If you’re contemplating planning a vacation to Havana, it’s safe to say you’re not looking for a long list of architectural and historical sites to visit, but rather a guide to the most intrinsically Cuban experiences to be had. Make the best of your Havana visit and savour the city from all angles, but be warned: Havana is not a city of half measures. Whatever it is you want to do here, you’d better be prepared to do it with all your heart and soul: seek it, put up with the annoyances, and relish the whole experience for life.
That’s the Cuban way.
Get in with the locals
It’s just about impossible to enjoy even 5 minutes in Havana without striking up a conversation with a local Habanero. Whilst some tourists seem fearful of uninvited contact, we’re here to tell you that while a few will no doubt be sussing out your gullibility (for a possible future rip-off), the majority are actually just curious to know about you and the country you’re from. Choosing to stay in a casa particular (private home stay) as opposed to a hotel will certainly help you get into the midst of Cuban family life effortlessly; yet staying in a hotel will not necessarily make you immune to a little local interaction.
Step out the front door and you’ll be approached by more people than you could ever imagine; if you’re able to discern the good from the dodgy, and make a local ‘friend’ for the duration of your stay, you may well end up having the holiday of your life and be privy to a side of Havana most ‘package tourists’ never get to see.
Get lost in old Havana
Soaking up the atmosphere in La Habana Vieja is the epitome Havana experience. The UNESCO heritage listed centre is home to some of the most stunning colonial architectural treasures in both Americas, spanning an incredible five centuries; yet it’s the sights and sounds of the street-life within its borders which seems to endure in most people’s memory.
The whole centre is going through a swift gentrification and, while most of the ‘tourist trail’ buildings have been restored to a tee, there are still plenty of hidden corners which the hand of modernity has not yet reached. Get to those after you’ve admired the splendours of the plazas, museums and historic houses, and you’re bound to have a very comprehensive insight into real Havana.
Old Havana highlights include Plaza de Armas (the birthplace of the city), Plaza de la Catedral (home to the superbly restored baroque-style cathedral) and Plaza Vieja, where you’ll find La Fabrica, the very best micro-brewery in town. Relish in the local street food, talented performers and Cuban tunes wafting from every corner bar, and you’ll have yourself a Havana experience par excellence.
Never mind the touts and cons wanting to sell you overpriced souvenirs, cigars and rum…it’s all part of the very authentic scene.
NB: Mind your step! Touts and con-artists may have made this their headquarters, yet the biggest nuisance for tourists in Habana Vieja is the infinite risks of sprained ankles. Pavements are in a shocking state of disrepair so watching where you step, and wearing sensible footwear, will go a long way in ensuring you don’t end up in a local bar with an ice-pack on your ankle and a minty mojito or refreshing Cuba Libre in your hand. Then again…
Catch a sunset at the El Morro Fortress
Built by the Spanish in the 16th century to protect Havana from invading navies, the El Morro Castle is one of the most iconic and visible sites in the whole city. Situated at the very entrance to the bay, right across from the Old Town waterfront, the El Morro Fortress is a splendid spot from where to enjoy an absolutely breathtaking sunset in Havana, as well as being a spellbinding historic attraction in its own right.
You’ll need at least two hours to explore it at length, so we suggest you catch a taxi here at about 7pm and tour it leisurely (don’t miss the chance to climb the lighthouse!) then witness the 9pm cannon firing before soaking up a stunning sunset over Havana’s photogenic skyline. Pure magic.
Join a cigar factory tour
We’ll be the first to admit there’s a hell of a lot more to Cuba than salsa, rum and cigars, yet coming here and not touring a tobacco factory is pure travesty!
The most important thing to remember, when planning to do anything in Havana, is to understand that rules and availability are a rather fickle lot here, so organizing anything before arriving could result in a rather expensive disappointment. Instead, do your utmost to scour for a cigar factory open to the public when you first arrive and jump at the chance to glimpse into one of the most intrinsic aspects of Cuban culture.
If you want to indulge in the pleasures of tobacco and rum tasting during your Havana stay, consider booking a 2-3 day tour through Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s famous tobacco growing region and home to some of the largest farms on the isle.
Take a stroll along El Malecon
The world is full of splendid seaside walkways, we know, yet we’d be hard pressed to name one which is more entertaining and eclectic than Havana’s El Malecon. Cubans are a fun and friendly lot and never is this more evident (and in your face) as when you take a stroll along Havana’s beloved walled seafront. Watch local fishermen haul in their catch of the day, children frolic in the small rock pools and don’t miss heading here at night, when Havana’s young and old converge here to dance, drink and party, oftentimes dragging innocent passersby along for the ride. Be a real Habanero and join in!
El Malecon stretches for an astonishing 8kms along Havana’s seafront, so venture to a different section every night to take in the stunning and diverse scenery.
