A Day Out In Havana: 10 Must-See Places
Most people say that it's impossible to travel back in time. Perhaps they've never been to Havana, Cuba...
Havana has been on my travel bucket list for a while now but everywhere in the world is on my bucket list so this statement isn't too strong to begin with! To be honest, I only knew of Havana as a city trapped in time with vintage cars, rum and cigars, and with men dressed like Tony Montana in Scarface. Pardon me if this level of ignorance is offensive. Up until my Cuban vacation, I've had extremely limited knowledge of the country's rich architectural and literary history that expands beyond its renowned cigar and rum exports. So, when I saw a travel deal come up for a week-long resort trip in Varadero, I knew I had to set aside some time to venture out into Cuba's capital.
I only spent one day in Havana, which really didn't do it justice. So if you are able to book more time to explore, please do! And if you only have a day scheduled for Havana, here are some of my must-see sites and stops below. Keep reading to the end where I'll also list out some useful tips for travel safety (especially if you are travelling solo) and for first-time visitors!
1. Castillo del Morro
This is literally a fortress that was used to guard the entrance to Havana Bay back in the 18th century. I listed as this is a highly recommended stop not because I'm an ancient history buff, but because this is a wonderful introduction to the city before you step into the heart of Havana. Take some time, as well as a fully charged camera or smartphone, to stand by fortress that overlooks Havana Bay and the city skyline. The view is well worth the stop, I promise. 🤞🏽
Address: Google Map
2. Revolution Square
Stop for the pictures of the row of flashy, vintage cars parked along the curb and of the massive steel memorial of revolutionists, like Che Guevara. But definitely stop and immerse yourself onto the massive square where major political rallies and addresses, as well as papal masses, have taken place throughout history. Stand on the concrete for a while and breathe it all in.
Address: Avenida Paseo, La Habana, Cuba. (Google Map)
3. Old Square (Plaza Vieja)
Another photo op, the Old Square is an open area of four facades with old and renovated buildings that makes up the square. Enjoy the colourful architecture or pop in to a local cafe for a cup of Cuban coffee.
Address: San Ignacio, La Habana, Cuba. (Google Map)
4. Cafe Bohemia
For an actual sit-in recommendation, check out Cafe Bohemia for a quick lunch before continuing your way around the city. Sit on the patio by the side of Old Square if you are into people-watching and soaking into the bustling atmosphere. For some peace and quiet, request a table indoors or in their secret inner courtyard.
Useful Tip #1: Go later in the afternoon to avoid the crowd.
Useful Tip #2: Try the lemonade frappe, a non-alcoholic and non-caffeine alternative if you want to change it up!
Address: Plaza Vieja, San Ignacio 364, Havana 10400, Cuba. (Google Map); Telephone: +53 7 8603722; Price Range: $$
5. La Bodeguita del medio
If you're feeling for something stronger, in the alcoholic persuasion, stop by La Bodeguita del medio for a mojito made famous by literary genius Ernest Hemingway. The traditional bar/restaurant has been dubbed a top tourist hot spot over the years after having been infamously name-dropped by Mr. Hemingway himself. It has also been rumoured to be the birthplace of the mojito drink. Make sure you allot plenty of time at this stop because it is usually very packed and the space is extremely narrow. You may need to fight your way through the crowd and be extra firm than usual to getting the bartender's attention. If you're in a rush, take some pictures and continue on your merry way.
