The lost city, trapped in the 1950s, full of charisma and history. Soul of a tired country filled with dreams, pain and pride, bursting salsa and vintage cars. Fascinating Havana, one of the most picturesque cities in the world, needs little to no introduction.
This is a special post. I was born and raised in Cuba and moved to the US in 2008. Most of my family still lives on the island, which keeps my roots alive. I go back often, always trying to explore our capital a little more. If you are looking for the best things to do on your trip to Havana, from the smell of ropa vieja to the sights of El Malecón, then you are in the right place. These 30 tips come from a local!
I am also including a Google itinerary map, flagging all the places listed below. You can download the map to your smartphone for offline access when visiting Havana.
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Stroll Along El Malecón
No trip to Havana is complete without a visit to El Malecón – the 5 miles sidewalk and seawall separating the city from the ocean. Often seen in movies and postcards, it has become a symbol of the city and a great spot to just sit, enjoy the views and people watch. I recommend you visit either early in the morning or during sunset to experience the local life and best views.
The sidewalk is wide enough to safely walk for miles or go for a run, but be careful with the crashing waves, you might get wet! My favorite section is across the street from Castillo de la Real Fuerza, this spot makes for some great photo opportunities with El Morro in the background. The Havana Carnival takes place along this boulevard every year, from late July to early August, a bonus if you are visiting during this time.
Ride a vintage American car
Remember how I mentioned Havana was trapped in time? Well, vintage cars are just one of the many reasons why. Chances are you think of convertible classic cars when picturing your trip to Havana; and you are right, the city is filled with them! Just pick your favorite color and hop-on, at least for a picture. They still amaze me every time I go back.
These are not just there for fun or to keep a tradition alive. These are our cars—and they are quite expensive. If you schedule a car tour, there is usually a flat fee depending on the duration. However, keep in mind they also operate like any other taxi. So, if you are just looking to get some photos with Havana in the background, go for the taxi option and save some money. Hiring one of these is a great way to support the locals, assuming some are privately owned.
Local tip: Most drivers will let you sit in the car for free to take photos. Just ask nicely.
Visit the Morro-Cabaña complex
A cannon is fired in Havana at exactly 9 PM every night from the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña, also known as La Cabaña. The ceremony has taken place since the 1700s when Cuba was a colony of Spain. Back then, firing the cannon meant the city gates were closing for the night. Nowadays, it is a rich military tradition, accompanied by drum rolls and young cadets wearing colonial uniforms. The event draws visitors and locals alike. Cubans swear you can hear the sound from the blasting cannon all over the city.
El Morro, short for Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, is also part of this same historical complex. Both castles offer a range of experiences, from museums to local vendors and amazing city views. If you are planning to stay for the 9 PM ceremony, arrive early and enjoy the complex before the crowd grows. This is quite a spectacle and should be seen at least once during any stay in Havana.
Get lost walking around Old Havana
This is probably my favorite thing to do when visiting the capital. Explore by foot and get lost! You will find unique squares, churches, amazing architecture, restaurants, bars, cobblestone streets, statues and monuments; there is a surprise in every corner. One of the reasons why Old Havana was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, the magic of the city is in the culture, the people and the unique way of life. With more than 500 years of history, Old Havana (and all of Cuba) is a real mix. From buildings that have fallen into ruins to noisy narrow streets and small souvenir shops set up in the local’s front porches. Interact with the people during your walk and make sure to bring water and sunscreen—our sun is one of a kind.
Drink a daiquiri (or two) at El Floridita
One of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite places in Havana, El Floridita, is among the busiest bars. Their daiquiri—proclaimed to be the best one in the world—and their local band are worth at least a few minutes of your time. It is also a restaurant, but I wouldn’t recommend you eat here, it’s always jam-packed. If you are a fan of Hemingway there is a bronze statue of the author located in his favorite spot at the bar.
And a mojito at La Bodeguita
Another one of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes, claimed to be the birthplace of the mojito. It is permanently crowded and nearly all the customers are tourists, but after a mean mojito…you will not mind! At least walk around and take a picture with the famous sign, it is another must-do in Havana.
Walk around Paseo del Prado
The Prado is a 200+ years old marble pedestrian boulevard, extending from El Malecón to Central Park. The walkway is in the middle of a busy avenue. It is full of life, with couples seating on the stone benches, seniors enjoying the shades and children playing outside. Local artists come here every weekend to exhibit and sell their works of art. For the best experience visit in the late afternoon. Make sure you do not miss the famous bronze lions that guard it.
