A first-timers’ guide to Havana, Cuba

Cuba’s capital is a dream destination for many travellers and it’s never been easier to visit. But still being relatively new to mass tourism, with aging infrastructure and very limited internet access, Havana isn’t the easiest place to navigate aging infrastructure. To help you plan your trip, here is my guide to Havana, based on my first-hand first-time experience of the city.

Check out my Cuba photo diary here.


Neighbourhoods


Habana Vieja

Plaza Vieja, Cuba - photos

Havana’s old town, this UNESCO-listed gem is home to more than its fair share of the city’s sights. If you’re looking for cobbled streets, colourful restored buildings and plenty of musicians and art performers, you’ll find them here.

What to see in Habana Vieja

Habana Vieja has four main squares so spend your time leisurely walking between them – even better if you get lost.

Plaza de la Catedral in the North of Habana Vieja offers a real sense of Colonial Caribbean history, looking straight out of a set from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Plaza Vieja to the South is a great spot at night – one of the liveliest places in the old town – where you can find live music, decent crowds and a handful of bars, including Havana’s premier beer bar.

Plaza de Armas is a great place for Cuban culture buffs, with a seemingly permanent market selling plenty of books, political posters and film posters, while Plaza de San Francisco de Asis is another colonial-style open square, with a great view of the former monastery.

Centro Habana

Centro Habana buildings

Far less polished that Habana Vieja, Centro Habana is the rough and ready alternative for those looking for the ‘real Cuba’. Visitors to this area will find charming yet crumbling ruins and active signs of local life.

But compared to the old town, this area can be a real wake-up call – reportedly 170,000 people are crammed into this area of just 3m2 , and sanitation and restoration are definitely not on a comparable scale to the rest of the city.

What to see in Centro Habana

Beautiful ruins are the main order of the day in this side of town. Pick any street you fancy and you’ll come across really impressive architecture in a heart-breaking state of disrepair – and yet somehow, this makes it all the more appealing. Prepare to snap photos left, right and centre.

Aside from the buildings, the seaside promenade Malecon is another must-see here. This is where seemingly all young Cubans come to hang out in the late evenings to drink and socialise (and also where prostitutes come to hit on western tourists), so it’s worth taking a stroll. Start at the far East for great views of Vedado.

Pedestrianised San Rafael is possibly best left avoided – we were hassled here more than anywhere in the city.

Vedado

A guide to Havana: Plaza de la Revolucion

Vedado is the best reminder of Cuba’s swinging 50s, a time before Che, Castro and the Revolucion when the island was still greatly influenced by the US. Here you’ll find a several American-style skyscrapers, and a grid-style street layout reminiscent of New York.

There aren’t many sights here, but there is a definitely a lively atmosphere in the evening (particularly at weekends), thanks to the area’s restaurants, bars and clubs.

What to see in Vedado

One of Havana’s most famous sights, Plaza de la Revolucion is where you can come to have your photo taken with Che and Fidel (the latter, our guide was keen to point out, is apparently often mistaken for Osama bin Laden…). The square itself is pretty bland.

John Lennon Park is a small bit of green space with a statue of the man himself. The statue was adorned with a pair of glasses similar to Lennon’s iconic pair, however these kept getting stolen and so now a ‘bodyguard’ (a friendly elderly black woman) stands watch over the statue to prevent future incidents.


Things to do


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Havana’s old town has two main streets: pedestrian Obispo, where you’ll find plenty of bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and a currency exchange; and freshly-renovated Mercades, which boasts charming traditional villas and pastel-coloured houses.

Museo de la Revolucion – found on the Northern edge of the old town, this museum is a must. While the period immediately after the revolution is well documented in English, the time leading up to 1959 is covered mostly in Spanish and is more artefact-based. Make sure to read up on the period to make sure you know what you’re looking at.

Cathedral de San Cristobal de la Habana – the city’s cathedral is an imposing, elegant beauty and well worth a look.

Museo del Chocolate – less a museum and more a café, stopping here is worth it if only to watch the man outside artfully make authentic churros. The milkshakes and chocolate-shaped animals seemed all the range with Cuban teenagers in the early evening.

Though El Capitolio is less of a thing to ‘do’ and more of one to ‘photograph’, this building is pretty spectacular. It’s been home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences since the Revolution, but it’s striking nature still has an affect like the Whitehouse.

Just behind, you can find the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Patragas, a cigar factory offering tours on all days except Sunday (guess when we went…). But be warned: you’ll be approached by a lot of chancers telling you the factory is closed and there is a special cigar factory going on a few streets away. There’s little else of merit in the area, so they will spot you a mile off. We weren’t hassled often in Cuba, but cigars were the main focal points of attempts from touts.

