Havana City Guide & Things to Do, Cuba inner banner

Havana City Guide & Things to Do, Cuba

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos.
Havana city guide
Havana city guide

Having emerged from a true time warp, the Cuban capital Havana is up there amongst the world’s most fascinating travel destinations.

While the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city (which surrounds five main plazas) is easily explored on foot, colourful vintage convertibles and horse-drawn carriages are always on hand for those that want them. Lace up or hitch a ride and marvel at the ornate cathedrals, bustling squares, and vibrant street art. Trust us, you’ll leave Havana Vieja (old Havana) longing to extend your stay!

This Havana city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.

Havana city guide
Havana city guide: Explore Plaza Vieja (old square).

Top cultural activities in Havana

Music and dance are the essence of Cuban culture, and there are opportunities for you to be both an observer and participant!

Start by seeing a performance by the Cuban National Ballet at the Gran Teatro de La Habana. Having reopened after extensive renovations, the theatre glistens like a diamond in the shadow of the Capitolio Nacional dome. Tickets can be hard to come by, so get organised well in advance or enlist the help of your hotel concierge.

Havana city guide
Havana city guide: Teatro de La Habana. image: Bigstock

Next, get involved! Take a private salsa lesson, then head to Parque Central to take part in a flash dance party. Young and old will lead, as your inhibitions disappear and your hips sway to the rhythms pumped out by DJs under the trees.

Cuba’s fine arts scene is layered with historic context and culture vultures will love the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana. The large collection is split over two venues — one dedicated to Cuban art, and one to international artists. The Cuban collection is fascinating and covers the Spanish colonial era, the revolutionary period, and the present day.

Havana city guide
Havana city guide: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana. Image: Alamy

Havana for history lovers

Colonial occupation, attempted coups, assassinations, and revolution are all part of Havana’s turbulent backstory; study up before your trip and watch chapters from the past fall into place.

Housed in the bullet scarred former presidential palace, Museo de la Revolucion tells the story of the failed assassination attempt on dictator Fulgencio Batista during the Cuban Revolution (1953 to 59). The palace was turned into a museum following the successful ousting of the Batista government by Fidel Castro.

A visit to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana makes another fascinating history lesson. The fortifications were built by the Spanish in the 1770s. Cannons were fired from the fortress each night to signal the closure of the city gates (to keep pirates out!). The centuries-old tradition continues to this very day with a nightly cannon-firing ceremony at 9pm.

Havana city guide
Havana city guide: Step back in time at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana.

Havana is relatively flat and easily explored by bike. A bike tour with a local guide will get you off the beaten tourist track and show you historic landmarks that might otherwise be missed. For the less energetic, a tour in a vintage convertible is the way to go!

Havana city guide
Havana city guide. Image: Bigstock

Great places to eat in Havana

Economic reforms in Cuba over the past decade have allowed privately run eateries to flourish.

Featured in the Oscar-nominated film Strawberry and Chocolate, La Guarida is a great option for lunch or dinner and serves cuisine worthy of Michelin star status. Enjoy the eclectic artwork lit by intricate chandeliers, and linger on the chic roof terrace after your meal to soak up the city and ocean views.

Havana city guide
Havana city guide: La Guarida. Image: Alamy

Tapas bars have sprung up in cool spaces across the city, and they generally offer killer cocktails and delicious food. O’Reilly 304 restaurant and bar does refreshing twists on gin-based cocktails (and arguably the best Negroni in town!). You should also check out El Chanchullero, which serves amazing tapas over two floors and a rooftop bar.

Cubans love great coffee and espresso bars spill out onto footpaths across the city. Sit and watch the world go by at Cafe El Escorial, enveloped in the aroma of freshly ground beans. Alternatively, stand at the bar in Cafe La Luz and enjoy the perfect espresso.

Where to shop in Havana

Havana isn’t a haven for label shoppers, but those in the market for unique artisanal products have come to the right place.

The city’s largest arts and crafts market, Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Deposito San Jose (known by locals simply as San Jose), is located in a warehouse by the water in Desamparados. However, most of what’s on offer here can also be found in pop up stalls across the old town. Brush up on your haggling skills.

OK, we’re not suggesting that you should take up smoking. But if you are interested in purchasing Cuban cigars, Havana has that covered. There are several franchised La Casa del Habano outlets across the city and they’re a reliable source of bona fide products. Premium brand Cohiba was originally created for Fidel Castro.

Havana city guide
Havana city guide. Image: Bigstock

Antiques and old books make fascinating souvenirs, and you can search for a present to yourself from the past in the Plaza de Armas. Lovingly displayed, the time-worn wares on offer here are extensive. Take regular espresso and mojito breaks.

Ways to relax in Havana

Losing yourself in the small streets and picturesque squares of old Havana is an inherently relaxing experience.

Quaint cafes inhabit the shadows of churches, while balconies festooned with flowers cling to the sides of colourful buildings. Wander at will and discover myriad photo opportunities. Don’t worry; someone will help you find your way home.

Havana city guide
Havana city guide: Relax in the squares and outdoor cafes of the old city. Image: Bigstock

During the heat of the day, fishermen try their luck along the Malecon — the esplanade and seawall overlooking the old fort. As the ruby red sun slips below the horizon and a cool ocean breeze ushers in the evening, the Malecon transforms into a hive of activity. It’s a great place to people-watch and enjoy a BYO pre-dinner cerveza (beer).

If you love lying on a white sandy beach with turquoise blue water, set aside a day to visit Santa Maria del Mar — 20 kilometres east of Havana. A local bus will get you there in around 40 minutes; alternatively, engage a vintage car driver for an agreed fare. They’ll drop you off and return later to collect you.

Here are three other day trip destinations within relatively easy reach of the city.

Viñales

It’s easy to see why Viñales was reputed to be Fidel Castro’s favourite spot in Cuba. Situated 2.5 hours’ drive from Havana, the verdant Viñales Valley was declared a World Heritage-listed site in 1999 and the town itself is packed with character. Traditional farming practices have largely been preserved here and people go about their business without hurry or worry. From learning how to roll a Cuban cigar to healthier holiday pursuits like hiking, cycling, and caving, there’s plenty to do in the region.

Havana city guide
Viñales Valley, Cuba. Image: Bigstock

Trinidad

If Viñales is said to have maintained a traditional way of life, you might say that World Heritage-listed Trinidad has been frozen in time! Located roughly four hours’ drive from Havana, the town features cobbled roads and colourful colonial-era architecture. As traffic signs indicate, the horse and cart is still a common mode of transport here.

Havana city guide
Explore timeless Trinidad in central Cuba.

Santa Clara

The curious traveller will also want to visit charming Santa Clara — Cuba’s fifth largest city. Here you’ll have the opportunity to immerse yourself in more of the country’s history and see various monuments built in honour of Che Guevara — the famous revolutionary who stormed the city and strengthened the Cuban Revolution.

Do you have any tips to add to our Havana city guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Neil Brook

About the writer

As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.

Stephen Hodges

About the writer

Stephen Hodges left his full-time career as a teacher to embark on a three-year overseas adventure. While travelling, he worked as a grouse beater in Scotland, a chicken farmer on a Kibbutz in Israel, and a camp counsellor in France. On his return to Melbourne, Stephen set up a travel business and ran it successfully for six years. He still has a passion for the industry, and believes that you can find memorable and meaningful experiences in the most unlikely places — if you look hard enough.

 

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