The largest and most populous city in the Caribbean region, founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and attracting over a million tourist every year, Havana is a windwhirl of a city.
Famous for its rich history, vibrant culture and diverse architecture (it sure wasn’t chosen as one of the new 7 wonders in 2015 for nothing!), there’s literally thousands of things to do, see and eat, making it hard to plan the perfect day in Havana.
Luckily I’ve gathered the very best of Havana in two handy itineraries below.
One’s designed for budget travellers, while the other’s more indulgent, so chose the one that best fits your budget. Or pick-n-mix/do both for the ultimate day in Havana!
Best of Havana – Save
Stay in a ‘Casa Particulare’
Cuba’s own version of the traditional B&Bs, casa particulares are an excellent accomodation option. Not only are they cheaper than hotels (usually around CUC 30/night in Havana), but it’s also a great way to contribute to the local economy (casas are run by individuals, as opposed to hotels who are state-run), as well as a unique chance to get a glimpse of how the locals live.
We stayed in this lovely casa in Habana Vieja on our first few days in Havana and I highly recommend it. Leydiana was the perfect host, taking the time to recommend local spots to see and local restaurants to try. The breakfast was very filling. And the location of the casa made it the perfect base to explore the city’s ‘old town’ on foot.
Pick up a sandwich at Sandwicheria La Bien Paga
Though casas usually offer exceptionally good value breakfast (see #6), this teeny tiny sandwich bar is a great alternative for made-to-order toasted sandwiches at ridiculous prices. The ‘Cuban’, with ham, cheese and pickle costs something like CUC 2.
Calle Aguacate 259, Habana Vieja
Stroll around La Habana Vieja and the Malecon
Travellers on a budget, rejoice! The very best thing to do in Havana is walking around the city aimlessly. It’s absolutely free, and there’s a lot to see!
The most interesting area to explore is Habana Vieja (the ‘old town’, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982), with its many colonial-baroque and neo-classical buildings, busy squares and lively culture.
A few must-see:
- Plaza de la Cathedral, Plaza de Armas and Plaza Vieja
- All the streets linking those 3 squares, esp. Calle Mercaderes, Calle Obispo & Calle San Ignacio
- Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
- Bacardi building (while you’re there, a quick look at Mercado Anima, a local supermarket, will give you a shocking insight into Cuba’s economic reality)
A stroll along the Malecon is another Havana must-do, especially as the night falls and the locals come out to dance/play music/drink…
Pick up a treat at Panaderia Dulceria San José
The best and oldest bakery in Havana offers an impressive range of pastries and cake by the slice, all at a very low price (around CUC 1 each).
A great spot to indulge your sweet tooth with a spot of cake roulette!
Calle Obispo 159, Habana Vieja
Watch the sun set over Havana from the Blanco Cristo promontory
Located on a hill on the opposite side of the port, the Blanco Cristo promontory is the ideal spot for a panoramic view of Havana.
Reaching it will require a bit of organisation – first, you need to take the ferry from the Terminal de Ferris (located opposite the Russian Orthodox church on San Pedro) to the Casablanca ferry terminal (CUC 4 return), then climb the hill to the gigantic white Christ statue. But the view is well worth it!
Dine at Paladar San Cristobal
Admitedly, this very popular Centro Habana paladar is not the cheapest in the city.
But it is worth the (still very reasonable) price tag for the quality of the food alone. Country-style pork, arroz negro and many a frozen lemonade definitely made for one of the best meals we had in Cuba!
The large portion sizes and the quirky atmosphere don’t hurt either. Not to mention it’s where Obama dined on his history-changing visit to the island (and Beyoncé before him…).
San Rafael 469, Centro Havana
Cocktails at Monserrate Bar
Steps away from the world-famous La Floridita bar (and the breathtaking Hotel Inglaterra), Montserrate bar is a fun place to end the night with rum-based cocktails (when in Cuba…). And -thanks to Montserrate’s Hemingway-free status- they are two times cheaper than at its glitzy neighbour!
Obrapia 410, Habana Vieja
Ride a Coco taxi
A ride in one of Havana’s coconut-shapped and mango-coloured taxis is an exhilarating experience. The price will depend on the distance you want to cover, so make sure you negociate it before you hop on!
Best of Havana – Splurge
Stay at Animas 303
First of its kind, this charming privately-owned boutique hotel is simply gorgeous.
Located in a beautifully restored historic building, with a great roof terrace (see above picture!) and super friendly and helpful staff, the overall experience is miles ahead of that of the much-renowned Hotel Nacional. And at just a fraction of the price (£55-75 per night).
Calle Animas 303, entre Aguila y Blanco, Centro Habana
Tour the city with a local
Many companies offer tours of Havana, the most famous of which being the ones in old US cars. All-in-all, they are an excellent way to see all the major sights whilst getting a taste of the classic Cuba Americana period.
We initially considered going on one of those tours, but since we had already seen a lot of the classic sights, decided to skip it for something with more of a local flavour.
That’s how we ended up driving around Centro Havana and Vedado in automotive engineering teacher/taxi driver/guide extraordinaire Salvador Márquez’s beautifully maintain Beetle car.
He showed us around the university (where he actually teaches!), and the massive Colon Cemetry, took us to see the Ministerio del Interior and the Biblioteca José Marti and told us about his and his students’ (!!) favourite spots.
Needless to say, it ended up being one of my absolute favourite moments of our whole trip.
Unfortunately, Salvador doesn’t have a website but you can ask your hotel or casa to call him at (5-264-4756) to arrange a tour.
Sip on Havana’s best mojito with a view at El Cocinero
Sharing a building with the Cuban Arts Factory, El Cocinero is the playing ground of choice for affluent young Cubans and expats, El Cochinero is one of Havana’s top spot to get the night started.
Whilst there is a formal restaurant, the real fun place is the roof top terrace. Bosting very industrial-chic vibes, a great tapas style menu and an extensive cocktail list.
As expected, tthe mojitos are brilliant and the view’s not too shabby either!
Calle 26 #57 e/11 y 13 Vedado
Visit the world-famous La Guarida
Famous for its movie-location setting in Fresa y Chocolate, La Guarida is one of the most sough-after restaurants in Havana.
As a result, booking ahead is the only way forward. Alternatively, a reduced menu is served at the rooftop bar. Not being very organised, that’s where we had dinner.
We made the most of the eclectic and modern menu – think spicy fish tacos, incredible jamon croquetas, morish desserts and creative cocktails!
418 Concordia, Centro Habana