Best of Havana – Save & Splurge itineraries

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.

Best of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + WhiskyBest of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + Whisky

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

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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.

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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.

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + WhiskyBest of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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…

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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!

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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

Best of Havana ● Cuba budget itinerary ● Cake + Whisky

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 ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + WhiskyBest of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + Whisky

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

Best of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + Whisky

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.

Best of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + Whisky

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. 

Best of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + Whisky

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

Best of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + Whisky

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

Best of Havana ● Itineraries for every budget in Cuba's capital ● Cake + Whisky

More travel inspiration

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba

8 things to do in Paris – for first timers & seasoned travelers

Dublin mini-guide

5 tips to plan a city break

Best of Havana – Save & Splurge itineraries

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba

It’s been a week since we came back from our big trip to Cuba.

We had been planning this holiday for about 6 months, deciding on our itinerary, noting down things to do, places to see and dishes to eat.

In that time, we did our research. We read every guide book we could get our hands on and dozens of blog posts, we talked to friends and colleagues who’d visited, saved pictures on Pinterest, pinned everything down on an offline map…

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky 13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

And yet somehow, there was still so much about Cuba that surprised us.

As my friend Kristin put it when she was sharing her top Cuba tips ahead of our trip – no matter what you expect, it’s not quite what it’s going to be like, but it’ll be amazing regardless.

So here are a few things to keep in mind on your first trip to the Pearl of the Antilles.

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

1. It does look just like the pictures

Seriously – everywhere in Cuba is just gorgeous.

From the pastel-coloured, half-crumbled streets of Havana, to the breath-taking landscapes of Vinales and the island’s white-sanded beaches, every single bit of Cuba is simply gorgeous.

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

2. Everyone runs a business from their front room

Seriously – Cuban are so enterprising. They make the most of whatever situation they’re put into and whatever space they can get hold of.

There are people running restaurants in their living room (the paladares). People selling coffee / souvenirs on their door step or through their window. People running flower businesses from their building’s entry hall…

Most of those are regulated by the state, extremely good value for money and an incredible way to get a look into what Cuban life really looks like.

3. People will want to talk to you

Partly because they’re very aware that tourism is the best way for Cubans to make money, through network and referal fee systems.

But also because the locals are also incredibly curious and genuinely interested in you, where you come from, why you’ve decided to come to Cuba, what your travel plans are…

As a consequence, Cubans get quite offended if you ignore them when they greet you in the street. So don’t. Greet them back, indulge in a bit of chit-chat and if people try to sell you something, a simple ‘no gracias’ and a smile should be enough.

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

4. Rum is (almost) as cheap as water

In most restaurants, you’ll actually pay the same price for a mojito or a bottle of water, which is completely INSANE.

And you know, amazing.

5. Health and safety isn’t really a thing

Most cars don’t have seat belts. A lot of staircases and tower-type buildings don’t have banisters. Emergency exits aren’t clearly maked…

And you know what? It’s okay. You’ll survive it.

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky 13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

6. Eating a full casa breakfast is a challenge

If you’re travelling to Cuba on a budget, casa breakfasts (as in, the breakfast served by your casa hosts for a small fee) will be your new best friend.

Your typical breakfast will include a plate of fruit, toast with butter, eggs, a cheese and ham toastie, varied treats (potato or plantain fritters, French toast, pancakes, cheese with guava paste, cookies…), freshly squeezed juice and a lot of strong coffee.

It’s really quite the spread and it will definitely keep you full until well into the afternoon!

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

7. Cats & dogs are everywhere

A lot of them seem to be semi-stray (some even have an identification card attached to their collar) and most are absolutely adorable.

Over the course of our holiday, I stopped approximatevely 3241 time to pet cats in the street and have been tempted to take one home about as many times.

8. And so are old-school American cars

They come in every colour of the rainbow and absolutely no shock absorbing system.

A tour in one of the iconic, old-school American cars often comes up on the list of must-do activities in Cuba, but a lot also run as regular taxis or taxi collectivos if your budget doesn’t quite stretch that far.

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

9. Unless you call your bank ahead of time, your card won’t work

Make your life easier – take a lot of cash with you (changing cash is quite easy).

Also make sure you call your bank ahead of time with your travel dates and ask them to lift security locks in case you need to withdraw more money.

It’ll save you a lot of time (and £30 phone calls) to get it all unlocked…

10. Internet isn’t really a thing

There is internet in Cuba, but you have to buy a top-up card (about 5CUC for 1h) and will only be able to access it from the very few wifi hotspots.

Most cities will only have one of those. But despite its scarcity, the wifi was surprisingly fast everywhere we used it, so you know, you win some, you loose some.

11. And neither is public transport

There are actually quite a lot of local buses – but they’re really just for the locals. As a tourist, you can use taxis, cyclotaxis or ‘mango taxis’ for short distances (my favourites!)

Trains however simply don’t exist, and neither do intra-island flights, which means your only options to go from city to city are Viazul buses or taxi collectivos.

Inbetween cities, we only used taxi collectivos. They can be arranged with your casa hosts, run a door-to-door service and are typically quicker and similarly priced as the bus service.

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

12. Experiencing the real, local Cuba can be challenging

As explained above, Cubans are very aware of the importance of tourism to their economy. As a result, they will go above and beyond to ensure you make the most out your trip.

But they don’t really mingle with you – casa hosts are always happy to cook a feast for you, but they’ll eat separately. Taxi collectivo drivers are often happy to show you around a city but they’ll wait for you in the car while you take in the sights. Locals will happily recommend restaurants to you but will rarely eat there themselves.

Not to forget that Cubans use a whole different currency altogether and most places only accept one of the two currencies, making the divide very ‘official’.

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky 13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba ● Cake + Whisky

13. No matter what you expect from your first trip to Cuba, it’s not what you’ll get

Cuba will surprise you. The city- and landscapes will take your breath away. The native’s generosity and ingenuity will melt your heart. The music and the rum will never fail to put a big smile on your face.

No matter how much you prepare for your first trip to Cuba, you’ll never be quite ready but you will definitely have an amazing time!

13 things to expect on your first trip to Cuba