Address: C. Empedrado entre Cuba y San Ignacio, La Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba; (Google Map); Telephone: +53 7 571375; Price Range: $
6. Havana Cathedral
I'm not particularly religious but I do have a habit of visiting cathedrals and basilicas around the world. Regardless of your religious affiliation or whether you are secular or not, it is calming to walk into such a revered space after a long day in a bustling, populous city with its city noises. If you do walk in to the chapel, you will be welcomed with friendly smiles and will be given a cape to drape over your shoulders if you happen to be wearing a sleeveless top. If you are wearing a hat, you will be requested to remove it inside. Always remember to exercise extreme courtesy and respect in every single culture and temple of worship you visit. ✌🏽
7. National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes)
Escape from the heat inside a beautifully, curated Museum that currently houses some insightful Cuban modern and socialist-inspired art. If you are pressed for time, make sure to do some research of the exhibits and floor plans ahead of time so you can prioritize your viewings. Take note that the exhibits are set up in historical order so if you can afford to take your time inside the museum, you can browse through Cuban art and feel how changes in the political landscape have been inspired through their art.
Useful Tip #1: The museum is closed on Mondays.
Useful Tip #2: Seriously plan your time around this; the museum is much larger inside than it looks outside.
Useful Tip #3: Get an English-speaking, personal guide to help explain the meaning behind the art.
8. Post Office (Zona Postal Habana 1)
I'm sure that there are many post offices scattered around Havana but this is the one that I stumbled into during my day out wandering. Inside this particular shop are many tour guidebooks, coffee table books about Cuba, and postcards that you can buy and mail on the spot. No matter how efficient technology is nowadays, I still enjoy the tradition of sending postcards to family and friends back home. There's just something so personable about snail mail! Just keep in mind that the postal service in Cuba is notoriously unreliable with some tourists reporting that they've never received their postcards in the mail (yes, I even send postcards to myself!). But, my postcard from Cuba did arrive six weeks after my trip, and all my friends and family members received theirs around the same time.
9. San Cristobal Paladar
U.S. President Barack Obama and legendary rock musician Mick Jagger have dined here. And that's just to name a few. This restaurant is one of the best foodie and cultural experiences for an authentic Cuban-Creole dinner, if you can get a table. Call ahead to make a reservation and expect for the room to be filled with many tourists but that's not to say that it is a "tourist trap". The food is amazing, the wall decor is beautiful and inspiring and the wine list is extensive. Be sure to call a cab when you leave as the street lights are sparse.
A trip to Cuba won't be without a night of passionate dancing and music! Take in a performance or two at the Tropicana for lively dancing and mingling with the locals. There are usually two shows at night so make sure you go to the earlier one because you can stay for the second performance for free!
Useful Tip #1: Tickets need to be purchased in advance.
Useful Tip #2: Choose the open air 'Paradise beneath the Stars' venue as it is the better of the two. (Rain option: choose the indoor venue 'Salon Arcos de Cristal')
Useful Tip #3: Buy the ticket that permits you to take pictures and videos. It's worth it!
Useful Tip #4: Pay extra for the better seats.
Useful Tip #5: Arrange for a taxi to pick you up as the streets have limited lighting at night.
Safety Tips To Know Before You Go
Tipping and Currency:
- there are two currencies to use in Cuba - the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) for tourists and the CUP (Cuban Peso). You will only be able to use the CUC during your trip
- exchange currency at the airport or at your resort
- make sure the money you are exchanging from has no rips or writing on them as these can be declined. The best bet is to exchange with large currency notes, i.e. $50/$100 Canadian bill
- Ask ahead of time about the commission for exchanging money
- Try to avoid using your debit and credit cards in Cuba
- make sure you exchange a lot of 1's for tipping (note: 1 CUC = 1 USD and is the equivalent to how much most tourism employees make in a day)
Health and Safety:
- I don't always understand this but it's "customary" to pay 1 CUC to use the toilet so make sure you have plenty of coins and notes
- You should also bring plenty of toilet paper as most washrooms are grim and do not supply toilet paper
- Bring sanitary wipes and a bottle of Purel
- There will be some panhandlers and pickpockets so keep your belongings close to you and never leave it out of sight
- Don't find yourself alone in a dimly lit street. Arrange for a taxi to pick you up if you are staying for dinner and a show
- Wear as much bug repellent spray as you put on suntan lotion