12 Memorable Experiences in Havana
It is hard to explain the magic of Havana. The Cuban capital has a uniquely captivating vibe, difficult to understand until you are there. Despite its generally run down physical state and struggles under the current regime, the city is intensely beautiful, vivacious and spirited. It has a certain sense of pride, resilience, and survival, that can only develop in a place that has seen it all. Havana easily counts as one of the most photogenic places I have ever been to and is strangely addictive, making you want to stay longer or come back to soon.
The few days I spent in Havana were simply not enough and there is much I will have to save for my next trip, but here are 12 experiences that I loved and recommend to fellow travelers.
Best Things to do in Havana, Cuba
1. Take a walk on Malecon
Often described as the place to feel the soul of Havana, Malecon is a six-lane seaside boulevard that stretches for five miles from Old Havana to the contemporary Vedado neighborhood. Lined with beautiful colorful buildings on one side and pounded by the ocean on the other, it is a special place to experience any time of the day.
Go for a morning jog and see the rising sun reflecting off the windows. Or take a walk early in the day to observe local fisherman preparing their bait and casting their rods. On stormy days, you can admire giant waves crashing onto the seawall, occasionally causing traffic closures.
For many, Malecon’s biggest magic happens at sunset, but the area comes most alive after the sun goes down when Habaneros head there to eat, drink, listen to music, dance and simply hang out.
2. Get lost in Havana Vieja
There is a reason the original city center, known today as Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. With hundreds of houses of historic importance, stunning mansions, beautiful churches and picturesque squares, it is a true colonial gem.
Equally delightful is its energy. Animated vendors, from food to souvenirs to art, share the streets with locals who are often simply standing in front of their houses in no hurry or places to be, kids cheerfully playing soccer, the elderly engaged in a spirited game of dominoes, bicycle taxis or occasionally, a horse drawn carriage, calling out for customers and of course tourists, snapping pictures and trying to take it all in.
Many parts of Havana Vieja are crumbling or even in ruins as sporadic renovations cannot keep up, but this does not take a way from its beauty. Perhaps it only makes one more impressed as you try to imagine the splendor of the city which used to be, hoping that it all returns, somehow, sometime in the future.
3. Visit Plaza de la Catedral, Havana’s most beautiful square
This was one of my favorite spots in Old Havana. Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana, Havana’s Cathedral, may not have the vastness of Notre Dame or the mind-blowing design of the Sagrada Família, but this baroque style church with two uneven towers is incredibly charming and the small square in front of it is simply beautiful.
Though it has never been confirmed, legend says at one time the church held the remains of Christopher Columbus before they were returned to Spain. Plaza de la Cathedral, which the church sits on, was originally called the Swamp Square because that’s what it was, but it later became one of the most prestigious areas in Old Havana. Despite several restaurants with outdoor seating, an art gallery and ever present tourists, it has a certain feel of intimacy and tranquility. I liked it most at night when lit up from every corner and bathed in soft yellow light.
4. Retrace Hemingway’s steps at his favorite hang-outs
The literary legend loved Havana and spent several years living and writing there, renting a room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos until he purchased a property on the city’s outskirts. Room 511, where Hemingway stayed longest, has been converted into a mini museum which you can visit to view the original furnishings along with his typewriter and fishing rods.
When he was not writing in his room, Hemingway could often be found at the nearby La Bodeguita del Medio, a restaurant and bar said to be the birth place of the Cuban national drink, the mojito. If you prefer a daiquiri, you can retrace his steps at El Floridita, another place where he was a frequent guest. Both are usually packed and have tourist level prices, but if you are a Hemingway fan, seeing the stool where Ernie used to sit on many afternoons is… as they say, priceless.
Tip: Hotel Ambos Mundos has a great roof top restaurant and bar which offers fantastic views of Havana Vieja and the harbor. It’s definitely worth a visit and a great place to chill after touring the old town.
5. Travel back in time to colonial Havana at one of its Pharmacy Museums
I ran into El Museo de Farmacia Habanera La Reunion entirely by accident, simply by walking down one of Havana Vieja’s streets, but it’s worth a planned visit. The building used to be home to one of the most famous pharmacies in the world and apparently the first to offer homeopathic remedies. It now houses an awe-inspiring collection of French porcelain apothecary jars, medical instruments, hand written formulas, labels, a large volume of books and more, all displayed in gorgeous giant wooden cabinets and massive counters. This museum is a fantastic example of an old style pharmacy that will instantly transport you back in time a century or so.
La Reunion was known for its magnesia-based antacids and remedies prepared using cod liver oil. I also learned that Cuban pharmacies were not only a place to purchase prescribed medicinal products, but also an important gathering place to discuss politics and other important topics.
Tip: You can also look for the Taquechel and Johnson & Johnson Pharmacy Museums. There are no entrance fees, but visitors can make a voluntary contribution.
6. Delight in Coco Glace at Plaza Vieja
Known for modernistic sculptures mixed with colonial architecture, Havana’s biggest plaza is worth visiting for its eclectic vibe alone. The square also has a rich history which includes executions, bullfights and fancy city celebrations.
But there is another important reason why you should head there: Plaza Vieja is where you will find the street cart with delicious Coco Glace, famous both for the awesome ice-cream and its energetic vendor.
Made only from three simple ingredients: coconut milk, coconut water and pieces of coconut and served in a half coconut shell topped with just a touch of chocolate syrup, it was a heavenly pick-me-up treat after hours of touring the hot streets of Havana and one of most memorable parts of my trip.
7. Or, enjoy Havana’s most famous ice cream at Coppelia
One can never have too much ice cream so here is another suggestion! For this one, you must head across town to Vedado, but it is worth it. Coppelia’s ice cream has been a Havana institution since the 1960s when it was founded.
Believe it or not, Coppelia was a project of Fidel Castro’s to introduce his love of dairy to the masses. The store was named by his secretary after her favorite ballet and became especially famous after being featured in the film Strawberry and Chocolate.
Apparently, the chain used to offer more than 20 flavors daily. Today there are only a few; however, it doesn’t really matter…whatever flavor you choose, it will be delicious.
Tip: Don’t let the insanely long lines deter you. If you are paying with CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, used mostly by tourists), ask one of the attendants and they will direct you to a separate parlor with practically no lines and a small sitting area with tables. Once there, go for the “classic combo” which means light caramel sauce and crushed cookies added as toppings to your choice of flavor.
8. Feel the weight of communism at Museo de la Revolution and Plaza de la Revolucion
Regardless of how you feel about the current regime in Cuba, the Museum of the Revolution will give you an appreciation for the complicated history between the U.S. and Cuba. Housed in the former Presidential Palace (Cuba’s version of the White House) and decorated by Tiffany’s of New York, the museum offers a comprehensive view of Cuban revolution history…from Cuba’s perspective. It is brimming with communist propaganda, though many displays are in Spanish only. So it was hard to understand everything, but somehow one can comprehend the message, anyway.
Tip: Be sure to visit Rincon de Los Cretinos, a wall with caricatures of anti-revolutionists, located on the right side of the 1st floor behind the stairs leading up to the 2nd floor. It’s easy to miss if you are not looking for it.
If you are wondering where to snap that iconic Che Guevara image on a giant building (turns out the building is the Cuban Ministry of the Interior) with the equally famous words Hasta la victoria, siempre (Until the everlasting victory, always), you must head to La Plaza de la Revolucion.
In this square, which is supposedly the largest in the world, Fidel’s hour-long speeches and all the political rallies took place in front of millions of Cubans. It is here where the people of Cuba also came to pay respect to El Comandante when he recently passed away. Pope Francis also held his mass here during his visit in 2015. The square is lined with many other government buildings as well as a 358-foot tall José Marti Memorial dedicated to this Cuban poet and national hero.
Tip: To the east of the building with Che is another building with a giant image which is often mistaken for Castro. It is actually Camillo Cienfeugos, another famous Cuban revolutionary. Don’t miss the quote on this one: Vas bien, Fidel (You’re doing fine, Fidel).
9. Sample some authentic Cuban food in one of the city’s paladares
Paladar is best translated as a self-run restaurant (as opposed to state-owned). They are usually family managed places located in a house, part of which has been converted to a restaurant. This is where you can find great authentic Cuban food. Here are some places I particularly enjoyed in Havana:
- Doña Eutimia, located just off the Plaza de la Catedral. Enjoy delicious and very reasonably priced authentic Cuban food like ropa vieja (shredded beef in a tasty sauce with peppers and onions) or picadillo (stewed ground beef with tomatoes with green olives and raisins), and fantastic mojitos too.
