Explore Havana, Cuba
Explore Havana, the capital city of Cuba, and one of the fourteen provinces of the Republic of Cuba.
Before the Communist revolution, Havana was one of the vacation hot-spots of the Caribbean, and since Cuba reopened to tourism in the 1990s, it has become a popular destination once again, albeit with many fewer U.S. citizens, due to an almost total ban on travel maintained by the U.S. federal government. However, there will be lots of tourists at any time of year, so expect huge crowds and long lines in places.
Cuba has a tropical climate, with warm, humid weather all year long, though cold temperatures have occured in the mountains before. Being surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba has warm water year round, with winter water temperatures at 24C, spring and fall temperatures at 26C and summer temperatures at 28C.
Jose Marti International Airport has three separate terminals. Terminal 1 is for internal (domestic) flights, Terminal 2 is mainly for charter flights from the USA and Terminal 3 is used for all other international flights.
All luggage is scanned by X-ray after deplaning and after going through passport control. Customs officials can be very strict, and may snoop out any suspicious electronics or other items. However, if you are only taking a computer and camera equipment, they are more likely to just wave you through and not take a second look at your customs forms. Customs officials and immigration officials also work slowly and baggage reclaim is very slow, so expect a very long wait when entering the country.
To get around Coco taxis are cheap transport. Coco Taxis and yellow three wheel motorbikes are a cheap way of getting around central Havana.
As a tourist, the most convenient way of getting around Havana is by taxi. Some of the taxis are old American Chevys from the 1950’s, others are (somewhat) newer Russian Ladas, whilst most tourist taxis are modern Peugeots, Skodas and even Mercedes.
It is illegal for tourists to ride in anything other than the official government taxis.
Walking around Havana is by far the best way to see and experience the city: get a decent map of the city and discover new sights on foot. Many choose to do it with a local tour guide. Most of them are foreign language teachers, others can even be doctors. You will find the best on line.
What to see. Best top attractions in Havana, Cuba
- The Capitol Building in Havana (Capitolio Nacional)
- Museum of the Revolution and the Capitol Building.
- Visit a live cigar factory. One offering tours is at the intersection of Peñalver and San Carlos (just 1 mile southwest of Old Havana La Habana Vieja), tickets can/should be bought in advance. English tours are available. Please note that there is no photography allowed. It is the place where you can also be sure to get the correct cigars in the shop – more expensive than ‘street offers’ – but the quality of these “street offers” is definitely questionable.
- Havana Club Rum Factory. Go on a guided tour of Havana Club, one of Cuba’s most famous rums. Most of the exhibits are subtitled in English and are fairly self-explanatory.
- Walk along the Prado Street in the evening. Great public space – unfortunately not illuminated at night. The Prado hums with street life, cafes and charm.
- Walk along El Malecón. A favorite stroll for tourists and locals, a walk along the Malecon runs along the main streets of Havana and provides stunning views of the Bay.
- Enjoy the glory of La Habana Vieja (The Old Town), some of it faded and crumbling – but there are many beautifully restored buildings as a result of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
- Plaza de la Revolución. Huge Square dominated by a statue and monument of Jose Marti and the iconic image of Che Guevara adorning the Ministry of the Interior. Arrive either early or late, as it is often swamped by tourists and gets very hot during the day.
- John Lennon Park in Vedado. Notable for the regularly stolen (and replaced) eyeglasses.
- Hotel Habana Libre in Vedado. The hotel housed Castro’s soldiers for several days after they took Havana. It has an excellent selection of photos in the lobby along with one of the only 24 hour fast food restaurants in the city.
- Enjoy extraordinary 360-degree views of the city using the large Camara Oscura in the old town.
- The Catedral de San Cristobal in old Havana. Said to be the only example of a baroque construction that possesses asymmetrical features, one of the towers is wider than the other.
