Havana (or as the locals call it, “La Habana”) is Cuba’s biggest city and the capital. Famous for all kinds of reasons, from being Ernest Hemingway’s home for 21 years and a dangerous Mafia hangout to imposing a total ban on tourism and now being a tourist’s dream destination, La Habana has seen and done it all.
Before we move onto my favourite things to do in Havana, I want to stress that it isn’t the untouched gem a lot of travellers dream about. The Old Town of Havana, La Habana Vieja, that many people idealise is in fact very touristy. The newer parts of the city are also experiencing a tourism boom, with new international restaurants and boutique hotels opening up every week.
So if you’re dreaming of visiting the Havana Hemingway knew, following in his footsteps and finding your own little bar to read a book in while drinking ice cold Old Havana rum, you’re at least seven years too late.
Long gone are the days when the streets of Havana were filled exclusively with classic American cars, known in Cuba as “Yank Tanks”. These days you will see many new Asian cars on the roads. But just because the Cuban capital has lost some of its old world charm doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting — in fact the opposite is true. Because of tourism, there are loads of incredible things to do in Havana. Here are my favourites.
Top 12 things to do in Havana
1. Get lost in La Habana Vieja
The charm of Havana can be found tucked away in the small back streets of the old part of the city. This is where you will experience the romantic, local side of Havana you’ve been dreaming of. Even though you can still get a sense of the original Havana here, things are changing fast.
Today, you’ll find a lot of fancy shops in these streets selling imported goods, since local families are getting money from their relatives overseas and growing richer. But despite this modern shift, exploring La Habana Vieja is still one of my favourite things to do in Havana.
2. Discover the local craft beer scene
Havana and Cuba are more famous for their rum than their beer. But that could soon change. There are already two microbreweries in Havana popular with locals and visitors alike. The quality of Cuban craft beer might not be up to Western standards just yet, but it’s damn good after you been walking around in the sun all day.
3. Go on a Havana bus tour
I’m not usually a big fan of the hop-on hop-off buses. You know, the ones designed for tourists to see the major sights in big cities around the world. But the one in Havana is definitely worth your money and is one of the best things to do in Cuba. Especially at the cheap price of 10 CUC.
The Havana bus tour doesn’t just take you to the important landmarks in the city. It also goes to parts of the capital you would never get to see otherwise. Just remember to put on sunblock if you decide to sit on the upper open deck. I got seriously sunburned after my trip.
4. Visit the four historical squares
There are four historical squares in Old Town Havana, all with their own rich historical backgrounds. Plaza de La Catedral (Cathedral Square) is one of the most famous landmarks of Havana, home to the Catedral de San Cristóbal. The cathedral and most of the other buildings within this square date back to the 18th century. One of the best and most romantic restaurants in Old Havana is also located right here.
Laid in 1559, Plaza Vieja (Old Square) used to be known as New Square. It was originally used for military exercises then later served as an open-air marketplace. Today, it’s the most vibrant and touristy square in Havana. Most of the buildings within the square host modern restaurants and coffee houses. One of Havana’s two craft beer breweries is also located here.
The Plaza de San Francisco is the second oldest square in Havana, found inland just off the harbour where the big cruise ships dock. This square is the first sight many tourists see when they arrive in Cuba. That’s why the restaurants here are some of the most expensive in the country. The old stock exchange and main post office are also located here.
Havana’s oldest square, Plaza de Armas (Arms Square), was laid out in the early 1520s, soon after the city was founded. It was first named Plaza de la Iglesia (Church Square) after a small church that stood there until 1741 before it was destroyed in an explosion. The square got its current name in the late 16th century, when the colonial governor used the square to conduct military exercises. Most of the buildings around it date back to the late 1700s.
There’s a second-hand book market daily Tuesday-Sunday where you can pick up old treasures. You’ll find tonnes of classical Cuban books which are out of print now, magazines dating back to the 1940’s and 50’s, and newspapers and posters from the days of the revolution.
