Havana, Cuba

*Scroll down for tips on how to survive and enjoy travelling in Cuba

  • Visited December 2018

Havana is a city of contrasts and for me there are two faces to the city: ‘Havana Pretty’ and ‘Havana Sh*tty’. Some parts are chic, some parts are shabby chic and some parts are just plain shabby, but that’s Havana and I loved it, flaws and all. Most tourists come to Havana and they never really venture beyond Habana Vieja, the old town, but that’s a real shame. There is much beauty to be found amongst the areas of ‘real’ Havana and if you choose not to explore them then you haven’t really experienced the city at all. At no point did I ever feel unsafe in any part of Havana so I encourage you to leave the touristy old town and roam the whole city. Havana is a large, widespread city, so I would recommend focusing on exploring the sites area by area. Transport options include old American cars, bike taxis, Coco taxis (a yellow motorised vehicle for two passengers), public bus and walking. Havana does have a bus tour, which I think is a hop on hop off service but I didn’t bother with this as I prefer to walk everywhere as much as possible.

Suggested Activities

  • Visit the Jose Marti Memorial at Plaza de la Revolución. The best views of the city are from the top of the tower. It’s 1 CUC to walk around the base and 4.50 CUC to access the tower. The famous Che Guevara mural is opposite.
  • Visit the cemetery – El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón – which is huge and has some stunning tombs and memorials. 5 CUC entry.
  • Visit the Hotel Nacional de Cuba which is steeped in mafia and old Hollywood celeb history.
  • Tread in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway – visit the Hotel Ambos Mundos to see the room he used to stay in and write (5 CUC entry), drink a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio or a daiquiri at La Floridita (he is credited with helping to invent both).
  • Spend time people-watching in the plazas: my favourite one was Plaza Vieja but the other key plazas are Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de Armas.
  • Take a stroll along The Malecón – if the water is calm enough. When I visited the Malecón was off limits.
  • Stroll along Calle Oficios and Calle Obispo – you will find historical buildings, old pharmacies etc, and restaurants/bars offering excellent live music.
  • Visit Callejón de Hamel, especially if you are an art fan like me – it’s a cool alleyway showcasing the work of artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona: Afro-Carribean street art murals and sculptures.
  • Museum hop – Havana has excellent museums: Museo de la Revolución, El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes etc.

Recommended Restaurants/Bars

There is more to Havana than the tourist traps of La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floridita….

  • Azucar – Plaza Vieja – serves good food and amazing cocktails. I splurged on a bespoke gin and tonic on one occasion and it was fantastic! Nab a seat on the balcony to catch the sun and people-watch to your heart’s content. There is a tapas bar on the corner next to Azucar (the name has escaped me…) which is also good.
  • El Chanchurro – a cool place with the tongue-in-cheek slogan that Ernest Hemingway never visited. Tasty food and decent cocktails. It’s only a small place so expect to queue outside to get a table.
  • La Cava in the Teatro – touristy but my friends and I had a good time here. We had the set menu which included a main meal and a drink but if you want to treat yourself you can indulge in the after-dinner package which includes a cigar, rum and coffee. The lovely thing about this is the server comes to table, presents the cigar and smokes one with you whilst giving you information about Cuban cigars, how they are made etc.
  • La Taberna – Plaza Vieja – fab little place to grab a snack, cocktails and enjoy live music on an evening.

Travelling around Cuba gives you an insight into what travel must have been like back in the day when travellers didn’t have constant access to WiFi, smartphones and Apps that make life easier. It’s not always easy though so here are some tips to help you.

TIPS: How to Survive and Enjoy Cuba

  • Read up on the history of the Cuban Revolution before you go and make sure you are familiar with Jose Marti, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – all three men are revered in Cuba and it will help you to know and understand their roles in Cuba’s history before going.
  • Download the Google Translate App and download Spanish offline – or take a Spanish friend with you like I did 😉
  • Download Google Maps offline or Maps.Me to help you navigate your way around the country.
  • Take a currency other than US dollars with you – preferred currencies are the British Pound, the Euro or Canadian Dollar.
  • There are two currencies operating in Cuba but the reality is tourists are expected to use the CUC whereas locals use CUPs so you don’t need to worry about trying to use two currencies at the same time. Always check the change you are given though to make sure you haven’t been given CUPs instead of CUCs (one CUC is roughly 25 CUPs).
  • You can use your bank cards in some restaurants etc but expect to pay in cash everywhere else.
  • There are ATMS in Havana but you may not find many others in the rest of the country. When using an ATM, know that some only distribute 5 CUC notes, or only 10 CUC notes, or they may limit how much you can take out in one go (if your transaction is declined for example it does not mean you have insufficient funds, it just means if you want to withdraw a large sum that you may have to do it in more than one transaction and pay a charge each time).
  • Book your first night’s accommodation in Havana using HostelWorld, Booking.com (see my home page for a promo link…) etc and then your casa will help you book accommodation in the next place you want to go to.
  • Contrary to rumours there is food available in Cuba and you can eat very well here. The only difference is there are no convenience stores like 7Elevens for you to grab a quick drink and snack and no fast food places like McDonalds so you will always eat in restaurants/bars.
  • It can be difficult to find and buy bottled water. Believe it or not, beer and cocktails are easier to find. Get water when you can. Your casa may have water for you to buy or buy bottled water when eating out.
  • Most public bathrooms do not have toilet seats because post the collapse of the soviet union, Cuba underwent a time of extreme hardship and toilet seats are expensive to buy and considered a luxury. Expect to pay to use toilets in most places – 1 CUC is the usual cost – and you may be given toilet paper when you pay, though it’s a good idea to always carry a packet of tissues to use when travelling.
  • Solo travellers – hostels are not really a thing in Cuba though there are a couple in Havana (I’ve heard they are not good…). You will have to stay in casas and when travelling alone that can get costly as you will have to pay for the whole room, rather than just pay for a bed.
  • You are expected to have travel insurance and a return ticket to enter the country. If you are not sure of your plans, just book any flight out of Cuba that you can cancel within 24 hours of buying and then book the flight you really want when you are there.
  • You will need a tourist card to enter. We bought ours at Cancun airport for 360 pesos.
  • Take any toiletries and medications you need with you as you may find them hard to get in Cuba.
  • Download the Culture Trip App – a great site that recommends things to do, places to eat and so on, and you can save articles offline to use when you are in Cuba. I found this to be invaluable.
  • Overall, just have realistic expectations and understand that the people of Cuba are very proud people that have experienced times of poverty and hardship. There are still times today when you may not have bread as part of your breakfast buffet because there is a shortage of flour or no eggs because the host hasn’t been able to get them. Cuban people are warm and welcoming and if you reciprocate that attitude, you will enjoy excellent hospitality and hopefully make some new friends during your time in Cuba.
  • Cuba may not be the Caribbean paradise that most tourists envision before visiting but it is an incredible country and only by travelling around (rather staying put in the Varadero resorts) will you see all that it has to offer.

Selection of pictures from my stay: