The most unique Havana experiences are the ones that help you interact with the local people; a chat with local “Habaneros” on the Malecon, Havana’s seawall, will help you understand more about the country than any book can.
Join in an impromptu dance in a leafy plaza or stroll through the historical section of Old Havana and you will be enchanted by the city’s magic. The air smells of salty sea and night gardenias. Soulful, rhythmic music drifts through the cobblestone streets and over iron wrought balconies.
This colonial capital city beguiles, beckons and bewitches with all the unique things there are to see, do and experience in Havana.
Havana grows on you slowly but inexorably, so that even long after you’ve left you will suddenly recall a burst of flaming bougainvillea, the taste of a luscious mango or a warm and friendly smile.
Stroll through the four main plazas in Old Havana
To get a good first feel for Havana and its colonial past, visiting the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most unique experiences to have in Havana. There is nothing quite like these four historical gems frozen in time. Make sure to visit all four of the major plazas on this self-guided Old Havana walk.
Plaza de La Catedral. A wide plaza surrounded by colonial arches and museums with the Baroque Cathedral of Havana at its center.
Plaza Vieja. This recently renovated square is surrounded by trendy cafes and used as an outdoor art exhibition venue.
Plaza de Armas where the city was founded in 1519. Site of the Museum of the City of Havana and busy flea markets set under leafy Poinciana trees.
Plaza de San Francisco. A cobblestone plaza so beautiful that locals use it as a backdrop for weddings and other important events.
As you walk between these plazas, you’ll see museums, art galleries, interesting cafes and restaurants, and itinerant musicians playing throughout the city.
A good place to stay in Old Havana is right in the center where you’ll be close to the four plazas and other attractions.
Take the hop-on-hop-off bus
This tourist bus leaves regularly from Parque Central in front of the Hotel Inglaterra.
The cost is $10USD and the entire route can take about 2 hours if you don’t get off. You can get off at points of interest and hop back on to continue to the next site.
The bus will take you to many of the important destinations like Revolution Square, two formidable fortresses: the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and Castillo de San Salvador de La Punta (La Punta, for short) and the beaches to the east of the city.
One of my favorite Havana experiences while on the tourist bus is the drive through the Vedado neighborhood, modeled after Miami. This part of Havana is where the wealthy once lived before the revolution. Many of the homes are stately mansions, some badly in need of repair. Some have been repaired and turned into embassies or government offices.
The University of Havana is another of the stops. This imposing structure features steps leading from the street up to the stature of the Alma Mater, similar to the statue at Columbia University in New York. The architecture is classic Roman and the surrounding area is nicely landscaped.
Check at the sentry post at the entrance if they are still giving tours of the campus. It is well worth the time to learn the history of the University and see the what is reputed to be one of the largest teaching auditoriums in the Caribbean, the aula magna or great classroom.
The end of the bus route leaves you at the eastern beaches of Playas del Este, several miles of soft white sand and crystalline, impossibly blue ocean. Cuba does not lack for beautiful beaches.
A morning or afternoon on the beach is a great respite from the busy city and one of the most pleasant Havana experiences on the outskirts of the city.
Your ticket is good for the entire day so hold on to it!
Spend an evening at the Cuban Art Factory (F.A.C)
If you visit just one Havana night spot, make it The Cuban Art Factory (Fabrica de Arte Cubano). There is nothing like this dynamic art and performance space anywhere that I’m aware of.
It is the trendiest place in Havana; a combination of art exhibits, cinema, disco, classic dance center and so much more…all in a refurbished cooking oil factory.
You are guaranteed to see interesting art from the stunning to the quirky to the bizarre. If you get hungry, grab something at one of the cafes, a rooftop restaurant or the numerous bars.
The F.A.C. opens at 8 PM but the lines start to form at about 7, so you need to arrive early because it will be crowded.
The cover charge (about $2USD) gets you a card that is stamped whenever you order a drink or snack anywhere in the venue. The one exception is the rooftop restaurant which accepts only cash. At the end of the night you turn in your card and pay for what is stamped.
Spend an evening at the Cuban Art Factory and create your own little group of unique Havana experiences.
Taxis are always available outside the F.A.C. ready to take you back to your accommodation. Don’t forget to negotiate the fare before getting in!
Take a break at a rooftop bar
Much of Havana life is experienced on its rooftops. The weather can be sweltering and humid and the breezes on a cool roof-top can provide a welcome respite from the heat.
Many hotels have rooftop restaurants and bars with expansive views of the city and are well worth spending time at. Some of the newer hotels have their pools on the rooftop and you can purchase a day pass to lounge by the pool and snack or drink at the bar.
Many restaurants, like the top-ranked La Guarida, also have rooftop bars.
An interesting hotel with a great rooftop view in Old Havana is the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway lived and worked. His old room has been turned into a museum but, unless you’re a real Hemingway fan, it’s not worth the $5USD admission.
Most of the higher-end hotels around Parque Central: Hotel Inglaterra, Iberostar Parque Central and the Kempinski have breathtaking views.
Paseo del Prado, the tree-lined avenue that leads from Parque Central to the ocean has the newer Iberostar Gran Packard Hotel with an infinity pool overlooking the ocean with a view that is hard to beat.
The SO/ Paseo del Prado, has a view that beats the Gran Packard with 360-degree vistas of the city and an amazing sunset that will make you feel like you are floating in the sky.
Tour Havana in a vintage classic American car
For one of the classic Havana experiences you see in all those photos, tour Havana in a vintage American car. If your time in Havana is limited, or even if it isn’t, you should take a classic American car tour.
These are cars that were imported from the United States before the revolution of 1959. They are still operational although repaired and refurbished over the decades, cobbled together with spare parts from the U.S., Russia and who knows where else.
In the US they would be antiques or even museum pieces. These cars are lovingly cared for and passed down from generation to generation. As they generate valued foreign exchange, they are highly prized.
It is true that touring in a classic American car is totally touristy but there are plenty of reasons why you should go. First, it gives you an opportunity to see lots of the city in a short amount of time.
The drivers know all the can’t-miss destinations to show you, the price is reasonable for the service provided and you’ll have some great photo ops.
The prices are charged by the hour and are somewhat negotiable, but an hour tour will cost about $30 to $40USD. If you book more hours, the price decreases. Some people will book a classic car for the entire day. Most will book for 2 hours which is enough to see a great part of the city.
You can ask the driver to take you to a specific destination or let him take you on the classic Havana tour. This includes a drive down the Malecon and a photo op at Revolution Square.
A highlight is a visit to the higher-end neighborhoods outside Old Havana. The most visited of these is Vedado with its many fine paladares (privately owned restaurants), trendy nightspots and mansions turned into embassies.
Further west are the neighborhoods of Miramar and Playa home to many wealthy Cubans. Some of the mansions are stunning and beautiful examples of pre-revolutionary architecture.
If you have more time, drive through the lush and leafy Havana forest and the mosaic wonderland of Fusterlandia. Interested in Hemingway? Ask your driver to take you to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s former home, now a museum.
Hang out at the Malecon, Havana’s seawall
The Malecon is frequently referred as Havana’s living room. Many of the city’s apartments are small, crowded and not airconditioned.
On sweltering nights when the air is still and heavy with humidity, the locals flock to the Malecon to catch a pleasant ocean breeze, listen to music, drink and chat.
The Malecon is a large avenue fronting Havana’s north and west borders. But the busiest part is at the end of 23rd street in Vedado. Hundreds of “Habaneros” congregate at night to listen to roving musicians play catchy tunes and share bottles of the smooth Cuban rum. Street vendors sell little snacks and trinkets.
You can sit on the seawall and just people-watch and listen to the music.
Chances are you’ll be approached by students wanting to practice their English. This is a great way to get a feel for the country beyond the touristy things to do in Havana and one of the quintessential Havana experiences.
Explore a museum
The Cuban capital is a museum city. Havana has dozens of museums from the awe-inspiring Museum of Fine Arts to the quirky Rum Museum, there is something for every taste.
The Cuban art wing of the Museum of Fine Art. There are two wings. One displays exhibitions from around the world. The other, Cuban art wing, displays only art created by Cuban artists.
The Rum Museum is a fun place to visit to learn about the history of how rum has been produced over the centuries. The tour ends at the museum’s bar where you can indulge in free samples.
The Museum of Decorative Arts is the former home of the wealthy Gomez family, previous owners of large parts of Old Havana. Today the museum is in the Vedado neighborhood where this home stands on 23rd street.
The museum houses sumptuous works of art and furniture with a different art style such as Art Deco or Art Nouveau in each room. The exhibit includes original works by Tiffany and Lalique Limoges among others.
