What To Do and See in Havana, Cuba

Jan 23, 2015

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My recent weekend in Cuba was absolutely amazing! If you haven’t done so already, check out my recent posts on Who Can Go to Cuba?Tips For Traveling to CubaHow to Get to Cuba (and Back): Flight and Award Options and Where and How to Book Hotels in Havana, Cuba. Keep an eye out for hotel and lounge reviews, soon to come. 

For now, here are some great tips on what to do and see while in Havana—and I welcome your own suggestions!

Doing my part to thaw U.S.-Cuba relations!
Doing my part to thaw U.S.-Cuba relations

Surprisingly, despite the large number of Canadians and Europeans who head to Cuba each year, the Internet doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of information on sightseeing in Havana.  Therefore, my Cuba-travel companion, TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino, and I asked for advice via Facebook and received lots of great information from TPG readers—thank you all!  In hopes of helping other Americans who may soon be heading to Cuba amidst the newly relaxed travel restrictions, I wanted to share some of these reader suggestions, as well as some of Lori’s and my own.

Please note that many of the locations we recommend below don’t have their own websites, so we included links that will hopefully offer useful information. When you get to Havana, if you’d like to visit any of these attractions and eateries, I encourage you to speak with the concierge at your hotel (or your host, should you choose to stay at a casa particular) for more details.

A short rest amid colorful Cuban buildings. I love Havana!
A short rest amid colorful Cuban buildings. I love Havana!

What to See

There are three  main neighborhoods in Havana worth visiting: Old Havana (the old city center), Vedado (where most locals live) and Miramar (an upscale neighborhood with luxury mansions and embassies).

Blue X: Miramar, Red X: Vedado, Black X: Old Havana
Blue X: Miramar, Red X: Vedado, Black X: Old Havana

To get oriented with the city, I’d recommend first doing an open-air bus tour which you can pick up in the Old Havana city center. Just watch your head if you’re tall like me and choose to sit up top—I was nearly decapitated by tree branches more than once!

Loving the double-decker bus tour. You can even spot the Capital building
Loving the double-decker bus tour

For just five CUC (just over $5 US) you can hop on-hop off the bus and check out all three neighborhoods, or use a long bus ride to help you choose which areas and attractions strike your fancy. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to hear or understand much of your tour guide’s stuttering, broken English through the cracked, antiquated speakers on the bus, but at least you can get a visual sense of the city.

Happy to be in Old Havana— which sometimes reminded me of New Orleans
Happy to be in Old Havana— which was like being in Puerto Rico, Spain & New Orleans all rolled into one

Simply wandering through the crumbling streets of Old Havana on foot is a must. Despite its dilapidated appearance in some parts, the neighborhood is really quite safe. If you aren’t up for walking (or prefer something a bit more private than the tourist bus) taking a Coco Taxi (a small mini-taxi for 2-3 people) is also a fun way to explore the area.

So many beautiful old buildings to see in Havana
So many beautiful old buildings to see in Havana

There are lots of beautiful squares to walk through, but I especially loved the Plaza de las Armas square—where you can peruse second-hand books to your heart’s content—and the Cathedral square. Any way you turn, you can feast your eyes on a rich selection of magnificent architecture.

Havana’s streets are like an open-air museum for vintage cars

A trip to Havana isn’t complete without hitching a ride through the city in one of Cuba’s famous vintage cars. Since U.S. imports stopped in 1960, thousands of old ’50s vehicles have been immaculately maintained, with diesel engines installed for future staying power. For about $25, Lori and I enjoyed a 20-minute journey from Old Havana to Miramar in a mint-condition, bubble-gum pink 1957 Ford vintage convertible, with Cuban salsa blaring throughout the ride to top off the experience. You’ll find many of these cars parked outside of the Capitolio (the National Capital Building) offering rides, but before you climb in, be sure to negotiate your price.

Riding in our Barbie-Pink, 1957 Ford convertible
Lori and me riding in our Barbie-Pink, 1957 Ford convertible

Our second day in Cuba we opted to do a guided tour. We only really had two full days in Havana so we wanted to make the most of them and see as much as possible. The concierge at the Hotel Memories Miramar helped us to organize a tour with a fantastic guide, Osvaldo Nicolas (he can be reached at +53 53257200 or osvaldo.rodriguez73@nauta.cu or znicolas@openmailbox.org for tour bookings).

The Revolution Square in Vedado
The Revolution Square in Vedado

The cost of a private full-day tour with Osvaldo, including pick-up and drop-off at the hotel and transport throughout the day, is around $60 per person, and you can pick choose what you’d like to see and do. On the day of our six-hour tour, Osvaldo (and taxi driver Alexis) picked us up from the Hotel Memories promptly at 11 a.m., and we set off to Vedado to see the famous Plaza de la Revolución and the Jose Martí Memorial, home of the government headquarters and the site of many political rallies.

