The vibrant capital city of Havana, Cuba has long been inaccessible to most American travelers, but thankfully things are changing. Here are my favorite things to do in the City of Columns!
In recent years, Cuba has seen some major changes as the United States finally eased restrictions on travel. More and more American’s are now visiting Cuba than ever before, and tourism has been on the rise — for good reason!
Only an hour away from Miami by plane, Havana is a fascinating blend of old and new, vintage cars and colorful, (often crumbling) infrastructure; its energy pulses with a mix of Spanish colonial architecture, booming nightlife and kitschy art galleries.
For a small city, Havana seems to have an endless list of things to do catering to every kind of traveler. Maybe you’re a cigar aficionado or simply looking for some R&R, Havana has something to offer everyone.
Best Things To Do In Havana
After spending some time in the capital city during my road trip around Cuba, I wanted to put together a comprehensive travel guide to Havana that would help you plan your own journey.
This is part of what makes Havana unique and what captivated me in particular — the sense that there is always something more to uncover around every corner.
Sure, the US trade embargo and the Cuban government itself hasn’t been particularly kind to the Cuban people, yet they still seem to make the most of the situation, and welcome tourists with open arms.
Whether it’s a sultry salsa performance or hidden dive-bar tucked away behind the narrow streets of a pastel-colored neighborhood — you’ll never get bored of finding things to do!
Visit El Morro Castle
El Morro Castle, otherwise known as “Castillo del Morro”, is a great starting point once you arrive in Havana. It’s situated on top of a rocky promontory at the entrance of Havana’s bay—it can’t be missed! It’s a massive fort with an equally impressive history.
The castle was built starting in 1590 to protect Havana against military attacks, and also served as a watch post to keep an eye out for enemies (like pirates!). It is composed of 3 bastions linked by curtain walls, casemented barracks and also houses cisterns, a chapel, officer’s quarters, a wine cellar, stables, and dungeons.
Today, El Morro Castle is used as a museum and can be visited for a small fee. Its fantastic views make it a great first stop, a short taxi ride from the city center.
As both the city center and the municipality with the second highest population density in Havana, Havana Vieja is quite possibly the most beautiful area of the city and a must-see if you’re visiting. Many buildings have fallen into ruin, but some are starting to get restored too.
The area is a colorful labyrinth of narrow streets, lively local neighborhoods, courtyards, forts, monuments, and churches that make up the pulsating heart of Havana. While you should definitely enjoy yourself strolling around the old city, just beware of jineteros, local hustlers trying to make a buck off you.
Tropicana Nightclub Show
Known as one of the hottest cabaret shows in the world, the Tropicana Nightclub Show is a world-famous spectacle set in a lush, tropical open-air venue that bursts with colorful lights, glitter, and glam. Salsa-charged and sensual, it’s a must-do activity during any trip to Havana Cuba.
Performers’ gaudy, feathered costumes are spectacles in and of themselves, but it’s the show as a whole that leaves you floored. Tickets are a bit pricey -— roughly $85 USD per person -— but include a welcome drink and cigar. We had a great night there!
Tour Havana By Classic Car
When you think of things to do in Havana, chances are rolling down the street in a colorful, vintage convertible with the top down is a top contender. There are plenty of options for vintage car tours in Havana, and most operate like a regular taxi.
For pre-planned tours, there is usually a flat-fee (about 40 – 50 CUC per hour) that the driver communicates up front. But if you’re feeling spontaneous, you can easily hail a vintage car to go anywhere in the city. Make sure to stop in some photogenic locations to get those Instagram photos!
Stroll Along “El Malecon” Boardwalk
If you want an intimate glimpse at life in Havana, walk El Malecon. Translated as “the pier”, El Malecon is a restored seafront walkway situated along the city’s north coastline and provides lovely views of Havana’s iconic architecture and coast.
It’s also the unofficial symbol of the city, often seen on postcards and in films. El Malecon is a destination in and of itself, so food and music is abundant all along the pier. Sunset is a particularly good time to sit along the sea-wall with a box of rum.
And if you visit during late July or early August, El Malecon comes alive with one of the biggest festivals in Cuba —- the Havana Carnival.
