A good friend of mine recently returned from a trip to the US, Mexico and Cuba. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get her to tell you all about Cuba. So if you are looking for things to do in Havana, here’s some tips from someones who’s done it.
This is my first guest post readers, so be gentle with me… My husband and I travelled to Havana, Cuba in February and spent about 5 days wandering around this beautiful old city. There is so much character there, the buildings are beautiful and the people are generally helpful and engaging (that can’t be said for all the hotel staff we encountered though!). While we didn’t travel with children, other than having to use bottled water to drink/clean teeth (which is common in many countries), I don’t think there was anything that would prevent taking children of any age there (noting we stayed in Havana only!) and we certainly saw plenty of tourists with kids of all ages.
We had first travelled to USA, then Cancun, Mexico before arriving in Cuba which was an absolute highlight of the trip… We paid $30 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) for our airport to hotel trip (about $39AUD) which might have been a bit high, but we were told our hotel was in Old Havana, or Havana Vieja, so further and costlier.
We relied heavily on the new Lonely Planet Cuba which was invaluable and every second person had one (well tourists anyway!). The architecture in Havana was fantastic and my husband (who still owns his first car, an EJ Holden) undoubtedly stopped to take a picture of every single vintage car we saw. Old Havana has many beautiful buildings, museums and churches and all you need to do is walk round to be awestruck. The National Theatre is particularly beautiful at night when its lit up like a Christmas tree. The buildings there reminded me of being in the Grand Square in Brussels. There is a 4 plaza walking tour in the Lonely Planet which we followed which was awesome, taking in the Plaza de la Catedral to Plaza Vieja which hosts a micro-brewery where you can stop to refresh after the walk. The walk is only 2kms long with many photo stops and cafés en route. There is also a small oldwares/antique market at Plaza de Armas which is worth looking through as there are many relics, coins, and medals that date back to the late 1950’s.
There is so much to see in Havana that I couldn’t possibly cover it all, but the Hotel Nacional, the many Arts and History museums and the historical forts are but a few of the places we visited. At Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana they have a nightly ceremony of the shooting of the cannons and a quaint local market before and afterwards which is worth visiting.
There is generally not much shopping there other than small, average quality souvenir shops. We did though purchase some Cuban cigars and rum – there is a cigar/rum factory that most tours, including our vintage car tour, will take you too. The rum we purchased Santiago Cuba rum was about $7.60CUC for a 750ml bottle!
We mainly ate at Lonely Planet listed restaurants/cafés and they were all great, the food there is delicious and generally reasonably priced. You could get a lamb casserole, salad, black beans and rice for about $8CUC (about $10.50AUD). Our favourite breakfast spot was the Fumero Jacqueline and we went there a number of times (it seemed to be the only brekky spot in the guide but was delicious) and happened to be located in a small plaza in front of the gorgeous Santo Angel Custodio church right near our hotel. I can certainly recommend the poached eggs on toast with mushrooms… yummo. You can also get a great hamburger at La Chucheria, a cool sports bar one street back (on C1 street) from the Malecon foreshore, and a rocking vanilla thickshake! We also ate at El Chanchullero on Brasil Street which was also yum and reasonably cheap.
While we didn’t explore outside of Havana, I would definitely recommend staying longer and heading out to some other districts like Varadero or Trinidad to see something different. We had intended to do a day trip, but time got away from us. We had about 4.5 days on the ground which was just enough to explore Havana itself comfortably. In relation to transport, you can hire peddle bikes (driver peddles with two seats behind for passengers), and coco-taxis (little bubble taxis like tuk-tuks) which are reasonably cheap at about $1CUC per kilometre. As an alternative, you could even hire a horse and cart, but I’m not sure of the costs.
There is a Havana Hop On Bus which costs $10CUC ($13AUD), but it’s not really a Hop On – Hop Off bus as most tourists stay on and travel the entire round trip back to Old Havana. It’s also quite hard to hear any commentary (Spanish or English) from the top deck so you’re never quite sure what you would be seeing if you did get off. It is a great way to get your bearings and see the major sites as well as travelling along parts of the Malecon, the sea wall that runs for 8kms along the north of the island.
