10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba
10 Things to do in Havana: When you enter Havana you may think you are Marty McFly and have just gone back in time to the 1950’s. Back to when it was the Americans playground, Ernest Hemingway was getting drunk in some bar and Che Guevara was riding motorbikes around South America. Fidel Castro was a lawyer and the Soviets were satisfied with their defeat of the Nazi’s. Innocent days eh? The buildings haven’t change much and most are actually 100years older. What struck me about Havana was there is the inevitable hustle and bustle of city life but it was always backed up by some salsa or danzon music wafting in the background like a light fog that hangs over the city. Without too much effort you will also always see somebody dancing to the fog. Cubans love to dance. LOVE to dance. That can be on the street or in their sitting rooms (you see a lot of sitting rooms). The fog though is broken intermittently though by a roaring of ‘Mira’ or ‘Oiye’. Cubans also love to shout. I won’t just walk across the road to talk I’ll stand here and shout! Mira literally means look but the Cubans use it to say hello, hi, howya, I’m talking to you, come back here etc. With the music, the shouting and of course the beautiful 60year old cars, Havana is a very noisy place but worth seeing now when there are still posters, museums and billboards proclaiming the grandeur of the revolution (only 57years ago…..). Because when the inevitable westernisation arrives there will be no more classic cars and romantic revolution. Once it starts it will be like a tsunami and the current simple Cuban way of life will be gone where there is virtually no internet (and internet in the same building as a printer is unheard of) and it will be Ipads, McDonalds and segways.
TIP: There is very little internet in Havana and Cuba but they do have Wifi zones in most cities usually located in the main plaza or pedestrian street. To get internet you can buy a card ($2 CUC) in the ETECSA (Telecoms Company) shop and then use this code on the wifi. The shops are prominent and usually have a queue outside. If you don’t have an internet device handy the same shops usually have desktops you can use.
TIP 2: If you are spending time visiting Cuba and not just Havana then don’t bother getting one of the hour long classic car rides around Havana as they are quite expensive, about $30CUC with negotiation. If you head to Viñales, Santa Clara etc you could actually be spending 4hrs in one of these cars for less money as part of a Taxi Collectivo (see end for more). Nearly all other cities have these beautiful cars as taxi’s so you will invariably end up in one.
TIP 3: If you want a taxi but a cheap one then try to get a Lada taxi (Lada is a Russian make of car and are usually small saloon cars). The classic cars (particulares) or the official yellow taxi’s are more expensive.
Time to Do: With some pep in your step you could get everything seen in 2 days. With some more time for mojitos make it 3.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – El Capitolio
A stunning building right in the centre of Havana and one of the fanciest library settings you will ever see. Home to the library of Science and technology but worth a visit whether you plan to enter or not. El Capitolio in Havana is the city’s most dominant building and the surroundings match it. Encircled by the recently done up Gran Teatro de la Habana and Parque de la Fraternidad (busts of other countries liberators) gives El Capitolio the grandeur it deserves.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Plaza de la Catedral
Right in La Havana Vieja (Old Havana) this cathedral and plaza will be one of the busier places you visit but should be on everybody’s list. The whole La Havana Vieja area has been spruced up and all the buildings have been restored. Plaza de la Catedral is no exception. Try to mimic the pose of the flamenco dancer Antonio Gades in the corner.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja is the posh square with the square adorned by cafes, art galleries and up-market shops. The square also has an impressive statue of a naked woman on a big chicken which I’m sure means something to someone. Make sure to walk between Plaza Vieja and Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana as this is the main tourist area and has been improved impressively.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Wandering
One of my favourite things to do in any city is to just walk around and take a few turns just because you like what is down the street rather than because it is the route you marked out earlier to the next tick the box item. I must say that Havana was one of the best wandering cities I have come across. The narrow streets and grid format of Old Havana away from the tourist area was perfect for just mooching around and discovering the old architecture of Havana. Around every corner there is something happening. A barber shop set up in somebody’s sitting room, bici-taxi’s being booked by the police, a football match happening while carts and dogs invade the pitch, waiters dancing outside their restaurant because they are bored, the list is endless. Make sure to mooch down Calle Obispo as this is the main pedestrian street in Old Havana. Take a different route every time you leave the casa and you will be amazed what you come across.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Forts