Enjoy Cuban Cigars At Hotel Nacional
Cuba has elevated cigar smoking to an art form. For that reason, you can pretty much find a good cigar anywhere in Havana—but if you’re looking for the best spot to light up and take in the classy, glamorous, atmosphere that this city evokes, look no further than Hotel Nacional.
Hotel Nacional is not only the most famous hotel in Havana -— it’s also home to one of the city’s best cigar shops called La Casa del Habano. Or you can enjoy your cigar in the hotel’s backyard bar like we did, relaxing amidst beautiful ocean views, palm trees, and even real-live peacocks strolling by!
Visit Hemingway’s Watering Holes
Ernest Hemingway lived outside Havana for twenty years, and naturally got much of the inspiration for his novels from the city—more specifically, from its bars. El Floridita, Dos Hermanos and La Bodeguita del Medio were Hemingway’s favorite bars when he lived there, and today they can be visited just like any other bar.
Watch out though, as a few of them have turned into tourist traps. La Bodeguita was my favorite Hemingway-approved watering hole and still retains much of the subdued, authentic atmosphere you’d expect Hemingway probably loved. They have live salsa music, and also make a mean mojito, which never hurts.
Try A Cuban Pizza!
Sure, everyone knows they should eat a Cuban sandwich while in Cuba. But did you know these famous sandwiches were actually created in Florida? Instead, why not order a classic Cuban pizza while visiting Havana!
What makes Cuban pizza special is the “sofrito” — essentially a holy mix of onion, garlic, and bell pepper sautéed in olive oil with tomato and spices. In Havana, crappy pizza is everywhere, and the good stuff is a bit trickier to find.
For starters, I recommend heading to 5 Esquinas Trattoria on Cuarteles Avenue. Their pizza is baked in a wood oven, and the spot is a prime location for people-watching. Another tasty spot is Bella Ciao, which has a reputation for the freshest pizza (and pasta!) in Havana.
Hit The Beaches Nearby
Cuba’s proximity to the equator means that it’s always beach season in Havana. The island’s entire coastline is pretty much a white sand, turquoise-watered dream, so it’s hard to go wrong with picking a beach.
If you’re looking for a party atmosphere, head to Santa María del Mar, the biggest and most well-known beach in Havana. The downside to this one, though, is the crowds. But if you’re visiting in the autumn or winter you should be ok.
If you’re looking for a quieter beach day that isn’t as popular with tourists, try Playa Boca Ciega. Or even better, Playa Jibacoa (my favorite beach in Cuba).
How About Some Rum In A Box?
Wander the streets of Havana for a night on the town, and you’ll soon learn all about “rum in a box”. Known as the juice box for big kids, this rotgut rum is sold in individual packs. You’ll see locals partying with their box of Tumbao or Planchao.
It’s cheap as hell, pretty disgusting, and will leave you with a painful headache the next morning if you drink too much of it. But if you want to make some new friends, rip open a fresh box with your teeth and pass it around!
Visit The Capitol Building
El Capitolio, or Cuba’s Capitol Building, was built in 1929 and based off of the US Capitol in Washington DC. It has been closed to the public for the last 8 years for a big restoration project — but just recently re-opened.
Previously used as the Ministry of Science & Technology, the newly renovated structure is now the seat of Cuba’s national assembly, where they selected a new president last April. Visitors can tour the Capitol in groups of 15 from Tuesday to Sunday each week.
Dance To Some Cuban Music
Salsa is everywhere in Havana—in bars, restaurants, even impromptu dances along sidewalks are a regular occurrence. We hit the bars & clubs a few different times to check out live music, one of my favorites was a bar called Kilometro Zero.
But if you want to take your salsa admiration one step further, sign up for a lesson. Casa del Son is Havana’s biggest and best dance school, offering locals and visitors classes in just about every type of traditional Cuban dance.
Watch Cannons Blast Off!
Ever since the 18th-century, a cannon has been fired in Havana every evening at 9pm at the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña (Fort of St Charles). Back then, Havana was divided in two and Cuba’s Spanish rulers would fire the cannon to inform the Habaneros to take shelter against pirate attacks.
