Emerging from a true time warp, Cuba’s capital Havana is undergoing a transformation.
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 me, you’ll leave Havana Vieja (old Havana) longing to extend your stay!
Here’s a city guide to the top things to see and do 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!
For art lovers, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana is a must.
Attempted coups, assassinations and revolution make for a colourful 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.
Economic reforms in Havana are allowing the food scene to blossom 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. 304 O’Reilly 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 the streets. At Cafe El Escorial, you can sit and watch the world go by as the aroma of freshly ground coffee drifts out into the street. 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.
In Havana you’ll find artwork like nowhere else and unique gifts for loved ones back home.
The largest market, known by locals simply as San Jose (Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Deposito San Jose), sits in a warehouse by the water in Desamparados. However most of what’s on offer here can be found more interestingly in the pop up stalls set up in doorways and on staircases 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.
For top things to see and do in Havana that will leave you feeling refreshed, explore the city’s many picturesque squares. Quaint cafes inhabit the shadows of churches and balconies cling to colourful buildings. Wander the laneways and discover your favourite.
During the heat of the day, fishermen try their luck along the Malecon overlooking the old fort. Then, 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. Convertible or Cadillac — the choice is yours!
Do you have any tips for top things to see and do in Havana? 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 cover his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore and London. Currently living in Bangkok, Neil splits his time between Thailand and London. He would be in heaven joining the Bizarre Foods team, having tried horse meat tartare in Tokyo, lobster sashimi in Manila and the perfect ceviche in Havana. More a traveller than a tourist, he prefers to mix it with the locals, learn their history and culture and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise on the global stage or quiet moments of private reflection.