One of the big surprises from me of visiting Havana was how the forts on the other side of the bay were not higher up the list of things to do. The forts of Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana and Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro that are looking at you across the water for most of your visit are well worth a visit. Not only do you get to avoid the maddening crowd but you get superb photos of Havana and El Malecón from there. They are surprisingly easy to visit by using the tunnel (need a vehicle) which costs about $5CUC and is only a 4min ride from close to Plaza de la Catedral (don’t pay $8CUC) or you can take the scenic route and get the boat to Casablanca for $1CUC from the terminal further south (see map below) and you have a 20min walk on the fort side passing the big Jesus statue on the way. Entrance fees are $6 and $7CUC. 08:00 – 20:00 for Morro and 08:00 – 23:00 for San Carlos.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Plaza de la Revolution
A little further away than the rest of the things to do here and in the Vedado section rather than Old Havana. This is where Fidel spoke to over a million people back in the day but now it is a huge empty space that has outlines of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the sides of buildings. Cienfuegos is the one that is not Che and the guy that kind of looks like Jesus and kind of looks like Fidel. He features prominently in the Revolution Museum and played a major part in the 1959 revolution and has a very nice city named after him on the coast. They both have a saying with Che’s being ‘Hasta la victoria siempre’, (until victory always). The square is dominated by the 109mtr high Jose Marti memorial. As mentioned in the tip at the start if you want to save a CUC or two then get a Lada taxi and not a classic or official car.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – La Malecón
A 7km stretch along the coast where local’s fish with primitive lines and boys try to dodge the waves when it’s stormy. But El Malecón mostly comes alive at sunset. Sunset is where locals and lovers as well as the seedier elements take a stroll. Although an integral part of the Habaneros psyche I didn’t particularly like it. It is a nice long coastal road to view the Caribbean Sea but there are no café or restaurants to sit back and relax with the view and to top it off it is one of the busier roads in Havana so eating some carbon is part of the experience.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Museo de la Revolucion
Although mostly in Spanish with some English explanations this is an ode to the well known revolution of 1959 of Fidel and Che Guevara. Like a lot museums in Cuba most of the exhibits are 50years old (granted this one is about the revolution over 50 years ago) and even the post revolution achievements are not recent. The museum includes the Granma boat memorial and a U.S. plane that was shot down 40 years ago. The outside of the Revolution Museum which was formally the presidential palace has been renovated and fits beautifully in front of Plaza 13 de Marzo with the tank Fidel drove pulling the whole vista together nicely. Entrance fee is $9CUC. 09:30 – 17:30 Mon-Thurs with closing at 4:30 Fri-Sun.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Paseo del Prado (Paseo del Marti)
Following on past El Capitolio is the Prado. A wide boulevard where there are plenty of seats to rest and plenty of space to walk. It’s just over a kilometre long from El Capitolio to El Malecón through this tree shaded promenade.
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba – Havana Club Rum Museum
Probably just about worth a visit but only for the history and not really for the tour. You get to see how rum is made which is good but the tour is only about 15-20minutes long which is bad. You do get a taster at the end but it’s not a pub measure. Entrance $7
10 Things to do in Havana, Cuba (No. 11!) – Havana Craft and Souvenir Market and Tabaco Factory Restaurant.
Also known as Mercado Artesanal San Jose and Almacen de Madera y Tabaco. The market is, as it says on the tin, a craft and souvenir market. Tourists are the only ones who go there so don’t be fooled. The place is huge but mainly sells the same sorts of things over and over. These are paintings, cigars, clothes, musical instruments, you get the picture.
The Tabaco factory which is a large restaurant and bar is good and where many locals go because it is cheap. Worth the stroll down to see Iglesia de Paula across the road. A small tip if walking there or back is to walk on ‘Cuba Street’ just one block west of straight back and pop into the huge Iglesia de la Merced. It’s a very impressive church hidden between the 200 year old flats.
What to do in Havana – Practicalities
2 Currencies: As well as having the CUC which tourists do all their transactions in, the Cubans have a second national currency. Yes it is crazy. It’s called Moneda National (also known as ‘pesos’) and the locals do a lot of transactions in it. 25MN = $1CUC. There is no issue with tourists using either but in general in restaurants, bars, casa’s etc they deal in CUC.
