Discover Havana – a Guide of the World Famous Cuban Capital
Havana is the capital and largest city in Cuba. This city doesn’t require much introduction: vintage cars, historic forts, museums and beautiful, unique architecture. You can find all of this within steps of The Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Situated in the Caribbean, Havana is welcoming tourists looking to learn about its revolutionary past, discover its unique history and see how it steps into the future. With the help of this guide you will find out the best places you should visit for the most authentic experience of Havana.
Wander around the Old Town
The Old Havana is the heart and soul of the city. Wander the narrow alleys and talk to the locals. Climb the Spanish-built fortress facing the sea and move to the rhythm of the music that can be heard on the streets.
Visit Castillo de la Real Fuerza and Plaza de Armas
The 16th-century fortress was built to defend against attacks from pirates. You can visit the small museum inside and climb the steep steps to the watch towers. The Castillo corners the oldest square of Havana, which was laid out in the 1520s. There are many cafes and restaurants on the plaza.
See Catedral de San Cristobal
It’s the city’s most eminent religious building and one of the major attractions. It’s a great example of Cuban Baroque architecture. The church was completed in 1777.
Have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio
Founded in 1942 bar La Bodeguita del Medio is a legendary place in Havana. It’s a special thrill for fans of Hemingway, who spent years here. Come in the evening to taste THE mojito and listen to live music.
Walk around Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja is one of Havana’s most vibrant spots. It’s a large square surrounded by colourful and fully restored buildings. Let your curiosity guide you and explore this beautiful neighbourhood of la Havana.
Stroll along Calle Obispo
Calle Obispo is a lively pedestrian street where locals shop in state-run stores. Have a look inside Droguería Johnson, a stunning old style pharmacy with dark-wood counters and medicine jars instead of tiny boxes.
↬ TIP : For those suffering from migraine. Martyna got the best ever medicine for migraine in this pharmacy. She was suffering the whole morning and even codeine (which she normally used to take) didn’t help. Hopelessly, we tried our luck inside this pharmacy and explained the situation to the pharmacist. She gave us a single leaf of 12 flat pills (brown on top and orange on the bottom). The medicine worked miracles. 2 pills and 30 min later the excruciating pain was gone. In Europe though, nobody recognised this medicine, they couldn’t find the equivalent molecule. ?
Walk the Malecón
Malecon stretches along the coastline in Havana. Stroll along the seafront and watch the locals life. Many come here in the evenings to dance salsa and listen or play music. It’s very lively and interesting neighbourhood.
Eat as a local
Cuba was the only place in the world where lobster prices were the same as chicken. To be honest, they serve those lobster only to tourists, as they are too pricy for locals, and it wasn’t actually really tasty. Try La Guarida or El Floridita Restaurant where Hemingway was a regular guest.
Visit Capitolio Nacional
El Capitolo was the organization of government in Cuba until 1959. Today it’s home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
Ride the antic car
This experience is like no other and you should include it in your Havana bucket list. You can see the old cars parked on the streets of Havana. You can enjoy a ride in the antiquities after bargaining over the price with the car owners on Parque Central in front of Hotel Inglaterra. The driver will take you around the highlights of Havana. You will drive on the Malecon and stop for pictures on Plaza de la Revolution, a very important square in Havana.
Observe the Contrast of the Old Town and the Nearby Streets
The real experience doesn’t rely only on the beautifully restored streets of the Old Town. Wander off the beaten path and explore the rest of the city. It will surprise you that it looks nothing like on the pictures. Most of the buildings facades are stripped and partially collapsed. Yet locals still live there. In addition they will smile and wave at you when you pass by. Truth is that Cubans are the nicest people we have ever met on our travels (maybe as equally nice as the Filipinos ?).
There are direct flights to Havana from most of European major cities. You can get great flight deals traveling off season.
We bought our return tickets from Paris to Havana for only 235EUR each on the beginning of June with Air Caribbean!
When to go
The dry / high season lasts from November till March. The wet / low season is from April to October with hurricane season in July and August.
Traveling in low season means better flight and hotel deals. In addition, you might get lucky with the weather. We spent 8 days in Cuba in June and it rained only 1 afternoon.
Visitors to Cuba must obtain a visa known also as a tourist card before travel. You must have return ticket to obtain the tourist card. It’s valid for 30 days within 180 days of obtention. You can apply for Cuban visa at the nearest Cuban embassy or consulate.
We have applied in Paris and got it on the spot after waiting for about 20 min.
Data service and Wifi
Cuba is one of the least connected countries of the world. Traveling to Cuba basically means disconnecting with your phone and the internet.
There are no data plans in Cuba at the moment. You can purchase a ETECSA or Cubacel (the only carriers) sim card, but it will work only with phone calls and messages.
To get wifi access is also tricky. The most common option is purchasing a wifi card that you’ll refill with money as needed. The rate for internet access is $2/hr. However to use the card you must find the wifi hotspots and they are located only in the big hotels. So you can try Hotel Telegrafo and Inglaterra.
Alternatively, you can queue to use the public computer in one of the major hotels.
Havana is best explored on foot. The major tourist attractions are located within walking distance.
ATM and Money
Cuba has 2 currencies. CUP- Cuban Peso, which locals use. And CUC- Cuban Convertible Peso which is used by tourists. Be careful when you see prices that it is written CUC and not CUP or you might pay what you are buying 25 times more than what it is worth.
25 CUP = 1 USD; 1 CUC = 1USD
Make sure to bring plenty of cash because credit cards are not accepted anywhere. There are 3 ATMs in Havana and 2 are usually out of service.
↬ TIP : If the ATM doesn’t give you 100 CUC or more, try withdrawing 20 CUC multiple times. We were stressing out after probably 15 tries on each of our cards with no luck. After 30 min fighting with the machine we gave up. But as we were about to walk away, Martyna returned to the ATM again and tried taking out a bill of 20 CUC. And it worked! And so we withdraw 20 CUC each about 20 times to get 400 we needed for the rest of our journey.
Here is something that surprised us the most. It turned out that Havana, and Cuba in general, is very expensive. Dinner at an average restaurant costed 50 CUC for 2, a mojito was 8 CUC. A classic car ride around Havana was 50 CUC (which we bargained down from 70 requested by the driver).
Where to eat
El Cafe: great place for lunch. They serve good coffee and sandwiches.
Mojito Mojito: local cuisine with great mojitos and live music
San Ignazio 214: great local food and nice ambience with outside sitting space.
Habana 61: a small restaurant serving fresh and delicious seafood. Be aware of the queues.
Where to stay
We advise you organising your trip to Havana at least a few weeks in advance. Most of the places are booked out way ahead. There are only few hotels in Havana and they are overpriced. So the best way is to book an apartment or a room in a b&b. It will have authentic feeling, classic design and architecture. Overall, look for a place in the Old Town to be close to all the attractions.
Find all the accommodations for Cuba on booking.com
We recommend: Hostal Balcones Muralla – Balcones Habana Vieja