20 TOP THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA
There is no place on earth that my must-see list has grown as much as it has for Havana! For as long as I can remember, Havana is the place that I’ve wanted to experience and explore. This place for me has always emulated an island steeped in rich culture and history, a land lying deep in the opaque blue Caribbean sea where life is as laid back as can be, stuck in a time warp, which I could only imagine as being so far away a from life as I know it. I hankered for the 1950s atmosphere, to see the myriad of rainbow hued classic cars, the sound of Latino dance melodies, the waft of the finest Cuban cigars and not forgetting sampling Mojitos blended effortlessly with the finest Cuban rum reared from local sugar cane. So you see, in my head this place could do no wrong even before I got there. So where is this all going, you may ask?! In December 2017, I was celebrating a special birthday and it will come as no surprise then that Havana was the destination for acclaiming this milestone in life!
So all in the gallant name of research I have compiled for you, your ultimate must-see list for Havana which I assure you will leave you wanting to revel in the rest of the Cuban culture. It is worth noting that Old Havana was granted the status of UNESCO world Heritage site in 1982 and buy does it deserve it!
1. Hemingway Haunts
When in Cuba, the ONLY writer’s name that should be on your radar is the American writer, Ernest Hemingway. All you literature buffs will most probably already know about his writings and his love affair with Cuba’s capital. He moved to Cuba in 1939 and his first residence was Hotel Ambos Mundos. He shortly moved into Finca Vigia (lookout farm) and you can take a short cab ride of about 15 minutes from Old Havana to look at the 15 acre estate.
2. Visit Plaza de la Revolución and the José Marti Memorial
Plaza del la Revolución (Revolution Square) in Havana is most definitely the political and administrative epicentre of Cuba. For those wishing to learn more about it’s past and involvement should consider a visit with a local guide who can really bring the square alive with its history and rich involvement in Cuba’s revolution from 1953-1959.
The plaza is more of a concrete square surrounded by tall grey buildings, but a local guide will be able to bring the story of the square alive. As you close your eyes and listen, you will be able to hear the mass crowds of people who once gathered here to witness the movement of the great Fidel Castro.
Ministry of Interior building in Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), Havana, Cuba. The legend above Che Guevara’s image says: “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre” (Until Victory, Always).
Image of revolutionary guerrilla fighter Camilo Cienfuegos in the front of the building of the Ministry of Informatics and Communications, Revolution Square, Havana. The legend says: “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel).
The José Martí statue is 18 meters high. The statue was carved in white marble by Juan Jose Sicre, one of the greatest Cuban sculptors.
José Martí Memorial in Revolution Square, Havana. The star shaped obelisk has an observation deck on the top floor. At the foot of the tower is the statue of José Martí, the “apostol of Cuban Independence”.
Plaza de la Revolucion
3. Hang out at the old square, Plaza Vieja
This is the oldest square in Havana and is surrounded by beautiful historic buildings home to cafes and restaurants. The square is also a sun trap in the afternoon so there’s only really one thing for it, grab a table, and enjoy a drink, some grub and plenty of Cuban luve music courtesy of the many bands. One of my favourite cafes on the square is Café Bohemia. Its perfect for light midday snacks, has a great juice menu and focuses on a Mediterranean Cuban fusion theme.
Plaza Vieja & Cafe Bohemia
Tel +53 7 8603722
4. Visit Plaza de la Cathédral
The last of the main squares to be laid out during colonial times, Cathedral Plaza is perhaps its most intimate square and definitely one of Old Havana’s most beautiful spots.
de la Cathedral
Tel +53 7 8625109
5. Tread the tombs at Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón
The cemetery was declared a National Monument in 1987 and covers a whopping ten acres. Although I wouldn’t normally go to visit a cemetery, this one contains some interesting statues of bronze and marble tombs. Some say it’s an indication of Cuba’s riches in the past and reflects the strong religious beliefs of the Cuban people. Entry is 7 CUC (£5)
Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón
Tel +53 7 8321057
6. Enjoy a Private classic car ride and city tour of Old Havana
Well how on earth can you go to Cuba without having a ride in one of the many classic cars in the city? Well basically the answer to that is, you really have to do it. We opted for a two hour classic car ride through the districts of Havana followed by an hours walking tour. This is a fantastic way to get your orientation of the city and learn and explore more of the city with the advantage of a local guide. I don’t usually name drop, but our pink and white number was the car that Madonna and president Obama had a spin in when they were in town! Well, if it’s good enough for that Material Girl, then it’s good enough for this humble chick! Just in case you’re wondering why there are just so many of these classic cars in Havana, well when the Americans left Cuba in the 1950’s, they left many of the cars, which the Cubans have kept in absolute mint condition! Just one thing to bear in mind, we found certain British tour operators don’t endorse classic car rides due to the cars not having seat belts. It’s therefore worth doing your research before you book as opposed to just getting one from the touts on the streets.
