By Mayté Solano Gómez
Havana is the capital of all Cubans. Founded by Spanish colonists in 1519, today visitors can find in this cosmopolitan city history and heritage, combined with modernity, through art, architecture, and its people.
Let`s find some of the best things to do in Havana.
Best museums and places for art in Havana
Museum of the Revolution
Former Presidential Palace and seat of the executive government until 1974, when it became the Museum of the Revolution, this building was built between 1909 and 1920. At that time the dome of the building, covered on the outside with pieces of glazed ceramic, was one of the highest in the city.
The building has more than 30 rooms where more than 9000 objects that allow you to get to know the history of Cuba are exhibited. You can also see areas such as the Golden Room, which used to be the official or gala dining room of the palace; The Hall of Mirrors, which imitates the hall of the same name in the Palace of Versailles; the chapel; the presidential office and the hall of the council of ministers.
In 1976 the Granma Memorial was built at the rear of the building, which includes valuable historical pieces.
Museum of Rum
Located on Avenida del Puerto, very close to the Plaza Vieja and the Plaza of San Francisco de Asis, this colonial mansion was built between 1772 and 1780. It was the seat of different activities and institutions until in 2000 it was inaugurated as the Rum Museum, to publicize the history of this precious drink, especially Havana Club rum.
The museum tour, which can be enjoyed in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, begins in the cooperage workshop where the white oak barrels are assembled and includes an explanation that goes from the planting of the sugar cane to the aging of the drink, going through the history of the sugar mill, the factories, the steam train and the fermentation, distillation and filtration processes.
Cocktail classes are also offered in a wide range of Cuban drinks that have won fame throughout the world, as well as a special tasting of the Havana Club and the combination of liquor with tobacco and coffee.
Fine Arts Museum
The National Fine Arts museum contains the most important collection of existing Cuban art, spanning the 16th century to the present day. The exhibition spaces are organized into eight main thematic areas, which include 24 rooms or spaces which can be appreciated in any order.
The world art collections can be seen in another building, the former headquarters of the Asturian Center, next to Central Park, a few blocks from the Cuban art headquarters. It includes works from all important areas of Western art, so the National Museum surpasses all other similar institutions in Latin America.
Among these collections are the Spanish art collections, with the most important 19th-century painters; English portraits from the 18th and 19th centuries; and the collection of ancient classical art, with a rich set of sculptures and ceramics from Egypt, Greece and Rome.
The National Capitol of Cuba is a remarkable symbol of the island’s capital and one of the great buildings of Cuba. It shows great architectural wealth, is sumptuously decorated, and built with excellent quality materials, such as Italian marbles. Most of the details on the walls, ceilings, doors and lamps, were cast in France. It was declared a National Monument in 2010 and recently restored.
The dome is visible from many parts of the city. Directly below it is the 25-carat diamond that sets the starting point for the entire highway system of the country, also known as kilometer 0. There is also the Statue of the Republic, the third largest indoor statue in the world, second only to the Golden Buddha of Nava, Japan and that of Abraham Lincoln in the mausoleum erected in his honor in Washington. At present, the National Capitol is the headquarters of the National Assembly of Cuba.
In summary, this is one of the most recommended places to visit in Havana, to learn about history, but also to enjoy the architectural and decorative beauty of the place.
The beautiful Finca “La Vigia” is where the famous writer Ernest Hemingway lived, from mid-1939 to 1960 and where he wrote the novel “For Whom the Bells Tolls”, and his most famous book “The Old Man and the Sea”.
The farm is located about 15 miles outside the historic center of Havana. The house itself was built in 1886 and it has a breathtaking view of the city of Havana from the back porch. It received the National Restoration Award in 2007.
For those who love arts, this enormous outside venue where you can enjoy street sculptures, murals, ceramic mosaics and paintings is a wonderful option. The subjects there are varied as Latin American, Cuban and international personalities, passages from the history of Cuba, or nature, such as palm trees and animals. Everything there shows color, joy and originality.
With such features and all the safe space where children can run and wander, this is clearly a kid-friendly site, not only to have fun but to learn about a different culture.
Moreover, the tour of this place is free, you can buy some of the work on display, if you like and, finally, the beach is very close, so you can cool off in the water on the coast.