- Plaza de Armas. Spacious and elegant, the square is surrounded by baroque constructions that give it an authentic colonial milieu. It was laid out during the 1600s, replacing an old plaza which acted as the center of religious, administrative and military activity. Until the mid-18th century, it was used for military exercises and parades. After its remodeling between the years 1771-1838, it became a favored meeting spot for the citys’ wealthy. Today it is also known as Céspedes Park, in honor of the country´s Founding Father, whose monument stands at its center. This square is one of the most outstanding in the city, enlivened by vendors of antiques and classical books on Latin American and world literature. Attractions of remarkable historical value lay around the square such as the capok tree (Ceiba) under which the first mass for the city´s founding was officiated in 1519.
- Castillo de la Real Fuerza is the oldest bastioned fortress in the New World and has now reopened as a Cuba’s premier maritime museum. (There is also a small naval museum in Cienfuegos.). The museum contains excellent exhibits of Cuba’s maritime past, from pre-Columbian days through to the 18th Century with the Royal Shipyard of Havana, one of the largest in the world which built nearly 200 ships for the Spanish Crown. The museum features a huge four meter model of the Santisima Trinidad, located on the main floor with a large interactive touch screen, which describes life aboard an 18th Century ship-of-the-line in Spanish, French, and English. The original ship was launched into Havana Bay on March 2, 1769 and was the largest ship in the world in the 18th Century, with 140 cannons on four gun decks. She was one of four Cuban-built ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Downstairs you will find ancient navigational instruments, underwater archaeological artifacts, and gold and silver from the colonial era. Also note the original weathervane, La Giraldilla, while her replica moves in the breeze on the top of the fortress tower, which commands a fantastic view of the city. The second level of the museum hosts many other historic and contemporary models of ships with links to Cuba and is also a good location for viewing the harbor and city skyline.
- Necropolis de Cristobal Colon – a large ornate cemetery west of the Plaza de la Revolución. Unfortunately they charge like everywhere in Cuba.
- the Malecón, a great place for a stroll.
- Latin American New Cinema Festival, is a popular event held every December, screening international films and drawing around 500,000 people.
- Tropicana Show (A cabaret show). Note that second best cabaret show in town is at the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacionale. There are less expensive cabaret shows available, which local Cubans may be able to afford, and therefore attend.
- Take a tour in an old car for an hour for up to four people, be driven around Havana in style. Choose a car you like near the Hotel Inglaterra or outside the Museum of the Revolution. Note that those on a budget can ride old cars by taking shared taxis.
- Walk around Havana Vieja in the early mornings.
- Take a Guided Walking Tour of Havana.
- Go to the eastern beaches (Playas del Este) — there’s a bus leaving from Hotel Inglaterra every 30 minutes. The ride takes about 30 minutes.
- Havana Underground Bike Tour, San Lázaro 117, Centro Habana. Between Jovellar and San Francisco. (Citykleta). It’s an anmazing experience seeing a beautiful city in a fun way. The hosts knowledge and enthusiasm creates a great atmosphere and allows you to meet new people whilst taking in the surrounding areas.
- Walk along the Malecón, the sea wall that runs along the Havana coastline. At weekends this is where the locals come to party, so bring a bottle and join in.
Nearly every restaurant and hotel in town has a decent house band playing old favorites.
Havana is a surprisingly expensive city to stay in; if you stay in hotels and eat in restaurants it can work out to be nearly as expensive as other popular international destinations.
ATMs are not too hard to find in downtown Havana, but bear in mind that American credit- and debit-cards cannot be used in Havana. Note that even credit cards issued in countries other than the USA may be issued by a bank whose parent company is a U.S. corporation. In this case, the card will not work as the parent company is bound by U.S. law. Even banks wholly owned by non-American companies may have a policy on blocking Cuban transactions in order not to compromise their US business. Always check with your bank or Credit Card Company before leaving home to see if your card will work in Havana. Also, the ATMs do not accept MasterCard/Maestro but are marked to accept Visa.
