Oh, Havana. There are so many things to love about this city: its stunning architecture, lively streets, laid-back vibe and thriving cafe scene, to name a few.
If you want to truly immerse yourself in all that Havana has to offer, I highly recommend spending at least three days in the city. My husband and I were there for a full week, which gave us plenty of time to explore Havana’s touristy as well as not-so-touristy areas.
If you want to explore the city beyond classic car tours, I’ve put together a list of some of the best things to do in Havana (including some offbeat suggestions). Meanwhile, check out these important tips for visiting Havana, especially if you’re worried about scams and money.
Recommended hotel: We stayed at Hotel NH Capri in Vedado, which is just a 5-minute drive from Old Havana. The hotel is right next to the Malecon and surrounded by many restaurants. We loved the roof bar and pool area, and we also had some lovely meals at the hotel’s restaurants.
1. Go for an evening stroll along the Malecon
Malecon is the name of the esplanade that runs along Havana’s coastline. In the evening, the seafront is teeming with locals enjoying the lovely ocean breeze. Walking along the Malecon is a great way to see Havana’s different neighbourhoods, from the glamorous buildings of old Havana to the gritty streets of Central Havana and Vedado. However, try to avoid going for a walk in the afternoon – the heat can get a bit unbearable and there are no shelters on the Malecon.
If you’re looking for things to do in Havana in the evening, the Malecon is a great spot for enjoying the city’s stunning sunsets while sipping a nice cool drink.
2. Pop into La Bodeguita del Medio
This famous bar in old Havana is believed to be the birthplace of the mojito. However what makes it a popular tourist attraction is its connection with various important figures, including Salvador Allende, Nat King Cole, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marques, who were regulars at the bar. One of the walls is lined with autographs of the bar’s celebrity clients.
La Bodeguita is always busy – the place is tiny and you might have to wait a while for your drink to be served. However, you can just pop into the bar to take photos and see the framed signatures as well as other curious objects.
Spoiler: Although an inscription by Ernest Hemingway hangs proudly on the wall, the author never visited the Bodeguita.
3. Buy some chiviricos
If you get a bit peckish while exploring Havana, try looking for one of the city’s street food vendors in main tourist spots like as Plaza Vieja. Popular Havana street foods include pork cracklings, peanuts and the delicious chiviricos: fried dough coated in sugar. These are served in paper cones and normally cost 1 – 2 CUC (make sure you carry small change with you).
Check out my guide to eating out in Havana.
4. Meet the Orishas
If you want to learn more about Santeria, Cuba’s largest Afro-Cuban religion, I highly recommend visiting Museo Yoruba de Cuba. This museum and cultural centre is dedicated to the orishas (the deities in the Santeria religion) with large sculptures and information about each deity.
The museum is run by an NGO and one of its members will offer to show you around (tips are expected).
5. Walk along Paseo del Prado
This tree-lined promenade runs along some of the most beautiful buildings in Havana, including the Gran Teatro de la Habana and the stunning Hotel Sevilla. As you walk along the paseo, take note of the exquisite architectural details on some of the facades.
Tip: Paseo del Prado is a popular place among scammers. If you get approached by locals promoting a cigar festival (fake) or a salsa festival (also fake), just let them know you are not interested.
6. Spend a night at the Tropicana
The Tropicana is a cabaret show that was launched in 1939. Packed with flamboyant costumes, upbeat music and beautiful dancing, the show takes place in an open-air theatre on the outskirts of Havana. The ticket includes a bottle of rum and a soft drink, and the price varies according to the seating area. You will need to pay an extra fee (5 CUC) to be allowed to take photos, although we were snapping away all night and no one really approached us to check if we had a ‘photo permit’.
Prepare to be mesmerised by the glamour of the show. Book your tickets in advance as the show is quite popular. You will also need to book a taxi to take you there and pick you up after the show.
7. Eat ropa vieja
Cuban cuisine is underrated. While the country often experiences food shortages, the idea that Cuban food is bland is only a myth. One of the best things you can eat in Cuba is ropa vieja: shredded beef or pork slow-cooked with onions and peppers and served with rice.
I highly recommend having ropa vieja at Esto No Es Un Cafe, a small, quirky cafe right next to to Plaza de la Catedral. Our ropa vieja was served with yucca (a root vegetable with a mild sweet taste) and it was the best meal we had in Cuba.
Here’s a list of Havana restaurants that we loved!
8. Explore the neighbourhood of Vedado
Vedado is an urban neighbourhood that is quite often overlooked by visitors. If you want to see a non-touristy side of a Havana, spend a few hours exploring the gritty and bustling streets of Vedado. Visit the University of Havana, which is home to several interesting attractions, including Museo de Historia Natural Felipe Poey (the oldest museum in Cuba) and Museo Antropologico Montane.