5. Take a trip in a Yank Tank
One of the absolute best things to do in Havana is to take a tour around the city in an old American Cabriolet. The price for an hour-long ride varies from 15-30 CUC. Just remember to negotiate hard before you get in.
6. Visit Revolution Square
Another square, but it’s not as historical (yet!) as the four squares in the Old Town. Revolution Square is where Fidel Castro used to host political rallies. It’s also the location of the famous Che Guevara portrait and the Jose Marti Memorial. One of the easiest ways to visit Revolution Square is to go on a Havana bus tour, since it’s one of the stops.
7. Visit Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro (El Morro)
The famous landmark that guards the entrance to Havana, Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro was built between 1589 and 1640 to protect the land from pirates and invaders. The fort offers impressive views of the sea and the city. It’s also home to the Maritime Museum of Cuba.
8. Follow in Hemingway’s footsteps
The legendary American writer Earnest Hemingway was a big drinker. It seems like he visited almost every bar in Old Havana and today, most of the bars cash in on this bit of trivia. Unfortunately, some of his old drinking joints have turned into a tourist traps that sell extremely overpriced daiquiris.
The daiquiris at his favourite hangout, El Floridita, were probably the biggest disappointment during my trip. There’s a bar next door that sells much better daiquiris for less than half the price. Even if you’re not really into Earnest Hemingway, popping into a cocktail bar is still a fun thing to do in Havana. Especially after a long, hot day of sightseeing!
While El Floridita is very overrated, the rooftop of the Ambos Mundos Hotel is highly recommended. The food and drinks here are expensive, but fantastic. The panoramic view is also one of the best in the city. It’s easy to understand why Hemingway enjoyed this place so much.
9. Smoke a cigar
I’m a non-smoker, but even I tried a few cigars in Cuba. There are some legendary cigar houses in Old Havana. And it feels like you get offered Cuban cigars from almost everyone the minute you leave the airport, making it hard to refuse.
Just be aware when locals approach you with ‘authentic’ Cohiba cigars. Unfortunately, 99.9% of them are fake. Visit a proper cigar house for the real deal and let a shop expert teach you how to cut them while having a glass of Havana Club rum.
10. Go shopping at the craft market
If you want a souvenir of your visit to Cuba, go to Almacenes de San Jose. This open-air market boasts arts and crafts from all over the country, from paintings by local artists to handmade humidors. You can even find Cuban cigars here for a very reasonable price. Just remember to haggle to get a good deal.
If you get tired of shopping or just tired of your wife/girlfriend going into all the shops, pop into one of the microbreweries next door for a cold beer.
11. Watch the sunset from the Malecón
Cuba’s most famous street, the Malecón is an 8km seaside promenade where locals and tourists go in the evening to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. It’s one of the things to do in Havana you’ve absolutely got to try!
The Malecón is a great place to go for a bit of people watching while enjoying a cocktail or cold beer from one of the small street stalls. Unfortunately, if you’re a single man hanging out here, you will be approached by persistent prostitutes.
12. Hit the beach
There’s no beach in Havana itself, but there are many beaches you can get to in less than 30 minutes on public transport. These beaches might not be as impressive as the famous resort beaches in Cuba, but they’re still a great place to spend the day if you want a break from the city.
Be aware that the beaches close to Havana aren’t really designed for tourists — they’re more popular with locals. When I visited, it wasn’t long before I was invited over by a group of locals to enjoy a cold beer with them.
Extra info about Havana
If you’re arriving at Havana airport, taxis are the only way to reach the city. A ride should cost you 20 CUC.
If you are planning to take a cruise to Cuba and Havana, be sure to check out this post.
There are two official money exchangers at the airport which offer the same rate as the money exchangers in Havana. There are no ATMs at the airport, so the only way you can get Cuban currency is to exchange money.
There’s no free WiFi anywhere in Havana. If you want to get online during your trip, read my guide about using the internet in Cuba.
More Cuba travel tips
For even more advice on travelling to Cuba from someone who’s actually been there, check out my Cuba Travel Tips: 19 Things You Need to Know Before You Travel to Cuba.
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