When you’re not into cigars and rum...
Reputation: cigars, rum and communism.
Why you should go: amazing classic cars. Samba the night away. Explore the old part of town. Relax on the beaches. Meet fantastic people.
A quick note about accessibility in Havana: it's tricky, so take your time.
Everything's free unless stated.
As well as our guide below, check our guest editor Eleanor Currier's first-hand account of visiting Havana.
The cars. Wow, the cars!
Classic 1950s American cars are everywhere: Chevy's, Dodge's and Ford's. There are about 50,000 of these amazing cars in Cuba. Due to the 1960 US embargo of Cuba, most of the cars are in lousy condition, with Russian diesel engines and a gear selector on the dashboard. But there are still some great examples around Havana.
The best way to experience a top-notch American classic is on a city tour. Try Old Car Tours or Havana Vintage Car Tours. Tours last about 2-3 hours and can be customised. It's a brilliant way to see the city and get your bearings.
Get stuck into the food…and the strong coffee
A strong, short, black coffee each morning is mandatory! Havana’s coffee becomes very addictive very quickly and, before you realise it, you’ll be consuming four a day.
Now that you’re awake – very awake – explore the local restaurants. Meals are usually simple but portions are generous and the food is very good. The tapas bars are exceptional and we enjoyed several great nights eating, drinking and dancing to the salsa beat, which is everywhere. If you’re not a dancer, simply watching (in a non-creepy way) local people dancing is fascinating.
La historia de La Habana
Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and was a base for Spain’s conquests in the area. It was also a stopping-off point for galleons heaving with treasure bound for Spain. So, the Spanish kept the city well-fortified. On either side of the entrance to the harbour are Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta (build around 1595) and Castilla De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro (1589). Keep an eye out for its lighthouse.
A little further along from Del Morro – and visible from Old Havana – is Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cubana (1774). All are open to the public, and La Cubana has a nightly cannon-firing ceremony at 9pm.
Take a stroll through the gorgeous Plaza de la Catedral, which is close to 300 years old for more Spanish influences. As well as the Catedral de La Habana (1770s), some of Havana’s grandest homes were built here, and it’s a lovely place to spend a bit of time.
You may also want to explore the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Colon Cemetary), which opened in 1876. It’s known for its elaborate headstones.
A small entry fee applies to everything except the cathedral.
See history from a different perspective
You may be familiar with Cuba’s history under communism from a Western perspective so now it’s time to see things from the other side.
Start by paying a visit to the Che Guevara Mausoleum, the revolutionary who overturned Batista and placed Fidel Castro in power and the communist regime which still controls the country today.
Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) in Old Havana is housed in the former Presidential Palace. As well as learning about the revolutionary period of the 1950s, you’ll also see the yacht that brought Fidel Castro from Mexico to Cuba, a surface-to-air missile and parts of an American spy plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis and a Soviet tank.
If you’re keen to visit the site of the attempted American invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Giron and Museo Girón, the small museum there, are for you. You’ll find lots of weapons, planes and vehicles on display. The easiest way to get there is as a detour if you're heading to Trinidad (more on this later). PS if Giron's military history doesn't appeal, it's also one of Cuba's top diving spots.
A small entry fee applies at each site.
Enjoy Hemingway’s Havana
Novelist Ernest Hemingway – For whom the bell tolls, The old man and the sea – lived in Cuba on and off during the 1940s and 1950s. His home, Finca Vigia, is 16km (10 miles) from Havana and open as a museum. His boat Pilar is also on display.
Habaneros have certainly taken Hemingway to their hearts. He has appeared on Cuban postage stamps, there is a marina and fishing tournament named after him, and various restaurants feature his name or ‘Papa’, his nickname.
Soak up the sun on the beaches
There are numerous beautiful beaches which the Habaneros like to go to and we took advantage of our spare time to enjoy the warm tropical water. Try Santa María del Mar, a 20 minute drive from the city, Playa Boca Ciega, a little further along and less touristy, or Playa Bacuranao, a great snorkelling spot nearer town.
Explore the architecture
Most of us probably don’t remember when Havana was a thriving hub of casinos, grand prix racing and decadent nightlife before the 1959 revolution. No expense was spared on buildings and so Havana is the perfect place to spot unadulterated, if a little run-down, period architecture.
You’ll see Havana’s Colonial style, with its diverse range of Spanish, Italian, Greek and Moorish influences, throughout the city. We like the Spanish colonial architecture of the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary (18th century) and the Cuban Baroque style of the Catedral de La Habana (1748–1777) in Plaza de la Catedral.
The Central Railway Terminal (1912) and the Museo de la Revolución (1920) feature a unique, eclectic version of various influences and are worth a look if you’re walking passed.
For a sense of déjà vu for the Capitol building in Washington CD, check out El Capitolio (National Capitol Building), opened in 1929, in the middle of town.
Modernism’s influence can be seen in the high-rise office and residential buildings from the 1950s. We like the Edificio Focsa (1956), a 35-story complex contained 400 apartments, garages, a school, a supermarket and a restaurant. It was the tallest concrete building without a steel frame in the world at the time and a symbol of luxury and excess.
Appreciate how Habaneros live
It’s no secret that every-day Habaneros don’t live in the lap of luxury these days and it’s important to appreciate the effort people go to, to ensure you have everything you need during your visit. The evidence of shortages is evident everywhere. Most buildings are in desperate need of major repairs and government shops, where each citizen gets their allowance of staples such as rice, sugar and flour, appear empty.
We watched a rush on a shop when a small shipment of Havaiana’s arrived and they were snapped up.
It sometimes seems like everyone runs a black-market scheme to supplement their income. On a few occasions, we saw a sudden rush as people scatter in every direction when a police car came in sight, only to reappear with their wares as soon as the police were gone.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Hotel Telegrafo in an Art Deco building in Old Havana. It’s nice and central with colourful, comfortable rooms, and is one of the better hotels in Havana. It's easy walking distance to many of the sights in Havana.
Side trip: Trinidad
If you’re looking to explore more of Cuba than just Havana, spend a few days in Trinidad. It’s an easy four-hour drive across the island on good roads and through great countryside.
The beaches are excellent and so is the music and nightlife. Complete strangers will often start dancing together on the street to the live music coming from a restaurant or bar. We spent some very late nights on the steps of buildings in Trinidad listening to the music and watching dancers and fire eaters. Cold local beer and mojitos may also have been consumed...
The nearby town of Cienfuegos is gorgeous, with beautiful buildings, many in the style of the French. This part of Cuba is the perfect place to relax and soak up the atmosphere. We highly recommend it!
If you smoke a cigar just once…
Buy it from one of the La Casa del Habano stores. They are reputable and have shops throughout Havana. Grab yourself some rum and enjoy.
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Contributor: Kevin Nansett
Updated: 3 September 2017