Havana is possibly the most exciting city I have visited so far. There’s so much to take in – the glamour of classic cars, the beautiful yet dilapidated buildings, the bustling activity in the city’s streets, and of course, the intriguing history of the place.
While I had anticipated some things about Havana, I was also a bit unprepared for others. For instance, I didn’t think that my husband and I would be doing so much walking, or that some locals would be starting a friendly conversation with us in order to scam us or cajole us into giving them money.
Well, despite our frequent encounters with scammers, we had a fantastic time in Havana. Not every friendly Cuban will try to scam you or ask you for money. Moreover, Havana is a very safe city, and we never felt harassed or uneasy while we were there.
Without further ado, here are my top 10 tips for visiting Havana.
1. Choose a central hotel
Havana is quite a big city, and each of its neighbourhood is worth a visit. If you’re staying in the city for more than two days, you will be doing a lot of walking, especially in the old town. Accommodation in Habana Vieja may be a bit pricey, however you will save money on taxis. You can also find a lot of good hotels in Vedado, Havana’s urban neighbourhood.
I highly recommend staying at NH Capri in Vedado. This beautiful hotel is just a corner away from the Malecon (Havana’s popular promenade), and it is located in a very lively area, surrounded by various cafes and restaurants. The hotel has a roof bar and pool, where you can enjoy panoramic views of Havana. The walk from the hotel to Habana Vieja takes around 45 minutes along the seafront, but a 15-minute taxi ride from the hotel to the old town cost us 10 CUC (although we think that we might have been overcharged every time we used a taxi).
2. Use official taxis
There are three different types of taxis you can get in Cuba: an official, government-owned taxi (turistaxi), a private taxi (taxis particulares) and the coco taxi. Yellow taxis (the official ones) have a blue ‘Cuba’ written on the side of the plate, and they are the safest taxis to use. If something goes wrong while you’re in an official taxi, you will be covered by your travel insurance, however it might not be easy to receive compensation should something bad happen while using an unofficial taxi (even though they are licensed).
The taxis particulares are privately-owned classic cars – you will have to negotiate a price when using a private taxi as the driver is unlikely to use a meter. Meanwhile, the coco taxis are used for short distances and are commonly used in Habana Vieja, where the streets are narrow.
3. Stay in the city for at least 3 days
If you truly want to immerse yourself in Havana’s rich history and culture, I highly recommend spending at least 3 days in the city. My husband and I spent a week in Havana and we didn’t even get to see all of the places on our list (although my list was never-ending). If you plan to see 8 places in a day, you will probably end up seeing just 4. It can get very hot in Havana around midday, and you will need to take several breaks at cafes to get out of the sweltering heat.
While my husband and I enjoy exploring cities on foot and can spend hours taking photos of buildings, we did end up returning to our hotel at around 1pm every day. However, if you’re used to travelling to warm countries, then you will probably be fine – just keep yourself hydrated with Cuba’s popular limonada frappe and tropical juices.
There are plenty of amazing things to do in Havana. If you are planning to explore Havana beyond the touristy old town, 5-7 days should be enough. You can spend a day or two mingling with locals in the hip neighbourhoods of Vedado and Centro Habana. This should also give you plenty of time to explore Havana’s burgeoning food scene and visit lesser-known tourist attractions in the city, such as the Museo de las Orishas, Casa de los Arabes and Casa de Africa.
4. Be wary of scams
Unfortunately, you are likely to encounter various scams while you’re in Havana. The most common ones are the cigar festival and the salsa festival. While we were walking along the Malecon and the Prado, several men approached us to let us know that there was a cigar festival taking place on that day where we could buy cohibas from a co-operative. They offered to show us the way, but we declined every time. The ‘cigar festival’ is nothing more than a dodgy place where they try to sell you fake and poor-quality cigars.
Meanwhile, the ‘salsa festival’ is basically a salsa lesson – the scammer will take you to a (possibly overpriced) salsa class, and of course they will get a commission.
These were the only two scams that we came across in Havana, however there are several others.
Some locals may also walk up to you for a chat – the most popular opening line being ‘Where are you from?’ – and then ask you for money. This happened to us a couple of times in Havana.
5. Always carry toilet paper
Never leave your hotel without toilet paper. Many cafes in Havana do not have toilet paper, while others normally have toilet attendants selling two squares of toilet paper (yes, just two), for a few CUC (of course, you could always request more paper and pay for it). This also applies to many places across Cuba.
6. Watch out for dog poo
While we’re on the topic of bathroom trips – make sure you also have enough toilet paper to wipe off possible dog poo from your shoes. There are many stray dogs roaming the streets of Havana, especially in the old town, which means that a lot of the streets are littered with poo. It is easy to step on a fresh pile of dung while you’re busy absorbing the beautiful architecture of the city – my husband can attest to this.
7. Learn basic phrases in Spanish
While many Cubans working in the tourism industry speak good English, you may encounter some language barriers when communicating with locals outside of your hotel. Having said that, you might also meet hotel staff who speak very little English or none at all. During dinner at Hotel Nacional, the most popular hotel in Havana, our waiter had to get a bit creative with his body language when trying to tell us what dishes they were serving that night (there was no menu). While I consider myself to be relatively fluent in Spanish, I did blank out a few times while we were in Cuba.
If you do not speak Spanish, I highly suggest buying a dictionary and learning some basic phrases. If you do speak Spanish, do not be shy to speak the language – I had many conversations in Spanish with locals, and most of them were kind enough to speak slowly when they realised that I couldn’t understand everything.
8. Carry both cash and credit card
Before heading to Cuba, inform your bank of your trip and make sure that your bank’s credit card is accepted in the country. US-linked VISA credit cards are not accepted in Cuba, so check that your bank is not affiliated with a US bank (some European banks are).
Not every place in Havana accepts credit cards, and the card machines can be a bit unreliable, thus always carry some cash with you. You will also need cash to pay for taxi rides and street food, as well as to leave tips. ATMs are a bit scarce in Havana, so every morning make sure you’ve got enough cash for the day. You don’t want to end up running around the streets of Havana desperately looking for an ATM so that you could pay the lady at the souvenir shop or grab some ice-cream.
9. Pack comfy shoes and a rain jacket
Not only will you be doing a lot of walking in Havana, but you will also be jumping over potholes and trying not to break your ankle on uneven pavements. A lot of the streets are dusty and dirty, with garbage lying around. Thus, I don’t recommend wearing sandals or pumps.
While temperatures in Havana tend to soar over 30C, the city is often hit by torrential rain. You don’t have to pack your winter coat though – just carry a lightweight packable jacket in your day pack.
10. Eat at paladares
You will find two types of eateries in Havana: state-owned and private restaurants (known as paladares). Economist reforms in recent years have enabled Cubans to run their own restaurants, although these paladares can only have a maximum of 50 seats. Thus, paladares are normally tiny and cosy, and each has its own unique characters, unlike the larger, state-owned restaurants, which are normally uninspiring. Moreover, paladares tend to surpass state-run restaurants when it comes to food quality and service.
My husband and I enjoyed some lovely meals at Esto No Es Un Cafe and Restaurante Tabarish. If you’re staying in Vedado, I highly recommend California Cafe for a quick and healthy meal, and Mamaine for tapas and a nice drink.
Check out my guide to eating out in Havana.
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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