I recently went to Havana (Cuba) for a week with a couple of girlfriends — and it’s now one of my favorite places I have ever been. The people are wonderful, the culture is vibrant, the surroundings are beautiful, the streets are safe, and the history/architecture tells a very unique and complicated story.
In my previous post about Cuba, I explained all the logistics of traveling to Cuba as an American (basically answers to all the questions I had when I was planning my trip). This post is about all the great things you can (and should) do when you go.
1. Go on a walking tour
This is my first recommendation in any city you go to. It helps orient you, shows you to the main sites, introduces you to the history and culture, and gives you other ideas for what to do (or where to circle back to). So when you first get to Havana, get a walking tour of Old Havana. There are plenty of options for these you can find online. I usually look for these on AirBnB Experiences or Tripadvisor, but this time, we arranged for a private guide via the planner we hired on ViaHero (a service where you can get a personal planner for your whole trip for $40/day). If you want to try ViaHero, here’s a URL for $40 off your first booking. The benefit of booking in advance via a site like Tripadvisor or AirBnB, however, is that you can pay in advance by credit card (so it’s one less thing to bring cash for).
2. Go on a classic/retro car ride
Classic American cars are such a unique and beautiful part of Havana. Everywhere you go, you’ll see brightly-painted remnants of the 50s and 40s that you can’t even find in the USA. Most of these can be hired by the hour to take you around some of the sights that are harder to cover by foot (the fortress on the other side of the water with views of Havana, the Metropolitan Park, El Cristo statue, the Plaza de la Revolución, and just many of the colorful streets of Havana). Again, these tours can be found all over AirBnB and Tripadvisor, your BnB host might have a favorite they can help you book, or you can always just walk over to the capitol and find a guide among the many retro cars parked there.
3. Find the best mojito (or daquiri) in town
This challenge is not for the faint of heart, but fun to try. Mojitos and daquiris are like the national drinks of Cuba and can be found almost everywhere in Havana — both in classic flavors, as well as delicious alternatives such as pineapple, mango, strawberry, and many others. Make sure you try the local fruit called guanábana in a daquiri or smoothie (you may have heard it called “soursop” in English, but most likely, you haven’t had it before). Both drinks are rum-based, since rum is the liquor widely produced in Cuba — so a visit to a distillery could be fun, too. (There’s a Havana Club tasting room in Old Havana, for example.)
4. Try all of the croquettes and ceviches
Croquettes are deep-fried balls, usually filled some sort of delicious meat-based filling — and ceviche is a “raw” seafood dish that has been “cooked” in lime juice. I knew croquettes were a popular Cuban dish before I went, so I wasn’t surprised to find them on every menu (usually made with fish, chicken, or ham and cheese). I didn’t realize that ceviche was so popular in Cuba, however. We saw a fish and/or octopus version at most restaurants, as well — and this dish was perfect for hot weather. Our favorite ceviche was at El Cocinero and at Paco’s Mar — and croquettes probably at Paladar Las Mercaderes.
5. Go dancing
The music and dance culture is obviously one of the coolest parts of Havana. If you’re interested, there are lots of places you can take a private or group salsa dancing class — just search online. And Casa de la Musica is the place to go for music and dancing. If the club scene is more your style, Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is super popular on the weekends and well-known as a place you have to check out for how unique it is. I recommend getting in line before 10pm if you don’t want a long wait, though. For something a bit smaller where the locals go, check out King Bar. We had a blast dancing the night away on their little dance floor. (Sorry, I don’t have photos.)
6. Find your favorite door / building / mural in Old Havana
This is just a fun long-term activity in Havana for adults and kids alike — especially photo enthusiasts. There are just so many unique, colorful buildings (with equally unique doors) all over Old Havana. There’s usually at least one building on every block that also has a cool mural or some sort of street art painted on the side: anything from Cuban flags, to gorillas smoking cigars, to the politically-charged “2+2=5” message taken from 1984. I definitely took my share of photos in front of yellow buildings (yes, yellow is my favorite color). And even if you don’t like to be in photos, I’ve seen some really cool collage compilations of the doors/buildings in Havana.
7. Hang out on a rooftop
It gets pretty hot in Havana during the middle of the day. Sure, you could go back to your BnB and take a nap — but I think finding a nice rooftop with a breeze to relax on is the way to go. Right in the middle of Old Havana, El Del Frente is a nice option — and a little further south near the San Jose market is a gorgeous spot (with great Internet) called Yarini. Both take reservations, and there are also tons of other options all over. The second-floor balconies on the main squares are probably touristy and pricy, but they certainly offer some great people-watching.
8. Hire a photographer
Depending on whether or not you’ve got a good photographer in your group, it can be hard to get good photos of your trip (especially of everyone together). I always try to find someone local for a 1-2 hour shoot when I travel — usually via Instagram or AirBnB Experiences. I hired this AirBnB group for $150 for a private 2-hour session, but I have to tell you: if you’re picky, don’t hesitate to be vocal and precise about what you want (for example, horizontal vs. vertical, zoomed in vs. zoomed out, shots of colorful buildings vs. the capitol and fortress). Show examples of what you like from their portfolio or from Instagram. Otherwise, you may feel like you spent a lot of money on something that wasn’t exactly what you wanted.
9. Go on a day trip to Viñales
This was one of our favorite things we did on our whole trip. Viñales Valley is a beautiful area approximately 2 hours from Havana. Most people go here to see the outdoors, ride horses, tour cigar plantations, eat real local food, etc. You can certainly book a group tour for this on AirBnB Experiences, where I saw plenty. But our ViaHero guide (mentioned in #1) arranged a private tour/guide for us — where were picked up by a classic-car taxi at our BnB, had our own private horseback ride through Viñales, stopped by a small little pitstop with no one else there to try some unique local rum and honey, and went to lunch at a local “restaurant” (a veranda where everyone from the area gathers for some of the best Cuban food). We opted to skip cigar plantation tours or anything touristy, and it was perfect.
10. Visit Trinidad
Ok, this one was something I wanted to do, but just didn’t have enough time for (since it’s a 4-hour drive from Havana, so it would require an overnight stay). However, I absolutely will be going here next time I’m in Cuba. Trinidad is a beautifully-preserved colonial town with lots of colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, and a neo-baroque central square. Together with the nearby Valle de los Ingenios, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. So if you have enough time while in Cuba, arrange for a taxi ahead of time to take you there and back to Havana, and book an overnight stay.