ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO HAVANA CUBA

ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO HAVANA CUBA

So you’ve read my know-before-you-go guide to Cuba, and now you’re eager to learn more. In this post I’ll delve deeper into where to eat, sleep and drink in Havana. What to see and what not to waste your time on. Since the majority of people who visit Cuba will spend some time in the capital, I’ll dedicate this blog to the big city. I’ve marked everything mentioned in this guide on a Google map at the end of this post. Next up will be other cities and towns on the island, where to go and how to get there. For now, enjoy my essential guide to Havana, Cuba!Photo of Havana streets, classic cars and Capitol building taken from Hotel Parque Central rooftop

Airport

I’ve covered airport transfers and currency in this post, have a quick scan before you continue reading this Havana guide, as it should answer a lot of questions. The airport has lots of shops, somewhere to exchange money and ATMs, but WiFi isn’t that straight forward. You’ll be eager to hit the city and take in the sights, sounds and smells of Havana. So, unless you’re on an extremely tight budget, take my advice and organise a private transfer in advance. There are alternatives such as public buses, but in my opinion the time and effort simply isn’t worth it in this case.

José Martí International Airport is about a 30 minute drive from La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the main tourist hub. Keep your eyes peeled en route as your driver may take a course that passes the famous Plaza de la Revolución, El Malecón coastal road and/or El Capitolio (which looks similar to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.).

Cuba essential guide everything you need to know. Travel writer Nadia El Ferdaoussi the daily self. Havana transport

Different areas of Havana

Havana is split into lots of different neighbourhoods. The main ones you’ll stay in or visit are Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), Central Havana (Centro Habana) and Vedado. You’ll notice major price differences in each area for lodging, food and drink etc. Old Havana is the most touristy, so expect amped up pricing and a drastically different looking city to just a couple of streets away. This is where you’ll find Parque Central (the central park), most of the major hotels (Iberostar Parque Central, Hotel Inglaterra, Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, Hotel Florida) and most of the major tourist streets including Calle Obispo and Paseo del Prado.Calle O Reilly Havana Cuba street name sign

Download the app MAPS.ME app to have offline maps with turn by turn navigation in case you get lost, or just ask a local!

Where to stay in Havana

Book your first couple of nights in advance, but after that, you can go with the flow. Havana can be a bit of a culture shock and when you’ve had a long journey to get there it’s good to have somewhere to lay your head and dump your bags before heading out to explore. It absolutely isn’t necessary, you’ll easily find accommodation, but save that adventure for later on when you have your bearings. Of course, some people like to have everything planned and paid for in advance and that’s cool too, but I hate the feeling of being restricted and enjoy the freedom of being able to move around. Either way, Airbnb is your best bet. If you’ve never booked through the site, you can get €35 off your first stay by following this link. I think it’s probably safe to say that ‘Casa Particulares’ in Cuba were the original Airbnb. Basically, you rent a room is someone’s private home. Now, before I went I was imagining this awkward situation whereby I’d have to attempt to communicate with the family, socialise and eat with them. If that’s what you want, great, but you’re under no pressure or obligation to spend any time with the owners at all. In fact, they’re usually going about their day to day lives, running a business or going to work and often have hired help to cook meals and clean.

Quite similar to a B&B, these casas sometimes provide breakfast included in the price (but not always) and can cater for other meals too. More benefits of staying in a casa are the links to other locals, like taxi drivers or tour guides. These will inevitably be cheaper than booking through a hotel or tourist office. Rooms usually have a double bed and a single, an en suite bathroom and air conditioning or a fan and cost around 25CUC. Casa owners are extremely house proud and keep their accommodations spotless. More about the food in the next section.

