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. Neil Brook and Stephen Hodges check in from Havana in Cuba...
Having emerged from a true time warp, the Cuban capital Havana is possibly the world’s most fascinating travel destination.
While the old city is best appreciated on foot, colourful vintage convertibles and horse-drawn carriages are always on hand. Hitch a ride and marvel at museums, cathedrals, squares and street art. Trust us, you’ll leave Havana Vieja (old Havana) longing to extend your stay!
Enjoy this Havana travel guide.
Top cultural experiences in Havana
Music and dance are the essence of Cuban culture.
Enjoy a night with the Cuban National Ballet at the Gran Teatro de La Habana. Having reopened after extensive renovations, it glistens like a diamond in the shadow of the Capitolio Nacional dome. Tickets can be hard to come by so plan in advance or become friendly with your concierge.
Take a private salsa lesson then join the afternoon party in Parque Central. Young and old will lead as you allow your inhibitions to disappear and your hips to sway to the rhythms pumped out by the DJ under the trees.
Let the music draw you into one of the many cafes around town. La Lluvia de Oro on Obispo makes perfect mojitos and Cuba libres. Sit back and enjoy or get up and dance. You know you want to!
Attempted coups, assassinations and revolution make for a colourful local history.
Study up before you go and gain a greater appreciation as history falls into place while you explore the city.
At the Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former presidential palace, bullet holes scar the building. It’s a vivid reminder of an assassination attempt on the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
A visit to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana makes for a 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. Enjoy the sensational view of Havana and the Malecon before venturing back into town for a late dinner.
The next day, rent a bike, grab a map and explore the city at your own pace. Be prepared to detour as the unexpected catches your eye. The city is mostly flat, so it’s an easy ride.
For the less energetic, jump into a vintage convertible and let the driver proudly show off his city.
Great places to eat in Havana
Economic reforms in Havana are allowing the restaurant and cafe scene to flourish and you’ll discover numerous gems hidden behind huge wooden doors.
Popular places get busy so book in advance or be prepared to queue.
Tapas bars are springing up in cool spaces with fabulous cocktails and delicious food. O’Reilly 304 gin bar and restaurant serves refreshing twists on gin cocktails and the best Negroni in town.
El Chanchullero serves excellent tapas over two intimate 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.
La Guarida is a great option for lunch or dinner and serves cuisine worthy of Michelin star status. The setting for the Oscar-nominated film Strawberry and Chocolate, guests enjoy the eclectic artwork lit by intricate chandeliers. You’ll want to linger afterwards on the chic roof terrace to enjoy the city and ocean panorama.
Where to shop in Havana
Shop in Havana for amazing artworks and unique gifts for loved ones back home.
The largest 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 the pop up stalls throughout the old town. Brush up on your negotiation skills.
OK, we’re not suggesting you take up smoking, but if you’re in the market for cigars, Havana is steeped in history and tradition. Like choosing a fine wine, personal taste is the deciding factor here. Romeo y Julieta has been the choice of connoisseurs for over 130 years or follow in the footsteps of Fidel Castro with Cohiba.
Antiques and old books make fascinating souvenirs. Search for a blast from the past in the Plaza de Armas. Lovingly displayed, you can easily spend hours browsing the time-worn wares on offer. Take regular espresso and mojito breaks.
Ways to relax in Havana
For things to do in Havana that will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalised, start by exploring the city’s many picturesque squares.
Quaint cafes inhabit the shadows of churches, while balconies cling to the sides of colourful buildings. Wander at will and discover myriad treasures.
During the heat of the day, fishermen try their luck along the Malecon overlooking the old fort. As the ruby red sun slips below the horizon and the cool ocean breeze welcomes 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.
Love the beach? Then head for the white sand and blue waters of Santa Maria. Local buses will get you there in 40 minutes or negotiate with one of the many drivers around town polishing their prized vintage cars. They will drop you off and return later to collect you.
If you’re looking to explore further afield during your stay in Havana, here are three day trip destinations that are within relatively easy reach of the city.
It’s easy to see why Viñales was reputed to be Fidel Castro’s favourite spot in Cuba. Only a few hours’ drive from Havana, the town is located in a fertile tobacco growing valley, where the mountains are green, the earth is a deep rich red, and the landscape presents a kaleidoscope of colour.
The Viñales Valley was declared a World Heritage-listed site in 1999 and the town is visually stunning in its own unique way. Peaceful and quiet, traditional life has largely been preserved here and people go about their business without hurry or worry. Visitors can observe farming practices much as they were a century ago.
There are many things to see and do in Viñales, from learning how to roll a Cuban cigar to healthier holiday pursuits like hiking or cycling through the village, swimming in local watering holes and exploring the cave systems in the area.
If Viñales is said to have maintained a traditional way of life, you might say that UNESCO World Heritage-listed Trinidad has been frozen in time! Located about four hours’ drive from Havana, the town consists of cobbled roads and colourful colonial architecture. As traffic signs indicate, the horse and cart is still a common form of transport here.
Apart from stepping back in time, another great reason to visit Trinidad is the beach. Playa Ancon is located about 20 minutes’ drive from town and offers soft white sand and clear turquoise water. It’s regarded as one of the best beaches in the country.
The curious traveller will also want to head for charming Santa Clara — Cuba’s fifth largest urban centre. Here visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in Cuban history and see the various monuments built in honour of Che Guevara — the famous revolutionary who stormed the city and strengthened the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59.
Lake Hanabinilla (created by the Hanabinilla Dam) is situated about 50 kilometres to the south of Santa Clara and is well worth visiting. There’s a seasonal boat tour available that will take you to a hidden waterfall. You can swim surrounded by lush tropical rainforest and colourful birdlife.
Do you have any tips to add to our Havana travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
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.
About the writer
Stephen Hodgeswas a teacher and a social worker before he left Australia for 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 began working in the travel industry and set up a business, which he ran for six years. He still has a passion for travel and believes life is all about experiences — and that you can find them in the most unlikely places, if you look hard enough.