Havana Highlights: 10 Top Things To Do and See In The Capital City Of Cuba
Havana is the capital city of the Caribbean island nation of Cuba, and has a booming tourism industry that sees more and more people coming to visit every year. They’re drawn by the wonderfully warm, pleasant climate, crystal blue waters, colorful and historic buildings, and rich political and cultural history of the country. The city was founded in the 16th century and is now home to more than 2.1 million citizens, one of the biggest cities in the Caribbean.
Because Havana is such a large city and is the nation’s capital, it is where most of Cuba’s important commerce is based. As such, the city boasts strong air and sea connections to other countries that make it relatively easy to visit the island depending on where you’re coming from. Most people will arrive by air, landing at José Martí International Airport. But cruise ships from some countries also service Cuba, and other connections are available by boat.
More than a million tourists visit Cuba every year, and parts of the island are so historic that the downtown city center — known as Old Havana – has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Once on the island you’ll marvel at the mix of modern life with the old world, seeing some new infrastructure juxtaposed against aged weather-worn but still vibrantly colored buildings and some truly majestic cultural landmarks. It’s a huge city that sprawls across more than 708 kilometers (roughly 300 square miles), with plenty to offer tourists no matter if they’re looking for some rest and relaxation under the sun or a trip packed with sightseeing opportunities.
Currency on the island is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), though you can pay in pounds sterling, Canadian dollars, and Euros and still manage to get a decent exchange rate.
If you’re heading to Cuba as your next vacation, check out the below guide for 10 fantastic things to see and do on the island to guarantee an amazing time in Havana.
1. Stroll along the Malecón at night
A great way to get your bearings in Havana soon after you’ve arrived is to take an evening stroll along a lengthy promenade known as the Malecón. It’s essentially a wall that lines the sea and stretches for 8 kilometers (5 miles) and is popular with locals and tourists alike. The stunning views across the water make it a draw for people to come, hang out, and enjoy throughout the day. At night it becomes a small party, particularly where the Malecón meets 23rd Street. But this also offers a pleasant way to walk past a lengthy stretch of Havana to get an idea of what the rest of the city is like. Because it’s an open air promenade there’s no entry fee, simply find a starting point that you prefer and then stroll for as long as you want to. There are bars and hotels along the route if you’re looking for refreshments. And you can also spot some historic landmarks, including a monument to the victims of the USS Maine explosion in 1898.
2. Wander through Havana Vieja
Get a sense of what Havana was like in the old days by taking a wander through Havana Vieja, which translates as Old Havana. Havana is made up of 15 municipalities, and this is perhaps the most popular because it projects the charm of days gone by. You will see many different plazas that have shops, cafes, museums and even homes for residents, giving you a window into how the locals live. A highlight is the Plaza de la Catedral that is home to the religious landmark Catedral de San Cristóbal. From here you can go in any direction to explore the romantic charm of Old Havana, whose boundaries are defined by the city’s original walls. It doesn’t cost anything to walk around this fascinating neighborhood, and it’s also perfect for taking pictures with the colorful, ageing buildings as a memorable backdrop.
3. Visit the Museum of the Revolution
If you’re exploring Old Havana and want to learn some of Cuba’s history then you should consider a visit to the Museum of the Revolution. This popular attraction is housed inside the ornate building that used to be the palace for the country’s presidents, up until the Cuban Revolution in the 1980s that brought Fidel Castro to power and ushered in the country’s communist regime that remains in power today. The museum does not dwell on the presidential history of the country and instead largely focuses on the revolution and Cuba’s development since then. It houses many important artefacts from throughout the country’s relatively recent past, providing an interesting and educating stop on your vacation. The building is also worth seeing in its own right, with the exterior and interior decorated in a lavish, palatial style.
Cost: 5 CUC
Opening hours: 10am to 5pm, 7 days a week
4. Admire the exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts
For those looking for a truly educational and cultural trip, the Museum of Fine Arts is a wonderful destination. It houses a wide range of exhibits covering art that dates from contemporary Cuban times all the way back to the country’s colonial era. Founded in February 1923, this museum has for decades been a popular draw for tourists who have come to admire the art that it houses. And as a further incentive to visit, a second building houses an impressive international collection of art from countries around the world. When you visit you can decide to visit either, or both, of the buildings, but whichever option you choose you’re bound to learn something about art history and get to see some truly priceless and unforgettable creations.