Cocktails in Cuba are of surprisingly uniform prices nearly anywhere you go (except state-run hotels like Hotel Nacional, which charge more). While the prices are nearly uniform, the quality and quantity vary massively.
You can have a great time just outside of the Hotel Inglaterra near the Capitólio Building, drinking good daiquiris and mojitos at an affordable price.
There are two types of establishments you can go to to drink in Havana: Western-style CUC bars with near-Western prices, a good selection of quality drinks (and sometimes food), nice decorations, semi-motivated staff and often live music, typically found around tourist hot-spots such as Old Havana and tourist hotels. Here you will mostly meet other tourists, expats and a few Cubans with access to hard currency, but don’t expect a ‘local’ experience.
The alternative is to seek out local neighborhood bars where you can choose from a quality, but limited, selection of drinks (mainly locally produced rum by the bottle, beer and soft drinks, very rarely will you be able to get cocktails such as mojitos), cigars of dubious, cigarettes of only slightly better quality, and sometimes snacks. Local bars accept CUPs and are dirt-cheap, although bar keepers will often ask you for CUCs instead – it’s up to you to negotiate an acceptable price, but keep in mind that local bar staff are state employees and (literally) paid a pittance. These bars are also a good way to meet locals who may even open up a bit and talk about their lives after a couple of drinks.
Local bars are not that hard to find despite typically having no prominent signs displayed outside. Just ask or walk around a local neighborhood and look out for a bare-walled, neon-lit run-down room without any decorations or furniture, save for a bar and a few rickety chairs and tables, sullen staff and depressed/bored/drunk-looking customers, almost always men. Contrary to Cuba‘s reputation as a music and fun loving nation, these places are not boisterous affairs – they are quiet, almost subdued, music is rarely played (if at all, it will come from a radio but never be live), and have the charm of third-world railway station waiting rooms.
Nonetheless, they make for a fascinating experience (especially if you make the effort to speak to some locals – offering to buy a drink will get a conversation going, no surprise there), and they provide a good insight into what life must be like for ordinary Cubans without hard currency. As a foreign visitor, you will be generally welcomed.
There are 3 main areas that travelers generally stay in: Old Havana is the liveliest (some would say hectic and dirty), Central Havana is slightly quieter and parts can be a bit seedy, and Vedado is the quietest with more greenery, and is the place to find the large hotels and nicer casas particulars.
Hotels vary. While everywhere should have hot water and steady electricity, you cannot necessarily expect air conditioning (although many do have it), nor TV, and you will have to be extremely lucky to find a place with Wi-Fi.
Havana is quite safe for a large city. Heavily dependent on tourism, Cuban police are everywhere and pay special attention to spots where travelers congregate, so you don’t have to be afraid of being accosted in the daytime. Prison sentences for crimes involving tourists are extremely harsh, a fact which residents are well aware of, which adds an extra layer of deterrence. Violent crime is rare. It is relatively safe to walk at night throughout Havana when compared to other Latin American cities, though pickpocketing and theft is common, so make sure not to leave your belongings unattended. Be wary of hustlers (jinteros/as) offering to show you a place to eat or offering a tour of the city, as you’ll be stuck paying hefty prices to cover their commission. Just walk away and continue walking — soon enough they will leave you alone. In local restaurants, ask for menus or prices before ordering anything; there can be special ‘tourist price menus’ that get pulled out after you have consumed food or drink. If you’re male, expect to be accosted regularly by prostitutes and/or their pimps. While technically illegal, erstwhile mandatory jail time for prostitution filled prisons so quickly that the regime had little choice but to start looking the other way.
Ride the electric train to Matanzas One of the oldest electric trains in the world runs four times daily from Havana to Matanzas. It was built by Hershey and runs through their decrepit chocolate town. It’s like riding a metro for 92km through villages and countryside. Leaves from Casablanca across bay; there are ferries running there in calm weather.
Official tourism websites of Havana
For more information please visit the official government website: