Havana gradually seduces with its street energy, colonial architecture, and welcoming people. It is a complex city with many different layers.

One of the best-preserved colonial cities in Latin America, Havana is filled with colorful buildings, ancient fortresses, and hidden alleys.

Whether I’m looking for a sultry salsa show or want to experience a fascinating performance, this is the city for me.

I hear live rumba wafting through the air, savor dishes at the restaurants Hemingway once frequented, and explore the cobblestone streets of Old Havana.

If you travel to Cuba, you will undoubtedly want to stop in the capital.

In Havana, I always have endless opportunities to explore delightful corners and discover new cultural experiences. So, let’s explore the best things to do in Havana.

The variety of places of interest in Havana is impressive, and many things can be visited for free.

Following are the best experiences that the Cuban capital has to offer.

Havana Cuba

Ponder the art and check out a museum

Havana is a museum city. It has dozens of museums; from the impressive Museum of Fine Arts to the quirky Museo del Ron or Rum Museum, there is something for everyone.

The National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana is a must-see for museum lovers, or for anyone else. 

The Museum of Fine Arts houses the most extensive collection of Cuban art in the world. It offers a unique perspective on Cuban life through the eyes of its artists. The works are displayed chronologically to provide deep insight into the country’s beauty and history.

The museum offers two locations: Contemporary Art and Arte Cubano about a block away from each other. Both are great, but Arte Cubano is simply outstanding. It’s the way to go if your time is limited. 

Other personal favorite museums in Havana include: 

The Rum Museum is a fun place for me to visit and learn about the history of rum-making throughout the centuries. At the end of the tour you get free samples at the bar. That alone is worth the price of admission. 

The Museum of Decorative Arts is the former home of the wealthy Gómez family, former owners of much of Old Havana. 

Today, the museum is located in the upscale Vedado neighborhood. The museum houses magnificent works of art and furniture in different artistic styles, such as Art Deco or Art Nouveau. 

The exhibition includes original collections featuring Tiffany and Lalique Limoges, among others. 

For me, the best part of the museum is the mansion itself. Meticulously restored to its former glory, the house was designed in Paris and built in the mid-1920s in the neoclassical French Renaissance style.  

The Chocolate Museum is another fun visit for me. You can learn about the history of chocolate in Cuba, but I go there for the samples and the cold chocolate drinks.  

One last little gem for me is the Napoleonic Museum, which has the best collection of Napoleonic art outside of France.

Explore Old Havana (Habana Vieja) on Foothavana

Old Havana or Habana Vieja is a place that I love to explore, especially on foot. For me, it is the most beautiful area of the city.

In the early 1980s, Old Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of nine in the country, thanks to the impressive preservation of centuries-old architecture.

Walking through Old Havana, I find myself in a colorful maze of streets. It is full of fortresses, monuments, and churches in baroque and neoclassical styles and several lively neighborhoods.

One of the main streets is pedestrianized Obispo Street. It is lined with art galleries, shops and little museums. 

At night, the area lights up with music emanating from the many lively venues.

Take a break at a rooftop bar.

Much of Havana’s life takes place on the rooftops. The weather can be humid, and a roof top breeze can be a welcome relief from the heat.

Many hotels have rooftop restaurants and bars with sweeping city views. It is worth spending time there.

Some of the newer hotels have rooftop pools too. You can buy a day pass to relax by the pool and have a snack or drink at the bar. 

The rooftop bar at The Packard on Paseo del Prado is amazing. The day pass there is US$60. Maybe a little steep but what an experience! You can swim in an infinity pool while looking over architecture dating to the 1500s!

Many restaurants, like the top-notch La Guarida, also have rooftop bars.

An attractive hotel with great views of the rooftops in Old Havana is the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived and worked. His old room has been converted into a museum.

I’m not a true Hemingway fan so the $5 entrance fee is not worth it for me. But you might find it a bargain.

Most luxury hotels around Parque Central like the Hotel Inglaterra, the Iberostar Parque Central, and the Kempinski, offer breathtaking roof-top views.

Tour Havana in a vintage classic American carclassic car in Havana

For one of the classic Havana experiences you see in photos, tour Havana in a vintage American car.

Whether or not my time in Havana is limited, I’ll always take a vintage car tour, over and over. These are cars that were imported from the U.S.A. before the 1959 revolution.