Cost: 5 CUC for entry to one building, 8 CUC for both, free for children aged under 14
Opening hours: 10am to 6pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 2pm Sunday
5. Revel in the fun at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Located within the grounds of an old oil factory, the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (which translates as the Cuban Art Factory) is a truly unique attraction in Havana. It is essentially a huge arts space where you might see musical performances, art displays, some theater, or many other different creative works depending on when you visit. It’s considered one of the best ways to spend an evening in Havana, mostly because there’s always something new on offer and plenty to choose from. It’s not open during the day because of its role as a nighttime venue. Check out the facility’s website (http://www.fac.cu/) for the latest on who’s performing, and perhaps you can plan your visit to Havana around a show taking place that appeals to you.
Opening hours: 8pm to 3am Thursday to Sunday
6. See how cigars are made at the Partagás Factory
One of the many things for which Cuba is famous is the production of some of the world’s finest cigars, exported to countries around the world for smoking connoisseurs who value the high quality materials and fine workmanship that goes in to making them. Thankfully, Havana cigar companies realize that many visitors want to see how their products are made and therefore several major cigar factories are open to the public to tour. Among the most famous and popular cigar company tours is the Partagás Factory. Tickets are available at hotels and other vendors, so ask whatever hotel you’re staying with whether they can help you organize entry. The factory was originally based in a building dating back to 1845, but the crumbling conditions led the company to relocate to another venue. If you take the tour you’ll see every aspect of the cigar-making process from beginning to end, observing roughly 200 workers on the factory floor who make up to 20,000 cigars per day. And if you’re a smoker, once you’re done with the tour you can even buy some cigars to enjoy yourself or take home as a gift for others.
Cost: 10 CUC
7. Drink like Hemingway at two famous Havana bars
Famed writer Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba from roughly 1940 through 1960 and lived just outside Havana with his latest wife Martha. He was a huge fan of fishing and having visitors to his house, but he also enjoyed a drink or two and it’s thanks to that latter habit of his that visitors to the country can go to two of his old haunts and sip the drinks he used to love. If you’re interested in doing this, the bars at La Floridita where Hemingway would drink daiquiris, and Bodeguita del Medio where he would enjoy his mojitos. Both bars are still in operation and like to play up their Hemingway connection, so you will easily be able to order the drinks there.
Bodeguita del Medio is seen as more of the low-key neighborhood bar of the two, where you can also enjoy some amazing local food in addition to sipping on a well-made mojito. In contrast, La Floridita is considered to be a slightly higher-end bar that is also more popular with tourists. It’s also the place where you can find what is claimed to be the bar stool that Hemingway used to sit on, as well as a statute of him that could make for a good picture. Both bars open roughly around noon each day and stay open until about midnight.
8. See Hemingway’s former home Finca “La Vigia”
Another fun Hemingway experience in Havana is to take a tour of the place where he lived during his roughly 20 years on the island. His house, Finca “La Vigia,” is open to the public at certain times and provides a fascinating look at how he used to live. This is the place where he wrote the famous novel “The Old Man and the Sea,” as well as other works. Constructed in 1886, the house is located roughly 15 miles from downtown Havana, so it’s only a short ride to get out there for a visit. When you get to the house you can explore the interior and exterior, with rooms decorated as they would have been during Hemingway’s time.
Cost: 5 CUC
Opening hours: 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm Saturday, closed Sunday
9. Soak up the sun at the Playas del Este
Some people come to Cuba simply to soak up the sun and enjoy the warm temperatures while they relax and do very little. If that’s what you’re looking for then Havana has you covered with the Playas del Este. This is a stretch of beach that has well-kept sand and the enticing crystal blue Caribbean sea for you to enjoy. Beds and parasols are available for a low cost to rent during your time there, and there are also cafes and shops nearby if you need to buy any refreshments. It is perhaps the most popular beach on the island and is therefore often busy, particularly on days with great weather, but you can usually find a spot to stretch out and unwind. You might see some garbage strewn about certain patches of the beach, but if so just walk a little longer and you should be able to find a pristine spot. Be sure to treat the beach with respect, and to take any litter you have with you when you’re done enjoying it.
10. Take a ride in a 1950s automobile
One of the consequences of the communist regime in Cuba is that cars couldn’t be imported, so that’s why you seen many 1950s vehicles driving around the island. For tourists, you can pay to ride in one of these and be driven around the island in style while you see the sights. The cost is usually around 30 CUC for an hour’s drive, and you can find the cars parked outside