- Mama Inés, famous for Fidel Castro’s former personal chef who runs the kitchen. I regret not having had a full meal here, but I did have the flan. Best one I’ve ever eaten!
- Havana 61, a mix of traditional and contemporary Cuban dishes, all delicious. Try camarones a la criolla (shrimp creole) and fried plantains. They were incredible.
- Chef Ivan Justo, located across the street from the Museo de La Revolucion. Find amazing creative contemporary cuisine with a Cuban influence.
10. Go for a ride in a classic American car – So Havana, So Cuba
Cuba is one big classic American car museum. Planning my trip, I had, of course, seen pictures of them, but I wasn’t prepared for the fact that they are literally everywhere: in every color and in many shapes, makes and models.
While in the U.S. these cars would all be collector’s items, in Cuba, they are used as everyday vehicles. They are also used as taxis, often providing key income for their owners who, I was told, have some of the best paid jobs in Cuba.
Never mind if the seats are often a bit dusty, the doors can only be opened and closed from the outside, there might be loose wires hanging from places or even spots through which you can see the road under your feet, this is a unique Cuban experience you simply have to take in!
Tip: You will find many old cars, beautifully arranged in rainbow colors along Parque Central by the Capitolio, waiting for tourists and ready to charge a steep fee. You can also opt for OurCarsTours who offer various city tours in classic cars and an English guide.
In my opinion, the most authentic, as well as most economical experience, is to simply jump into one on Malecon or another one of Havana’s streets; it will be much cheaper. If somebody without the official “taxi” sign honks and tries to offer you a ride, it’s OK. Keep in mind that it’s hard to make a decent living in Cuba, so everybody tries their best to provide for their families. It’s generally safe and the driver should take you to any destination of your choice and even wait for you, just make sure you negotiate and agree on your fare upfront.
11. Experience Cañonazo de la Nueve at La Cabaña Fort
The origins of Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana’s fort, go back to the 18th century. It was originally built by the Spaniards as protection for the city (as forts usually are). Perhaps the more “interesting” part of its history is that it was used by Che Guevara as his military headquarters as well as a prison of torture by the Castro government in more recent time.
On a more cheerful note, the fort offers beautiful views of Havana that are most striking at sunset. Every night, after the sun goes down, a cannon is fired at exactly at 9 pm after a brief ceremony, a custom carried forward from colonial times, which signaled the closing of the city walls’ gates.
Tip: You will have to take a taxi in order to reach the fort. Make sure you are on the wall where the action takes place on time or you will miss the whole thing. Don’t count on “Cuban time” here because the cañonazo happens exactly at 9 pm. The ceremony is very brief, culminating with one very loud boom of the cannon, and then it’s over. I suggest coming early to have dinner at one of the restaurants outside of the fort such as Hostal El Cañonazo, which is a great choice. After the ceremony, you can browse the free museum located on the premises and rows of souvenir stands before returning to the city.
12. Indulge in some Cuban Beats
One must mention music and dance when it comes to Cuba. They are tightly woven into the Cuban culture and practically part of the Cuban DNA. Catchy beats in various rhythms are coming from everywhere, live or through a radio, and it is common to see Cubans spontaneously break into a mini dance session in the middle of the street any time of the day. During my trip, I often wondered if Cuban children are born dancing the salsa and mambo.
The options to experience some of the Havana’s music and dance scene are countless. Legendary La Tropicana Cabaret is an undeniable spectacle of the most colorful costumes, dancing and singing, despite its touristy feel.
For a more authentic experience, visit La Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a converted cooking oil factory that now houses live music, art exhibits and fashion shows. Or head to La Zorra y El Cuervo for some smooth Cuban jazz.
You can test your salsa moves at La Casa de la Musica where some of Havana’s best salsa bands perform nightly. And I can’t forget to mention the famous Callejon de Hamel where you can buy some great street art and indulge in live street music and dancing every Sunday afternoon.
I cannot wait to be back, Havana!
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A native of Slovenia, Vera moved to the U.S. 20+ years ago after meeting her American husband. Together with their two children they live on the North…