Cuban Art Factory
The Cuban Art Factory (FAC) was included in the list of the 100 best places in the world that every tourist should know. It has also been internationally nominated for the World’s Greatest Places 2019 and awarded by TripAdviser with the 2020 Travelers Choice. What better recommendation…
This is a nocturnal space for those who are over 18 years old, that exhibits the best exponents of contemporary art in Cuba. Paintings, graphic design, fashion and architecture are all on show. There are also concert halls, a theater, a cinema and spaces for dancing to the rhythm of recorded music. It is a place where you can eat and drink, or simply hang out with friends.
The former FAC was an old oil factory. Nowadays, there is a beautiful restaurant in the space of the original chimney, ‘El Cocinero’ (The cook).
José Martí Memorial
José Martí is the National Hero of Cuba. The memorial is the largest Monument built in his memory. Inside its base, there is a museum that contains the history of the hero, while at the top the viewpoint, which offers a 360-degree view, with a view of up to 50 km, of the city, is considered the highest point in Havana.
The building has a 5-pointed star-shaped structure. It exhibits 89 thoughts of the National Hero rolled in 22 karat gold, surrounded by 25 columns also rolled in gold. In addition to the 2 rooms dedicated to the life and work of José Martí, the Memorial has a theater room, where you can enjoy small-format concerts, videos, children’s activities, lectures on various topics and book presentations, and a gallery of art dedicated to various temporary exhibitions.
Best outdoors activities in Havana
Walking the historical Havana center
This is something you can do by yourself or with a guide. But it is definitely a must-do. The historical center of Havana and its fortifications were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. When you walk around it, you can feel how life was during the XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries. The main attractions: the plazas and the fortresses systems.
Plaza de Armas (Arms Square): surrounded since its inception by the most important public buildings of the time, today museums. These are the Segundo Cabo Palace and Los Capitanes Generales Palace, as well as the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Garrison ) and the Templete, which marks the site where the first mass was celebrated in 1519, and the construction of the first town hall of Havana.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asís: just 100 meters from the Plaza de Armas, there is a Franciscan convent located at one of the square, the Convent of San Francisco de Asís, also a museum today, as well as a concert sala. It is also known as the Plaza de las Palomas, given the large number of these birds that are concentrated here, and which it is possible to feed and photograph.
Plaza Vieja (Old Square): no church or town hall was built here. It was mainly used for social activities, such as markets, parties and bullfights. In addition to the historical or heritage sites, there are many other attractions to visit here, such as the Dark Chamber, the Planetarium, the brewery and the Escorial, where you can enjoy a wide variety of coffee recipes.
Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square): it is one of the most beautiful places in colonial Havana. At one end rises the current Cathedral, seat of the Archdiocese of Havana, visited in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Among the main fortifications are the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and the Walls of Havana. On the other side of the bay are the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress.
Here you can enjoy the Canyon Shot ceremony, wich takes place every day at 9pm. A very friendly site where you can also buy souvenirs, have dinners or watch a sunset and relax with the seaview.
Havana tour in a classic American car
Classic American cars have become very popular among tourists in Cuba. They can be even seen in the last saga of the film Fast and Furious. Very well preserved and with a large variety of colours, they are commonly used to make a tour of the modern side of the city, Vedado, as the historic center can be toured by walking.
So it is recommended to visit, during this tour, the John Lennon park, the Columbus cemetery, one of the most beautiful in the world, because of its sculptures and the National Hotel to enjoy there the great seaview from its garden while tasting a mojito.
Enjoying nature and a zip line in the National Botanical Garden
Another great option to enjoy with the family, including kids. The National Botanical Garden, covering more than 600 hectares, exhibits more than 4000 types of plants from different parts of the world. It is then a place to learn, take beautiful photographs and have a nice quality time.
There is also an outdoor exhibition area with a pond for aquatic plants and collections of ornamental plants. For its part, the Japanese Garden, another of its great attractions, is organized around an artificial lake with an oval shape and has a waterfall, two meditation pavilions and a hexagonal wooden pavilion placed on stilts on the lake.
In addition to the 4 restaurants, which offer creole and fusion food, visitors can enjoy a guided tour on the little train of the facility and the exciting canopy, with a route of more than 1km.
