A visit to Havana, Cuba is a little like Adam and Eve wandered into the garden of Eden and tasted the forbidden fruit. As visitors to Havana, Cuba, we’re allowed on the Caribbean island, as long as we have the proper credentials and don’t overstay our welcome. We can eat the mangos, drink the rum and smoke the cigars, but in order to better understand the history and culture it’s best to hire a guide when you visit Havana. Here are 7 things to do in Havana, Cuba with a local guide.
This was our first time to visit Havana, Cuba and we opted to travel by cruise ship. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines arranged for our Cuban visas, but we opted for a private guide who was local to Havana, rather than a shore excursion with a bus load of fellow cruise ship passengers.
We had twelve hours on the island and wanted to be sure to experience at least 7 things to do in Havana, Cuba before we traveled to Cienfuegos, Cuba. We made the right decision hiring a private guide in Cuba, as there are many things to see and do in Havana.. from visiting the old square, to riding in a classic car and eating in a Paladar (also known as a privately owned restaurant.) In no particular order, I share my 7 things to do in Havana, Cuba.
1. Walk Havana Vieja (Old Havana)
We walked over 7 miles throughout our day in Havana. To begin, our guide Maykel, from FerTours, met us at the Rum Museum for our two hour walking tour of Old Havana. Maykel is a young university professor who is knowledgeable, friendly and was very interested in showing us Havana like a local. We visited Plaza Vieja, translated to Old Square in English–it’s the most colorful square in Havana. We continued to the Main Square, Saint Francis of Assisi Square and Cathedral Square, in addition to Plaza de Armas and many other highlights. Insider tip: be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes, as many areas of Havana have cobblestone streets and potholes.
2. Visit Havana Markets
When you visit Havana, you’ll be fascinated with the markets. We visited a fresh fruit market, a rations store (Libreta bodega) and grocery store. Their fruit market is in stark contrast to our bountiful California farmers markets. Cubans use their monthly government rations supply booklet in Libreta shops to purchase items such as beans, rice, potatoes and compote. Notice one, lone bag of coffee on the shelf, while there seems to be a surplus of compota? During our visit, Havana was experiencing a severe bread and potato shortage. I was reminded that things we take for granted in the United States sometimes may not even be available in Cuba.
Fresh fruit is extremely expensive to purchase in Havana, Cuba. For example, one lime sold for around $6 and tomatoes were priced at over $10 per pound. Keep in mind that the average person in Cuba earns about $25 per month.
3. Mojitos and daiquiris flow in Havana
Along our walking tour we stopped at several bars frequented by author Ernest Hemingway. La Bodeguita del Medio is a bar, located on Calle Empedrado, near the cathedral in Old Havana and it’s where Hemingway used to drink his mojitos. Havana locals still congregate here for live music and authentic Cuban food. It was filled with festive tourists when we visited. Continue walking through the streets of Havana to the end of Calle Obispo. Here you will find Floridita, aka El Floridita, a restaurant and bar serving the famous Mulata daiquiri. Order the “Hemingway Special” and you’ll get the daiquiri without sugar and more rum, the way Papa Hemingway preferred his cocktail.
As Hemingway rented a room at the nearby Hotel Ambos Mundos from 1932 to 1939, perhaps the Cuban rum helped his imagination when he wrote Death in the Afternoon and The New Green Hills of Africa?
4. Classic car ride
One of the highlights of my trip to Cuba and one of the 7 things to do in Havana, is riding in a classic car! Our premium tour of Havana, Cuba included a sight-seeing tour in a 1956 Buick Special. This gorgeous pink convertible took us to the Plaza de la Revolution, along the Malecon, by the Cristóbal Colón Havana cemetery, to Casa Fusterland, by the Russia and US consulate in the Eastern Havana Municipality and to visit “El Cristo de la Habana” (the Christ of Havana).
5. Plaza de la Revolucion
The Plaza de la Revolucion is an important piece of real estate to the Cuban government. The Ministry of Interior building is located across from Revolution Square. You can’t miss the huge building with “¡Hasta la victoria siempre! or “Towards victory always” written below the image of Che Guevara, on the front of the building.
I have a wonderful picture of the building, but military personnel were in front of the building that I did not notice at the time. A special note to tourists, the Cuban government does not like anyone taking pictures of their military. Be mindful of their rules and restrictions as they may not be the same as in your native country.
6. Drive along El Malecon
Our driver drove his Buick convertible along El Malecon or “The Boardwalk” as we listened to Cuban music blare out of the car stereo. We passed by the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a historic 1930’s hotel. You can also walk along the boardwalk, but often times the waves crash over the sea wall, splashing unsuspecting tourists.
7. Visit Fusterlandia
You’ll need to drive to Fusterlandia, a larger-than-life public art installation that is free to visit. Artist Jose Fuster put this former fishing village on the map, with his colorful and whimsical mosaic pieces of art, and the residents are grateful of his generosity. This district of Jaimanitas neighborhood reminded me of Antonio Gaudi’s colorful Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain. In fact the artist was inspired by both Gaudi and Picasso, which is abundantly apparent throughout. It’s certainly one of the most important things to do in Havana, Cuba and an artistic accomplishment that would be remarkable found anywhere in the world.
While there is plenty more to see and do in Havana, Cuba, like dining at a Paladar, a privately owned restaurant, or visiting a night club like the Buena Vista Social Club, I’m stopping at 7 things to do in Havana, Cuba to give you a framework for building your own unique experience.
Have you visited Havana? What are your favorite things to do in Havana, Cuba?
Insider Tips: Your won’t be able to obtain CUCs (Cuban dollars) in the US and will need to exchange money in Cuba. Bring plenty of money to exchange. Our guide took us to a local bank in St. Francis of Assisi Square where we were able to exchange our money into CUCs. During our visit, the exchange rate was about $1.05 per CUC, but keep in mind rates change daily. If you are traveling from the United States, consider bringing Euros or Canadian dollars. Cuban exchange fees set by the Cuban government on United States dollars were 13% on our visit, while the exchange fees for Euros or Canadian dollars was closer to 3%. Smart planning can save you 10%. Your experience may differ.
You will also mostly likely be asked to pay your guide in CUCs after the tour. Once you’ve purchased your souvenirs and paid for your tours (including tips, which is very important for folks in Cuba), allow time at the end of your tour to exchange your money. Unless you are traveling to other destinations in Cuba, you will not be able to use CUCs.
I read the book “From Mango Cuba to Prickly Pear America” by Melinda Voss before my trip to Cuba. This is an easy-to-read book by Voss about An American’s Journey to Castro’s Cuba and Back. For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown.
If You Go:
Fertours 2 Havana Cell (+53) 52 716015
Fernado Horta Gracía
7 Things To Do in Havana, Cuba review, YouTube video and all photography by travel writer Nancy D. Brown. No compensation was received in return for this review.