Havana, Cuba Travel Guide
- Beautiful and colorful (if crumbling) colonial architecture
- Lots of classic cars around, including ones offering tourist rides
- Famously friendly locals
- Vibrant music scene, including many Buena Vista Social Club inspired performances
- Fabulous (if tourist-oriented) spectacle at the Tropicana Club
- Impressive art scene; interesting galleries and studios along Calle Empedrado and Calle Animas
- Tasty, authentic food at private "paladares"
- Deservedly famous cigars and rum
- The Malecon, a seafront promenade where both locals and tourists congregate in evenings
- Nighty canon ceremony at a historic fort, with people dressed in period costumes
- Fascinating communist history at the Museum of the Revolution and Plaza de la Revolucion
- Charming cobblestone tourist plazas: Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza San Francisco de Asis
- Hopping local club scene on La Rampa, a nickname for Calle 23 in Vedado
- Extreme poverty
- Government criticized for human rights abuses, such as arbitrary imprisonment
- Internet is scarce, expensive, and slow
- Cruise ship passengers can flood the city certain days
- Food outside of the private paladares can be mediocre
- Most water is not drinkable
- Two currencies, the CUC and CUP, which can be confusing
- Credit cards not commonly accepted, and won't work for Americans
- Hard to get by without some Spanish; even hotel workers often don't know English
- Restrooms often lack toilet paper and soap
What It's Like
Havana is one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean, and also one of the most enigmatic. It's a city that's frequently referred to as stuck in time, and with the classic cars on the streets, beautiful (but crumbling) colonial architecture, scarce Internet and credit card machines, and zero (legal) American tourists, it's easy to understand why. But Cubans are famously resourceful (they've had to be), and Havana is more modern than some give it credit for; the Internet situation is gradually improving, locals secretly share articles, TV shows, and movies on hard drives and memory sticks, and there's a burgeoning foodie scene. 304 O'Reilly, renowned for its tacos, wouldn't feel out of place in Brooklyn.
Still, it's hard to talk about Havana today without addressing its (and Cuba's) history. In the 1930s and '40s, Havana was a magnet for American pleasure seekers, who flocked to the iconic Hotel Nacional for gambling (now illegal in Cuba), fine dining, and fine drinking (not available in the U.S. during prohibition years). Hollywood celebrities and mobsters made the city their playground, and Hemingway frequently holed up at El Floridita (for its daiquiris) and La Bodeguita del Medio (for its mojitos); the now touristy bars are still popular for both.
And then the Cuban Revolution changed the country forever. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara helped overthrow President Batista's authoritarian (and U.S.-supported) government, and in the wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, relations with the U.S. slowly went from heated to merely frosty. The U.S. embargo against Cuba first imposed in 1960 is still in place today, and U.S. tourism to the country is still illegal -- though the recent loosening of restrictions has made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel there for other reasons.
Today, Havana offers tourist a fascinating blend of its past and present. You'll still see Fidel Castro and Che Guevara on book covers and buildings (though Che more than Fidel, who some locals consider to be very humble). Travelers can visit the historic Morro Castle or La Cabana fort, where there's a nightly canon ceremony, or crawl through tunnels used during the Cuban Missile Crisis on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional. But you can also expect to see locals clustering in front of hotels to connect to Wi-Fi, often using a video call app to contact relatives in the U.S. In charming Old Havana, locals mingle freely with tourists, and cobblestone streets and souvenir shops live alongside humble homes, fruit stands, and food counters. During our visit, we saw headless doves on the street outside of our Airbnb rental and woke up later to chanting from a Santeria ritual. Old Havana isn't polished like Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, and poverty isn't hidden away from the tourist areas; for many, this authenticity is a large part of the city's appeal. It's hard to say how increasing tourism will change the city, but one thing we do know: things in Havana tend to move slowly.
Where to Stay
Most Havana hotels fall into one of three areas: Old Havana, Vedado, and Miramar. Most tourists will want to stay in Old Havana, within walking distance of restaurants, shops, and most tourist sights. Pedestrian-only Calle Obispo is one of the major arteries in Old Havana, lined with multiple souvenir shops and eateries; it essentially bisects the neighborhood, with one end near the water and the other abutting Parque Central (across from Hotel Saratoga and catty-corner from El Capitolio). Paseo del Prado, often called the Prado for short, is a busy thoroughfare that separates Old Havana and Centro Habana. Hotel Saratoga, our pick for the best luxury hotel in Havana, can be found on this street.
Vadado is in between Old Havana and Miramar, and home to the iconic Hotel Nacional and nearby NH Capri La Habana. This neighborhood is a five-minute taxi ride from Old Havana, and is the more modern part of the city, where locals go to party along Calle 23 (also known as La Rampa). Miramar is a safe, residential, upscale neighborhood where many embassies are located, and tends to be more popular with business travelers; it's a 20-minute drive from Old Havana.