If you are looking for an adventure when planning your next vacation, there’s no better place to go than to Cuba’s capital city, Havana. An exotic destination in the Caribbean, you’ll find friendly people, beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, and sunny tropical weather. Overall, you’ll find a very unique experience thanks to its culture, politics, and the fact that the city appears to be frozen in time.
Although there will be quite a number of things to do to fill your itinerary while visiting Havana, there are definitely some misses that are included on many “to-do” lists found on the internet. If you are short on time and can’t do everything, consider my list of the top 5 experiences while in Havana to work into your itinerary.
5 Best Experiences in Havana
#1 – Enjoy Cuba’s classic cocktails in Old Havana
Cuba is the birthplace of 3 very popular cocktails, the Daiquiri, Mojito and Pina Colada. With sugar, rum, limes and tropical fruits a plenty on the island, it’s no wonder these drinks are Cuban creations. There is no shortage of places to enjoy one of these classic cocktails in Old Havana, and after the sun rises and heats up the city, you’ll definitely be welcoming an iced cold beverage stop.
Two of the most popular places to go for a classic Cuban cocktail in Old Havana happen to be Hemmingway haunts, El Floridita and La Bodeguita Del Medio. Alas, they are also tourist traps. Don’t expect the most delicious daiquiri or mojito in these joints, just the most expensive. These places are definitely worth a quick stop just to walk in Hemmingway’s footsteps. They are the sort of places you go to say you’ve been there (going to Harry’s Bar for a bellini while in Venice comes to mind). Stop in, try a drink, snap a photo, and move on for a more satisfying (and cheaper) cocktail elsewhere in Old Havana. You’ll have plenty of options ranging from modern, new bars and restaurants to corner bodegas. Check out my post on drinking in Havana for more details and recommendations here.
#2 – Shop for Cuban Souvenirs
Cuba is not a shopper’s paradise thanks to its economy. Most people living in Cuba are shopping for basic necessities, so a street lined with boutique shops is not something you’ll find there, not even in the capital city of Havana. But, that’s not to say there’s no shopping to be done. You’ll find tons of typical souvenir shops selling the run of the mill souvenirs like magnets, t-shirts, hats and bags, similar to what you’d find in any country, but of course, with Cuban flair. These small shops are easily found in Old Havana, and they carry some cool stuff like faux Cuban license plates. You’ll also see a lot of street art lining the alleys of Old Havana depicting the classic cars and the colorful architecture of the city.
The main “shopping area” in Old Havana can be found on the pedestrian streets of Obispo and Mercaderes with Mercaderes being the much better of the two where my recommended shops are for more unique souvenirs made in Cuba. Check out my souvenir shopping guide for more information here. (coming soon).
#3 – Take a city tour in a classic car
Havana is quite large, but the good news is, the area you’ll probably end up spending most of your time in, Old Havana, is small and walkable. However, you should definitely get out and see the rest of the city which includes Central Havana, Vedado and the suburb of Miramar. You could opt for the cheaper hop-on/hop-off double-decker bus to get a tour of the city, but it’s just not very exciting. You’ll pass the major sights but there really is no reason to get off the bus at any of them. Also, you can’t really hear any of the descriptions of what you are seeing, but it didn’t matter since it was in Spanish anyways. Instead of riding the bus for the purpose of hopping on and off, it’s a great, inexpensive way to just drive around the city for an hour with a bird’s eye view of things.
The other, more interesting and expensive option, is to take the city tour in a 1950’s convertible. Instead of driving around on the top of a bus, you’ll now be driving around the city in style. Best of all, if you decide you would like to stop somewhere for a picture, it’s much easier to do so with a private driver than via the bus.
Whether you opt for the bus or a classic car, just walk over to Parque Central. If you want to take a classic car, you’ll find them all lined up on either side of the park. Just walk around, and if you see one you like, stand in front of it. The driver will come over to talk to you and arrange the price. The going rate was 35CUC in December during my visit. If you opt to take the bus, there is a stop right across the street from the Hotel Inglaterra. You pay cash upon entering, and you’ll receive a receipt that you can show the driver if you decide to hop on/hop off. The bus was 10CUC during my visit.
#4 – Visit a cigar factory
Cuban cigars are the most desirable cigars in the world, and regardless if you are a cigar smoker or not, you should at least visit a cigar factory while in Havana to learn more about cigars. The old Partagas Factory used to be the place to go with its convenient location just a block or two outside of Old Havana (just about 3 blocks or so from Parque Central). However, it closed and moved its operations to a factory about a mile or two away in Central Havana. It’s worth it to visit both the old and the new factory, as the old factory is a landmark that still houses an official cigar store and smoking room, and it’s where you’ll find one of the best selection of cigars in the Old Havana area.
Before heading over to the new factory for your tour, be sure to buy a ticket in advance from a tour agency office because there is no ticket office at the new factory. You can find these tour offices in the lobbies of the large hotels around Parque Central. I purchased mine at the Saratoga Hotel, which is just a block away from the Old Partagas Factory. The Saratoga has an office in their lobby immediately to the right when you enter. From here, you can take a 5 minute taxi ride over to the factory for 10CUC each way.
Although the tour is short, you do get the opportunity to walk along the factory floor where scores of employees are busy making cigars by hand. It’s a working factory, so be sure to plan your visit on a weekday, and get there in the morning before the tours fill up for the day, as the last tour is in the early afternoon.
#5 – Stroll the streets of Old Havana
The big draw to Havana is a chance to see a city that is frozen in time, and Old Havana is definitely the most enjoyable place in Havana to experience that. Many of the sights as well as the stores and restaurants that cater to tourists as well as the charm can be found in the narrow streets of Old Havana. With its colonial buildings painted in pastel colors, rickshaw taxis passing by, and narrow allies crowded with street vendors, it’s a photographer’s paradise with photo ops around every corner.
The best time to explore the streets of Old Havana is early in the morning shortly after sunrise. It’s quiet and has beautiful morning light that is perfect for getting that perfect picture. My favorite street to photograph in Old Havana was Mercaderes; it’s colorful and filled with restaurants, bars, a small pretty park, and houses my 2 favorite shops It also leads you to the beautiful old squares, Plaza Vieja.