I expected to be charmed by Havana, and I was. The minute I saw the old American cars--beautifully restored--whizzing past slightly dilapidated, pastel colored buildings I was happy. This is what I’ve seen time and time again in YouTube videos, AAA brochures and even in Anthony Bourdain’s television show, Parts Unknown.
What I hadn’t expected however were the poor road conditions, endlessly cracked sidewalks and crumbling buildings reminiscent of a urban war scene. Havana is a study in contrasts. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Havana is beautifully restored, while just a few blocks away rebar can be seen sticking out of walls that will soon collapse. Restaurants geared to tourists are well-stocked with food and liquor, while locals shop in bodegas with half empty shelves.
I don’t share all of this to scare anyone away from visiting Havana. Instead, I want to encourage visitors, because I hope that over time dollars from tourism may contribute to better living conditions. I simply want visitors to be prepared. I firmly believe that clear expectations will help everyone have a better experience in Havana.
I also want to help visitors understand that in Havana there are frequently “hidden gems.” This isn’t Disneyland with perfectly manicured gardens and well-curated experiences. You may be directed to a site that outside looks questionable and uninviting, but walk inside to discover great art, music, or history. Havana is a city that rewards the curious.
Be prepared for your trip to Havana with the Lonely Planet guidebook.
Table of Contents
Escorted Tour to Cuba
Typically I plan my own travel since I love to do all the research and planning. But for Cuba I was happy to turn over the planning to an experienced tour company. I purchased a fully escorted tour through Quantum Travel Services. I paid for my own trip, so I’m not being compensated for this piece. But if you’d like to see Cuba with a well-organized company, then I definitely recommend Quantum.
Want to be prepared for your upcoming trip? Read What To Expect When You Visit Cuba.
When most Americans think of Cuba they think Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro and embargoes. In fact, the city of Havana was founded by the Spanish in 1519, so its history is much greater than just the last sixty years.
Old Havana is deservedly an UNESCO World Heritage Site which includes five, charming plazas, 900 historic buildings, as well as the fortifications surrounding the old city. In fact, in response to losing control of Havana in the late 1700’s, Spain responded by making Havana the most fortified city in the hemisphere. You can’t spend time in the old city and escape some part of the fortified walls or structures.
A walking tour here is highly recommended since there is so much history packed into this one part of the city. We began our tour in the Plaza de la Catedral, named for the Catedral de San Cristobal. Look closely at the church and you’ll notice that the alcoves designed to hold statues of saints are now empty. Many such statues were removed during the early years of the revolution.
Schedule your Havana City Tour now!
We broke up our exploration of Old Havana with lunch and a visit to the nearby Havana Club Rum Museum, and then continued our walking tour. Eventually we found our way to Plaza de San Francisco de Assisi, notable for its Franciscan church and monastery. We ended at Plaza Viejas where we enjoyed live music for a while. Between each of the plazas are dozens of small charming, cobblestone streets lined with trees and more restored buildings.
Unlike many other parts of Havana, and even Cuba, the old city is clearly attracting the money--frequently from other countries--for high-quality restoration and subsequently lovely shops, cafes, bars, and hotels.
Taller Experiemental de Grafica
Located in Old Havana, just off Plaza de la Catedral, Taller Experiemental de Grafica is the oldest printmaking studio in Cuba. It has all the original equipment which was intended to print cigar decorations. After years of decay, this studio faced demolition until two artists, Cuban Orlando Suarez and Chilean Jose Venturelli appealed to the new revolutionary government in 1962 and made the case for a revival of this traditional art genre. It was in fact the famous Che Guevara who approved the project.
This is a serious studio where the artists are carefully selected and many have won prestigious national or international awards. In addition to the opportunity to buy high-quality prints, it’s also possible to take classes in printmaking. Be sure to visit this studio during your time in Old Havana. I was able to purchase a small print of Havana Harbor and can’t wait to frame it and hang it in my home.
Here are Eight Cities in Cuba You Need To Visit!
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Built in 1930, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was an integral part of this country’s pre-revolution history. It was home to famous gangsters that based their operations out of Havana during the American period of prohibition. This hotel saw many parties, summits and concerts for the mafia, wealthy Americans and celebrities.
