With more than two million inhabitants, Havana is one of the biggest and most vibrant cities in the Caribbean. It is also one of the safest and oldest cities in the region with a rich history and cultural heritage, and soon celebrating its 500th anniversary in 2019. Whether you are looking to soak up the culture or a fun night out dancing and drinking cocktails, you are sure to have an amazing time in the Cuban capital.
1 See El Cañonazo at San Carlos de la Cabaña
Photo: Ettevi Wanderslust
San Carlos de la Cabaña is the biggest fortress built by the Spanish Empire in the Americas. Every night at 9.00 PM, the cannon is shot, reminiscence from colonial times, when the closing of the colonial city’s doors were announced by a cannon shot.
If you want to find a good place to watch the whole ceremony featuring soldiers marching in old costumes, we recommend getting there before 7.00 PM. It’s also a great spot to watch the sunset over the city. The easiest way is to take a taxi from Old Havana or one of the many public buses (A83, P8, P11, A95, A40) going through Havana Bay tunnel to East Havana. Just hop off at the first stop right after passing the tunnel and walk to the fortress. Admission price is 8 CUC.
2 Soak up some culture at Gran Teatro de La Habana
Photo: Ettevi Wanderslust
Gran Teatro de La Habana is one of the most important theatres and iconic buildings in the Cuban capital. It is home to the National Cuban Ballet, one of the most renowned ballet companies in the world, founded in 1948 by former prima ballerina Alicia Alonso. Attending one of the world-class performances is a truly unique opportunity, but if you decide not to see a performance, you should at least admire the theatre’s beautiful architecture from Parque Central.
There are international festivals all year long: cinema (December), jazz (December-January/in 2019, January 13-21), Biennial Arts Festival (2019, in April), Ballet (October, November), and Theatre (October).
3 Visit El Capitolio
Officially opened in 1929 at El Paseo del Prado (Prado Promenade, Old Havana), The Havana Capitol is a distinctive presence in Havana’s skyline. The Capitol reopened to the public last March, 2018, after eight years of a costly renovation. It is maybe the most luxurious and impressive building of Havana: under the 91.73-metre-high cupola stands the 17.5-metre-tall bronze Statue of the Republic. It is said to have a diamond at the entrance, stolen during the Republican era and replaced it with a fake one. Ceilings and halls are magnificent. It is now home to the Cuban National Assembly, but keeps open to visitors (ticket price: 3 CUC. Guided tour: 4 CUC).
4 Listen to live jazz
Havana nights offer an opportunity that is unique to a few cities: world class live music on cafes and clubs, but live jazz above all. Latin Jazz, Cuban Jazz, Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz… People call it many ways, but this is jazz that every year attracts thousands of connoisseurs and enthusiasts from many countries, music that comes from centuries of mixtures and a musical power embedded in Cuba’s way of being. La Zorra y el Cuervo (23rd Avenue) and Jazz Café (Paseo Avenue, near Meliá Cohíba hotel) are two clubs for jam sessions and vibrant nights.
5 Spend a day relaxing at the beaches near Havana
If you want to spend a day at the beach, head to Playas del Este, where you can find a strip of white sandy beaches that stretch along 30 kilometres to the east of Havana. Bacuranao, Tarará, El Mégano, Santa María del Mar, Boca Ciega, Guanabo, La Veneciana and Brisas del Mar make a succession of nicely set beaches, some are small and secluded, others popular and frequented. Located just a 20 minute drive from Havana city centre, you can easily access the beaches by taking a taxi colectivo or “almendrones” (old American cars) for roughly 20 Cuban pesos or one CUC and public buses such as A40, 400.
6 Visit Fábrica de Arte
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) is an innovative cultural space which opened in 2014. An old brick-made oil plant was adapted to accommodate a mixed space that combines concert hall, art gallery, movie theatre and bars. You can find enjoy concerts, fashion shows, art and photography exhibitions held at Fábrica de Arte. It is home to events such as Havana World Music Festival. Celebrities like Mick Jagger, Michelle Obama, Katy Perry, Billy Gibbons, Lady Gaga or Bon Jovi have been there. (Entrance: 50 Cuban pesos or 2 CUC. Drinks start at 2 CUC).
7 Catch a glimpse of everyday Cuban life at towns nearby: Cojímar, Santa María del Rosario
Villages near Havana provide the opportunity to see Cubans’ everyday life.
Cojímar is a fishermen coastal town located seven kilometres from downtown Havana. Quiet, with a typical architecture, very close to the history of American writer Ernest Hemingway and chosen by many travellers looking for seafood near the sea (at La Terraza, first opened in 1925, the average price of a meal starts at 8 CUC). Take a public bus going eastward by the tunnel, or a collective taxi from the surroundings of Parque de la Fraternidad or El Capitolio (20 Cuban pesos or one CUC, maybe a bit more).
Going inland, 20 km away from downtown Havana, Santa María del Rosario is a country village home to one of the most famous churches in Cuba, the baroque-style Iglesia Parroquial de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, built in 1760, with valuable paintings in its interior and columns covered in gold on its altar.
The town keeps some of its colonial former air. It is possible to get there taking the public bus P2 from El Vedado or P7 from Parque de la Fraternidad (Old Havana) to El Cotorro, and then the A6 to Santa María.
8 Get lost in the city
Sometimes the best way to explore the Cuban capital is walking around without guides nor schedules or direction, just choosing a moment and a point of departure, and then letting yourself go. The city’s own rhythm and the urban landscape becomes your guide. This is an incredibly gratifying way of self-discovering Havana, and a chance to take pictures that no one has taken and seeing how Habaneros (Havana residents) live out their routines.
9 Go dancing on Obispo Street
Obispo is a street lined on both sides by cafes, bars and shops, street vendors offering handicrafts and houses where folk paintings are for sale. It starts at Parque Central, near National Art Museum and Gran Manzana Kempinski hotel, and goes right to the Port Avenue, just ten metres away from the bay. There are traditional music groups playing in cafes, which are mainly located at corners. Many people gather to listen or dance to the music, generally Cuban Son.
10 Listen to the sound of The Beatles
El Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine) is a club located at El Vedado where people go to listen live music and where the scene, the yellowish ambiance (pop art, photographs and lyrics on the walls) and the program are designed as a tribute to The Beatles. Rock, pop and folk music is played live every day.
11 Visit John Lennon’s sculpture
The club (17th and 6th street) is situated next to Lennon Park, which is famous by the bronze sculpture of John Lennon placed on one of its benches since year 2000. Lennon appears quietly seating on the bench, his legs crossed and looking ahead. Many people come and seat on the bench, take a picture with Lennon or leave flowers on the sculpture.
12 Enjoy a glass of wine while the sun sets over Havana
This experience just requires buying a bottle of wine at a Havanan liquor store or supermarket and going to the other side of the bay through the tunnel or by “lanchitas”. Havana at sunset is a sepia-toned old photograph that slowly turns into a red-and-orange-coloured paint before getting darker, when the lights of cars and street lamps begin flickering. A quiet scenery for having a conversation or just watch peacefully.
13 Admire the city’s architecture
The colonial Havana (17th, 18th and 19th centuries) is not the only attraction available at the Cuban capital in terms of architecture. “Calzadas” are old avenues which grew from rustic roads to wide streets lined by mansions that over the years became low income tenements and even “solares”, a run-down version of tenement.
Calzada del Monte (starting in Parque de la Fraternidad, Old Havana), Calzada del Cerro (which continues Calzada del Monte) and Calzada de 10 de Octubre are among the most distinctive “calzadas” of Havana. Walking along these streets, lined by never-ending colonnades, among vendors that sell almost everything and spotting the former magnificence of buildings is an interesting experience.
Miramar showcases beautiful mansions displaying how far the modern movement in Cuba went. Santo Suárez is another residential quarter, mixing architecture from the early 20th Century and the modern movement.
