Top things to see and do in Havana

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, food, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. We call them our Big Five and they’re everything you'll need to experience the essence of a new city. Here, Neil Brook checks in from the colourful Cuban capital Havana, as it emerges from behind the Cold War curtain and re-engages with the west...

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana

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.

Culture

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.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana: See the Cuban National Ballet perform at the beautiful Teatro de La Habana. image: Bigstock

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.

History

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.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana: Attempted coups, assassinations and revolution make for a colourful history to explore. Image: Bigstock

To witness a centuries old tradition, head over to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana for the nightly cannon ceremony at 9pm. The fortifications were built by the Spanish and cannons were fired to signal the closure of the city gates each night to keep out pirates.

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 flat so it’s an easy ride.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana. Image: Neil Brook

For the less energetic, jump into a vintage convertible and let the driver proudly show you his city.

Food

Many of the top things to see and do in Havana are very tasty. Economic reforms 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.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana: El Chanchullero. image: Neil Brook

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, as the aroma of fresh grinding coffee drifts out, sit and watch the world go by.

Or stand at the bar in Cafe La Luz and enjoy the perfect espresso.

La Guarida is perfect for lunch or dinner, serving food worthy of Michelin star status. The setting for the Oscar-nominated film Strawberry and Chocolate, enjoy eclectic rooms with art work dripping from the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana: La Guarida. Image: Neil Brook

You’ll want to linger afterwards on the chic roof terrace, enjoying the city and ocean panorama.

Shopping

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.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana. Image: Bigstock

Be wary of hawkers as fakes flood the streets like counterfeit handbags.

Antiques and old books make for a fascinating blast from the past at Plaza de Armas. Lovingly displayed, you can easily spend hours browsing in between espresso and mojito breaks.

Relaxation

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.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana: 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 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.

Top things to see and do in Havana

Top things to see and do in Havana: Enjoy sunset on the Malecon seawall. Image: Bigstock

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 us a comment.

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.

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