Havana – Get lost in time in Cuba’s dynamic capital
Things to do
Havana is a unique place unlike anywhere in Cuba. It is both energetic and chaotic and full of contradictions. You can find gorgeous colonial buildings, grand tree-lined avenues, scenic promenades juxtaposed with run-down houses and cracked pavement. Every corner is a new experience for us. We spent 4 days in Havana and think we just covered just a small portion.
The old city is a fascinating urban jungle perfect to be explored on foot. We spent most of our time just walking around admiring those beautiful buildings. Many gorgeous buildings are worn, run-down, look like they are going to collapse in any minutes, in contrast to the newly renovated ones now converted into guest houses, museums, cafes and restaurants.
Make sure to include the National Capitol, Catedral de la Habana, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas and Plaza Vieja in your walking route. We especially like the vibrant scene of Plaza Vieja in the evening.
Museum de la Ciudad
Havana has many museums. We decided to visit Museum de la Ciudad because it is very picturesque, especially its courtyard. It was the residence of the Spanish General during the colonial era, now converted to a museum. The building is lavishly decorated and very well preserved. Many historical items were exhibited here. Another interesting thing about the building is: looking closely at the exterior walls you can find engraved fossils of sea creatures!
Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro
This is an impressive fortress just across the water from Havana Vieja. Walking along the wall overlooking Havana old city is a great sight. We stayed there till 9 pm for the popular cannon ceremony where soldiers dress up in colonial-era uniforms, perform the ritual and fire a real cannonball at the end of the ceremony. The restaurant on site has surprisingly good food to pass the wait time.
This iconic waterfront promenade stretching 8km around the Havana Vieja is a wonderful spot for a sunset walk. Strolling along the promenade, you can have a great view of the fortress across the water and the impressive colonial mansions on the other side, plus a few vintage cars soaring by from time to time.
Paseo de Martí
Scrolling down Havana’s most scenic street was the highlight of our city tour. The well-maintained and tree-shaded promenade is full of sculptures, street artists, dance, lined with restored colonial facades on both sides. We even saw a pop-up renting market there.
Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón
This gorgeous public cemetery is full of gothic marble statues and mausoleums. Located a bit outside the city, you might be able to combine the visit with Plaza de la Revolución. The staff were quite persistent in charging foreigners a 5 CUC entry fee.
Havana is full of casa particulars catering all budgets, especially in Havana Vieja. Some are truly hotel standard and can go easily beyond 50 CUC/per night. The owners won’t meet you at the bus stop but you can easily recognize them by the blue ‘Anchor’ sign on the door. We booked the first night and found the rest by knocking on doors. The best location to stay is probably near Malecón, where you can access most of the sights on foot and the area is quite safe. Some areas in the city are quite run-down and felt uncomfortable at night.
Casa Harmonia is one of the few Casas that have an Airbnb listing, convenient for the first night when we arrive at midnight. It is a beautiful colonial house with a roof terrace, though a bit outside of the town and there is no air condition.
Casa de Renta Elena
We found Elena’s gorgeous home near Malecon by knowing on the doors. It is a well-maintained and decorated house with all the modern amenities. Her son spoke great English which was a great help for us to learn using buses to get around.
Transport in Havana
Taxis are the most common way to get around for tourists. If you ask any casa owner how to get from A to B they will suggest taxi and happily book you one. The fare ranges from 6-10 CUC around the city. The fare to and from the airport is fixed at 25 CUC.
Locals use buses to get around. Because the signs for the bus stop are often ambiguous and there is no way to check timetables and stops, using a bus seems complicated for tourists. However, if you get help from the locals and have the patience, they are a great way to save money. The fare is usually 1 CUP(~$0.04) with some air-conditioned ones at 5 CUP.
Food and drinks
There are many great tourist restaurants around Havana Vieja, though you are expected to pay tourist prices as well. We tried a few local restaurants and decided they are not worthy because they don’t look clean and the food is tasteless, with one exception.
Restaurant “Donde Adrian”
We found Donde Adrian by asking people on the street where best to eat and had almost all our meals (later on including breakfasts) there. It is a small restaurant serving delicious local dishes at the local price(in CUP!) which is a fraction of what we normally pay at normal tourist restaurants. There is always a long queue at mealtime but we happily queued each time!
The icecream standard in Cuba is generally good, even the ones you find in supermarkets, just they don’t have as many flavours. There are vanilla, strawberry and chocolate flavours to choose from. If you miss more gelato style ice creams, Helad’oro is the place to go.
Prices for basic things like water can be all over the place in Havana. For 1.5L water, you can pay from 1.5 CUC in private corner shops to 0.8CUC in a supermarket. The best place to shop essentials is state-run supermarkets mostly found in the old city. There you can find 5L water for 1.9 CUC as well as the best price for your Havana Club.
La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano
There are many cigar shops in Havana and you can find Havana Club rum in every supermarket, but this speciality shop has a larger collection with some rum brands we never see at other places, like Santiago de Cuba, The shop looks posh but the prices are reasonable. It is on the second floor of a restaurant near the National Capitol. You might need to ask around when getting close.