Adjacent to the hotel’s bar is the Cuban Hall of Fame, where photos of celebrities and politicians that visited this iconic building are displayed. It’s a lovely spot to grab a mojito and enjoy the ocean view.
Havana Club Rum Museum
Rum--made from sugar cane--is an essential part of any trip to Cuba. Whether it’s a mojito, daiquiri or pina colada, rum will be a part of most of your meals. The Havana Club Rum Museum, located in Old Havana is a ideal place to learn about this spirit and its long history in Cuba.
I was reminded of our tour of Jose Cuervo Distillery in the Mexican town of Tequila last year. As Americans, we don’t think of rum or tequila as high-end liquors that can be enjoyed solo, but instead assume they exist only to be added to cocktails. And while rum cocktails are certainly popular everywhere in Cuba, rum can be aged for many years in wood barrels and sipped like a bourbon or whiskey.
Havana Club is the most common brand of rum in the country. And after the museum tour it’s only natural to visit the bar to learn how to make a mojito while enjoying live music. If dancing breaks out--as it usually does in Cuba--that’s even better!
If you’ve ever been to Parc Guell in Barcelona, then you’ll have some idea of what to expect at Fusterlandia. In fact, the artist, Jose Fuster, was inspired by Gaudi, but unlike the Spanish architect, Fuster used his own home for the project.
This multi-level art installation is a connected series of colorful, mosaic sculptures. By walking up a level, or turning a different direction, something new can be seen. Fusterlandia began in 1975 and has been evolving ever since then and over time has helped this once impoverished fishing community of Jaimanitas thrive.
The footprint of Fusterlandia is relatively small, in fact much smaller than I had anticipated. So Fuster resolved the issue of limited space by going up. It’s now taken over a whole street as neighbors have joined in and decorated their own homes with mosaics or other types of art. Add in a few vendors selling drinks and souvenirs, and this lively area should be high everyone’s list of things to do in Havana.
Allow plenty of time to explore Fusterlandia and the surrounding homes and galleries. I’d recommend at least an hour to enjoy every nook and cranny here.
Callejon de Hamel
I knew there would be music and dancing in Callejon de Hamel, but there is so much more. Started in 1990 by the artist Salvador Gonzalez, this Havana alleyway is full of mosaics, painting and sculpture. The artist has a gallery and home here and he is joined by a dozen or so boutique shops, bars, and galleries.
We had the opportunity for a brief tour of Gonzalez’ studio and home. Inside his home are two shrines to Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion that developed in Cuba amongst West African slaves. We were told during the tour that about half of Cubans practice Santeria, often in conjunction with other faith practices like Catholicism.
Every Sunday, there’s a live performance of rumba music and dancing. While rumba is now a commonly used term for a certain type of music, it was actually created in Cuba by African slaves. Rumba is loud, colorful and energetic, and everyone watching the show was captivated. A visit to Havana would not be complete without a stop at Callejon de Hamel on a Sunday afternoon.
Buena Vista Social Club (Legendarios Del Guajarito)
Tell me there is a dance and music show and I’m there. If it includes a conga line at the end, I’m a happy person. You aren’t coming to the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana for the food, so if Cuban music doesn’t excite you, then maybe take a pass on this attraction. But if you think music and dance shows are the best, then this will be a fun evening.
Many people know the Buena Vista Social Club as an award-winning band formed in the late 1990’s. It was named for a famous social club in Havana popular in the 1940’s that made several Cuban styles of music popular. Today, visitors to Havana can purchase tickets to Legendarios del Guajirito, home of the Buena Vista Social Club, and enjoy a great live show that may include some appearances from the original musicians. Most of the musical and dance numbers will be by younger performers, but overall it’s a fun evening.
What’s not great is the food or service. Our entire group of 15 was disappointed by both. The dinner and show ticket is about $60. There is an option for a ticket to just the show for $30, but I understand seating priority is given to those that purchase dinner as well.
Classic Car Tour
No tourist should leave Havana without taking a classic car tour. And fortunately, this was as much fun as it looks and sounds. Riding through the streets of Havana in a restored Chevy convertible with music blaring from the radio was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Our driver occasionally pointed out interesting sites like the National Theater of Cuba, but mostly we just sat in silence soaking up the experience. About halfway through our drive we stopped to stretch our legs in Parque Almendares, a spot popular with locals for wedding photos. I was disappointed when our time was up, and when I return to Cuba someday, I will definitely do this again!
Schedule your Havana Classic Car Tour now!
Habana Compas Dance and Video
Our time at Habana Compas Dance was brief, but the highlight of the trip for me. This dance company was formed in 2004 by the dancer and choreographer, Liliet Rivera, and combines Spanish dances like flamenco with Afro-Cuban percussion. Sometimes the percussion comes from drums, but others times it comes from chairs. The result is an energetic and mesmerizing performance that I didn’t want to end.
Today Compas travels internationally, so even if you aren’t visiting Cuba soon, look for a performance near you. The chance to see a short performance by Compas must be arranged far in advance, and is usually done through a tour company.
This brief video (54 seconds) will give you a taste of the energy and enthusiasm of these dancers and musicians.
Cannon Ceremony at Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana
Each night in the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana (also known as La Cabana) a canon ceremony is performed by soldiers dressed in 18th century Spanish uniforms. At 9:00 p.m. a cannonball is shot over the harbor, which traditionally was the way to inform citizens that the city gates were now closed.
The ceremony is a unique opportunity to get inside the fortress which was completed in 1774. It’s worth arriving early to get a good spot to view the ceremony. We were there on a rainy night, so our view was from a sheltered spot further away, but still an worthwhile event to attend.
Museo Hemingway Finca Vigia
I went to Cuba uninterested in Hemingway, but returned home fascinated. All I could remember of this famous author is being made to read Old Man And The Sea in high school and not liking it. But after visiting Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, a short distance outside of Havana, I realized there was much more to this man than a book that bored me.
Hemingway was no saint, but he was definitely larger than life. He began his career as a war correspondent, then began writing books about his experiences and eventually became a wildly popular author. Simultaneously he led a turbulent personal life with four marriages, three children, alcoholism, bouts of depression and eventually suicide.
Are you a big Heminway fan? Then take this full-day tour to learn about his time in Cuba.
The home of Hemingway has been beautifully restored and can be viewed from its open windows and doors--entry into the home is not permitted. It’s a peek into his life and the place where he wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Inside can be seen the furniture chosen by his fourth wife, Mary, hundreds of his books, hunting trophies, and even his typewriter.
After returning home I watched the 2015 movie Papa Hemingway in Cuba which was filmed in Finca Vigia. The movie wasn’t well reviewed, but I certainly enjoyed seeing the actual home during my time in Cuba and then watching actors portray the later years of his life.
Eat at Paladar San Cristobal (or the Obama Restaurant)
A paladar is a family run restaurant, usually run out of a home. These have become popular alternatives to the government run restaurants prevalent throughout Havana. San Cristobal has become a particularly famous paladar because it’s where former president, Barack Obama, his family, and the entire team traveling with him to Cuba ate dinner here one night in 2016. The whole restaurant was closed for the event.
There are several framed photos on the wall of President Obama greeting the chef and staff of the paladar. We had the opportunity to chat with the host after dinner about his experience serving the president and he was clearly proud to have had this opportunity.
Beyond the Obama memory, this paladar offered very tasty food and an eclectic decor that our group found endlessly entertaining. The walls are covered in a wide variety of memorabilia including animal skin pelts, vintage photos, statues of Christ and Crucifixes next to paintings of Stalin and Lenin (Their decorator has an interesting sense of humor).
A few cautions however. Despite having reservations--which are required--we waited almost an hour for our table. Then when we were seated the service was quite slow. I did a quick check on TripAdvisor, and it appears this experience is fairly common. So don’t arrive here starving. Also, this paladar is located in a poor, lesser known neighborhood, and our taxi driver had a hard time finding it. Come prepared with the address, and maybe some directions from hotel staff or AirBnB host.
Havana Is Worth The Trip!
What ultimately made this trip worthwhile for me was the music, dancing, art and history. Everyday we had the chance to hear live music, something which is rare in Southern California. And in Cuba getting up to dance is not only common, but expected.
I loved the colorful Cuban art! Despite the challenges Cubans face in their day to day lives, their art is lively and fun, much like their music.
Finally, I had the opportunity to hear the Cuban side of history. Sometimes, that clashed with what I learned in school. At other times I realized l didn’t actually know much about this island nation. But I travel for exactly this reason--to be challenged by other cultures and histories. For me, the trip to Cuba was a success.