Casa Particular door sign Havana CubaLa Roomantic Colonial 2 Casa Particular Havana CubaYou can spot an official Casa Particular by the blue symbol above or near the front door, and their owners will usually have some presence at taxi and bus stations when there are rooms available, which is your chance to haggle. Maybe ask for a discount or a free brekkie! If you want to book in advance, some of the more modern ones are available via Airbnb. In fact I found this well located casa, just a few blocks from Parque Central (but in central Havana, so a bit cheaper) that had free wifi for two hours every morning (almost unheard of) with breakfast included and they arranged my airport transfer AND changed my euro into CUC when I arrived. Highly recommend ‘La Roomantic Colonial 2’, if you’ve never booked with Airbnb before or are starting a new account, you can actually get your first night completely free here. Here’s a photo of breakfast, the beautiful dining room with morning light and street view from the balcony…Breakfast table at Roomantic Colonial 2 Casa Particular in Havana CubaBreakfast room at Roomantic Colonial 2 Casa Particular in Havana CubaView from Casa Particular Roomantic Colonial 2, classic car in Havana

Havana is the only place in Cuba with hostels, so if you want to keep within a tight budget with shared accommodation, this is your time to do it. Hostel Casa Caribe has one dorm (sleeps 10) in a family home with beds at around 12CUC a night. There’s free drinking water for guests here (rare!), it’s right next to a public park with a WiFi zone and a short walk to the Malecón. Breakfast is included, eggs are 2CUC extra. Paradise Hostel Backpacker is a bigger operation with a few rooms and a roof bar (I think you can bring your own drinks too). Situated in a beautiful colonial building, also in Centro Habana, the hosts are extremely helpful and they also serve cheap, hearty Cuban meals. Breakfast is 3CUC extra. Both places are clean, safe and the perfect place to meet other travellers, especially if you’re solo! Brekkie at Casa Caribe..Breakfast at Casa Caribe hostel in Havana, Cuba

If you want to splash the cash and stay in a snazzy hotel, check out the ones listed above in Old Havana via Booking.com.

Where to eat and drink in Havana

I’ve written a full food & drink travel guide for Cuba on TheTaste.ie which you can read here, but below is a list of my Havana faves;

  • Eat breakfast in your Casa Paticular, hotel or hostel. Eating out will cost a lot more and the quality won’t be as good. It’s a no brainer. For about 5CUC you’ll be filled with fresh tropical fruit (usually mango, banana, papaya, watermelon, star fruit), warm fresh bread (ration rolls), butter, jam (mango puree), eggs to your liking, coffee and juice (more like a smoothie). Water will be extra (drink only bottled)
  • El del Frente and 304 O’Reilly (when this was first recommended I planned to avoid, thinking it was an Irish bar when in fact it’s the street address) are sister bar/restaurants on Calle O’Reilly and both well worth a visit. El del Frente (#303) is accessed through a very unassuming door labelled ‘BAR’ and is more hipster than classic Cuban with young staff running the operation. It has a great rooftop bar serving massive mojitos, (if that’s what you’re into) and absolutely excellent tacos, try the shrimp and taste the homemade salsas with caution 🔥  Across the road, 304 serves delicious ceviche and a lot of seafood specials. Try get to one for lunch and the other for dinner on different days. With some of the lower quality ingredients around, this place stands out, everything is fresh and flavourful El del Frente bar door on Calle O Reilly in HavanaTacos in 304 O Reilly Havana
  • Sloppy Joe’s (the original, believe it or not), just across from the Museum of the Revolution is probably the most Americanised establishment in the city. Go for a twist on the original with Sloppy Joe tacos washed down with a Cuba Libre and enjoy the memorabilia adorning the wallsSloppy Joe's tacos in Havana
  • La Guarida Paladar pops up on mosts Havana food and drink guides and for good reason. It’s situated on the top two floors of an epic colonial building in Central Havana and you’ll need to reserve ahead for a table on the terrace. Or you can order from the bar menu on the roof top deck without a booking. Proper order here with fresh seafood, sides, a decent wine list and tasty cocktails. Reasonably priced for tourists, massively inflated for Cubans. Head for sundowners up top before dining al fresco and enjoying the viewAl fresco dining terrace at La Guarida with a view of HavanaFish and vegetables with white wine at La Guarida Paladar, HavanaLa Guarida Paladar colonial building in Havana
  • Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco is a brewery and tap house on the waterfront with an open air patio and live music daily. If you’re over Presidente, Cristal and Bucanero beers, head here for a taste of their light, amber or dark ale in a mug or big beer dispenser to share. Food was disappointing though, this was the ‘Cubano’ sandwichCubano sandwich and beer at Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco in Havana
  • Floridita bar is one of the most famous in Havana. Apparently where Hemingway drank daquiris, the bar was the first to make this frozen favourite. While they serve other drinks too, pull up a stool at the bar and order the (pretty overpriced at $6) original frozen rum drink while listening to the live band play Cuban classicsFloridita bar HavanaFloridita bar in Havana. Original daquiriLive band playing at Floridita bar in Havana
  • La Concordia is just a stones throw away from much more famous La Guarida, but shouldn’t be overlooked. Also with roof top bar, this paladar serves up slightly more pocket friendly cocktails and delicious breaded coconut shrimp in a lovely restaurant with friendly staffPineapple cocktail la concordia Havana Cuba Guide
  • Hideously overpriced, but extremely tasty, this meal on Callejón de Hamel is a tourist version of a classic Cuban meal. The meat, rice and beans could easily feed two though and the beers were cheapEntrance to callejon de hamel in Havana

Traditional Cuban food at Hamel st

  • If you truly want to eat like a local, head to the Malecón at the weekend or hit up a real casa paladar. Ordering street food on the Malecón is an experience in itself (you’ll need to know the ‘último’ rule), and you’ll be lucky if you get cutlery, but it’s as authentic as it gets. Don’t expect high quality food, but it’s soakage that’ll keep you drinking Presidentes for the rest of the night. If you want something a little more homely, you can have exactly that by eating a meal from a Cuban family’s house. Look out for menus beside a window at the side of the street and if there are tables set up through the door, you’re in business. You’re better off paying in CUP here, a meal will cost around one euro and it’s exactly what the locals eat day in, day outFood at the Malecon in Havana. Pigs headReal casa paladar food, authentic Cuban family meal
  • Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a very popular multi-use space in a converted cooking oil factory in Vedado. It’s open Thursday – Sunday from 8pm, but arriving just after sunset when the place opened there was already a queue! Popular with young Cubans and tourists alike, this art gallery-come nightclub needs to be on your must see list when visiting Havana. Live music, performance, food, coffee, dance, art, exhibitions and the biggest mojitos you’ve ever seen, make FAC an eclectic feast for the senses. This is one place you’ll be able to pay the entry fee in CUP, then you’ll receive a card which is stamped each time you order a drink and you pay the total on the way out. Weird, but it works!Fabrica de Arte Cubano Havana Cuba Travel GuideHavana Club rum mojitos Fabrica de Arte Cubano Havana
  • Bodeguita del Medio is said to be the place where Hemingway drank mojitos, whether or not that’s true it’s still worth popping in for a drink. The bar is tiny, usually standing room only, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with mainly tourists. There’s a live band in the corner every evening, although the bartender mixes mojitos to his own rhythm. The cocktails are pricy at $5 (and small), but it’s definitely one to tick off your list while in Havana. Hot, sweaty, sweet and very Cuban

What to do in Havana

Most of the things to do in Havana are neatly tied up in the day-to-day of visiting the city. Staying with a Cuban family in a casa particular for example, drinking mojitos in Old Havana and simply walking the streets exploring Callejón de Hamel, eating in private restaurants (paladares), enjoying the live music in bars; you’ll unknowingly have experienced some of the major things to do in Havana without even trying. Still, there’s so much more…

