Cubania Travel Guide: Top 10 Things to Do in Havana
As Cuba’s capital, Havana is a bustling city full of life. Most travellers opt to stay in the city’s old town, but Havana stretches for miles and each district has its own charm. Old Havana or Habana Vieja is the place to learn about Cuba’s colonial history and stroll down atmospheric cobblestone streets. Centro Habana is a maze of elegantly rundown buildings, vibrant street life and surprising gems. Vedado is best known for its theatres and cinemas, but its eclectic architecture is it’s the most striking feature for visitors. Miramar is stylish and modern and home to some of the city’s best nightlife. If you venture further afield there’s Cuban folklore to discover in Regla, Hemmingway’s country house in San Franciso de Paula, grassroots art in Jaimanitas and the quiet fishing village of Cojimar – to name but a few!
With so much to offer it’s hard to know where to start with Havana, to help you out we have compiled our own list of top-ten must-do experiences in Cuba’s captivating capital:
One of Havana’s newest and most pioneering restaurants is Jama, an understated joint that fuses classic Cuban recipes with kick-ass Asian flavours. Start the evening with a fresh mango daiquiri and some plantain chips dipped in Jama’s house salsa. Ask chef and Jama mastermind Carlos for his suggestions and get ready for an onslaught of mouth-watering dishes. Make sure you leave room for a mango and rice pudding that disproves the Cuban myth that these two ingredients don’t go together. Vegetarians, Vegans and omnivores and all catered for here. Two blocks down the street visit the elusive Cero Habana for some after-dinner entertainment.
Best National Park
If you want a break from city life, take a day trip to Las Terrazas eco-reserve, 1-hour drive west of Havana. Las Terrazas is a small community in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range, named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1984. You will instantly feel the change in pace as you wind off the motorway into this quiet mountain idyll filled with inviting reservoirs and quaint blue and white houses. Explore mountain trails, have a ride on Las Terrazas’ exhilarating zip wire or splash around in the community’s refreshing reservoirs. Vegetarians will be pleasantly surprised by El Romero, a 100% vegetarian restaurant in a gorgeous setting. Despite Havana’s many charms, you’ll be dragging your feet when it’s time to go back.
Old Havana is famed for its impressive colonial squares, the most famous of which are Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de Armas. These squares all boast beautiful period architecture and impressive histories, but our favourite square is the humble Plaza Cristo. Previously known as Plaza de las Lavanderas (washerwoman square), Plaza Cristo is one of Old Havana’s more understated squares. Fed by five different streets, Plaza Cristo is always busy: locals have loud conversations with loved ones via spotty wifi, vendors sell puppies and dog snacks, rickshaw drivers wait to give lifts and local kids kick a ball around. The square’s elegant cathedral is hardly noticed, overshadowed by bars like El Dandy and El Chancullero or Cuba’s hottest independent fashion line, Clandestina.
Best Night Out
Since it opened in 2014 Fabrica de Arte Cubano has established itself as the place to go for a good night out. Occupying an old cooking oil factory and a few shipping containers, FAC’s cavernous space is filled with various art studios, two stages, a restaurant, six bars, a cinema and a shop. Start the evening with dinner in Tierra, FAC’s restaurant, catch a bit of theatre before heading downstairs for some jazz, have a look around the current exhibition and then dance the night away at the main stage. If your feet get tired pop upstairs and slouch in front of the big screen where there’s sure to be something interesting on. Experience Caribbean nightlife like no other!
Exploring Havana can be sweaty work and at some point, you’re going to want a refreshing dip. Though Havana itself is on the coast, most Cubans head out of the city to the white-sand beaches of Playas del Este if they want to cool off. Our favourites are Mi Cayito and Santa Maria beaches. Take your own supplies or rent a sunbed and buy local snacks. Vendors walk up and down the shore selling coconut water, sweet treats and cold beers. A return taxi ride to the Playas del Este from Havana should be 30-40CUC, and you can arrange a pick-up time with your taxi driver. Alternatively, there is a bus that goes to the beach from Parque Central in Old Havana and costs 5CUC, it stops at a few different beaches so tell the driver where you want to go. If you decide to explore more beaches make sure to take a look into our Cubania Travel Guide: Best Beaches in Cuba list.
Anyone who has visited Havana will tell you how aesthetically pleasing it is – every street you turn onto seems to have something interesting to look at – there is so much going on visually that sometimes you just want to stop and take it all in. There are plenty of spots to soak in Havana, but our all-time favourite is across the bay at the Christ of Havana. This Rio-esque statue overlooks the old town from the top of a hill and enjoys one of the best views back across the city. To get there, take the passenger ferry to Casa Blanca from the ferry port on Avenida del Puerto between Luz and Oficios. The ferry costs around 5CUP (25 cents of a CUC) each way. After visiting the statue and checking out the view you can explore the Cabaña fortress next door and maybe stay to see the cañonazo ceremony, where a blank canon is fired every night at 9 pm to mark the historic closing of the city gates.
Best Mode of Transport
Though Havana’s classic cars are very tempting, we at Cubania prefer our carbon-neutral bikes! Don’t just take our word for it, try for yourself on one of our Havana by bike tours.
Best live music venue
Cuba is famous around the world for its vibrant musical culture, and there’s no better place to experience this than in Havana. The island’s capital has lots of music venues to choose from but our favourite is out-of-the-way El Sauce, in Playa. El Sauce is a truly local venue where you’re likely to see the hottest groups in Cuba at the time of your visit. You can reserve a table and enjoy the show from the civilised seating area, or join the crush on the dance floor. You need to get a communal taxi, bus or private taxi to El Sauce: if you opt for either of the first two then the stop you should be asking for is Paradero de Playa (from Old Havana catch a communal taxi on Neptuno and from Vedado catch one on 23 or Linea). Things wrap up late at this venue but there are always plenty of taxis waiting outside.
Around sunset a kind of magic creeps over Havana and its exquisite pinky-golden light makes you feel like anything is possible. The best place to experience this is on Havana’s famous Malecón, a seawall that runs the length of the city centre. Hoist yourself up onto the wall and enjoy the view out to see the sea as the sun sinks over the horizon. Grab a few beers, buy some peanuts or popcorn off a passing vendor and see if a roving trovador won’t play you an atmospheric tune.
Best Place to Stay
If we were coming to visit Havana for a few days we would opt for a boutique casa particular in Vedado, a leafy yet happening district in the city centre. Vedado has a variety of incredible properties on offer, most of the mansions from the 19th or early 20th centuries with ceilings you could fit an elephant under and tiled floors a Portuguese ceramicist would be jealous of. Bask in the luxury of Vedado’s eclectically chic architecture and linger over tapas in its trendy terrace-top bars. Get in touch for recommendations of our favourite casas particulares in Vedado.