Recently I enjoyed a fantastic few nights in Havana with my boyfriend. From old-school American cars, to colourful and crumbling buildings, the city is like nowhere I’ve ever travelled to before…
You can watch a short vlog of the trip by clicking here.
We tagged this trip onto the back of 5 days in Mayakoba and flew from Cancun with Interjet for just £140 return. I just checked Skyscanner and can’t see any direct flights from London to Havana – most have 1/ 2 stops and take 12 – 14 hours. Prices start from £600 return. If you’re travelling from the UK, perhaps it’s best to include Havana in a Miami / Mexico holiday.
We stayed in a room in a ‘Casas Particulares’ which we found on Airbnb. They have been made legal recently and allow the owner to have an entrepreneurial opportunity.
The casa was located in central Havana and I must admit, we were uncertain about it at first. Most of the buildings surrounding it were run down and derelict with many people hanging out in doorways / on the street. We soon got used to it and enjoyed staying in the heart of the city.
Whilst our room was basic, it was clean and had everything we needed. The host was incredibly helpful and there were some amazing shared spaces including a beautiful rooftop with great views and a bar. We paid £49 per night for 3 nights (£73.50pp) which is an absolute bargain.
We enjoyed breakfast on the rooftop each morning for just 5 CUC (£4) each – fresh fruit, juice, yogurt, cereal, jams, honey, toast and eggs!
We loved hanging out and having drinks on the rooftop – a great spot for watching the sun go down! Beer was 2 CUC (£1.60) and mojitos were 3 CUC (£2.35). If you let the staff know that you’d like dinner then that also can be arranged.
There are 2 currencies in Cuba – CUC and CUP.
Residents use the CUP but tourists have to use the CUC. This is so the government can tax tourism… I believe business owners have to convert the CUC into CUP and the tax is taken then (communist country).
Cash points at the airport automatically give CUC but might be worth checking if you’re withdrawing cash elsewhere. 1 CUC = about 80p / 100 CUC = about £80!
Absolutely nowhere we went took credit / debit card payment, even the Hotel Nacional (one of the biggest hotels) didn’t! Cash points are few and far between so make sure you withdraw plenty / know where a cash point is.
Havana isn’t massive so you can mostly explore on foot. We took a convertible car tour which is definitely worth doing (more on this in ‘what we did…’ below). Alternatively you can hop in standard taxis / cute little bug taxis! Make sure you ask your hotel / casa roughly how much it should cost to get to certain places and agree a price before getting in. Another couple in our casa were ripped off a few times because they didn’t do this. Our casa very conveniently provided a laminated taxi price list in our rooms so we knew how much journeys should cost. We booked the longer trips / hotel transfers (30 CUC / £23.50) with the owner of the casa directly which was really convenient.
Visa / Tourist Voucher
If you’re British you only need a tourist voucher to be admitted entry to Cuba. You can click here to get one for just £25 – the form is easy to fill out and the service is super quick. I was told we would need to produce a copy of our travel insurance too but we were never asked for this.
Due to the 1960 trade embargo the US imposed on Cuba, Americans have only just (under Obama) been allowed to travel legally to Cuba if they visit for the purpose of supporting Cuban people.. there are various ways to do this but all require pre-planning. Click here if you’re an American wanting to visit for more info.
It’s worth noting that you should not ask Cuban people about the government / their way of life as supposedly there are government spies everywhere. Cuba is a one-party state (Communist Party of Cuba) and as such is undemocratic – public elections are only for show. Cuban history is very interesting but it’s worth learning a little before you travel as you might not be able to ask the questions you want to during the trip.
Also, most Cubans don’t speak good English (if any at all) so make sure you have a few Spanish phrases up your sleeve.
What we did…
1 – Malecon
The Malecon is the promenade which runs alongside the sea and is 8km long! It was just 1 block away from our casa so very easy to find our way to. Lovely to watch the sunset from the seawall.
As you walk along the front you’ll see a lot of run down buildings. many destroyed during Hurricane Irma in 2017 which hit Cuba hard. Some of the buildings are being done up but many remain derelict.
2 – Habana Vieja / Old Havana
Spend some time walking the streets of the old town – many colourful houses contrasted with the tatty, unoccupied buildings next to them.
There are 4 squares pretty much back to back. One with gorgeous gardens, one with some interesting architecture and restaurants, one with a cathedral, and we didn’t actually find the last one but we were told it exists!
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a bastion fort next to the Plaza de Armas (the oldest square). The fort was inconveniently located and historically failed to protect Havana. It’s nice to look at from the outside and whilst we didn’t go inside, apparently it offers great views and is surrounded by a moat. I read on TripAdvisor that tour commentary is only available in Spanish (which we found was pretty much always the case) which would make learning about the history difficult for English only speakers.
3 – Take a ride in a old convertible
Havana / Cuba is known for its old-school American cars – it’s like taking a step back in time. The reason there are so many is because the famous Cuban leader, Castro, banned foreign vehicle imports. Things have changed now and there are newer cars on the street, but everywhere you turn you’ll still see fantastic old cars and I definitely recommend you take a ride in one.
There are many different lengths of tours available for you to choose. Our casa offered:
For 140 CUC (£110) a full day tour to see – Castillo del Morro, El Cristo de la Habana, Casa guevara, Plaza de la Revolution, Callejon de Hamel, Bosque de la Habana, Casa Heminguay, Miramar 5th Avenida, Fusterlandia, Marina Heminguay, Old Habana
For 80 CUC (£63) a half day tour to see a selection of the locations above.
For 35 CUC (£27.50) an hour tour to whiz around.
*NB, this does not include a tour guide. Like most people in Cuba, your driver will probably not speak English, or if they do, the English will be broken. They take you to the locations, allow you to walk around and take photos, then you continue.