The best part of the museum is the mansion itself, meticulously restored to its former glory. The home was built between 1924 and 1927 in a neo-classical, French Renaissance style designed in Paris by French architects.
The Chocolate Museum is a fun visit where you learn how chocolate is made and its history in Cuba. Don’t miss a sampling of the hot or cold chocolate drink.
One last little gem is the Napoleonic Museum with the finest collection of Napoleonic art outside of France.
Stroll the Colon Cemetery
Arguably one of the most beautiful cemeteries of Latin America, along with La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, the expansive, 122.5-acre Cementerio de Colon or Columbus Cemetery is located on the western edge of Vedado neighborhood.
Built between 1871 and 1886, and named after Christopher Columbus, a stroll down the broad avenues of this splendid necropolis is one of the most unforgetable Havana experiences. The cemetery is laid out just like Vedado with avenues and streets as if it were a little city.
The statuary is stunning as are many of the magnificent mausoleums made of marble and granite and decorated with stained-glass windows, iron-wrought features, cupolas and more.
Interred among the bindingly white marble are the whose-who of Cuban notables including past presidents, scientists, performers, writers, a world chess champion and Constantino Ribalaigua, the owner of El Floridita and friend of Hemingway.
The sumptuous mausoleums leave no doubt that only the wealthiest could afford to be buried along the wide avenues.
Further towards the edges of the cemetery the more modest tombs have more interesting stories to tell.
The grave of Amelia Goyri de Hoz, one of the most visited is one example.
The story is that Amelia was a young woman who died in childbirth in 1901. Her child was buried with her at her feet. Years later, Amelia’s grave was exhumed and the baby was found in her arms.
Since then Amelia’s grave has become a semi-religious site where mostly women go to plead for La Milagrosa’s (The Miraculous One) favors and to give thanks for the miracles she performed.
Your best option is to have a guide take you through the cemetery. There are frequently English speaking guides at the front. A taxi will take you to the cemetery and the hop-on-hop-off bus will leave you close enough to walk.
Cuban cemeteries are worth visiting for their historical and artistic value.
Other unmissable cemeteries in Cuba include the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, final resting place of Cuban patriot Jose Marti in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second city, and the Cementerio La Reina in Cienfuegos.
Witness a Santeria performance
Santeria is the Afro-Cuban religion practiced by many Cubans and is a very important part of Cuban culture.
The religion originated in Africa and was brought to Cuba and other areas of the Caribbean by enslaved people. Over the years Santeria evolved through a process of syncretism blending the traditional West African Yoruba religion, Roman Catholic Christianity and spiritism.
The religion is explained in detail at the Oricha Museum across from Parque Central. An oricha is one of the many spirit manifestations of the Santeria religion.
The museum also houses the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba. Among the exhibits are regular religious performances and explanations about Santeria’s history.
Every Sunday at the Callejon de Hamel, or Hamel’s Alley, there is a Santeria performance. It is a bit touristy but interesting and fun, nonetheless. The dance performances are electrifying, full of pulsating energy and blazing color. There are also nearby art galleries and interesting street art.
Performances are usually at 12PM on Sundays but check before hand to confirm. You will need to get there early to get the best seats for the performances as it can get crowded. Visiting this magical place makes for one of the most unique Havana experiences.
Visit a jazz club
Havana is all about music. You will find everything from symphony performances in breathtaking venues to itinerant musicians playing on a street corner and everything in between.
The world-famous Havana Jazz Festival takes place in January in the capital city and attracts many of the best world-renowned artists.
See what all the hype is about and visit a jazz club in Havana. There are many throughout the city but one of the best is La Zorra y el Cuervo. This jazz club is right in the center of the Vedado neighborhood close to hotels and restaurants.
The club itself is spacious and comfortable with table service, potent cocktails and excellent acoustics.
You enter the club through a London-style phone booth. As with so many performances in Cuba, get there early for the best seats. This is one of those cool Havana experiences few tourists get to do.
Which is your favorite of the unique Havana experiences? This eclectic collection of Cuban cultural references covering history, cuisine and architecture will help you decide and create your own Havana experiences before you go.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like: Nine Cuba UNESCO World Heritage sites, Cuba’s national parks and biosphere reserves, 10 Epic daytrips from Havana you will never forget and The best Havana restaurants by neighborhood.
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