Have an authentic meal at Los Nardos
I visited Los Nardos during my last visit and loved everything about this restaurant. The service is excellent, and it has an ample, authentic and affordable menu. Not even the lobster will break the bank! It looks like any other distressed building from the outside, but I promise you, you will not be disappointed. The atmosphere is elegant and romantic, great for friends and family. Just make sure you make a reservation or arrive early; it is a popular and crowded spot.
Local Tip: If you are looking to have a traditional Cuban meal, I would recommend you ask for one of these combinations:
Lechon asado (roast pork meat) + Arroz Congrí (Cuban rice and dried black beans) + Yuca con mojo (Cassava root in garlicky sauce)
Ropa Vieja (tender shredded beef in tomato sauce) + White Rice + Fried Sweet Plantains
See El Capitolio & The Great Theatre
Both buildings are located right across the street from Los Nardos restaurant, so before or after your meal, you can just cross the street and appreciate the architecture of these two masterpieces.
El Capitolio is modeled after the US Capitol, located in Washington DC. If you are interested in going inside, it encompasses a planetarium and three museums. It is one of the best-preserved buildings in all of Havana. Even if you are not planning to go inside, it is still worth visiting. Make sure to climb the steps all the way to the top for some great photos!
The Great Theater of Havana is another historical building, home of the Cuban National Ballet, founded by the legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso. It is often overlooked, but you will not miss it if you are in the area, it is right next to the Capitol. I would recommend you pass by at night to see it beautifully lit and for some great photo opportunities. They also offer tours and performances, in case you’re interested in making the most of this landmark.
Have brunch at Malecon 663
Malecon 663 is a boutique hotel, centrally located right across the street from the seafront in Old Havana. Their rooftop terrace is the highlight. Stunning panoramic views of El Malecón, serving high-end weekend brunch and featuring local DJs! This spot is about as classic Havana as it gets, a fusion of current trends, art and local flavors. They also have a cocktail and tapas bar on the first floor, and a shop selling jewelry and personalized hand-made soaps. Another interesting fact…everything displayed or used in Malecon 663 is for sale!
And a cocktail at the Grand Packard
Another breathtaking rooftop terrace…Yes, Grand Packard was also an American luxury car. The 5-star hotel is not the most affordable form of accommodation. However, go up to the 6th floor and enjoy a cocktail by their infinity pool, overlooking El Morro. It is a great place to have a drink, relax and appreciate the best of Cuban tourism. Come here after walking around Old Havana to recharge!
Go to the Kempinski Rooftop
Yet another rooftop terrace…but trust me, you must visit one of the most luxurious and impressive hotels in all of Havana. Entrance is free if you are going to the bar and costumers receive complementary WiFi. Now, if you want to swim in their gorgeous pool get ready to spend $80 per person for a day pass. The view from the top is nothing like the other two terraces mentioned before. The Kempinski offers a different perspective of Havana; it is further away from the sea and overlooking the city. Ambiance is more on the classic side, with interesting architecture and beautiful decor. A great example of what Cuba could have been…
Walk around Parque Central
Parque Central is literally translated to Central Park. It is a small park, across the street from the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski. The park is centered around a statue of Jose Marti (any Cuban could go on for hours about him). Honestly, it is an average park but the buildings surrounding it are the work of art. It is an ideal place to watch the world go by. Also visit Parque Central if interested in photographing the vintage cars, they are all lined up here.
Visit the Plaza de la Catedral
Plaza de la Catedral is one of my favorite squares in all of Havana, another must-visit stop on the map. Its highlight is the elegant Cathedral of San Cristobal, entrance to the well-kept church is completely free and well worth it if you have the time. You can go up to the top of the bell tower for $1 USD. There are also other interesting buildings, coffee shops, bars and patio seating restaurants in this plaza. There’s often live music here but I would recommend you visit early in the morning to have it all for yourself.
Go to Callejón de los peluqueros
The Hairdresser’s Alley has become a popular and upcoming alley of old Havana in the past few years. It started as an artistic project created by barbers, hairdressers and designers that were somehow part of the hairdressing world. Here you can find outside seating restaurants, coffee shops, small galleries and interesting street art. And of course, several barbershops!