Discovering Havana with a bike tour
Despite the hot weather, in your holidays in Havana you can enjoy a bike tour, guided (which we recommend) or not, alone or with family and friends. The Malecon is one of the best roads to take, but to enjoy nature within the city, you can take the Metropolitan Park path, which runs along the Almendares River. After, you can visit the nearby Columbus cemetery and the John Lennon park.
Also very close to these sites is Casa El Artesano (The Craftsman house), where you can buy souvenirs and all kinds of crafts, with Cuban traditions and culture as their main focus. Talking with the artist is possible during your visit to the place.
Best beaches in Havana
The north coast of Havana is surrounded by the sea, but the best beaches to swim in are on the east side of the city, 30 minutes away. The best known are Santa María, Mar Azul and Guanabo. For tourists, the hop on- hop off busses are the best option to get there, safe and more economic than renting a private taxi.
Best places to dance in Havana
The Casas de la Música in Havana have venues in Miramar, Centro Habana and, the most recent, in the popular neighborhood of La Timba. While the first has more operating time, the second is much busier, being in a more central position.
Tropicana is the most famous cabaret in Cuba and the one that exists in Havana is the main one. This is a place to enjoy Cuban music and the different types of Cuban rhythms and popular dances, in a show full of colors and lights.
Two other places where a specific day of the week is dedicated to Cuban music, with performances by popular orchestras, are the Le Select club and the 1830 Gardens. Both sites are preferred by salsa instructors for tourists, as long as they can go with the apprentices and practice what they have learned.
There are other places in Havana where you can enjoy Cuban traditional music.
Best casas particulares in Havana
When you travel to Cuba, you can lodge mainly in a hotel or in a casa particular. In hotels, the visitor will find all the comfort typical of these facilities, mostly in the 3, 4 or 5-star categories: bar and restaurants, room service, minibar and even wifi. Nevertheless, hotels tend to be more expensive and impersonal.
On the other hand, private houses in Cuba, similar to Bed and Breakfasts, offer a more personalized service, although not exactly professional or sophisticated. In a casa particular you will find the warmth and the spontaneity of the Cubans. The casa owners will do their bests to please you and help you enjoy the best vacations possible. They will also help you with tips, advice and even with the arrangement of excursions, transportation, or anything else you need.
The best places to stay in Havana are Old Havana, Havana Centre and Vedado. In the case of Old Havana, casas and hotels there are in the center of everything: museums, the historical center, restaurants and nightclubs, transportation, everything. Something similar occurs with lodgings in Havana Centre, although streets tend not to be as clean as in Vedado, a little far away from the historical center, but still quite central and with easy access to the different tourist attractions.
If you prefer to stay near the beach, Guanabo and Boca Ciega are the best choices.
Best places to eat in Havana
In Havana, you will find a lot of restaurants all over the city. In some places in Old Havana, Havana Centre and Vedado there could be 2 or 3 per block.
In Old Havana, O’Reilly 304 and ‘El del Frente’ (The one in front), belonging to two brothers. The atmosphere there is just amazing, but the terrace at El del Frente is the best. Also in front of the Capitol is Los Nardos, offering delicious international food and excellent service.
In Havana Center, La Guarida and San Cristóbal are among the most famous, because of the personalities that have visited them. La Vitrola, for its part, offers a more intimate atmosphere and a decor that refers to Cuban tobacco and its different brands. It includes a lounge for smokers, where you can buy and taste the best Cuban cigars.
In Vedado, Café Laurent, La Catedral, El Decamerón restaurants offer a pleasant, refined atmosphere and excellent food. The HM7 it is possible to eat on the terrace, with a seaview.
Finally… Some tips and advises.
The best time to visit Cuba is between November and April, but there are more tourists then, so try to book lodgings quite far ahead. If you come to the island between May and June, during the rainy season, there will be fewer people and more availability. Prices will be also a little bit lower.
Although in Havana you can find almost every tourist attraction, the most beautiful landscapes in Cuba are in other destinations such as Viñales, Varadero, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. So we recommend you include these places in your trip. Otherwise, from Havana you can make 1 day excursions to some of them.
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To get your Cuban Tourist Card, even if you are coming from the USA, you can do it through EasyTouristCard.com. Here you can order all the tourist cards at once, so you will only pay one shipping charge.