To understand Cuba and its capital is to understand all its paradoxes. You’ll find natural beauty and vintage relics at every turn but be disheartened at the same time by the crumbling facades and feeling of isolation from Western technology. So is Havana worth visiting? We’re here to find out.
The Caribbean island’s largest city is the heart of urban life. Havana’s old core dates back to the 16th-century, home to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the baroque Catedral de San Cristóbal. Havana’s architecture reflects the eclectic mix of cultural influences. Still, without a McDonald’s or can of Coke in sight, but an education system far superior to that of the West, Havana is a mesh of contradictions.
There are many reasons to visit, and our guide looks at just a few. From the vibrant nightlife and delicious food to the lack of Wifi, Havana’s mysteries are waiting to be uncovered. While you might never figure this city out, you will have a lot of fun trying. So let’s get into it.
The Habana Vieja
While you’ll want to explore as much of the city as possible, the tourist area of Old Havana is a vibrant, immersive place and a reason as good as any to visit. From the crowded Calle Obispo to the narrow streets near Havana Harbor, you’ll find charming curio shops selling souvenirs, cigars, and marionettes around every corner.
Havana is as full of rhythm as Cuban people, and the lively street performers will entertain you. Walk with the crowds and enjoy the famous street food, elote, as you do – basically corn the cob on a stick but slathered in sweet and spicy butter.
It’s not uncommon for La Habana Vieja to have a carnivalesque atmosphere, with stilt walkers straight out of Mardis Gras bringing the streets to life. The old town is a place to celebrate Cuban culture, albeit in a rather touristy way, but it’s definitely worth it.
You can’t go to Havana and avoid the old American cars. In fact, you’d struggle to, as they line every street and choke around every corner as if you’ve been transported back to the 1950s. From antique Buicks to Chrysler Plymouths and Ford Fairlanes, vintage American wagons are synonymous with the city.
Most are perfectly restored and just waiting for tourists to jump in for a ride. You can even rent one to cruise around on your own as you tour Havana. They’re a fascinating emblem of old Cuban life and a society untouched by Western influences for 60 years. Even more intriguing is how Cubans have learned to keep their cars alive without access to original spare parts.
Havana is a vibrant place that’s all about celebration and getting in the party spirit. Not only are the drinks cheap and free-flowing, but the city is the birthplace of some iconic alcoholic beverages.
You can’t go to Cuba’s capital without sampling the namesake rum, one of the country’s most significant exports. Havana Club was created in 1934 and nationalized after the Cuban revolution. Cubans are deeply proud of their rum production, made from sugarcane which thrives in the Caribbean climate. Many argue that the only way to savor the taste of Havana Club is sipping it neatly at room temperature. But when Havana is also the birthplace of the mojito, we argue that cocktails are a crucial part of any trip to the city.
Daiquiris, mojitos, Pina Coladas – you name it, Cubans thought of it. Better yet, you can enjoy all these sour cocktails to the sounds of live music at late-night bars all over the city. Clubs and bars tend to close when the last customer leaves in Havana; usually, 2 or 3 am, the city is brimming with Cuba’s best nightlife. Whether you’re sipping on a cool Cuba Libre from a rooftop bar or dancing the night away in El Tropicana with $1 local beers on tap, you’re in for a good time.
Havana was founded in the 16th-century by the Spanish, serving as a springboard for the conquest of the Americas. With medieval city walls and an eclectic mix of architectural styles, Havana also holds an insight into the turbulent political past of the country and a relationship with the US that almost led to World War III.
A must-see is the Museum of the Revolution. Once the Presidential Palace, the museum now tells the story of Spain’s colonization, Fulgenico Batista’s dictatorships, the revolution that took him down, and America’s invasion of the Bay of Pigs. The United States embassy is also an interesting and haunting relic of intervention attempts from the West.
You can’t enter the embassy, but there are a sea of flag poles without flags in the Plaza de la Dignidad opposite the building. The US installed an electronic display to broadcast news that the Cuban government had blocked. Fidel Castro’s response was the sea of poles that pierce the sky and block the view. The screen and flags might be gone, but the symbolism holds firm.
All over Havana, you can also find statues and parks named after Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, founders of socialist thought, as well as huge displays spreading political messages in place of consumer billboards. Havana is one of the last places to see socialism in the new world, and the vintage relics and colonial buildings all tell their part of the story.
We told you that Havana is full of tricks. With a revolutionary contemporary art scene on the rise, there is beauty and creativity to be absorbed all over the city.
The Palace of Fine Arts is a must-stop on a trip to Havana. Across the street from the Museum of the Revolution, the gallery houses a spectacular art collection spanning five centuries. You could spend hours perusing the rows of paintings with a Cuban coffee in hand. With works either created in Cuba or at the hands of Cuban artists, the Palace of Fine Arts is a testament to the creativity of this country’s residents.
