Car Parked on Street in Havana
Colorful streets and classic cars (Photo credit: Nick A.)

Havana Travel Guide

QUICK FACTS

  • Capital and largest city of Cuba, with a population of about 2.2 million.
  • Located on the northwestern coast of Cuba, on the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century to serve as a base of operations for the conquest of North America. Havana has a rich political and cultural history
  • There are three main districts: Havana Vieja (Old Havana), Havana Centro and Vedado.
  • Nickname: The City of Columns

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

  • Currency: Cuban Peso (CUP) for locals, Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourists.
  • Spoken languages: Cuban Spanish.
  • Best time to visit: from mid-March to mid-November, for the best weather.
  • Arriving via airport: Havana Jose Marti International Airport is located 15 kilometers from the city center, and a taxi ride takes 20-30 minutes. Standard taxi fare is around 15 CUP. There are local buses, but tourists are not allowed to use them.
  • There are just 200 internet cafés in the whole country. If you need internet, ask for directions at a Western hotel.
  • Note: Cuba is slowly (but surely) opening up the world. The United States has recently lifted its long-running embargo, and relations are improving. Expect to see many more American tourists and businesses here in the coming years.

WHERE TO STAY

One of the best districts for accommodation is Havana Vieja, which is the real old Havana with all the associated attractions. Most tourists stay at major hotels. The country is not particularly friendly to backpackers, though homestays (Casa Particulares) exist as an attractive option and offer a more “local” experience.

GETTING AROUND

  • Once you are in the city center, everything is within walking distance! Take the time to stroll around the city and it’s unique streets.
  • To visit other districts, you could take the bus (expect long queues) or taxi. Taxis are the most convenient option. Tourist taxis charge CUC 1 per kilometer, while Panataxis (yellow and black Lada) charge CUC 1 for the first kilometer and CUC 0.50 for each subsequent km. The Panataxis are not allowed to pick you up within 100 meters of a tourist hotel.
  • The drivers of Bici-taxis are licensed to carry only Cubans. They often take a longer route to avoid the police. Don’t pay more than CUC 2 per journey in the city center.
  • Colectivos are not allowed to pick up foreigners.

HAVANA NIGHTLIFE

  • Drinking age 16, and there is no official last call.
  • Vieja District is a popular tourist night spot, with a good mix of local bars and venues catering to visitors. Search around the famous Calle Obispo for cocktail bars, restaurants and salsa bars. Remember: Havana has something for everyone!
  • If you want go out with the locals in the more trendy bars and discotheques, check out the Vedado district.
  • Go to the area around Paseo del Prado to experience the real street life of Havana.

UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT

  • Go to the Vieja District, where you will find historical landmarks such as the Capitolio National, Plaza de Armas (featuring street art and bookshops), Old Square (Plaza Vieja), National Museum of Beautiful Arts of Cuba, and the Plaza de la Catedral.
  • While it is largely residential, Havana Centro still makes for very interesting visit. Notable spots include: Plaza de la Revolution with the Monument of Jose Marti, and the Ministerio del Interior with huge images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. There is also a small Chinatown with great Asian food.
  • Vedado is the district for hip and trendy young people, and features office buildings, cinemas, and shopping malls. A great contrast to the old part of the city, and definitely worth a look.
  • The Malecòn Boulvard stretches over 7 km along the coast, and makes for a nice walk early in the morning or in the late afternoon/evening. You will find a row of restored houses on the Malecòn, including the famous Hotel Havana Libre. The Malecòn connects Havana Vieja and Vedado – a shortcut if you don’t want to navigate the narrow streets between the two areas.

INTERESTING WALKS

  • With its old city center, Havana’s streets are dripping with history. Don’t be afraid to venture into side-streets and forge your own path.
  • You can start your walk in Central Park. Explore Havana Vieja, and make your way to the Capitolio National. After you have visited Havana Vieja, go in the direction of Vedado. Here you have two options: go for a walk along the ocean and enjoy the Malecòn, or venture into some of the often overlooked side streets (such as in Havana Centro).
  • Havana Centro is a maverick. It is the biggest area and the landmarks are quite far away from each other, but if you like to walk and see real city life, just go for it! Don’t forget to visit Plaza de la Revolution at night.
  • Tired of all the walking? Relax at a cafe and have a traditional Cuban coffee or mojito.
  • If time allows, take the ferry shuttle from Habana Vieja to Regla and Casablanca (a small village), which leaves every 10 or 15 minutes from Muelle Luz. Foreigners are usually charged CUC 1, and the crossing takes just 10 minutes.

LOCAL WISDOM

  • Can you spot the vintage cars? Keep your eyes peeled for old Soviet and American cars/bikes, often in perfect condition!
  • Cuba is still a de facto communist country, and locals are strictly forbidden from discussing politics (and other sensitive issues) with visitors.
  • Where to find good cheap eats: just about anywhere! Go for a meal at a small restaurant or food stand to eat like a local. Rice and red beans are the basic ingredients of a Cuban dish. Chicken and beef are the most common meats, fried food is very popular.
  • Dangerous areas: Havana is generally very safe. Watch out for pickpockets!

RECOMMENDED HAVANA GUIDE BOOKS

Recommended trip duration: 3-4 days


SEE ALSO:
Havana Travel Guide was last modified: September 22nd, 2016 by Nick
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