14 Walk along El Malecón
Photo: Ettevi Wanderslust
El Malecón, the long promenade that runs 8 kilometres along Havana city coastline, is a place to cool off on hot days and nights, just walking or seating on the solid wall and letting the sea breeze do its job. Many people say that El Malecón is a state of mind, and 8-kilometre-long peaceful bench, Havana city’s seaside façade. A sea front to share with people, to hang out with friends or just relax and watch the sea.
15 Admire the cafes’ enchanting interiors
There are places in Havana where people go for breakfast, tapas, drinks or coffee and end up almost mesmerised by design and decoration. Some of these locals are designed to achieve a vintage atmosphere, some are boldly modern and some are pure art, collections of memorabilia or exhibitions of creativity that redefine meanings of objects and spaces.
El Escorial is a cafe to enjoy the colonial environment at Plaza Vieja, Old Havana. Café Fortuna Joe (First and 24th, Miramar) makes people believe they have arrived to some collector’s house and learn that it is possible enjoy the coffee sitting into a bathtub or a half-cut old American car. BelviewArtCafé is located at 19th and 6th, El Vedado. Quiet, masterly designed with eclectic style, it is perfect for chatting, relaxing or reading.
16 Visit Estudio Figueroa-Vives
Private art galleries or studios have proliferated around Havana in the last few years. Estudio Figueroa-Vives (21st Street between H and I streets, El Vedado) was developed by a family of artists and curators and is one of the most innovative studios. More than two decades of promoting, exhibiting and making art make this place a good choice for those seeking to appreciate Cuban art in a creative environment.
17 The pilgrimage for San Lázaro
On December 16th, the eve of Saint Lazarus Day, thousands of Cubans arrive on pilgrimage to the national San Lazaro Sanctuary-Church, located at El Rincón village, 17 kilometres south of downtown Havana.
Witnessing the pilgrimage is an experience that impacts not only visitors but Cubans as well. What believers coming from all of Cuba do to express their faith in the saint (carrying heavy rocks, crawling or walking on their knees for kilometres…) makes a strong impression on those watching the scenes. It is a religious but also a cultural expression.
18 Cross the bay on “lanchitas”
Havanans call “lanchitas” to small launchs that cross the bay between the terminal known as Emboque de Luz, in Old Havana, and the small towns of Casablanca and Regla. It is a short trip (only 1 Cuban peso, five dollar cents) and makes possible sharing to share with Cuban people, to talk to fishermen and to picture the city from another perspective. At Casablanca people can get to El Cristo (The Christ) after walking up a hill. Indisputably, one of the best views of the city. El Cristo (The Christ) is a 20-metre-high carrara marble sculpture made by a woman that rise 51 metres above the sea level. It was sculpted in Italy and blessed by the Pope Pio XII.
Regla is a picturesque town where Afro-Cuban traditions are deeply rooted, home to one of the three national sanctuaries in Cuba, the Virgen de Regla Sanctuary.
After or before this journey is a good time to take a walk around the colonial squares or have a coffee or a light meal in one of many cafes and “paladares” available at Old Havana, such as Nao, located at #1 Obispo street and ten metres away from the bay, that allows taking a table outdoor to watch the city movement, maybe a big ship or a cruise entering the port.
19 Buy Cuban souvenirs at Almacenes de San José
Several metres away from the “lanchitas” terminal the place known as Almacenes de San José offers a wide range of Cuban handicraft. This is a large old warehouse renovated a few years ago where vendors sell folk art, paintings and souvenirs. There is a long terrace at the end of the warehouse to have a drink or a snack and a close sight of the port of Havana.
On the way to Almacenes de San José there is a small microbrewery & brew pub, and a floating hand-railed dock for a nice walk and a wider view of the bay.
20 Explore Havana’s green outskirts
There is a vast green area 25 kilometres south of downtown Havana. Parque Lenin (an amusement park) and National Zoo (with and African prairie where rhinos, hippos, giraffes and other animals can be seen) are located in this zone. Ideal for relaxing, walking or having lunch in plain nature is the National Botanical Garden, home to more than four thousand species, 200 thousand plants spread in 600 hectares. It is possible getting there in public buses (P8 from Havana tunnel and Parque de la Fraternidad to last stop in Reparto Eléctrico, and then 88).