The Fábrica, as it’s locally known, is another spot that deserves a visit if you’re a lover of art. More of a sprawling complex than a gallery, you’ll find art exhibitions, a screening room, a lecture space, and even a disco within its three-story towers.
But it’s not all about the government-subsidized spaces that make this city so artistic. Everywhere you go, you’ll find the work of talented artists who’ve made the city walls their gallery. From inventive graffiti to murals and caricatures, you’ll see some of Havana’s best art just wandering the streets. A notable mention is the art at Salvador Gonzáles Escalona’s Callejon de Hamel, a collection of murals and sculptures which have become a permanent fixture of this pedestrian street. Afro-Cuban images tied up with everyday objects like bathtubs and tires, the installation is a gallery in itself.
In Cuba, a Paladar is a small, family-run restaurant. Much like an Italian trattoria, these are the best places to dine for authentic Cuban cuisine and ambiance. Most restaurants in Havana are state-run, but Paladares are the exception to the rule. Once met with apprehension by the Cuban government, they’re now a prominent part of Havana’s culture.
Often located several stories up in old Colonial houses, a Paladar feels more like a Cuban home where long dining tables have replaced the sofas, and punters eat side by side. Often decorated with fine art and antiques, the intimate dining rooms are exceptionally unique.
They’re not the cheapest places to eat in the city, and some have extended menus to encompass European classics and fusion dishes, rather than only Cuban delicacies. But you can still find local favorites and creative Cuban cocktails wherever you go.
The Malecón is the heart of life in Havana for locals, despite being far north of the city. This seawall stretches eight kilometers along the coast, and this recreational space attracts all sorts of Cubans.
The Malecón contrasts the hectic old city and tourist area and is known as one of the most beautiful promenades in the world. It is a place for reflection for some, a meeting point for others, and a source of income for the fisherman that cast their lines into the crashing waves over the wall. The Malecón has become symbolic of Cuban life and is a soulful place at all hours.
The Paladaras might be an excellent way to soak up authentic Havana vibes, but you can enjoy good food no matter where you go in the city, and the rich Cuban cuisine is a great reason to visit the capital.
Cuban food is spicy and soulful, meshing Spanish, African, and Caribbean staples. Whether you’re after the poor man’s Ropa Vieja, Cuba’s national dish consisting of beef, rice, and beans, or a Cubano, the pressed sandwich that filled the weary hands of cigar rollers – Havana will deliver.
The lively streets are also fantastic for street food. You’ll find vendors selling snacks all over the city, and you’re in luck in you have a sweet tooth because Cubans do too. Whether it’s crisp tostones or deep-fried churros, a quick, cheap bite is never too far away, whether it’s crisp tostones or deep-fried churros.
The Street Animals
The furry citizens of Havana exist as harmoniously with the city as the shiny antique cars and add to its rustic charm. Cats and dogs are everywhere, and while most are well-fed and even have homes, they walk to the beat of their own drum, like true Cubans. The city is just as much theirs as anyone else’s.
They laze peacefully on every sidewalk, seemingly blending in with the colorful street art. The dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and the cats wander in and out of curio shops, right at home. Locals embrace street animals as part of their culture, and most are looked after in some respect. The generosity of Cubans means most of the animals aren’t wary of humans and are unbothered by the presence of tourists, so they’re not to be feared. Still, exercise caution as you would with any stray animals.
How many days do you need in Havana?
There’s a lot to see in Havana, and you could easily spend months in the city and still not uncover all of its mysteries. But four nights or three days is a great amount of time to spend in the capital to squeeze in the best attractions and get a real sense of Cuba.
Is Havana Cuba safe for tourists?
Havana is not considered dangerous for tourists, but visitors should still take precautions as they would in any other major city. Petty crime is often reported in busy areas, so remain vigilant and avoid traveling with valuables. Cuba generally ranks as highly safe, equal to England, France, and Germany on the safety index, and much safer than Mexico. But there are risks of hurricanes in Cuba that you won’t face in Europe, so be careful not to travel during the storm season to avoid getting stranded.
When is the best time to visit Havana?
Benefiting from a Caribbean climate, Cuba is warm year-round with sunny days and tropical weather. There are two distinct seasons in Cuba, the wet, from May to September, and the dry, from October to April. While the rainy season still sees a lot of sunshine and warm temperatures, the humidity can be uncomfortable, and the risk of tropical storms increases. For these reasons, January and February are the best months to visit Havana for guaranteed winter sun and blue skies when the dry season is at its peak.