Vedado also has many nice cafes. We had some lovely meals at California Cafe (their homemade lemonade is also delicious). Another great place for a nice drink is Mamaine, a cafe housed in a colonial-era house and furnished with up-cycled objects.
9. Marvel at the street art in Callejon de Hamel
This wee alley in the neighbourhood of Vedado is one of the most interesting places in Havana. Adorned with impressive murals and sculptures by Cuban artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejon de Hamel is a hub of Afro-Cuban culture.
The artist’s style is a mix of surrealism and abstract art, and most of his art pieces carry a meaningful message. Rumba musicians and dancers often perform in the alley – there are live rumba sessions every Sunday afternoon.
10. Sip a daiquiri at El Floridita
Ernest Hemingway loved Havana. El Floridita, a restaurant and cocktail bar known for its daiquiris, was one of his favourite hangouts. The bar has a life size statue of Hemingway and a plaque with a quote signed by the writer.
While Floridita is a very touristy place (thanks to Hemingway), I still recommend stopping by for a daiquiri. The place has retained much if its 1950s-style decor and has a very lively vibe.
11. Visit the beautiful casas in Old Havana
Some of the colonial-era houses and palaces in Old Havana have been turned into museums and cultural centres. Casa de Africa is dedicated to the history of the slave trade in the Caribbean and the development of Cuba’s Afro-Cuban culture. It also houses an exhibition of gifts that Castro received from African nations.
Another interesting museum is Casa de los Arabes, which is home to the only mosque in Havana and has an impressive collection of old Islamic objects, including furniture, textiles and ceramics.
If you’re an art aficionado, pop into Casa de Carmen Montilla, an art gallery which exhibits works by Cuban and Venezuelan artists. The courtyard has a large, stunning mural by artist Alfredo Sosabravo.
12. Delve into colonial history at Plaza de Armas
The city’s oldest square, Plaza de Armas is surrounded by various historical buildings. Havana was founded in 1519 by the Spanish conquistadors and the square was laid out shortly afterwards. A monument, El Templete, marks the site where the city’s first mass and council meeting were held.
Many of the buildings in the square date back to the 1700s. These include the beautiful Palacio de los Capitanes General, which houses the Museo de la Cuidad (The City’s Museum), Palacio del Segundo Cabo, and Santa Isabel Hotel – an 18th century palace that belonged to the Counts of Santovenia.
Perhaps the most significant building in the square is Castillo de la Real Fuerza, which dates back to the 1500s and was the first fort that the Spanish built in Cuba.
13. Treat yourself to an ice-cream from Helad’oro
If you find yourself craving something sweet after lunch, head to Helad’oro. This small ice-cream parlour serves artisan ice-cream in a variety of flavours, including tropical fruits such as guava and mamey, at just 1 CUC per scoop. They also make delicious milkshakes.
14. Dance to your favourite Cuban songs
If you enjoy Cuban music, then you may be familiar with the work of Compay Segundo and Buena Vista Social Club. Compay Seguno was a Cuban singer and composer know for his rendition Guantanamera and the beautiful tune of Chan Chan. He also formed part of the group of Cuban decision who released the popular album Buena Vista Social Club. Following Compay Segundo’s death, his son, along with members of his father’s band, formed Grupo Compay Segundo.
If you’re a fan of the Buena Vista Social Club music, you can watch Grupo Compay Segundo perform at Hotel Nacional on Saturday night. The tickets for the show include a three-course meal, and the audience is encouraged to get up and dance!
15. Take photos of the colourful Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja is simply breath-taking. This 16th-century square in Old Havana is lined with colourful, colonial-era houses and boasts a beautiful fountain. In the past it served as the site of several executions, bullfights and celebrations. Nowadays, the square is possibly one of the most photographed places in Havana.
If you want to spend some time taking in the beautiful buildings in the square, go for a coffee at Cafe El Escorial. You can sit outdoors while enjoying a cup of coffee brewed from beans harvested in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba.
Recommended Havana Guidebook
This book was my second most loyal travel companion on my trip to Cuba (the first one being my husband). Instead of getting a guidebook by popular publishers, I decided to go for something a bit different. And I’m so glad I did.
Thanks to The 500 Hidden Secrets of Havana, my husband and I discovered the best ropa vieja and limonada frappe in Havana, as well as some of the city’s lesser-known sites. The book is neatly divided into different sections, such as the best places for coffee, interesting markets and bookshops, best places for live music & many other hidden secrets.
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