During our time in Havana we partially embraced the concept of slow travel, unwinding and taking our time to wander the city. We chose to stay in the capital for five days rather than the usual three most visitors do, as this allowed us to have some downtime by the hotel pool as well as venturing further afield. From Havana there are many trips you can take to different areas of Cuba including Cienfuegos and Trinidad: we chose a day trip to Vinales.
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Where to go in Havana
Havana has a lot to offer, whether you’re into your history, food, drink or culture. Here’s my personal list of the top ten attractions to see in Havana.
1/ Explore La Habana Vieja
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is a labyrinth of colourful colonial streets that are a real joy to explore. Every time you turn a corner you’re greeted with something new: a piece of art, a beautiful courtyard or square, an amazing building; each with a unique story to tell.
Steeped in history, we spent our first morning in the city exploring La Habana Vieja with a local guide, Amy, who shared some of the wonderful – and occasionally gruesome – stories about the area. One of my favourites was the tale of a successful businessman who paid to have wooden flooring laid out in the square in front of his home in order stop his wife complaining about the horses disturbing her siestas! Anything for a quiet life, eh?
La Habana Vieja is a great place to start your time in Havana, as, like us, I bet you’ll often come back here in the evenings to enjoy its restaurants, bars and dance clubs.
2/ Visit Hemingway’s haunts
Ernest Hemingway adored Cuba, and if you’re a fan of the man or his work, you’ll love the opportunity to go on a Hemingway tour, where you can visit his old house and favourite bars. These venues are now regularly crammed to the rafters thanks to his seal of approval and it is said that the mojito was created La Bodeguita del Medio and that El Floridita, where a bronze statue of Hemingway props up the bar, was behind the creation of the daiquiri.
Always packed out with tourists (not a local in sight!) you’ll probably pay over the odds for a drink at either bar, so I’d recommend popping by for one before moving on to a different venue to compare drinks and see if Hemingway chose well.
3/Take a trip down the Malecan
The Malecan is a 5-mile seafront boulevard created back in 1901 to protect the city from the water. Today its used as a big meeting spot – every evening you’l see lovers canoodling down by the water and Habaneros meeting up with friends for an evening drink or walk. It’s also well loved by fishermen and you won’t have to walk far without finding someone trying to catch their dinner. Definitely worth a stroll!
4/ Go for a drive in a vintage car
In Havana you can’t walk five steps out of your hotel without spotting a vintage American car. These colourful classics are used as taxis and are a fun way to explore the city.
Often these cars are passed down from father to son and are prized possessions that they’ll spend much of their time cleaning and caring for – especially important with parts so hard to come by. They offer a bumpy and often noisy ride, you’ll slide across the plastic covered seat as you turn corners and it’ll take a while to get used to the fact that not that many of their speedos work, but you wouldn’t want to miss a journey in one of these for the world.
5/ Stand in Revolution Square
Although not particularly pretty (think of the concrete era of the 60s and 70s) Revolution Square is worth a visit simply to see the iconic images of Che Guevara and Camilo Ciengfuegos tower over the square from the sides of two large governmental buildings.
Originally named Civic Square it was renamed after the revolution as many political rallies took place here.
6/ Have a drink at the Nacional Hotel
Built in the 1930s, the iconic Nacional Hotel was the place to be seen during the glitzy era of the gangsters in Havana. Many American guests stayed here during that time including Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Errol Flynn.
There are also historical ties to the Cuban missile crisis here, as in the gardens there are bunkers used by Fidel Castro during the crisis as his defence headquarters.
It’s lost some of its original glory, but the Nacional is still a beautiful building and I wish I’d made the time to go back and take part in the free historical tour on offer. I’d recommend going and sitting in the gardens out back for a drink, people watching as you overlook at the Malecan – you may even get a visit from the resident peacocks!
7/ Eat at a paladar
Paladares are privately run restaurants that began to pop up in the 90’s when Cuban laws were loosened allowing people to start private businesses (before this all restaurants were state run, although many still are). Often these are run by families in their own homes and offer the chance to experience real Cuban food.
One of the most popular is La Guarida, which became famous when it was used in the movie Fresa y chocolate. Considered one of the top places to eat in Havana, it is located at the top of a dilapidated building, making it a mini adventure to get to. However, the food is well worth the three floor climb!
8/ Head over to the Old Forts
On the opposite side of Havana Harbour (go via taxi through the tunnel under the bay) you’ll find the old forts of the Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña. They’re great for getting some brilliant photos of the city, plus there are some interesting museums and even a cigar shop that houses a Guinness World Record winning cigar.
If you head over in the evening you’ll have a chance to get to experience the canon ceremony, where a canon is fired from the fort at 9pm every evening. This a custom kept from colonial times, which signalled the closing of the city’s gates.
9/ Step into history at the Revolution Museum
This museum is housed in what was the old Cuban Presidential Palace. Now a museum dedicated to the revolution, you wander from room to room looking at relics from the fight, including bloodstained uniforms and gory photos of the dead. You’ll get more from a trip here if you can understand Spanish, but even with the language barrier I learnt quite a bit more about the story behind the revolution and the people involved.
With interiors designed by Tiffany’s no less, I actually enjoyed exploring the building as much as learning about the revolution, and it was also interesting looking around the old presidential office and meeting room.
One quick note – be prepared to take a large bottle of water with you as the museum has no air con and therefore it can get quite stifling as you wander around.
10/ Get back to nature in Havana Forest
I knew nothing of Havana Forest before arriving in the capital, so discovering this oasis of peace amidst the bustling city was wonderful.
Probably my favourite place in the city, the forest is a lush green landscape where families come at the weekends for picnics and girls pose for their Quinceañera photos (a special tradition here that celebrates a girl reaching womanhood on her 15th birthday).
Havana Forest is also where Habaneros come to leave offerings, and so you’ll often find the local vultures (as common in Cuba as pigeons are in England!) enjoying a meaty treat.
A lovely little place to wander through the hanging vines and along the river, it’s also a great place to spot animals – during our short visit our paths crossed with a very colourful caterpillar and a beautiful red squirrel as well as the ever-present vultures.