Following the revolution, Havana was left to crumble into atmospheric imperial legacies under the Caribbean sun. Today, the shells of colonial architecture have been made uniquely Cuban. Here are the best things to do in Havana, Cuba.
Despite its long history of imperial rule, Soviet funding and American vacillation, Havana feels like a young city.
The buildings of prior masters have been left to crumble; repurposed into cool cafés, modern art galleries, salsa joints and hidden bars with jazz wafting from open windows. Cuba’s vintage cars, maintained over the years with a colourful splash of paint, make it feel like you’re walking around in the 1960s.
On our 3 days in Havana, we explored every area of the atmospheric city; finding a warm and welcoming town, bursting with multiple cultures, that beats to the rhythm of its own drum.
This guide covers all our favourite things to do in Havana. From the classic tourist attractions to hidden gems, here is our curated list of the top experiences you shouldn’t miss in beautiful Havana.
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1 – THE MALECÓN
The Malecón (Avenida de Maceo) is an esplanade and seawall that stretches 8 kilometres (5 miles) along the sun-drenched coast in Havana. It’s a popular spot for a stroll in the late afternoon as the sunset illuminates the crumbling golden buildings that face the sea.
You’ll often find families and friends hanging out along the Malecón, taking in the scene with a drink in hand and their own Cuban music playing in the background. Each night at 9 pm you’ll also hear the canon blast from Cabaña Fortress which marked the closure of the city gates and is now continued for tradition alone.
One of the best ways to see the Malecón is in a vintage car tour. Ask the driver to drop you off at Vedado where there are several great restaurants and some of Havana’s best nightlife. We have some restaurant recommendations in Vedado further down.
2 – PLAZA DE LA REVOLUCIÓN
Plaza del la Revolución is a square in Havana where political rallies take place and notable Cuban leaders, such as Fidel Castro, have addressed Cubans.
The square is dominated by a memorial to José Martí, the beloved poet and philosopher who played an active role in the country’s liberation from the Spanish. It’s possible to climb to the top of the 109-metre tower, although admission prices change regularly.
Several government buildings face into Plaza de la Revolución. The most eye-catching is the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Communications whose facades are adorned with imposing steel memorials to Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Often mistaken for Fidel Castro himself, the tribute to Cienfuegos reads “You’re doing fine, Fidel.”
3 – NECRÓPOLIS CRISTÓBAL COLÓN
The Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón (Necropolis of Christopher Columbus) is the most important cemetery in Cuba and was declared a national monument in 1987. The sprawling 57-acre grounds is packed with important sculptural and architectural works, making it one of the most interesting things to do in Havana.
Pick up a map from the entrance and spend some time strolling around, picking out the highlights.
Don’t miss the firefighter’s monument, an evocative memory to 28 firemen who lost their lives fighting a fire in 1890. La Milagrosa (Miraculous Woman) often has a queue of Cubans paying their respects via a special ritual to the woman who died in childbirth.
The Central Chapel (Capilla Central) marks the centre of the cemetery in a beautiful yellow building with a red roof. The octagonal shape works perfectly to tie together the grid layout of the cemetery.
4 – MUSEO NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES
The air-conditioned Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is not only a delightful escape from the Havana heat but also one of the city’s top attractions. The collection is displayed in two separate galleries, in two separate buildings (just down the road from each other).
The World Art Collection (Arte Universal) contains paintings and sculptures sorted geographically from Europe and Latin and North America.
The Cuban Art collection is the main reason to visit Bellas Arts. It is the largest collection of Cuban art in the world, with pieces dating back to the 17th century. Start on the top floor for pre-revolution art before heading downstairs to the post-revolution gallery.
You’ll soon get a feel for what is (and what isn’t) acceptable methods of portraying the communist regime.
5 – OLD TOWN HAVANA & CATHEDRAL
Strolling around the old town of Havana is one of the highlights of a trip to the Cuban capital. Start at Plaza Vieja, a beautiful square surrounded by magnificent colonial buildings, then pop into the photographic exhibition of Cuba’s past at the Fototeca de Cuba.
Next, amble up to the 16th-century cobbled Plaza de San Francisco de Asis facing the port, and into the beautiful Plaza de Armas. The leafy green interior of Havana’s oldest square is overlooked by imposing grand architecture. The most magnificent is Palacios de los Capitanes Generales which details the history of Havana.
Next, walk past the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Forces), to the Havana Cathedral (La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana) standing at the end of another attractive square. Built in the 18th century, the cathedral looks more like a fort than a church with an imposing castellated exterior and austere interior.
For a full walking tour, read our 3-day Havana itinerary.
6 – MORRO CASTLE
Morro Castle (Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro) was the main fortress guarding the entrance to Havana harbour until it was overtaken by La Cabaña in 1774. It stands on a rocky promontory known as El Morro and throughout its history, the fortification has defended Havana against the French, Dutch and British.
The castle was built into the rock, so it has a natural harmony with the surrounding landscape, making a distinctive focal point in the port, complete with a lighthouse.
Today the castle is home to the Maritime Museum and it’s possible to climb to the top of the lighthouse for a small fee which changes regularly.
The views from El Morro across to Havana are excellent. Don’t miss the 9 pm cannon blast which takes place on the ground.
7 – REAL FÁBRICA TOBACCO FACTORY
Tobacco is one of Cuba’s most important exports, so while in Havana, make some time to familiarise yourself with Cuban cigars.
One of the best ways to do this is on a tour of the Real Fábrica Tobacco Factory in the heart of Havana. The factory is housed in a well-preserved industrial building dating back to 1845, the heyday of Cuban cigar manufacturing. The tour is a fascinating insight into both the making of cigars and the communist economy in Cuba.
Cigars are an artisan product with every step in the process completely handmade. You will see workers strip the leaves of veins, carefully roll the cigars, pick the best ones and box them before presenting their work for inspection by supervisors. It may look like harsh conditions, but these are skilled workers in desired jobs which pay twice that of a doctor or three times that of a teacher.
To visit the tobacco factory, tickets need to be purchased from the lobby of Hotel Saratoga.
8 – HEMINGWAY’S HAUNTS
After being beguiled by Havana on his regular visits, Earnest Hemingway purchased a property just outside the city in 1940. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to Cuba and his legacy lives on in the many places he frequented in Havana.
His house, Finca Vigía, is now a museum of his life and everything has been preserved as it was when he abandoned it in 1960 following Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Another noteworthy nod to Hemingway is the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he lived from 1932 to 1939. His room, 511 – where he finished Death in the Afternoon – is now a permanent museum.
There are also several bars in Havana that Hemingway was said to frequent that have now become popular destinations for tourists. El Floridita Bar contains a life-size statue of the author, and you can try the “Hemingway Daiquiri” where it was invented.
Several celebrities (Hemingway, Nat King Cole and Bridgette Bardot) have signed the walls of La Bodeguita del Medio, where it’s rumoured the mojito was invented. The prices and the queues are testaments to its fame.
9 – TAKE A DAY TRIP TO VARADERO BEACH
Varadero Beach is the most popular resort in Cuba. The golden sands and crystal-clear waters stretch for 22 kilometres (13 miles), with hotels, restaurants and shopping centres spilling onto the front.
Some of the resorts are uninspiring Soviet buildings, but Hotel Dos Mares is a hidden, very local beach hotel, and the perfect place to soak up the Caribbean vibes. It’s not going to win awards, but it was one of our favourite experiences in Cuba.
It takes about 2 hours to drive from Havana to Varadero and collecting a taxi should be very easy. Alternatively, a regular (and air-conditioned) Viazul Bus takes 3 hours with a stop at Varadero Airport. The bus is a comfortable and very cost-effective way to travel around, which we have covered in our guide to getting around Cuba.
10 – EL CAPITOLIO NACIONAL & GRAN TEATRO DE LA HABANA
It’s not hard to note the similarities between the Washington DC capital building and the one in Havana. Building commenced in 1926 and by the time it was completed, El Capitolio was 1 metre higher, 1 metre wider and 1 metre longer than its DC counterpart. Since 1969 the building has housed the Cuban Academy of Sciences and marks kilometre zero for Havana.
Just down the road, the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alacia Alonso features opulent architectural details and an unmissable photo opportunity in Havana. It’s the home of the Cuban National Ballet company and guided tours are available each day.
The El Capitolio / Gran Teatro area offers a completely different side to Havana, compared with the crumbling backstreets.
12 – ROAD TRIP TO VIÑALES
Viñales is a beautiful agricultural region in Cuba with a cooler climate that allows yucca, sweet potato, and tobacco to grow in carefully tendered crops under huge limestone mountains. With traditional farming methods still in use, the Viñales Valley was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich multi-ethnic cultural development.
One of the best ways to see the area is on a hike around the Viñales valley. The slow way of life is revealed on the myriad of hiking trails that wander past local tobacco farms and charming homestays. It’s a wonderful escape from Havana.
Viñales is around 150 kilometres (93 miles) from Havana and a taxi or Viazul bus is easy to organise. Ask your accommodation host for details.
13 – MUSEO DE LA REVOLUCION
Museum of the Revolution presents the story of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, housed in the old Presidential Palace. The display includes documentation and photographic evidence of Fulgencio Batista’s overthrow, however, there is limited English translation.
The museum has artefacts that were used by the Batista government to torture opponents, but most of the story is told through the heavy use of propaganda. While there’s not a lot to see, it’s interesting to read the somewhat slanted view of “pre-liberation” history as told by the government-run museum.
It’s also easy to see how opulent the palace would have been in its glory years.
14 – HAVANA NIGHTLIFE
It’s impossible to visit Havana, Cuba without being engrossed by the lively nightlife, often hidden down dusty laneways and lingering n ageing bars. Here are a few recommendations for enjoying Havana after hours.
LIVE MUSIC IN HAVANA
El Guajirito – Enjoy some excellent Buena Vista Social Club music from seasoned professionals with a gaggle of Latin Grammy Awards between them. It’s cheesy and touristy, but a great thing to do in Havana. Shows start at 9:30 pm and tickets can include drinks only or dinner and drinks.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano – An eclectic mix of art, live music, fashion and cocktails is delivered in style in this sprawling ex-cooking oil factory. Grab a drink, stroll from room to room and enjoy one of Havana’s most unique nights out. Open from 8 pm to 3 am Thursday to Sunday.
Musical Streets – You don’t need to pay for live music in Havana, just follow the sounds of your favourite tune down delightfully crumbling laneways. Check out Calle O’Reilly, Calle Obispo, Calle San Ignacio, Calle Mercaderes and Plaza de Armas for some great street music.
BARS & COCKTAILS
Bar Monserrate – Like something from a 1950’s movie, Bar Monserrate has a character that just won’t fade, despite its crumbling appearances. With the best ropa vieja in the city and great live music, it’s a gem in Havana.
El del Frente – Hidden above a set of stairs you could easily miss, El del Frente serves up colourful cocktails and massive gin-inspired creations from their retro roof terrace. The food is light, delicious, and popping with creative flair.
NAO Bar Paladar – Grab a table in the cramped laneway near the waterfront and listen to some great live music while sipping one of the best Piña Coladas in Havana. Open from 12 pm until midnight.
15 – HAVANA FOOD
Since private restaurants were only permitted in 2013, the Cuban culinary scene is in its infancy. Nonetheless, Havana has wasted no time in producing some great food in cool surroundings.
CAFÉS & RESTAURANTS
Belview ArtCafé – Soaking up the cool surroundings in this old mansion was one of our favourite things to do in Havana. The menu is short and simple, with well-prepared dishes, perfect for breakfast or lunch.
El Cocinero – For refined dishes and excellent service in an old factory look no further than El Cocinero. The surroundings are lush and their roof terrace is the most sought-after place in Havana, so book ahead. This is excellent cooking that is difficult to find anywhere else in Cuba.
COFFEE & BREAKFAST
El Café – Set in a modern bright space, El Café is the finest coffee in Havana with carefully prepared lattes plus a good selection of cold drinks. Try their set breakfast or a pulled pork sandwich for an excellent brunch option.
Café el Dandy – By night, El Dandy is a cool, Cuban bar. In the morning, their selection of breakfast choices and American coffee served with sweetened milk is an ideal start to the day. Try the Mexican breakfast with tomato and coriander.
Cuba is a unique place. Years of Soviet-funded political ideology created a strong- if slightly confusing – sense of national identity. Soviet, American, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences fuse together to create a fascinating place to visit. Here is some more of our reading about this fascinating place.
The best things to do in Cuba
Our complete guide to Trinidad
Viñales Valley – cycle routes through Cuban tobacco farms
How to visit Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata National Park
Explore the best scenery in Cuba on this Viñales Valley hike
Impressions of Havana – a story from the streets
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