The rum and cigar shop
The rum and cigar shop

We then decided to indulge in Cuba’s two most famous products: cigars and rum! After careful consideration, we ended up purchasing a bottle of Ron Santiago de Cuba Anejo, which according to locals is the best rum in Cuba—allegedly better than Havana Club. And although we don’t smoke, we were coached on the country’s best brands of cigars (Romeo y Julieta, anyone?).

The Fortaleza was built to protect the city of Havana in the 18th century
The Fortaleza was built to protect the city of Havana in the 18th century

Following this boozy, smoky adventure, we headed across the bay to the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a pirate-style fort that dates back to the 18th century and overlooks the ocean.

Checking out the big white Christ statue
Checking out the big white Christ statue

Here, we also saw an outdoor exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cristo de la Casa Blanca, a large white statue of Jesus reminscent of the Christ Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Old Havana at my fingertips
Old Havana at my fingertips

The panoramic views overlooking Old Havana were stunning from this viewpoint, and I highly recommend heading out here during your visit.

Afterwards, we took to the streets of Old Havana, where we roamed the streets and checked out two of Ernest Hemingway’s famous watering holes, Bodeguita de Medio and La Floridita. The city center is just loaded with charm every way you look—as you’ll see in this video I shot:

During the drive back to our hotel, Osvaldo pointed out several embassies and other sites of interest in the Miramar neighborhood that we might never have noticed on our own. I highly recommend doing a private tour with Osvaldo, which I found to be not only reasonably priced, but also a great lesson on the history of Havana.

Wall installation by Cuban artist Damian Aquiles
Wall installation by Cuban artist Damian Aquiles

Later that evening, we were lucky enough to get invited (through friends of friends) to a dinner party at the house of talented Cuban artist Damian Aquiles. Being able to interact with Cuban locals may have been the best part of our trip, so thank goodness we speak Spanish!

We didn’t manage to explore any museums, but TPG reader Kat mentioned that the Museo de la Revolución was definitely worth a visit. I also heard that indulging in a cup of hot or cold chocolate at the Museo de Chocolate is a delectable treat, but after spotting the line outside the building, we decided to skip it.

Where To Eat

In general, Havana doesn’t offer great variety in food, and most government-run restaurants offer similar, simple and traditional dishes of beef, chicken, shrimp or lobster. However, we chose to take our business to private restaurants, commonly called paladares (singular: paladar), and here are some we’d recommend:

Do you dare indulge in some octopus at El Cocinero?
How about sampling some octopus at El Cocinero?

El Cocinero, Vedado: Enjoy fresh seafood like spicy grilled octopus on the gorgeous outdoor terrace.

Le Chansonnier, Vedado: This French-inspired restaurant offers a modern ambiance with a larger variety of menu items than we saw at other spots we visited.

Paladar de Santi, Jaminitas (near Miramar): A vintage mansion turned restaurant and cigar lounge, this restaurant is slightly far from the center, but worth the trek out.

This band at El Canonazo was planning Gauntanamera, my favorite Cuban song
This band at El Canonazo was planning Gauntanamera, my favorite Cuban song

Paladar El Canonazo, near the Fortaleza: Here you can indulge in some delicious langosta (lobster) and ropa vieja (a Cuban beef specialty). Lunch is often accompanied by a band playing traditional Cuban music.

Paladar Esperanza, Miramar: Perfect for a marveous meal in an art deco mansion, complete with patio dining.

La Guarida restaurant
La Guarida restaurant

La Guarida,Old Havana: A romantic restaurant overlooking the streets of Old Havana, ideal for dinner.

Delicious seafood at La Moneda
Delicious seafood at La Moneda

La Moneda Cubana, Old Habana: This rooftop terrace has been in business since 1924 and has both excellent seafood and panoramic views.

The Tropicana Show is two hours' worth of awesome
The Tropicana Show is two hours’ worth of awesome

For A Night Out On The Town

Cuba is known for its lively Latin music and dancing—and at night, Havana comes alive with both. We were lucky to catch the fantastic cabaret show at the famous Tropicana Club, a two-hour extravaganza of light, color, music, and gorgeous showgirls costumed beyond belief. We don’t recommend eating dinner here, but we do think it’s worth to splurge for the best seats closest to the stage, which will cost you around $100 per person.

If the Tropicana show seems pricey or just too touristy, know that there are a several other shows that feature cabaret and salsa; the Parisien Cabaret at the Hotel Nacional is particularly popular. If you’d to practice some salsa dancing of your own, head to Casa de La Musica in Miramar, which keeps the dance-floor party raging into the wee hours of the night.

A Few More Tips

For reliable taxi drivers in Havana, you can contact Alexis (+53 52904907) or Juan (+53 52646817), both of whom are friendly and professional.

Havana is ideal for a weekend visit, but if you’d like to also visit a Cuban beach destination, know that we were warned by locals to avoid the beautiful but over-touristed beaches of Varadero, Cuba and instead head to the lovely, quiter shores of Trinidad or Cayo de Santa María.

Finally, make sure to carry cash with you, especially the local CUC currency, as most places will not take credit card.

Have you visited Havana? As always, we welcome your tips, suggestions and experiences in the comments section below!

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