The best things to do in Havana are the ones that 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. Havana beguiles, bewitches and beckons with all the unique things there are to see, do and experience.
The city 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.
We asked fellow Havana devotees what was their favorite part of the Havana experience and their answers did not disappoint.
Best things to do, see and experience in Havana
Many people have a limited time in Havana, either they are just off the cruise ship for a few hours or they are only in the city for less than a day. My number one recommendation is always a classic car tour. Yes it’s very touristy but that is because it is so much fun!
It also gives you the opportunity to see a lot of things in a short period of time. The drivers know all the best places in Havana and the surrounding areas so even if you’re not sure where to go they speak English and can recommend a few things for you. A photo at Revolution Square is a must, I also love the drive through El Bosque, which is a lush forest in the middle of Havana.
And while many people are fascinated with Hemingway in Cuba I would not recommend going out to his home on the outskirts of the city. Instead ask your driver to go to Fusterlandia, not only is it an incredible spot but you’ll drive through other great neighbourhoods like Vedado, which was modelled after Miami and you’ll also see the mansions of wealthy Cubans in Miramar and Playa.
Ayngelina blogs at Bacon is Magic
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 best things to do in Havana. The perfect Old Havana walking tour visits all four of the major plazas; Plaza de La Catedral, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas where the city was founded in 1519 and the broad, cobblestone Plaza de San Francisco, 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, renovated colonial plazas and itinerant musicians playing throughout the city. You’ll also see a lot of construction as the city gets ready to celebrate its 500th year anniversary.
Talek blogs at Travels with Talek
You can’t visit Havana and not pay a visit to the Museum of the Revolution. The Museum is actually housed inside the old Presidential Palace, where all the Cuban presidents up to Batista lived. Here you will find countless photos, artefacts, newspaper clippings, letters and more dating back to the Cuban revolution. You will also find timelines that explain all the events that happened before, during and after the revolution, which explain how and why the revolution came to be. It’s an excellent place to learn about recent Cuban history and a must-see when in Havana.
Greta blogs at Greta’s travels
The Cuban Art Factory (Fabrica de Arte Cubano) is a combination bar, performance space, art gallery, film house and all around happening place in Havana. This is where the hippest Havana young people go to party. The building is a former factory and there are endless rooms, bars, galleries and performance spaces throughout. And, there is a roof top bar and cafe. As we walked around, one room had an interesting photography exhibit, another was showing an postmodern film and the next room had a band playing.
It can get very crowded so best to get there early. There is a very small cover charge (about $2USD) and you get a card that gets stamped whenever you order a drink. And end of the night scene can be pretty crowded and chaotic as everyone tries to turn in the stamped card and pay the bill. The Cuban Art Factory is located Havana’s Vedado neighborhood near the Almendares River.
Sue blogs at Travel for Life
Havana is an assault on the senses. Colourful, noisy and hectic, it is easy to be swept up in it all and get carried away. Don’t rush! One of my favourite things to do in Havana was to watch the street musicians play. These guys were so good! Knocking out the ‘son’ songs and getting everybody into the groove. Some people would dance in the street, others stand by and tap their feet to the rhythm, then suddenly someone asked me to dance, twirling me around in a blur of sound and laughter. I preferred to watch from the sidelines, but you can’t help but join in, the energy is contagious and why not!?
I loved watching the musicians, they are so at ease with the music and each other, and it is a pleasure to see such masters of their craft. No matter how much of a rush you are in to see the sights and tick off the bucket-list items in Cuba, make time to sit back, relax and enjoy the music to get a real sound of Cuba!
Claire blogs at Tales of a Backpacker
With any time left to explore Havana, don’t miss out the one and the only University of Havana.
I recommend using the hop on hop off bus, as it allows you to get off right outside the University. With just a quick stroll around the campus, you’ll realise that this is a real first-class university. The architecture is amazing and retains it’s classical Roman architecture throughout. You’ll notice it’s surroundings are also very well maintained.
If you can, look out for one of the official ambassadors on campus. You can get a tour where you’ll learn much of its history. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to see the Aula Magna; one of the largest auditoriums is Havana.
Make sure you pick up a free newspaper on Campus which you can easily get. A great token if you’re learning Spanish in Cuba. All in all, the University of Havana is worth a visit and definitely one of the more refined attractions. It’s easily accessible and you’re welcome to check it out, so don’t miss out on this beauty.
Daniel blogs at Layer Culture
Old Havana at night is mostly about the bars. And I tried dozens of them. But, although they are mostly populated by tourists, the two “Hemingway” bars, La Floridita and Bodeguita del Medio, are worth the hype.