Today, the nightly event is still quite a spectacle, equipped with a drum roll and artillery cadets lining the fort dressed in colonial uniforms. The event is free, always on time, and onlookers are encouraged! This is one of the lesser-known things to do in Havana.
Stay Hydrated With Guarapo
What is guarapo, you ask? It’s raw sugar cane juice that’s been extracted from palm-tree sap, and also the most delicious drink you can find in Cuba. The cheapest, too. It’s usually mixed with lime and ice and can be found pretty much in every bar, restaurant, or street side bodega.
You can also try it as an alcoholic beverage (usually mixed with rum). Guarapo is on of the best drinks to try in Havana, and a consistently fantastic spot to get your cane-juice drink on is Arsenal Street, right in front of the train station.
Viñales Tobacco Fields Road Trip
After a few days in Havana, no one would blame you for wanting to escape the city for a day to find something else to do, and the town of Viñales should fix you right up. It’s a small village tucked away in the middle of green fields, tobacco plantations and rock formations.
About a 2-3 hour drive from Havana, Viñales makes for a great day trip, although I do recommend spending at least one night there to get the full sense of the town.
There are buses leaving daily from Havana to Viñales, or you can rent a classic car like we did. Viñales is known for its tobacco farms and limestone hills. Horseback riding is a popular way to enjoy the lush scenery and country atmosphere.
Visit Cámera Obscura
You can get a brilliant 360-degree panoramic view of Old Havana from the top floor of the Gómez Vila building in Plaza Vieja, the tallest building in Old Havana. It’s got the only “Camera Oscura” in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The camera projects real-time images of the city at 30X magnification through just a peephole onto a dark screen. Havana’s Cámera Obscura costs only 2 CUC to visit, and even the view from the roof is totally worth it.
Trip Out In Fusterlandia
Cuba’s rich artistic tradition is alive and well in part thanks to artist Jose Fuster, who has built a mosaic tile wonderland called Fusterlandia in the fishing village of Jaimanitas, just 20 minutes outside of Havana.
Fusterlandia is unique in that it isn’t its own site-specific artwork, but rather crafted into the neighborhood. Residents have actually allowed Fuster to decorate their homes and turn them into colorful, eye-popping gems.
There is a gallery you can visit between 9:30am and 4:00pm, Wednesday to Sunday. If you don’t make it to the gallery, you can always just drive through the neighborhood to get a feel of things.
Eat At A Local Paladar
If you only stick to government-run restaurants frequented by tourists, you’ll miss out on Cuba’s true flavor. So make sure to stop into a paladar (locally-run restaurant) for an authentic Cuban food experience.
Good Cuban food is a delicious fusion of African and Spanish food, and very much resembles a lot of the food you can find throughout the Caribbean — rich, dense, and heavy on the spices.
One great paladar I recommend is called San Cristóbal, located in the bottom floor of an early 20th-century mansion. Make sure you try the traditional ropa vieja. Shredded, stewed beef with vegetables!
Explore Havana’s Green Forest
El Bosque De La Habana (the Lungs of Havana) is a swamp-like forest home to the Almendares River and is a popular spot for locals to get away from the city center and breathe some fresh air. It’s a recreational area for Habaneros with playgrounds and an amphitheater for concerts.
Many of Havana’s classic car tours pass through the park. The 300-year-old banyan trees are covered in green vines, and it’s a very cool place to visit. You might see locals practicing Santeria in the river, a Caribbean religion where members sacrifice animals.
Plaza De La Revolución
The largest public square in Cuba, and one of the largest in the world, Plaza de la Revolucion is where Cuba’s most important government offices are located. The Ministerio del Interior boasts a massive mural of Cuba’s revolutionary hero Che Guevara.
The square is a bit out of the way from the heart of the capital, so most tourists get there via one of the classic car taxis that you can rent from Old Havana. Driving by this famous mural was one of my favorite things to do in the city.
Pop By Hemingway’s Old House
Just outside of Havana you’ll find Finca Vigía, the former colonial home of Earnest Hemingway. It’s where he wrote some of his most famous novels like: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. You can’t go inside the house itself, but you can look through the windows.
