Havana is known for its colonial architecture, smooth rum and fine cigars. But there is another side of Havana…a Hidden Havana that remains concealed unless you know where to look.

Magical, mystical, mysterious, pulsating with life and always fascinating, Cuba off the beaten path is at its best and Havana is its epicenter.

Here are some of Havana’s best and most surprising hidden secrets.

The capitol building in Havana, Cuba
The capitol building in Havana, Cuba


Secrets of the four main squares

Havana is very much a walking city. Most of Havana Vieja’s most impressive sights can be taken in within walking distance of the four main squares.

The best way to experience classic Havana is to take a self-guided walk in the old city center known as Habana Vieja (Old Havana.)

Havana has a wonderful array of Spanish influenced colonial buildings. Start your visit by diving into the old center of town, Habana Vieja (old Havana) and hitting the four main plazas or squares.

You just can’t visit Havana without stopping here.

Plaza de la Catedral with its graceful arches and 18th-century Cuban baroque style.

Insider tip: The picturesque local characters offer photo ops, psychic readings and a peek into local life.

Plaza de Armas. Nearby is the site where the city of Havana was founded in 1519.

Insider tip: Check out the daily flea market selling everything from antiques to posters. You might find treasures!

Trained dogs in Plaza de Armas in Havana when you visit Havana
Take a picture with Cachito and Canela.

Plaza de San Francisco, dating from 1575 and across from Havana Harbor, this lovely square was at various times a convent, prison, market, fair ground and cock-fighting ring.

Today it’s a major tourist draw surrounded by elegant colonial restorations, restaurants and the Basilica Menor church, once the tallest structure in Havana.

Insider tip: Explore the art galleries surrounding beautiful Plaza de San Francisco.

San Francsco Plaza

Plaza Vieja. This plaza was once a market for enslaved Africans.

Today it is surrounded by sidewalk cafés serenaded by talented musicians throughout the day and way into the night.

The square serves as an exhibition center for traditional as well as avant-garde and unusual art.

Insider tip: Explore the stores around the plaza. You’ll find massage spas, breweries, hair braiding salons, a chocolate museum and more.

Explore Havana’s best restaurants

Many of the best restaurants are in the least likely locations, in “Hidden Havana.”

Case in point, La Guarida, which means “The Hideaway,” is one of the best restaurants in Havana.

From the outside, it looks like an abandoned building but inside, a burst of color and innovative design is the setting for delicious local food.

This is the case for many other fine restaurants in Havana. Hidden Havana can be deceiving. Once inside the décor and food will amaze you. That’s one of Havana’s secrets.

Paladar San Cristobal. Esconced in an unasuming colonial apartment building, this is where U.S. President Obama ate when in Havana.

The food is authentic. The décor is a collection of pre-and post-revolution paraphernalia.

One room even contains a Santeria altar, a representation of Cuba’s West African originated religion.

San Cristobal, Havana restaurant
San Cristobal dining room

Dona Eutemia. One of the best restaurants in Havana, this charming eatery sits among a group of restaurants on a side street off Cathedral Plaza. It’s hard to get in but worth the wait.

Insider tip: Don’t be put off by the exterior of Havana’s restaurants.

Insider tip: Making a reservation at an off time, like 2PM, will make it easier to get into a desirable restaurant

Havana’s many religious denominations are alive and well.

A new mosque in Habana Vieja serves a long-established, vibrant Muslim community.

Beautiful churches in prime locations serve the Russian Orthodox congregations.

There are also many synagogues, Buddhist temples, and other denomination temples and churches. You just have to explore the streets of Hidden Havana.

Santeria is an important part of Cuban culture

Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion is very prominent. 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 the history of the religion which traveled from Africa to the Caribbean via the slave trade.

Santeria is one of Cuba’s main religions.

Another Santeria related activity, albeit decidedly more touristy, is the Sunday performance at the Callejon de Hamill or Hamill’s Alley.

The dance performances are electrifying; full of pulsating energy and blazing color. There are also nearby art galleries and interesting street art.

Insider tip: Get there early to get the best seats for the performances.

Historic Chinatown is reviving, no longer a part of hidden Havana.

This neighborhood is staging a slow comeback in fits and starts.

In the mid-1800s over 150,000 Chinese workers were brought to Cuba. They mostly settled in Havana creating a vibrant, flourishing community that reached it golden age in the 1950s.

The onset of the Cuban revolution forced many Chinese to flee, mostly to the US, and the neighborhood fell into decline.

Today the local government encourages a resurgence recognizing the neighborhood’s potential as a tourist draw.

Havana architecture will surprise you

The architecture most people are familiar with is the crumbling colonial masterpieces of Habana Vieja or Old Havana, the colonial center of town.

Few know about the elegant mansions to the far west of the city lining 5th Avenue.

Insider tip: Take a classic American car tour of Havana. Make sure to include the Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods to see the beautiful mansions.

Many of these are embassies now.

Havana music venues rock with a hot, Havana beat

Havana’s music venues range from sophisticated Vegas-style floor shows to elegant, stylish jazz clubs, like La Zorra y El Cuervo, to three guys on a corner with maracas and a guitar.

The music is pervasive; an integral component of the culture. What makes these such pleasant surprises is the outstanding quality of the performers.

Without a doubt, Havana nightlife is as legendary now as it ever was.

Fabrica de ate Cubano is unique.

This artist’s venue, the Cuban Art Factory, commonly referred to as F.A.C. is a truly unique concept.

The setting is in an abandoned cooking oil factory converted into a venue containing several unusual museums, dance studios, photography exhibits, restaurants, bars, and music performances.

El Cocinero, Havana restaurants
Inside the chiminy at the F.A.C. art and music venue

FAC Fabrica de Arte Cubano. This is a combination art gallery, nightclub and restaurant.

See local art exhibited in the chic gallery then head to the main section which houses the restaurant in a renovated cooking oil factory.

Admission is 2USD and you can easily spend hours experiencing this cultural candy store.

No money is exchanged inside. Instead, you get a card on which whatever you consume is noted and paid for when you leave.

You stroll around the various floors and rooms, mojito in hand and are delighted at every turn.

Patrons break out in spontaneous dance to the various bands; rum tastings are sampled on the open-air terraces and strangers take pictures of each other in front of the outrageous art.

I’ve never seen anything like this.

Explore Havana’s lesser-known museums

The city has an interesting collection of excellent museums.

You probably already know about the Museum of Fine Arts, both the international art wing and the Cuban Art section.

Personally, I think the Cuban Art collection is superior. Among the best I’ve ever seen anywhere.

But did you know that Havana has a rum museum and cigars at the Partagas museum?

You can also travel back in time at the city’s many colonial museums.

Or enjoy one of the finest collections of Napoleonic art outside of France at the Museo Napoleonico.

My absolute favorite museum is one that even many Cuban don’t know about, The National Museum of Decorative Arts..a true hidden Havana gem.

This museum is in the former home of one of the wealthiest Havana residents, the Gomez-Mena family who owned huge swaths of the city.

The mansion was designed in Paris and built in the neo-classical style. It was converted into a museum shortly after the Cuban Revolution.

Its collection includes objects d’art by Tiffany, Lalique and Wedgewood to mention a few.

Since the museum is in the Vedado neighborhood, it is way off the tourist track, right in hidden Havana.

It may not be as popular as other museums but it is no less spectacular.

Living room of the Museum of Decorative Arts, Havana

The works of art at this museum are so beautiful they touch the soul.

Insider tip: Make sure to claim your free sample at the Havana Rum Museum

Visit a rooftop bar

The best places to grab a drink and enjoy a spectacuar view is on one of Havana’s rooftops. This is truly one of the pleasures of Hidden Havana.

When it’s hot and humid, or even when the weather is pleasant, the soft tropical breezes on the rooftops of many Havana hotels offer a very pleasant environment.

The hotel rooftops have bars or restaurants. Some of the newer hotels have their pools on the rooftop. You can buy a day pass and spend an afternoon lounging by the pool.