After speaking with the owner of our casa, we decided to go for the hour tour as it was very hot and he worried anything more would be too much. He said we’d see a lot in an hour and suggested if we wanted to do a full tour then it would be best done in an air conditioned, modern taxi.
4 – Revolution Square / Plaza de la Revolución
The history is interesting but there’s not much to see other than a large square with quite a plain monument and images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on 2 buildings. You can take a lift to the top of the José Martí Monument in the square for a birds eye view.
As we did not have an English speaking driver we didn’t receive a history lesson which I would have liked. Having said that, even if we did, I’ve been told that Cuba’s history is presented in an incredibly positive light by its people – a ‘revolution of the people’ and a ‘success story against the rich’ – when the reality is much more complicated.
5 – Fortaleza de San Carlos de la La Cabana
This is the massive fortress on the other side of the bay and has a cannon fire show at 9pm every night. Whilst we didn’t, you can pay a small fee to go inside for views of Havana. You can also have a guided tour here which I had wanted to do but we didn’t have time. A friend told me it was infamous during the revolution as Che Guevera’s prison where he tortured people without trials.
6 – Museum of the Revolution
This museum is in a former Presidential Palace which was beautiful to look at from the outside. Again, we didn’t get time to go in but I would have liked to. Apparently it is quite propaganda heavy but worth seeing if you have a second.
7 – El Capitolio
Built in the late 1920’s El Capitolio was modelled after the US White House. As you can see, it was under construction when we were there but I think you can typically go inside.
8 – La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana
This is the Havana Cathedral – 1 of 11 on the island. Interesting to look at from the outside and free to pop your head inside.
9 – Hotel Nacional
Imposing hotel on the waterfront. Whilst it’s very dated, I believe it’s one of the nicer hotels in Cuba and has been visited by many famous people. We ate in one of the restaurants – the food was less than average but at least reasonably priced.
10 – Tropicana
A few people I spoke to before travelling to Cuba had heard good things about ‘Tropicana’ – the world famous cabaret. I’m glad we went but was rather underwhelmed.
The venue is about 15 minutes away from central Havana. We arranged a return taxi from our casa for 40 CUC (£31.50). I recommend you do this as it would be mayhem trying to get / negotiate with a taxi after the show as there are so many people.
We opted for the Show Ticket & Dinner for USD 95 (£75) per person. At the time I was so annoyed as I thought the majority of the ticket price was for the dinner… see our dinner below…need I say more???? AND the service was terrible. When writing this I realise that actually the dinner was only USD 20 (£16) per person as a standard show ticket is USD 75 (£59). This makes me so happy as I thought we had been totally ripped off!!
Talking of a rip off, there will be someone on the door as you go in saying you need to pay 5 CUC to take photos or else you will not be allowed. This is a load of rubbish. Do not be fooled.
The standard show ticket and dinner and show ticket both include a welcome drink (glass of cava), 1/4 bottle of Havana Club Special Old Rum per person, a coke and peanuts which isn’t bad if you’re up for getting tipsy.
11 – The beach
The city was HOT and we’d done a lot of exploring on our first day so decided a trip to the beach was a good idea. And it was… we went to Santa Maria del Mar which was stunning. Crystal clear water and not too crowded.
It’s 30 mins from central Havana and a return trip cost us 35 CUC (£27.50). 2 sunbeds and an umbrella were only 6 CUC (£4.70). Locals walk around offering cheap drinks and fruit – I had a mango which was the best one I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a few). Definitely recommend if you want to get out of the city.
12 – Cigars
There are various cigar factory tours you can go on which are probably a must if you’re into cigars. Adam and I are not, but still wanted to buy some for my dad and Adam’s colleagues. We were told to go to Patagras, but when we arrived we realised it was closed for renovations. Even so, 4 people (included someone who looked like a security guard) were in the shop entrance selling cigars. It was all very dodgy and I have no idea whether the cigars we bought are real / any good!!
We tried a cigar on the rooftop of our casa #whenincuba but neither of us were fans! I’m hoping it’s simply because we don’t smoke rather than the cigars being bad.
13 – Miramar
A beautiful neighbourhood with pretty villas and mansions owned by the rich before the revolution. Now they’re embassies / government buildings. Our convertible tour took us here… another side of Havana.
There was live music pretty much everywhere we went – all musicians were incredibly talented. Make sure you have some small notes / spare change handy to give them.
– El Floridita
Cool place to have cocktails and food with live music and a good vibe. Known for all types of daiquiri! Apparently Ernest Hemingway wrote several novels in the restaurant which is quite cool.
Whilst we don’t normally eat lobster, we decided to make an exception this night (as the menu was almost exclusively lobster) and I must admit, it was delicious. The interior is dated but that’s typical of Havana. Service wasn’t great, but again, typical of the city.
– Donna Eutimia
A lovely paladar in the old town. We hadn’t made a reservation but went for an early lunch so luckily there was space. It quickly got busy so perhaps worth booking in advance. Food was tasty, the prices were reasonable and the service was pretty decent.
– La Bodeguita del Mio
Popular place for mojitos! Worth a visit.
– Bembe Tapas & Bar
We nipped in here to get away from people trying to sell us cigars and ending up eating. The food was actually really good. It’s a block behind the Capitol building serving good cocktails and nice tapas.
Recommendations from friends we didn’t have time for:
- Le Moneda Cubana (restaurant)
- Sia Kara Cafe (bar)
- Christ of Havana (figure of Christ looking down on the city)
- Havana Theatre
- Museo del Ron Havana Club (museum showcasing the history of rum)
Whilst it took a little adjusting to, we ended up really enjoying our time in Havana. It’s a very interesting country with fascinating history. The beaches are stunning if you’d like to extend your trip and stay at a beach resort for a few nights too.