They’re still operational despite being repaired and reconditioned over the decades and cobbled together with parts from the U.S., Russia, and who knows where else. 

In the United States, they would be antiques or even museum pieces. They are passionately cared for and passed down from generation to generation. Because they generate valuable currency by operating as tourist attractions, they are highly valued.

Traveling in a classic American car is indeed touristy, but there are many reasons why I love doing it. 

First of all, it allows me to see a large part of the city in a short time. The drivers know all the must-see destinations to show me, the price is reasonable for the service provided, and the tour provides memorable photo opportunities. 

Prices are charged by the hour and are somewhat negotiable, but a one-hour tour costs between $30 and $40. Reserve more hours and the price goes down. Some people reserve a classic car for the whole day but most book for two hours, enough time to see much of the city.

Insider tip: Don’t be afraid to negotiate. 

Witness a Santeria performance.

Santeria is the Afro-Cuban religion practiced by many Cubans and is an essential part of Cuban culture.

The religion originated in Africa and was brought to Cuba and other areas of the Caribbean by enslaved people. Over the years, Santeria fused West Africa’s traditional Yoruba religion, Roman Catholic Christianity, and spiritualism. 

The Oricha Museum in front of Central Park or Parque Central is a great place to learn about Santeria. An Oricha is one of the many spiritual manifestations, or gods, of the Santeria religion. 

Every Sunday, there is a Santeria performance at Callejón de Hamel, a popular little alley near the University of Havana. Granted it is a bit touristy, but so what, it’s still exciting and entertaining for me. The performances are full of vibrant energy and bright colors. 

The performances usually occur on Sundays at 12:00 pm. 

Insider tip: Arrive early to get the best seats as it can get very crowded.havana-cuba

 

 

Stroll the Colon Cemetery

The sprawling, 122.5-acre Colón Cemetery lies on the western edge of the Vedado neighborhood. This is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Latin America. 

Built between 1871 and 1886 and named after Christopher Columbus, strolling the cemeteries wide avenues is one of the most unforgettable experiences in Havana.

Buried beneath the blinding white marble are many of Cuba’s notables; the country’s best scientists, writers, artists, a world chess champion and a couple of presidents. 

Although the magnificent mausoleums are clearly the final resting places of the rich and famous, the most interesting back-stories are found among the more humble graves. 

One of the most visited graves is that of Amelia Goyri de Hoz, a young woman who died in childbirth in 1901.  Her son was buried with her at her feet. Years later, Amelia’s grave was exhumed, and the baby was found in her arms. 

Amelia’s grave has become a pilgrimage where women come to ask for her blessing and for help conceiving. 

Insider tip: Spring for a guide to take you through the cemetery. There are often English-speaking guides at the front gate.

A taxi will take you to the cemetery from Old Havana. The hop-on-hop-off bus will leave you close enough so you can walk. 

Spend an evening at the Cuban Art Factory (F.A.C.)Cuban faces

I love this place! As far as I know, there is nothing like this dynamic arts and performance space anywhere else. 

The Fabrica de Arte Cubano or Cuban Art Factory is the coolest place in Havana. It is a combination of art exhibit, cinema, nightclub, classical dance center, and much more… all in a converted cooking oil factory. It’s one of the off-the-beaten-track fascinating places you frequently find in Havana, what I like to call Hidden Havana.  

You are guaranteed to see interesting art, from the impressive to the whimsical and strange. If you’re hungry, you can grab a bite at one of the cafes or one of the many bars.

The F.A.C. opens at 8 pm. But the queues start forming around 7pm. So get there early because it will be crowded.

Insider tip: Don’t eat here! It’ll take you forever to get served and you’ll miss all the other cool stuff going on. Either eat elsewhere or just go for the snacks. 

Hang out at the Malecon, Havana’s seawall.

The Malecón is often referred to as Havana’s living room. Many apartments in the city are small, overcrowded, and not air-conditioned. So, on hot nights, when the air is still and humid, locals flock to the Malecón to enjoy the pleasant sea breeze, listen to music, drink, and chat.

The Malecón is a wide and beautiful ocean-facing boulevard on Havana’s northern and western borders.

The busiest part is at the end of 23rd Street in Vedado. Hundreds of “Habaneros,” people who live in Havana, gather at night to listen to musicians play the catchy tunes of the day and share bottles of smooth Cuban rum.

You can just sit on the seawall, listen to music and people-watch. This is a great way to get to know the country beyond the tourist activities in Havana and one of the best Havana experiences.Havana architecture

Visit a jazz club

Havana is all about music, truly a world-class nightlife city. The world-famous Havana Jazz Festival occurs in the capital in January, attracting many of the world’s best artists. 

There are many jazz clubs throughout the city, but one of the best is La Zorra y el Cuervo, located right in the center of the Vedado district, close to hotels and restaurants.

You enter the club through a London-style telephone box. Inside the club is spacious and comfortable, with serious cocktails and excellent acoustics. 

Last time I was there, admission was US$10 with 2 drinks included and the best jazz around. Can beat that. This is one of those cool Havana experiences that few tourists enjoy.

Learn to Salsa in La Habana, Cuba

One of the most sought-after activities in Havana is learning how to dance salsa, an integral element of Cuban culture.

Attend a private session or check out one of Havana’s dance clubs, such as El Turquino.

This is your chance to light up the dance floor and burn off those extra mojitos, the classic Cuban cocktail.

Stroll through the four main plazas in Old Havana Plaza de La Catedral

One of the best ways to get a good feel for Old Havana’s colonial past is to visit one or all of the four main plazas. 

These four historical treasures preserved in time are unlike anything else. 

  • Plaza de La Catedral: A wide plaza surrounded by colonial buildings and museums with the Baroque Cathedral of Havana at its center.
  • Plaza Vieja: This recently renovated square is surrounded by trendy cafes and is often used as an outdoor art exhibition venue. Hard to believe this was once a slave trading center. 
  • Plaza de Armas, where the city was founded in 1519: Site of the Museum of the City of Havana and busy flea markets set under leafy Poinciana trees. Right next to it is one of Havana’s oldest military fortresses.  
  • Plaza de San Francisco: A beautiful cobblestone plaza with a marble fountain at its center. Locals often use this plaza as a backdrop for celebrations and other important events.

You can view museums, art galleries, unique cafes and restaurants, and traveling musicians performing all around the city as you stroll between the various plazas.

Take the hop-on-hop-off bus.

This tourist bus departs regularly from Central Park in front of the Hotel Inglaterra.

The cost is $10, and the tour can last about 2 hours if you don’t get off. I got off at points of interest and got back on to continue to the following location.

The bus took me to many important destinations, such as the Plaza de la Revolución, two impressive fortresses: the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the Castillo de San Salvador de La Punta (La Punta for short), and the beaches east of the city.

One of my favorite experiences on the bus in Havana is the Miami-inspired Vedado neighborhood tour.

This part of Havana was where the rich lived before the revolution. Many of the houses are stately mansions, some of which urgently need renovation.

Many of these homes were repaired and converted into embassies or government offices.

The University of Havana is another stop. This imposing structure features steps leading from the Street to the Alma Mater statue, which is similar to the statue at Columbia University in New York.

Marvel at FusterlandiaFusterlandia

Prepare your camera to capture Cuba’s vibrant, creative heritage in Fusterlandia. The mosaic-decorated village is a fanciful fantasy, situated 30 minutes west of Havana’s city center in Jaimanitas.

Fusterlandia is made in and around the neighborhood rather than being site-specific. José Fuster, a local artist, created the space covered in a mosaic rainbow of hues.

Shop the Markets in Havana

Cuba boasts excellent flea markets and street fairs. 

For instance, it’s hardly surprising that the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana has an incredible secondhand book market, given the nation’s over 99% literacy rate.

Almacenes San José Artisans Market is an expansive outdoor covered market spanning two stories, featuring an abundance of handicrafts and paintings.

Galerías de Paseo, on the higher end of the price range, is a terrific place to find more upscale goods.

For the past 500+ years, Havana has been a hive of activity, a cultural powerhouse and a source of continuous fascination for all who take the time to know the city

Guest Author: Talek Nantes is a best-selling author and the founder of the travel blog, www.travelswithtalek.com, where she shares travel tips, advice, and inspiration to help travelers create their own unique travel experiences. She also runs tours to Cuba where her family is from, and other destinations. 

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