I spent a week in Havana and it felt like it just was not enough time. Each day drew us into wanting to explore more and more of this magical city. Cuba is known as stepping back into time, therefore it is best described in photos. It’s one country you can never tire of taking photos being surprised by each turn you make – the people, the food, the architecture and yes the famous vintage cars!
So what would I recommend after exploring Havana for one glorious week?
Rent a Vintage Car with Driver and Guide for a tour of Havana
Yes, there is the hop-on-hop-off bus and walking tours in Havana, but if you’re going to do it old school, I highly recommend bargaining rent a vintage car with driver and guide. We didn’t mind paying 20CUC for 3 hours of cruising around the city in a vintage car feeling like “locals” for a few hours and visiting all the famous sites. From a tobacco house to Chinatown to getting the history at important sites such as Revolution Square and stopping for a mojito as refreshment after driving through Old and New Havana, we did it in style!
Museo de la Revolucion
There are many museums in Havana but this museum is housed in Batista’s old presidential palace as the main building, a very impressive building and an important monument in Havana. Whilst the history of the revolution is extraordinary, to some the exhibition isn’t all well explained for non-Spanish speaking visitors. The outside section shows the cruiser Granma that Fidel Castro used to enter Cuba and other such vehicles from the revolution. My favourite section was seeing photos and artifacts of the women who were also active in the revolution. Very cool and definitely worth a visit in my opinion!
Visit the many hotels for amazing architecture and furniture
Old Havana is best experienced on foot, getting lost wandering through the streets and admiring what’s behind some of the crumbling facades. It was necessary to visit select major hotels (the only place in the city with wifi access) so we decided then to visit the hotel lobbies along our walks and we certainly were not disappointed! All glorious inside, from colonial Hotel NH Parque Central dead in the centre of old town, to elegant Hotel Inglaterra across the street to beautiful art deco Hotel Raquel with an oasis of a rooftop garden, chic Hotel Santa Isabel on Plaza de Armas with its blue shutters and antique furniture, the sculptures in Hotel Sevilla and the grand daddy in the Verdado district, the massive Hotel Nacional perched on a rise overlooking the Malecon and famous for all the celebrities that have passed through.
Yes there is a Chinatown in Havana!
Havana once had one of the largest Chinese communities in Latin America so it is no surprise to find nicely tucked away in Centro Havana, just minutes walk from Parque Central, a strip of Asian restaurants near Calle Zanja. The restaurants are similar to Chinatowns in NYC or London, and although I’ve been told Chinatown in Havana is not as bustling as it once was, just walking through the immense gate designed in the style of the Minh dynasty, with old cars and bicycle taxis passing by, make you imagine what it once was.
Stop by the Train Museum
Cuba was the first country in Latin America to have a railroad due to its valuable sugar industry. In fact, it opened its railway system before Spain and just after Great Britain, the United States, Belgium and Germany. In their efforts to conserve their railway history Cuba opened the steam locomotive museum however you can free
Walk along the Malecon
There is no other place that shows Havana’s soul than the 8km sea wall along Havana’s coast. The locals come out in the cooler evenings to spend time on the Malecon with their loved ones. It’s also the perfect place to people see vintage cars, watch and take in the beautiful sea views with the fort in the distance.
Visit La Cabana and Murro Castle
A quick taxi ride over to the fort is worth exploring. It’s even more spectacular to go in the evening in time for sunset views over the city and the touristy firing of the canon. Yes, there are a lot of tourists and locals alike who come just for this every evening, but it’s worth the views of the city and exploring a part of Cuba’s fascinating history.
Eat at local Paladars
Paladars, which are family run restaurants usually in their homes, are the best place to sample local cuisine. They vary in price ranges, but they are a dime a dozen so choosing can be difficult. We quite enjoyed the personal ones such as Chez Aimee and Restorante La Familia where the mothers-turned-chefs made us feel at home. Beware of random people on the street wanting to recommend and take you to their favourites though. It’s their way of hustling and getting paid from the Paladar for bringing in new customers.
Daiquiris and Mojitos
Some consider it very touristy, but I say it’s a must to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps, having daiquiris in El Floridita and mojitos in La Bodiguita del Medio. They may be pricier than mojitos elsewhere, but it’s about the experience so why not?
Take a Day Trip outside Havana
From visiting the gorgeous beaches of Varadero to the tobacco fields of Viñales, the options are plentiful from the tourism office; day trips from Havana in comfortable air conditioned buses and with some very entertaining guides (at least ours was!). A perfect way to get out of the bustling city and experience a different aspect of local Cuban life.
Ode to Barcadi!
Who doesn’t love rum? Who doesn’t know Barcadi? It may not be made in Cuba anymore, but Cuba is still referred to as the home of Bacardi. Although the building was confiscated from the Barcadi family by the communist government during the revolution, the recently renovated Barcadi building remains a beauty to look at; it is after all named as one of the finest art deco buildings in Latin America.
Discover the many new hip cafés that are opening
Havana is changing. It’s not immediately obvious at this present time, but boutique hotels, cocktail bars and chic restaurants are opening up in the city. It’s a new level of luxury behind the colonial façades. Shout out to Javier the bartender in Fumerie Jacquline on Calle Compostela who took exceptional care of us the few times we frequented the bar/restaurant/clothing store (because he was a cutie mixing awesome drinks, the sandwiches and there was air condition), all with a gorgeous view of la Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio across from it.
From the beautiful Prado to every corner you turn, the locals are outside, spending time with each other, drinking, smoking, playing anything from dominoes to chess, even the kids playing in the streets. Reminded me of my childhood days and our outdoor activities pre-digital technology.
Visit the Squares!
Old Havana has four main squares. Plaza Vieja (Old Square) is the most stunning, but I was equally enthralled by Plaza de la Cathedral. Be on the look out for the interesting bronze statues that are around the squares and parks. My favourite was Antonio Gades, famous Spanish flamenco dancer, on Plaza de la Cathedral.
There is so much more to explore in Havana. From visiting the many salsa clubs and amazing nightlife to relaxing on the beaches nearby, but after a week I knew I wanted to return to this city. It’s one I could never tire of visiting. Havana truly is magical and enchanting in a way words cannot describe. You just need to go visit
By: Marissa Dookeran, CONTRIBUTOR