Indulge in a world-famous Coppelia Ice Cream
Havana is home to one of the largest ice cream shops in the world and, while you may now think Coppelia is famous for its equally large choice of flavours, you may be in for a little surprise. This iconic spot, decked out in authentic 1950s style, was the brainchild of Fidel Castro, who loved ice cream so much he was determined to get all Cubans addicted. Of course, this being Cuba and all, it also means that if you manage to have more than two flavours to choose at any given time then consider yourself lucky!
Nevertheless, bring your CUPs (rather than CUCs) so you can get your ice cream inside the establishment at the ‘local’s’ outlet, rub shoulders with local ice cream aficionados and come get a taste of a true Havana institution. Before leaving home, watch Fresa y Chocolate, one of the best Cuban films ever made, and you may well understand the locals’ love affair with this ice cream parlour.
If you happen to be a heterosexual male who loves strawberry ice cream, you may also want to catch the flick before heading to Coppelia!
Splurge on a dinner and cabaret night at Tropicana
Tropicana is Havana’s most famous cabaret theatre and although nowadays it is patronized only by tourists (entry price is equivalent to four months’ wages for locals) it is nonetheless one of the Cuban capital’s most authentic and memorable experiences. This place has been vowing audiences since the 1940’s, when filthy rich gangsters were the norm in town and, although this side of Havana may be a thing of the past, the explosive and captivating Cuban cabaret show at Tropicana has remained as enthralling and enlivening as ever.
For that unforgettable Cuban experience we suggest you hop in a convertible Chevy taxi to get to Tropicana in time to enjoy a gorgeous local dinner in the slightly outdated yet full of charm dining room, before enjoying a 3-hour dance and music extravaganza complete with extraordinary costumes, hypnotic Caribbean and African tunes and perfectly choreographed dance routines. Make sure you stay after the show is over, when the dancers and tourists alike take to the stage and dance ‘till the wee hours of the morning.
Upon first glance, it may seem that Tropicana resembles a local community put-on rather than a bona fide cabaret theatre, but rest assured the simplistic outdoor setting is the only low-key element you can expect to see all night.
Indulge in Cuban cuisine
Had you travelled to Cuba ten years ago you may not necessarily have rated the country as one offering a diverse and satisfying epicurean experiences. Aside the ubiquitous rice, beans and salad combo one could find in all state-run restaurants, the best chance you had of scoring an authentic and delicious meal was if you’d managed to score a great home stay.
Nowadays, thanks to the recent increase in private enterprise, Havana is simply brimming with local family restaurants (called paladars) which offer fantastic, cheap and totally delicious authentic Cuban fair. Truth be told, paladars have been around for decades but up until recently they were illegal; the chances that a tourist would simply run into one was literally zilch.
Paladars can be anything from someone’s dining room to their back yard or covered patio, some even successful enough to convert to fully fledged restaurants. Head to Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana and pop into Doña Eutemia to savour stuffed plantain with shredded steak, or simply scour the area for a paladar that’s chock-full of locals.
Take in some history (and great views) at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba
It may seem ironic that the hotel which acted as the headquarters for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Missile Crisis is an American-designed architectural beauty. Yet when you consider that Cuba went from American darling to fervent enemy in a matter of a couple of decades, then it may not surprise you at all.
The stunning looking hotel is UNESCO listed and one of the many protected heritage sites in Havana, now also home to a small but poignant museum which showcases the events of that fateful event, one which almost saw the world head straight into WWIII.
Once you’ve managed to get your history fix, head up to the rooftop bar for a delicious mojito and enjoy the superlative views of El Malecon and the entire Bay of Havana.
Get your dancing shoes on!
If you thought we could write a whole Havana guide without mentioning dancing, then we’re awfully sorry to disappoint. Just ain’t gonna happen.
Yes we know, it can be incredibly intimidating taking to the dance floor in a country where even the youngest nappy-wearing tots can shake their booty so well they’d put Ricky Martin to shame, but making it all the way to Cuba and not taking part in a little salsa, meringue, cha-cha or bachata session is just not on! Ooooh don’t worry, when we said the locals were a friendly lot we really meant it, as you long as you get up off your chair, give it a go and (most importantly) enjoy their music, local Habaneros will be more than gracious hosts.
Head to Chevere Salsa Club, the hottest dance joint in Havana and take advantage of free salsa classes before hitting the dance floor with locals and tourists alike. Fun, sociable and incredibly addictive, dancing your nights away in Havana is by far one of the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have. Head here any night for great live music, a fantastic bunch of professional dancers to help you along and the best atmosphere in Havana.
Habana Vieja side street via Travelbusy
El Morro Fortress via Travelbusy
Havana Cigar by Mike Fleming via Flickr
El Malecon waterfront by Motumboe via Flickr
Coppelia Ice Cream Parlour via Wiki
Tropicana Cabaret by Chris Lancaster via Flickr
Paladar La Cocina de Lilian by Advencap via Flickr
Hotel Nacional de Cuba via Wiki
Salsa dancing in Havana byEmeryjl via Flickr