There are reportedly about 60,000 vintage cars in Cuba and they can be seen everywhere, in varying stages of repair and restoration. So you can’t visit Cuba without taking a vintage car tour, ideally a convertible, but be selective. We had pre-booked a tour after seeing good reviews on Trip Advisor, however the night before we arrived we received an email notifying us that the tour was cancelled due to his driver breaking a leg… Anyway, we approached the Public Relations staff member at the hotel who promptly found one for us, however when we met the driver at our hotel, he didn’t speak very good English which meant we saw a lot on the tour, but didn’t particularly learn much. This was the first morning in Havana, so little did we know there are drivers and vintage cars, many English speaking everywhere.
The vintage car itself was a pink and white convertible 1949 Chevrolet, and we ended up negotiating (with the assistance of the driver’s friend) a 3-hour tour, including lunch (self-funded) for $80CUC. Generally, they start around $40CUC per hour, but you should be able to negotiate that down to at least $30CUC/hr. We visited the Plaza de la Revolucion where the Memorial a Jose Marti and museum are located, drove past the renowned Necropolis Cristobal Colon (cemetery), visited a scenic forest, toured through the newer end of Havana and visited a cigar and rum factory. Unfortunately, the restaurant we were to stop at was fully booked, so we returned to our hotel early. We did thoroughly enjoy this tour and it gave us a good, and early, understanding of the layout of the city (and what was to come!).
There are some traps still with accessing local currency there but they aren’t insurmountable (there is a currency exchange outside the terminal on arrival which we used). You can’t get Cuban money outside Cuba but the hotels are generally accepting standard bank cards. We used a bank travel/debit card which was a Mastercard at both our hotels without incident, however the ATMs would not accept them. I had another debit card with a Visa facility that I was able to use at ATMs though, so I suggest having a couple of options available.
Overall we had a great time there – we recommend going soon though as it’s changing already with a number of buildings empty and being renovated by multi- national hotel chains. There were many roads dug up too due to phone/power updates which detracted from the views and photos a little. The people are generally lovely, perhaps assertive with taxis but polite (wishing you a nice day when you decline services). We did not in any way feel unsafe there and walked the streets late at night without issues (the place is flat too so easy to walk about but good walking shoes are a must due to cobblestones).
We stayed 3 nights in Old Havana at the Hotel Mecure Saville on Trocadero in Centro Havana, right on the border with Old Havana (Havana Vieja). Accommodation is not cheap, but we do generally stay in high quality hotels. The Hotel Mecure Saville cost about $225 per night and was rated about 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor, but the toilet blocked, the hair dryer didn’t work, there is no water in the rooms and the bedding could only be described as shabby. I’d read reviews that the standards were lower than a usual 5-star hotel, so we were expecting this. We then stayed 2 nights in Vedado on the outskirts of Havana which worked out well for us. The Vedado hotel we stayed at, Hotel Melia Cohiba, was 5 star which meant our last 2 nights were lovely, clean… with all fittings functioning! A word of warning although beware of online bookings that instantly upgrade you to the executive suites which cost more – I’m scared to look up how much the room cost us despite the luxury!
I do recommend booking early, particularly around February which is peak season to avoid having to split your stay (our two hotel stay in Havana was not intentional but due to having difficulty getting 5 nights in one hotel). We booked all rooms over the internet (only about 6 weeks before we left Australia), direct with hotels as many online booking forums were not able to book in Cuba. I researched through Trip Advisor first though which was certainly helpful. I also suggest exploring the Casa Particulares or home stays as they appear to be much cheaper than hotels.
Overall, Havana was a fantastic place to visit, particularly given it is only just becoming a tourist hot-spot… I’d highly recommend visiting, and soon!
Sal & Co.