  • You can’t visit Havana without getting to grips with its history. The Museum of the Revolution and Plaza de la Revolución are obvious choices
  • The beaches at Playas del Este don’t get the recognition they deserve. In fact, I’d heard hardly anything about them until I’d already spent two weeks in Cuba. While I didn’t visit Varadero (the biggest beach resort in Cuba), I did make it to Cayo Santa Maria which has arguably the best beach on the whole island. The all inclusive hotels are extremely inauthentic, with pretty shitty food offerings (even the most expensive five star resorts) and in this case, rather tricky to get to. BUT they do occupy some of the most scenic parts of Cuba’s northern coastline. Just half an hour east of Havana, however, you’ll find gorgeous white sand, turquoise waters and a healthy dose of genuine Caribbean charm. Live music, Cuban food stalls and lots of locals…tick, tick, tick! Get the T3 bus from the central park in old Havana, it’s only 5CUC return. Don’t wait until the last bus of the day to head back though, as they fill up fast. These pictures are (confusingly) from Playa Santa Maria (not to be confused with Cayo Santa Maria which is 400km from Havana)
  • Every night at 9pm at La Cabaña Fortress, soldiers dress in 18th century uniforms and fire the canon. While it fires a blank these days, El Cañonazo de las 9 ceremony is a unique thing to do in Havana, the anticipation is palpable in the air and the actual moment of the canon fire is surprisingly thunderous! Arrive well in advance to secure a good spot and enjoy views looking back over the water at La Habana Vieja
  • The old (and original) Bacardi building is located in Old Havana. The Edificio Bacardi is no longer used by the rum company (whose offices are now in Miami and production in Puerto Rico), but the art deco building was once the largest in the city and is well preserved. Keep an eye out for the bat on top!Edificio del Bacardi Havana building
  • The Malecón is such a major symbol of Havana, the sea wall and road lining the coast stretches 8km along the three neighbourhoods mentioned above, La Habana Vieja (from the harbour), Centro Habana and Vedado. These days it serves as a means of entertainment for locals and tourists alike. The former head to the Malecón in the absence of any other affordable nightlife, bringing their own bottle of Havana Club rum and meeting up with friends. Individual fishermen also line the wall here and at weekends and certain times of the year you’ll find parties and carnivals with live music and street food. Best to be seen from sunset onwardsNadia El Ferdaoussi Malecon Havana Cuba
  • Classic car tours are top of most tourists’ bucket lists when coming to Cuba. Havana has the highest concentration of restored 1950s American cars in the country and the shiny convertibles can be hired with tour guide by the hour. You can book classic car tours online, but there’s no need since you only have to walk by Parque Central to be accosted by drivers waving their laminated flyers in your face. This is your time to haggle! Fill up a car and you’ll pay less than 10CUC each for the hour, although you could probably negotiate down to as little as $25 in total if you’re smart about it
  • Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market is next to the Cerveceria mentioned above, by the harbour. A nice indoor market to cool off with a fresh coconut and browse the aisles of stalls selling Cuban trinkets and artwork
  • Plaza de Armas vintage market in Old Havana has rows of antique Spanish books, jewellery and army memorabilia. Closed MondaysPlaza de Armas vintage market Old Havana
  • Cigars in Havana are everywhere. Sold at bars, on the street (beware of fakes, if it seems to good to be true, it usually is), by locals dressed up looking for a quick buck in exchange for a photo and in government run shops. The Partagás Cigar Factory behind the Capitol building no longer serves as a working cigar rolling factory, but the original building remains and the store is very popular. This means long queues though, so instead head to La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano beside Floridita bar. It’s much quieter and you can have a nice coffee and peruse the rum while you wait. The big hotels usually have their own cigar shops too
  • On the subject of hotels, feel free to walk in and use the amenities of the big ones without any trouble. The rooftop of Parque Central has amazing views and Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a great place for a sunset mojito if the Malecón is a bit too hectic for your liking. You’ll find WiFi hotspots too and the signal strength is usually a bit better than in public parks
  • And one don’t; the hop on hop off bus tour, it’s overpriced and the guides are extremely disinterested. While they spoke in both Spanish and English, I couldn’t understand either. Although they kind of just announced the stops rather than giving that much background information. At 10CUC, it’s overpriced…an individual guide would be money more well spent

Here’s my map with pins of all the places I’ve named in Havana, which should help you navigate your way through the city. Hopefully I’ve covered most of the things you’d want to know about a visit to Cuba’s capital, but please leave me a comment if there’s any other burning questions about Havana!

Follow:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *