I don’t think there are many people for whom the idea of ‘Havana’ doesn’t evoke something; it’s the kind of destination that everyone seems to have an impression of already, the word itself imbued with warm, colourful energy and sounds.
Despite that, I’ve found it quite difficult to describe Havana to anyone I’ve spoken to since. It’s a true cacophony, not just of noises and music but of sights and people and feelings, and it was simultaneously as I expected and not.
This seems fitting, really, as juxtaposition pervades Cuba’s capital – I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere that’s at once so opulent and so dilapidated. It’s also, at times, overwhelming, and we essentially ended up repeating our first day twice after the city got the better of us on the first attempt.
I now think that probably the best way to approach Havana is to accept that you won’t see everything and just enjoy the things you do see; get lost wandering crumbling streets and sit outside eating and drinking whenever you feel like it, because while it’s a place full of energy, it’s also a great place to take a laid back approach and go with the flow.
As we flew into and out of Havana, we spent time there on two separate occasions, so our five days were disjointed and as a result this post may well be in parts too – sorry about that!
Where we stayed
Two stints in Cuba’s capital allowed us two accommodation choices, so we made the most of that by choosing to stay in different neighbourhoods and in two very different places. Most destinations in Cuba have a choice of Casa Particulares or state-owned hotels, but in Havana you’ll find a few more options outside of this. We booked both of ours on Airbnb.
Our first one was a castle. Obviously, of course, what else!
La Villa de Teresa is a beautiful old property decked out in colonial décor, full of antiques and utterly gorgeous. It’s also extra af, because clearly, and situated in a residential area quite a distance to the old town on foot; we did walk it once, which was a real insight into Havana life outside of the areas we were spending time in, but otherwise took taxis arranged by the lovely housekeeper.
Our room had its own terrace and rockers, but there‘s also a communal roof terrace which offers truly amazing 360 views of Havana, where some of my favourite time from our first few days in Cuba was spent.
Our second base in Havana was an apartment in Vedado. We knew that this would be our last two nights in Cuba so decided to opt for our most expensive accommodation of the trip, figuring that we would have just spent two weeks living in other people’s houses, getting up early and taking long uncomfortable journeys.
Our host – a young accountant who had renovated the apartment and lived in another one close by – was a really important part of our experience for these last couple of days, driving us into town, giving us the best advice and tips, and taking us to the airport on our final day. The apartment was full of little details that reflected his personality and tastes, and despite the fact that we weren’t living in the same house as him like the other Casas we stayed at, his insight into Cuban life felt all the more relevant for him being closest to our own age.
What we did
We spent a LOT of time in Havana just wandering around; it’s rather enormous, but excellent exploration fodder. Our time roaming the city was mostly spent in three of Havana’s main neighbourhoods; Habana Vieja, Centro, and Vedado. These districts are where many of the sights and attractions are, but they’re also things to do in their own right; I’ve given a quick run down of them and some of the other things we did and saw here.
Old Town: The original city of Havana is understandably the most tourist filled area, but with good reason – it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, utterly charming, and a sensory overload. We spent a long time wandering without purpose here, but also did a talking tour from the Lonely Planet book one day to make sure we’d covered most of the main squares and points of interest; the cathedral, notable streets and various squares. It’s architecture central with colourful restored buildings, but does involve dodging the advances of ‘jineteros’ (which means “Jockeys” in English) to explore, so we got our ‘I know where I’m going/what I’m doing’ faces out and enjoyed it for what it is.
Centro Havana: Havana’s Centro district is separated from Old Havana by one long road, across which dilapidated buildings become more frequent, the streets become dirtier and noisier and a more gritty, authentic Havana emerges. With far less tourist traffic and far more real life, Centro is a travel photographer’s dream.
Vedado: Quieter still is the neighbourhood of Vedado, an area well worth escaping the crowds of tourists to. That’s not to say that there are no tourist attractions here, but is generally far more sprawling, without the need to dodge people every 6 seconds. It’s a more modern part of town, with long streets of large mansions, bars and restaurants, and Havana’s university.
Malecon: The Malecon is essentially the promenade along the seafront. The walkway itself isn’t particularly aesthetically pleasing, but the enormous waves that break against the wall here are well worth seeing, especially when they’re so high that they cover the cars driving along the road that runs parallel (and people, if you don’t move quick enough, which I’m pleased to say that I did).
Paseo de Marti: A grand boulevard that essentially cuts between Habana Vieja and Centro, Paseo De Marti (most commonly known by its old name Paseo del Prado or just ‘Prado’), is the first avenue located outside the old walls of the city. It’s home to El Capitolio (the National Capitol Building) and you’re guaranteed to find yourself on at some point exploring Havana. We lingered a while here, since there are people coming and going all day so it made for great people watching.
Plaza de la Revolution (and the Jose Marti memorial): As city squares go, this is a BIG one, and while it may not be the prettiest square in the world it’s certainly important. Concrete blocks which house many important government offices line the edges and Che Guevara’s face, one of the country’s most iconic images, adorns the side of one of them, as well as Camilo Cienfuegos. On the opposite side is Havana’s tallest structure, the Jose Marti memorial tower. I wish I had known that for just 2CUC you can go to a lookout point within it for supposedly excellent views. It also houses a museum which we’d decided to skip since it was late in the day.
Fortaleza de san Carlos de la Cabana: On the last evening of our first stint in Havana we headed up to this 18th Century fortress complex for sunset, which I really couldn’t recommend more because the views over the city are beautiful. You could probably spend half a day or so here as there are restaurants, bars, souvenir stalls, museums and the fortress itself, and they also do a ceremony involving re-enactment at 9pm each evening – which we skipped, because taking 200 nearly identical photos of a sunset is hungry work, and we were both ready to get back into the city to eat.
Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón: This is a cemetery, but it’s not your average graveyard; it’s more of a small city within a city, full of fascinating group and family tombs. Elaborate statues and even mini castles fill the 10 acres that Necropolis Cristobal Colon covers, and we spent half a day wandering the streets – yes, streets – a worthy use of the 5CUC entrance fee.
O’Reilly 304: A fairly small and very popular restaurant in the old town serving great tapas. It gets crowded so they do split tables between groups – we ended up sharing with a lovely couple from Brazil – and it’s very much tourist prices rather than local, but the great service and buzzing atmosphere makes up for it. Everything we ate here was delicious (the portion size on a couple of them was small though, just saying). The cocktails are strong; I emerged rather drunk after just one of them with lunch.
El Chanchullero: We queued for around half an hour to get in here – it’s another popular place – but it’s position on a square in Old Town made for satisfying people watching, so it didn’t affect our experience. Again, the service is friendly, with strong cocktails being something of a theme. The food is comprised of simple fresh ingredients, done well and in huge portions that come with plenty of extras including salad, bread, fried plantain and fruit. It’s also a really affordable option, at around 4.5CUC (£3.60ish) for mains and 2CUC for cocktails.
La Rosa Negra: This place was recommended by our second host in Havana, and it was a great shout. A popular spot with locals, we had a to queue for around 30 minutes to get in her, but the extra hunger brought about by the wait time is balanced out by the huge portions of traditional Cuban food and downright lovely staff. They do takeout too for anyone who doesn’t fancy the wait – and for those (a good 90% of the people I saw leaving) who can’t finish what they order in the restaurant. We had the leftovers for lunch the next day, so it was basically two meals.
El Cocinero (Fabrica de Arte Cubana): The fact that we came here when we had literally run out of money and a huge storm had convinced us not to make the trek to the nearest cash point is one of my great Havana regrets. As it was, this place is fairly pricey for Cuba, so we ended up with two salads and two mojitos – which were delicious, hence including El Cocinero here, but was also pretty tragic. The space is very trendy with an industrial feel; which isn’t suprising when you consider that it’s located off Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a Cultural centre located in a former factory. Not actually getting to go into the gallery and club (it’s not open every day) is another of my great Havana regrets, so my advice would be to go to the restaurant and the club on the same evening. One that it’s open, and one where you have more than £15 per person left, preferably.
It might be useful to know…
For all of my Cuba travel diaries I thought I would make a point of including a few details that might not make it into the main body of the post but would probably be handy to know if you’re visiting:
Viazul: Book in advance if at all possible, either online or in person at the station if you’re going to be in the area. The station is in Vedado, near the Zoo and Plaza de la Revolution. Queues are likely and you’re best to go knowing what route/date/time you want as well as having a couple of back up plans in mind to avoid a lot of stressful back and forth.
Wifi: There are a handful of Etecsa offices – at least one in each of the main districts I’ve mentioned – and they are all marked on maps.me, which is well worth downloading before you go. When you’re out and about look for congregations of people sitting down on their phones and you’ve probably found a hotspot – particularly squares, parks and along La Rampa street.
Accommodation: There’s lots of accommodation choice in Havana, with plentiful casas and hotels.
Essentials: Since Havana is the capital, there’s lots more in terms of facilities and shops here than other places in Cuba. You shouldn’t struggle to find the things you need, but don’t expect it to be clear or easy.
If there are any specifics I haven’t mentioned, you can find more information on visiting Cuba here.
…and since I’m now 2000 words in I suppose I’d better leave it there! If you’re planning a trip to Cuba’s capital, I really hope this has been helpful, and if you’re not – my most sincere congratulations to making it to the end.