You can find details of our classic car ride through Cuba Travel Network and it was priced at £44. This includes a driver and a bilingual guide.
7. Gaze up at El Capitolio Building
This is a building that at least deserves a mention. You can actually go inside it and I believe it will soon be home to the president of Cuba but currently is the home of the national academy of Sciences. Up until the Cuban Revolution in 1959, it was a government organisation building. El Capitolio has a beautifully formed dome and poses as a landmark backdrop of many photos and pictures you will see of Havana. In my opinion the best view of it is from The Saratoga Hotel’s roof terrace, which I’ve covered in my Mojito haunts post.
Paseo de Marti
Tel +53 7 8603411
8. Stroll through the palm-lined Parque Centrale
This lovely palm tree covered park is right in the centre of Old Havana and is opposite the theatre. It contains a statue of the national hero, Jose Marti in white marble and is a nice hangout for both visitors and locals. Beware of picking up friends in the form of stray dogs, as I did who followed me back to the hotel!
Paseo de Marti
Tel +53 7 8613096
9. Admire the exterior of the Grand Teatro de la Habana
The Tacón theatre is located just opposite the park and has a beautiful façade decorated with sculptures and stone and marble ornaments. The building stands out and oozes opulence with its gold exterior.
Grand Teatro de la Habana
Paseo de Marti
10. Promenade along the Malecón
Described as Havana’s outdoor lounge, the Malecón is the citys famous sea side avenue. This the perfect hangout on one of the many stiflingly hot and humid days in Havana and is an outside space that can be enjoyed for free. On the opposite side of the road are beautiful old buildings, some converted into bars and cafes but others have rooms that can be rented. If you walk from Old Havana along the Malecón, for about 30 minutes, you will arrive at my next must see destination, Hotel Nationale de Cuba.
11. Have a drink at the iconic Hotel Nationale de Cuba
This is one of Cuba’s most iconic hotels and is definitely worth a visit in my opinion, especially for its 1930’ art deco styling and its location. It’s easily accessible by walking down the Malecón as mentioned previously but also for the vistas from its location facing Havana habour. The hotel is located in the district of Vedado, in the centre of Havana. Hotel nationale de Cuba has attracted a huge proportion of celebs such as Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Alexander Fleming and more recently Madonna.
Try and get a seat in the outdoor patio area which directly face’s the Malecón for spectacular panoramic views whilst sipping on your favourite beverage.
Hotel Nationale de Cuba
y O, Vedado
, Calle 21,
Tel +53 7 8363564
12.Take a Private day trip out to the Viñales Valley or Las Terrazes
If you are staying in Havana for a longer period of time than a couple of days, I would thoroughly recommend taking a day trip out in to the countryside and experiencing a different pace of life.
Take a private jeep drive into the countryside for two hours and visit a local tobacco farm and how the famous Cuban cigars are made. There is also the opportunity to buy some of the best cigars directly from the farms at reasonable prices compared to in the city. A local lunch is included and you drive further into the Sierra de los Órganos (mountain range), where the valley is located and make numerous stops at points of interest. Meet the people and learn their traditions and fall in love with another part of Cuba. Read my post for further information about my day in the Viñales Valley.
Again take a private jeep drive for an hour out of the city to the private reserve of Las Terrazes in the Artesima province. This ecotourism centre only 73 km west of Havana is part of a 5000 hectare area, where an ongoing tourism project aims to provide sustainable economic development based on the rational use of natural resources. It dates backs to 1968 when the Cuban government launched a massive reforestation project on the terraced hills ringing the area. This trip is very much focused about meeting the locals of this area and learning about the formation of their community with a lovely local lunch included beside a beautiful lakeside location. The day excursion has been covered in a separate blog post if you require further information.
13. Educate yourself about the only spirit in town at The Museo del Ron
Ok so you are in one of the Rum capital’s of THE world and if like me you’ve lived off Mojitos then you HAVE to go and learn about the history and production of this spirit. Since Christopher Columbus bought sugar cane to Havana, the plant adapted to the unique soils and climate and grew in abundance. After an 18 month period of ageing, sugar cane is blended with treated water and pure spirits producing a young rum which is filtered and bottled as Silver Dry (White Rum). Or it is aged some more in white cedar wood barrels that are scraped and burnt, acquiring special characteristics that are impregnated in the future rum during ageing. The longer the rum is kept in the barrels, the darker it becomes. Its taste also changes, but it is not until, when the blend is made that rum becomes rum. It is then that master rum makers combine different types and ages to obtain the desired product. You can purchase all of the varieties of Havana Club rum at the museum shop starting from £5.5p per litre bottle of white rum.
A point to note, which I discovered, the store does not pack for transportation so if you know you may make a purchase beforehand then take some bubble wrap in your case. After all you don’t want to waste the good stuff with spillages in your luggage!
Museo del Ron
Ave. del Puerto #262
Tel +53 7-862-4108 / 862-3832 / 861-8051
Tours in Spanish, English, French, German and Italian
Entry Fee CUC 7
14. Sip on Mojitos
This is a total must if you drink alcohol but if you don’t you can still experience a virgin Mojito! Hemingway made them uber famous and fashionable but only Cuban run can hit the spot. The minty lime cocktail that packs quite the punch suddenly can be enjoyed in numerous places, which you can find on my Mojito haunts blog post. Yes in the name of research I tried virtually every fine Mojito establishment in Havana! You can always read all about my fave Mojito haunts in Havana! Not trying a Mojito in Havana is like not living!
15. Munch on freshly made Churros
Who doesn’t love these doughy deep fried snack dusted in sugar? They are available on street stalls on virtually every street corner and are so cheap. Served with chocolate sauce of course are my favourite Cuban dulce de leche, a thick caramel sauce. Seconds on your lips but ounces on your hips – never mind your on holiday!
16. Dine in a traditional Paladares
Over the years since 2010, there has been a wave of new private restaurants or Paladares opening up around Cuba and in particular in Havana. These come in the shape of family operations to stylish and slick new restaurants. Now I’m not going to spill too much about these places as I have a separate post about the Paladares, which certainly will get your taste buds in the mood for some private dining! But for now, my absolute favourites are La Guarida and San Cristobal for its location, service, ambience and of course, its menu.
17. Spend an evening at the hottest show in town, The Buena Vista Social Club.
Apart from the local bands you see playing in the streets, bars and restaurants of Havana, this is THE only show you need to spend an evening at. It is sensational if you are a fan of Cuban music.
Buena Vista Social Club is an ensemble of Cuban musicians established in 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. They are all recording artists and put on an unmissable dance and music extravaganza, which be sure to have you tapping and dancing along. The singers are all the old stars of the show with the musicians and dancers being a lot younger. It’s an interesting mix of the evolution of Cuban music following the revolution of Cuba.
Booking is essential with or without dinner. You are given a private table for your party. Dr C and I were given a table right at the front, in front of the stage, providing excellent views of the ensemble. We opted not to have dinner and drinks are included with your ticket, we paid 32 CUC per person and the show starts at 21:30 if you’re not having dinner and lasts 3 hours.
The Buena Vista Social Club
Zulueta 660 Apodaca y Gloria
Tel +53 7 8617761
18. Mooch around an array of Museums
As with most historic cities, Havana is no exception in the fact that it has a number of museums to ensure all of you culture vultures out there, get your fix! My recommendations would be to check out Tripadvisor’s list based on your interest.
19. Stay at The Iberostar Parque Centrale
In my humble experience The Iberostar Parque Centrale is the place to stay in terms of location, amenities, service and ambience. Usually I’m a fiend for Boutique hotels but Havana’s hotel scene is very different to what we are used to. The hotel is warded five stars and is located right outside the Parque Centrale, has a fantastic atmosphere with a great concierge service, which can help with reputable bookings, taxis etc.
We were lucky enough to be upgraded to a 6th floor suite so had fantastic views of the El Capitolio and Parque Centrale.
The breakfast is said to be the best available in the whole of Havana – they have chocolate fountain!!
One of the best parts of this hotel is that it has a pool and a poolside bar/restaurant on the roof terrace with FANTASTIC views! Additionally the hotel provides entertainment in the form of Cuban bands in an impressive lobby area and at certain times of the day there is a cigar sommelier on hand!
Iberostar Parque Centrale
Tel +53 7 8606627
20. Hang out with the locals
Havana’s local people are amongst the friendliest I have met in the world. They are truly happy to help and always want to chat. Whether they want to show you some local sights or just tell you about the fact that you CANNOT miss the Buena Vista Social Club! Grab a seat and use their knowledge. Due to the Cuba’s communism, the average wage is incredibly low and locals still use ration books for their groceries and medicines. If you have spent the day with a guide, please give them a generous tip. Hotel maids are often over looked too. They use this to supplement their ration allowances and buy items that you or I would not consider a luxury. Travel responsibly and give back a little.
So now you see why I loved Havana so much. It is truly a unique destination in my opinion. For the first few days, you will feel like you’re stuck in a bygone era and then suddenly you will start to feel right at home with the laid back pace of life and begin to admire the lifestyle, which includes free education for all ages. This is a place that will reaffirm that money really is not everything. Instead of looking down at your phone every few minutes, it’s amazing to look up once in a while and see the beaming smiles of the people as they go about their daily business. In my opinion there is nothing more beautiful than happy people.
I have to admit, I was pretty sad to leave this beautifully vibrant country and just like Camila Cabello sang ‘My heart is in Havana ooh na na’ but definitely for different reasons!
I hope you found my post useful and informative. If you are planning a visit to Havana, I hope this is helpful. Either way I’d love to hear your views, so please get in touch via the comments below.