There’s a museum there open from 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday and 9am to 1pm on Sundays. It’s a bit of a haul to get out there from Havana, so only do this if you have some extra time. Visit early in the morning to avoid the bus tour crowds.
Hotel Kempinski Rooftop Pool
This beautiful panoramic pool terrace and bar at Havana’s Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski has awesome views of the Havana Vieja area, including the recently refurbished Capitol Building.
This new infinity rooftop pool (and the luxury hotel) is an example of things to come as Cuba prepares for increased tourism. Unfortunately, Americans aren’t technically allowed to book this hotel, as it’s owned by the Cuban government.
Fabrica De Arte Cubano
The Cuban Art Factory was founded by famous Afro-Cuban musician X-Alfonso, and is one of Havana’s hippest spots to soak in modern Cuban culture. It’s a mix between a nightclub, gallery, and performance center that promotes local Cuban artists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers.
Open from Thursday to Sunday, this giant factory building is often packed by 11pm, and is the perfect place to start your wild night on the town in Havana. Each room is different — some with live bands, others full of art. You’ll have a wonderful experience no matter what you’re in to.
The Revolution Museum
Formerly the Presidential Palace, Havana’s Revolution Museum depicts the time period before, during, and right after the Cuban Revolution. You can still find bullet holes in the central staircase from a failed assassination attempt of President Fulgencio Batista.
Out back you’ll find some old military vehicles, tanks used during the Bay of Pigs operation, airplanes, and the yacht used to ferry Castro from Mexico to Cuba to start the revolution in the first place.
Climb La Guarida’s Staircase
Probably’s Havana’s most famous Paladar, La Guarida Restaurant sits at the top floor of an old dilapidated-looking building, complete with a beautiful grand staircase. Traveling celebrities often stop in to eat here.
It’s usually difficult to book a table, and the meal prices aren’t cheap either. But you’re really paying for the interesting atmosphere & history. It kinda feels like you’re starring into your own international spy movie from the 50’s! Pretty cool.
Getting To (and Around) Havana
Despite the recent easing of Cuba’s travel laws, some restrictions are still in place for Americans. Technically you can only visit if you fall into one of 12 special categories.
However there are some ways around the rules, and it’s totally possible to visit as a tourist if you follow a few completely legal “loopholes”.
Airlines that serve Cuba directly from the US now include: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Jet Blue, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines.
Once you’re on the ground, local taxis are everywhere. There are the classic car versions, which are kinda expensive (negotiate first), or the local shared taxis, which only cost 0.50 CUC per person (but you need to know their set route or speak Spanish).
Best Time To Visit Havana
Havana is sunny year-round, so you really can’t go wrong in terms of choosing a time of year to visit. But be wary of the force of the Cuban sun! For those with light skin, like me, take extra precautions from sunburn.
The autumn can be lovely but visiting might be risky because of hurricane season. A happy medium is to visit sometime in the winter (November-March), as it’s both warm enough to enjoy the beaches but not hot enough to make you wish you were back in your air-conditioned hotel.
During the winter, the crowds have lessened and you can experience a more authentic Havana. Plus, I’ve heard New Year’s Eve in the capital is an unforgettable spectacle!
Where To Stay In Havana
The most authentic places to stay in Havana are called casas particulares, which are guest rooms in Cuban family homes that you can find by simply asking around.
Typically, these rooms run from 25 to 40 CUC per night, but be sure to add a bit to that cost if you want homemade breakfast included.
Useful Travel Tips For Havana
- If you want to save some money, and don’t have to go too far, trying hiring a bicycle taxi or a “coco taxi” scooter for a fun ride.
- Don’t spend all your time in Havana! There is so much more to Cuba than the capital city. Check out Vinales, Trinidad, and Varadero if you have the time.
- Bring a filtered water bottle, as bottled water can sometimes be difficult to find outside of major cities.
- Even if you normally prefer hotels, I recommend spending at least one night in a casas particular with locals to see what it’s like.
- Learn some basic Spanish words! While some English is common in Havana, attempting to speak Spanish will give you more opportunities to interact with people.