La Farmacia (The Pharmacy) is one of the most popular restaurants in the narrow alley. An ideal quick stop if you are looking for a cocktail and a quick bite. Their fried malanga dipped in honey and honey mustard is the perfect afternoon snack.
Learn more about the Cuban Cigars
Cuban cigars are among the finest, prized all over the world. We have centuries of experience in the tobacco business, and the subtropical climate provides the perfect growing conditions. Even if you don’t smoke, it is interesting to understand more about the process. It also makes for a great souvenir!
The Partagá Cigar Factory, behind the Capitol is one of the most iconic buildings in the city. Nowadays, it is just a store, and although you can find cigars all over the city, this shop offers a decent selection. The new Partagás Factory is a 10-minute drive from the former venue. They offer guided tours of the rolling floors and have become the primary cigar factory tour stop in Havana.
Visit the Havana Club Rum Museum
Havana Club Rum is another famous cultural heritage from the island. This is a great spot to learn about the history and the distillery process. The interactive tours at the museum run every 15 minutes and are offered in different languages. The price includes a shot of Havana Club 7 year old at the end of the tour.
Regular tickets are just $7.50 USD per person. If you decide not to take the tour, you can watch the bartenders pressing fresh sugarcane juice at the bar while ordering a cocktail and enjoying some live music. If you are interested in buying a bottle of Havana Club, it’s better to get it at the airport. Prices and bottles are the same, and you will not have to carry it around during your trip.
Drink a guarapo & try the our pizza
If the idea of ice cold fresh-pressed sugarcane juice mixed with lime juice calls your attention, then you need to try guarapo. This is the sweetest and most affordable drink you can find in all of Cuba, extremely refreshing on a hot day. It can be found almost everywhere but a good spot is Simon Bolivar, right beside the Capitol building. Make sure they put enough ice on it and get ready for the sugar rush!
You could also pair your guarapo with a Cuban pizza! I’m sure you’ve heard about the Cuban sandwich, but what about our pizza? Probably one of the thickest pizzas you will ever eat. We have a different idea of the Italian dish, which we adopted and made our own by adding sofrito (tomato paste with plenty of condiment). A good place to have an “authentic Cuban pizza” is La Mimosa in Chinatown.
Visit Havana’s Camera Obscura
This little gem of Old Havana is the only pinhole camera in the Caribbean and all of Latin America. It is a short but unique experience. From here you can enjoy real time 360-degrees panoramic city views, projected through the cool optical device.
The Camera Obscura is located on the highest building in Old Havana, the Gómez Vila building in Plaza Vieja. Tickets are $2 USD and the 10 minutes tour is offered in both English and Spanish. The view from the top alone is worth the price. This is also the perfect spot to catch some air conditioner and cool down after a long day of exploring under the bright Cuban sun.
Have a night out at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Are you looking for an art gallery, a bar, night club, live band or lounge area to spend one of your nights in Havana? The Cuban Art Factory checks these off your bucket list! If you want a Salsa lesson, the place also delivers! Do not miss this hippie yet classy spot, created by the famous Cuban musician X-Alfonso.
The project aims to promote local Cuban talent, from photographers and filmmakers to writers and designers. It is fun and interesting to see several concepts, all together in one place. The giant factory building used to be a cooking oil factory, but it has transformed nightlife in Havana since 2010. It is also a great place to meet both locals and tourists. The venue is open from Thursday through Sunday from 8:00 PM to 3:00 AM; admission is just $2 USD per person.
See a Tropicana Music Show
If you are looking for a more classic night out, reminiscent of the 1950s Cuba, then the Tropicana show is for you. A well-known Havana spectacle, with great costumes, colors, typical Cuban music and dancing that has been enjoyed by many generations. Their choreography has remained unchanged for 80 years! This is a classic cabaret show, think of it as the Cuban Moulin Rouge. You can stay and dance the night away after the show is over.
Visit the Havana Forest
If you are planning to stay within the city but need a break from the busy life, head to El Bosque, also known as Almendares Park. Most tourists only come here during a vintage car tour, but if you have enough time it is worth your visit. The highlight is probably the peaceful river and the way the vines are draped on the trees. They are huge, and much of the area is shaded, offering a nice contrast to everything else in the city.
Have a beach day at Playas del Este
Try to squeeze in a beach day during your stay in Havana and head to one of the East Beaches. Some of the best ones are located just a short drive from the city center, as a bonus, it is always beach season in Cuba! Santa Maria del Mar is the biggest and most famous beach of Havana, but they are all beautiful sandy beaches with turquoise water.