Tour in a yank tank – if you fancy being driven round Havana’s main sights in a classic car, head to Parque Central where you’ll find plenty ready and waiting.


Food & drink


Lobster in Cuba

Fumero Jacqueline – this boutique shop-cum-café is situated right next to the Museo de Revolucion and is great for a quick lunch. They do great sandwiches, waffles and flavoured ice smoothies.

La Marina – found close to Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, this is a fairly relaxed place with a decent menu, which (despite the name) doesn’t specialise just in fish. Tour groups seem to pop by every so often to watch the Sugar Cane juice maker.

La Factoria Plaza Vieja is Havana’s premier (if not only) microbrewery, offering stag-do style, metre-high beer kegs. The food is fairly decent and there is a good atmosphere with live music and seating on the scenic square.

Castropol – this seafront restaurant came recommended to us from our homestay and it was a great place. The ground floor serves up Italian food (and fills up fast), but the first floor has a great balcony view over the Malecon and dishes out great Cuban food. The seafood paella was great.

Paladar Meson Sancho Panza – this cosy little restaurant is hidden down a side-street off one of Vedado’s busiest main drags. The food is good but the real pull is the flamenco performances while you eat.

El Barrio China – Havana’s china town is also found in this area and while we didn’t explore it personally, we were told it’s a great place to eat out.


Where should I stay in Havana?


Havana guide: Malecon view at Dusk

Habana Vieja

While there are plenty of accommodation options in Habana Vieja (both hotels and casa particulares), you may run the risk of seeing little else in the city if you stay here, as so much of its treasures are found in this relatively small area.

In addition, we found the evenings to be pretty quiet after the day-trippers from resorts like Varadero had been shipped back onto their busses.

Centro Habana

Centro Habana is logistically a great place to locate yourself – it’s an easy walk to Habana Vieja and a short taxi, rickshaw or longer walk to Vedado. This area is also brimming with casa particulares, mainly of which come highly recommended (including our own choice: Casa 1932).

While I never felt unsafe staying here, the sights and smells of the area can sometimes be extreme. We did come across a dog’s leg at the side of the road.

Vedado

Havana’s tallest and most imposing buildings are centred in Vedado, with the biggest hotels located here too. Vedado is definitely a lot more upmarket than Centro and the evenings are pretty lively (unlike Habana Vieja), but there are very few sights in this area of town, meaning more time spent in taxis, buses or just walking. The views across the city must be pretty impressive though…


Getting around


Guide to Havana: old car tour
Me pretending to drive a parked car

Within the city, the best options for getting around are by rickshaw, taxi or yank tank. The latter can be a bit more expensive as drivers try to sell you tours or wait for you outside city landmarks. There is a bus system, but we didn’t attempt to navigate it.

Getting to Havana from Varadero Airport

Bus tickets from Varadero Airport can be booked in advance from Viazul, the national bus company, but seat book up fast.

A very common alternative is to round up a group of four and hop into a taxi, which will take around two hours and drop you at your door. The prices of a taxi is listed at 70 CUC at the airport, but often go up to 80 for a group of four.


Links


Things to do in Havana: city guide

Below is a list of sites with more information on Cuba. Make sure to save them to your phone for offline access or consult them before hand as WiFi is almost impossible to come across in Havana and simply does not work for certain Samsung models.

Cuba Junkyhas an extensive list of casa particulares options, which we used to secure our booking in Trinidad. However, we did hear of a case where travellers booked through Cuba Junky and then tried to confirm with the accommodation directly, only to be told they had simply gone with another couple.

Lahabana.com – great for up-to-date events and restaurant tips.

Habana Super Tours – an extensive option of Havana city tours, including mafia, art deco and eco tours.

27 things you need to know before visiting Cuba – a comprehensive guide to Cuba travel.

4 thoughts on “A first-timers’ guide to Havana, Cuba

  1. *bookmarked* Although I don’t think I’ll be going to Cuba anytime soon, I saved your post for when I will, because it’s too good! And your photos are gorgeous! <3

    By the way, you're not fooling anyone into thinking you're driving that car. No one poses like that when they drive 😛

    1. Haha, I can’t actually drive so I wouldn’t know…
      But I would seriously keep your eyes out for good deals from Cologne – there were a lot of people on our flight who had booked tickets and then got Ryanair flights to Cologne from Madrid, London or Warsaw.

  2. Man, this is another world altogether.
    I REALLY wish you had skipped the dog leg story… I am not equal parts grossed out and upset :(((

    1. Yeah, it was really not a great moment. Centro Habana is such a charming little place and definitely the “real Havana” but it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted…

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