Many restaurants, like La Guarida, mentioned above, also have rooftop bars.

The Hotel Ambos Mundos in the colonial part of town is where Ernest Hemingway lived for quite some time. It also has a rooftop with a spectacular view fo the city.

Hemingway’s old room has been converted into a museum you can visit for 5USD.

High-end hotels with rooftop pools include: Hotel Inglaterra, Iberostar Parque Central and the Kempinski. These are all off Parque Central.

Other rooftop bars with pools include the Grand Packard in tree-lined Paseo del Prado and the even newer SO/ Paseo del Prado with its 360-view of the city.

Stand on the edge of the infinity pool and it feels like you’re floating.

Stroll through the Colon Cemetery

There are two breathtakenly beautiful cemeteries in Latin America that are a cut above others in terms of funerary artestry, landscaping and legends. One is the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and the other is the Cementerio de Colon in Havana.

At 122.5-acres, the Cementerio de Colon or Columbus Cemetery is about 20 minutes east of Old Havana in the neighborhood of El Vedado.

The cemetery was named after Christopher Colombus and built between 1871 and 1886 and is one of the gems of hidden Havana.

Stroll among the many blindingly white marble mausoleums and you’ll see the final resting places of many Cuban notables.

Among them are performers, scientists, presidents and, friend of Hemingway, Contantino Ribalaigua, the man who perfected the world famous Cuban cocktail we know today as… the daiquiri.

This is also where you’ll find the tomb of Amelia Goyri de Hoz. Amelia died in childbirth in 1901 and was buried with her child at her feet.

The legend is that when they exhumed the grave the baby was found in her arms.

This is the most visited grave in the cemetery and where religious people go to pray for fertility.

The hop-on-hop-off bus will leave you close enough to walk and taxi will take you to the cemetery for about 15USD from Old Havana. There are English speaking guides at the front gate.

There are also Jewish cemeteries in Havana as well as one dedicated to the Chinese population. Cuban cemeteries are important due to their artistic as well as historical value.

If you are as fascinated by cemeteries as I am , you will find these other Cuban cemeteries of interest; Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, where Cuba’s patiot, Jose Marti is buried in Santiago de Cuba.

Also notable is the achingly lovely Cementerio La Reina in Cienfuegos.

Where to stay in Havana

The best places to stay in Havana or, indeed, anywhere else in Cuba is in a “casa particular,” the Cuban equivalent of an Airb&b or guesthouse.

This is the best way to interact with the local Cuban people. Stay in their home, have a coffee in their living room, play with their kids and pets. Really engage and immerse yourself in the culture.

Cuban kitchen you'll see in a casa on your trip to Cuba
Santa Clara kitchen in a casa

You can’t beat the prices at an average of $30-$40/night. Book these “casas” through Homestay.com or any other accommodation site on the web.

Or have your casa hostess in Cuba book the next casa stay for you.

Want to learn more about hidden Havana and its secrets? Check out these guide books.

What are your thoughts on Hidden Havana? Do you prefer off-the-beaten-path destinations when you travel?


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2 Responses

  1. I fell in love with Cuba and it’s beautiful intelligent people. Everyone knows the country’s remarkable history of resistance, which began well before 1959 and the Castro-led revolution. Music is everywhere and it is sensational. The beaches are gorgeous. Even amongst the rag tag buildings, there are gems of architecture. And the coffee! They grow beans in the Escambray Mountains without pesticides so your brew as well as produce taste so pure and vibrant you will feel ashamed of what you pay people for in the U.S. Politics aside, Cuba would benefit from free trade with the U.S. but they would lose dearly too. So much of their nationalism, their maintenance of local traditions, their history of literacy and education would be absorbed by the ‘American way.’ Enjoy the country as it is while you can.

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Talek Nantes

This blog was created to inspire your travels and to explore experiences in fascinating locations. What you will find are thoughts on how to immerse yourself in local culture, food, history and people. On your way to these adventures I hope to provide you with useful information to help you get there. Come see the world with me!

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