Instead of the indifferent drinks, and even more desultory service you’ll get at most Havana bars, they seem to care about how they do things at these two places. That care may be reflected in the cost, which is approximately three times the usual price of about $1.50 per drink in a local bar, but the good news is that they’re worth it.
And, if you want to actually learn how to make a daiquiri, they make it right in front of you at La Floridita, and sell a t-shirt with the recipe on the back. Hints: fresh squeezed lemon and limes, and rum. Lots of rum.
And, after you’ve had a couple, don’t worry about getting back to your hotel. There are always plenty of classic American cabs ready to ferry you back.
Tom blogs at Travel Past 50
After a long day exploring the backstreets of Havana, treat yourself to a bit of free entertainment and cheap rum with a trip down to the Malecon at night. This long sea wall runs throughout Havana, but is most populated between Galiano and Padre Varela, where hundreds of people congregate at night to listen to local musicians strum along on guitars and pass bottles of Havana Club rum around.
After dark walk down to a local bodega, buy some cold beers or a bottle of rum, and just stroll down the Malecon listening to the famous Cuban songs about revolution and resistance.
Among the crowds are usually younger university students who speak good English and are always interested in having a chat about the past, present and future of Cuba. It’s a unique, local perspective that you won’t get from any history book or tour, and it’s the perfect way to learn about the real Cuba. If you brush up on your Spanish, or your Cuban ballads, you’ll especially impress the crowds if you can sing along with them.
Jules and Christine blog at Don’t Forget to Move.
Cuba and cabaret are, at times, synonymous. Many visitors to Havana find themselves sitting in Tropicana or Cabaret Parisien to enjoy an evening of over the top costumes and bright colors. However, there exists an entirely different dance group, one that many travelers might miss, that is a must-see while on island: Habana Compas.
Shaped by both Afro-Cuban beats and Spanish movements, the troupe puts on quite a show. Using bongos, castanets and even artistically painted wooden chairs for percussion, the performers expose viewers to the history of Cuban dance. Even the walls, beautifully decorated, prove informative and captivating. Not only does Habana Compas leave its audience energized and educated, the organization also emphasizes its training programs, investing in teaching both dance and percussion to boys and girls ages five and up.
Alison blogs at AMCStravel
In a shady corner of a park in Havana is a statue of John Lennon striking a relaxed pose on a park bench. The park resembles others in the quiet neighbourhood of Vedado, but for some reason, Parque John Lennon resonated with me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the park represents so much of what makes Cuba unique.
Take the statue. It’s beautiful, just like others by the renowned Cuban artist, José Ramón Villa Soberón. Study the fine lines and rich patina of the one of Lennon, and you’ll likely want to check out Soberón’s other famous works gracing public spaces – Hemingway in La Floridita or “El Caballero de Paris,” also in Old Havana.
Spend a while at Parque John Lennon and you’ll be joined by tourists taking a city tour in one of the old American classics of the 50s. They, too, are beautiful. Against a backdrop of a 60-year-old trade embargo, they represent the tenacity and ingenuity it must have surely taken to keep these old relics on the road.
Speaking of politics, it was the backstory that intrigued me. How did the music of John Lennon go from banned to revered status in such a short period? What was it about Lennon the man, the artist that warranted a personal unveiling of the statue by Castro himself? Of course, it was Lennon the revolutionary. It was his political activism that endeared him to the nation, and the renaming of the park marking a turning point in Cuba’s cultural revolution.
And finally, a statue that warrants its own security guard is one more thing that makes Parque John Lennon unique.
Anne blogs at Packinglighttravel.com
As interesting and intriguing as Havana is, it is just one city in a country that has much to offer. Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second city is frequently referred to as the capital of the Caribbean. It is home to the Castillo de San Pedro de La Roca, the finest example of a colonial military fortress in the Americas.
Visiting Colonial Trinidad in central Cuba feels like traveling back in time. An hour from Trinidad is Cienfuegos, an architectural marvel founded by French settlers form Bordeaux and Louisiana. The lesser-known central Cuban towns of Holguin, Jibara and Santa Clara each have their own charm.
On Cuba’s western side is Las Terrazas, an experiment in eco-tourism with a spectacular biosphere bursting with orchids and waterfalls. And then there is the Valley of Vinales with its tobacco plantations, underground rivers and stunning landscapes.
When you go you should definitely stay at a “casa particular,” a Cuban style B&B you can find on Airbnb. And here is a $40 credit for your first stay.
Make sure to take my book with you, Don’t just travel to Cuba, Experience Cuba, available on Amazon.