Accommodation: Cuban accommodation is a bit different to most countries. For the most part you cannot just go online and book through a website. Booking usually involves email. In Havana there are not that many hotels and they are normally upmarket. The most popular way is to stay in a ‘casa’. A casa is basically a B&B where you stay with a family. This can range from a family with only one room (and formally the daughters room) to larger ones where they may have 4 or 5 spare rooms. It is a very personal introduction to the country but makes everything much friendlier. All casa owners will ask you where you are going next and book your accommodation and taxi in that town if you want. They get commission for this but means you don’t have to worry about it. Expect to pay about $30CUC for a double room. Breakfast is normally $5CUC on top.
Location of Havana: On the north west coast of Cuba on the Caribbean Sea.
Airport: Havana international airport, Jose Marti, (HAV) is located 23km south of Havana Vieja. Taxi’s will charge $25CUC for this 25min journey to town. When going to the airport you have more choice and if you get a Lada taxi as mentioned before then it is cheaper. I got to the airport for $15CUC by deliberately avoiding the particulares (classic) cars. There are many direct flights from Europe (Virgin, Air France etc) and from Mexico, Canada among others. Cubana (www.cubana.cu) is the national airline. Notably though for the moment there are no flights from the U.S.A.
Car: Renting a car is possible through Havanautos or Havanacarhire. The service isn’t as slick as most countries and involves emails but in the end the process gets done. December/January is high season so make sure to book well in advance. I couldn’t drive because there were no cars available near New Year’s but the motorways are in good condition with very little traffic. Other roads I thought were decent if not excellent with the occasional surprise pothole. Signposting is very sparse and is the main issue from talking to drivers. Buy good maps and be very patient. Getting lost is inevitable.
Bus: The main bus company for tourists is Viazul (www.viazul.com) and they have an extensive network. These buses are comfortable and are relatively cheap. These buses can be booked online (not easy in Cuba) or by going into a tour operator or Viazul office. If you are in the centre of the country during peak season (Nov-Jan) then buses sell out quickly. Also do not be fooled by the guy in the office writing down your name as a sure booking. He is not on the computer system. In the centre of Cuba most buses are on much longer journeys and your town is a stop-off. You will only get on if there is space. We had to wait for 3 buses to pass on one occasion to get seats. There was 1.5hrs between each bus!
Local Buses: If you are feeling adventurous and don’t mind a little hardship or Viazul are full then you can get the local buses. These buses normally only do shorter journeys (up to 1.5hrs) and are real cattle movers. We went from Trinidad to Sancti Spiritus in one and it was worth the experience. They are normally trucks with a porta cabin or sheep shed on the back. No windows sometimes and just metal for the few seats there. Much cheaper than Viazul but you get what you pay for!
Taxi Collectivo: By far the best way to get around between cities is by Collectivo’s. These are basically collective taxi’s that will fit 4-7 people in a car (they can be the classic particulares) and cost only a few CUC more than Viazul, say $24 instead of $20 for a 4hr journey. The main advantage of them is that they are faster and they pick you up from your door and drop you to your new door. Any casa will arrange one for you.
Train: You can get an overnight train from Havana to Santiago de Cuba with stops along the way in Santa Clara and Camaguey among others. The whole trip takes approx. 16hrs. There is also a line linking Havana to Cienfuegos. The train station in Havana (Estación Central de Ferrocarriles) is just south of El Capitolio (see map below).
Cycle: Cycling in Cuba is ideal if you have the time but cycling is not that popular in Havana and getting around by foot is easier in the narrow streets of Havana Vieja.
Visa: You need a visa for Cuba which can be received within a week or two of application. Most countries require a visa (including EU, Australia, Canada, USA etc). A tourist operator or www.cubavisas.com can do this for you and will cost $20 and upwards depending on what the agency put on top. You should have travel insurance for Cuba but I never got asked for it.
Population of Havana: 2.1 million
What to Do in Havana, Cuba – Map of Havana
El Capitolio, Havana, Cuba
|Plaza de la Catedral|
Plaza de la Catedral, Havana, Artemisa Province, Cuba
Plaza Vieja, San Ignacio, Havana, Cuba
|Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana|
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba
|Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro|
Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, Havana, Cuba
|Ferry terminal to Casablanca/Forts|
Habana Vieja, Paseo de Martí, Havana, Cuba
|Plaza de la Revolution|
Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba
Malecón, Havana, Cuba
|Museo de la Revolucion|
Museo de la Revolucion, Avenida Bélgica, Havana, Cuba
|Paseo del Prado|
Paseo del Prado, Havana, Cuba
|Havana Club Rum Museum|
|Craft and Souvenir Market|
|Tabaco Factory Resaurant and Bar|