine this for yourself!
Discover the Live Music Scene
There is by no means a shortage of live music in Cuba. Whether it’s listening to jazz music at a club, dancing at a salsa venue, or shimmy’ing to the beats of street cabarets: Cuba has it all. A few recommendations:
- Casa de la Musica de Miramar for live salsa bands
- Jazz Cafe for a cozy live jazz club
- El Turquino for local music and a stunning view
The options are endless so do some research based on your personal interests. The lahabana.com guide to live music in Havana is a great resource. Or ask your Casa Particular host for recommendations.
Stay in a Casa Particular
Speaking of Casa Particulars (similar to Bed & Breakfast), this is the recommended choice for accommodations. Hotels tend to be rare and expensive, particularly in Havana. With a Casa Particular you’ll pay for a private room with a local family, giving you an opportunity to learn more about their life and culture in Cuba. Many also serve a homemade breakfast of fruits, eggs, toast, cheese, juice and coffee/tea. Bonus: they’ll have the best tips for you and many hosts are happy to help arrange transport and activities for you. Most casa’s do not have websites, but you can find reviews on TripAdvisor and email the owners to coordinate your stay. Some are also available for booking on AirBnb.
Walk the Malecón (especially during sunset)
When the sun begins to set, take an evening walk along the 8km Malecón. It’s a part of the Havana experience and perfectly safe to do. Locals come to hang out after work with friends, have a beer, and enjoy the ocean waves crashing on the shore, especially on a hot night. And as you walk, take a moment to pause and absorb the beautiful architecture around you. It’s breathtaking.
Escape the City for a Day at the Beach
Need a break from the city life? Take a day trip to Varadero or Santa Maria Beach. Varadero, a 1.5 hour trip outside of Havana by taxi (or 3 hours by Viazul Bus) is a resort town filled with beautiful beaches, bars and restaurants. Taxi is the quicker and more ideal option for a day trip from Havana, but will cost 80-90 CUC each way versus Viazul Bus at 10 CUC each way. If resort towns and long distances don’t strike your fancy, try a closer option: the tranquil waters of Santa Maria Beach (also known as Playas de Este), which is just a short 30 minutes outside of Havana. By taxi, this will cost approximately 15-20 CUC each way.