Santa Maria has the best tourist infrastructure, but it means it is also crowded. If you are looking for a more local and relaxed atmosphere you can visit Boca Ciega Beach. I stayed in Boca Ciega with my family in August 2019. I have a great Airbnb recommendation in the area in case you decide to extend your beach break!
It is a big property, located just one block from the beach. The perfect place to stay if you are coming with a group of friends or family. It can accommodate up to 14 people (7 beds and 8.5 bathrooms), has a private pool, outdoor and indoor kitchen and air conditioner in every room—all rare in Cuba. The service is also great; they offer daily housekeeping with the rental, and a great meal service for a very affordable fee. The locals managing the property are respectful, professional and kind. It is a far better option than staying at a hotel.
Ride the Lanchita de Regla and visit El Cristo de La Habana
Did you know we have a 66-feet tall Jesus Christ statue in Havana? The statue is made out of marble and was brought from Italy and blessed by Pope Pius XII. The monument has been overlooking the city since December 1958. Coincidentally, Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Revolution, entered Havana only 15 days later! The statue is one-third smaller than the Brazilian one, but it is worth the visit. Admission is free, buy a fresh coconut, sit down and enjoy the panoramic views from the park.
It is located on a small hill in the Casablanca area. You can take a taxi through the Havana tunnel to get here or ride the Lanchita de Regla (Little Boat of Regla) for a more adventurous experience. The ferry crosses Havana Harbor in just 15 minutes for $1 USD. This is the preferred way to go to Casablanca for the locals, so get ready to see first-hand how we commute around the city.
Buy a book in Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas is the oldest plaza in Havana, another beautiful square, full of history and books! Its second-hand book market is a gem even if you are not a fan of literature. Local booksellers line the center of the square with their shelves full of random titles, ranging from classic Cuban pieces to Hemingway. Browse around, indulge in some people watching and get a unique item that will make for a cool souvenir.
Learn more about the Cuban history
If you are interested in learning more about the Cuban history and culture, I recommend you visit the Museum of the Revolution and The National Museum of Fine Arts.
Both buildings also offer amazing architecture and learning experience. The Museum of the Revolution used to be the presidential palace before the Cuban Revolution took place in 1959. A great place to start understanding the complexity of the country from one of its many perspectives. The National Museum of Fine Arts exhibits a mixture of Cuban and European art, from the colonial times to the more contemporary generations. Some of it is very inventive and innovative.
Ride a bici taxi
When moving from point A to point B in Havana, try doing so in a bici taxi at least once during your visit. As suggested by the name, a bici taxi is a pedicab, and they are all over the city! This is the most affordable way to move around, obviously slower than a regular taxi, but a fun way to see the best of Havana and support the locals. You might find some drivers blasting Cuban music as they take you around. Make sure to ask for the price before you hop-on to avoid being scammed.
Go on a road trip to Viñales
If you have the time and budget, you should totally splurge on a Viñales road trip! The Valley of Viñales is a small portion of Cuba’s beautiful countryside, surrounded by its characteristic mogotes and offering a unique landscape in the Pinar del Rio region. It’s a three hours trip from Havana but worth the hype. The valley is another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the island, a very well-deserved title.
A private taxi should be around $70 USD each way, but I would recommend going on a guided tour if you only have one day. The area is great for horseback riding, visiting the tobacco plantations, coffee farms and the several Indian caves. Make sure to check out the Prehistoric Mural, a mural painted in 1961 on a rocky side of one of the mountains. Also, don’t miss the incredible view from Hotel Jazmines.
Take a picture with the Cuba sign at the Hotel Nacional
If you are looking for a photo that screams “Cuba” then you have to head to the entrance of the National Hotel. Here you can take a picture with the famous Cuba sign. The building itself is also a landmark. As depicted in The Godfather Part II, the National Hotel served as a major Mafia gathering location in 1946. There are several cool bars and terraces inside where you could order some cocktails, the hotel grounds are also worth a stroll.
Indulge in a digital detox
One of my favorite things to do in Havana and all of Cuba is to forget about the Internet and unplug from the virtual world. It’s hard to find an Internet connection on the island. Use that excuse to enjoy a digital detox. Sometimes this is all we need to re-charge and make the best out of our trips!
Are you planning a trip to Havana? Do you have any questions or recommendations? I’d love to hear below!