Havana, the capital of Cuba is a fascinating destination to visit. Havana seems to be covered with a certain veil of mystery. Crumbling under the pressure of time yet vibrant and alive with radiance, the city oozes with nostalgia and Cuban culture. With the recent buzz around Cuba, we don’t need to tell you why now is the perfect time to visit Havana… but we will anyway.
Stroll through Old Havana to experience the best and the worst this city has to offer. Beautiful cobblestone squares, centuries-old forts, and dilapidating buildings exist side by side contributing to Havana’s unique character. Shop on Obispo Street, enjoy Cuban coffee in Plaza Vieja, take a tour in an iconic old American convertible, or feel the rhythm of the city in one of Havana’s live music venues.
We loved getting to know Havana on our recent visit to Cuba. After spending almost a week exploring the city, we slowly but surely uncovered its best-kept areas, local hangouts, and unique bars and restaurants. Today, we are sharing our best tips and advice on top thing to do in Havana!
Best Time to Visit Havana
Havana enjoys warm temperatures year around ranging from 25-30°C during the day and 19-25°C at night. It’s important to understand that there are only two seasons in Havana: wet and dry.
Dry season runs from November to April and overlaps with winter in the Northern Hemisphere. This is also the busiest time in Havana. Expect prices to be higher and accommodation scarce.
Wet season starts in May and runs until October. While the chances of rain are definitely higher in the wet season, it does not mean that you should avoid traveling to Havana during this time. May and June, as well as July and September, are considered to be shoulder season characterized by pleasant temperatures and just a few rainy days. October, however, coincides with hurricane season in the Caribbean, so showers and severe thunderstorms are more likely to impact your visit.
We visited Havana in July/August and loved our time in the city. It was hot, very hot, but it barely rained and the city was alive with activities. We avoided the heat by starting our days early and taking a midday siesta, getting back out a few hours before sunset. The nights were pleasant and the rain never once ruined our plans.
For month by month breakdown of temperature and rainfall in Havana, visit USA Today Travel
Top Things to Do in Havana
Start by exploring Old Havana (Habana Vieja), a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most famous part of the city of Havana. Prepare to walk a lot as there is no better way to see this area than on foot.
Stroll along Paseo de Marti checking out City Hall (El Capitol), Central Park (Parque Central) and the impressive facade of Hotel Inglaterra. From there, head East towards Obispo Street, the number one shopping street in Havana and the hub of activity in Havana Vieja. You’ll need a few hours to explore the shops, markets, and cafes that line the street.
Follow Opispo Street to Plaza de Armas one of the four important plazas worth checking out in Havana. Plaza de Armas is the city’s oldest plaza popular with both tourists and locals alike. The plaza hosts Havana’s biggest antique market and is a great place to take a break and enjoy some people watching. Bordering Plaza de Armas is Castle of the Royal Force (Castillo de la Real Fuerza), a 16th-century fort considered to be the oldest stone fort in the Americas.
Cathedral Square (Plaza de la Catedral), located just a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas is another one of the five main squares in Old Havana. The square is the site of Cathedral of Havana, Colonial Art Museum (Museo del Arte Colonial), and is home to a few restaurants.
On the other side of Old Havana, you’ll find Plaza Vieja (Old Square), our personal favourite and a popular hangout spot with lots of great restaurants and bars. Grab a seat, a mojito, sit back and relax admiring beautifully restored buildings and the festivities that often take place in the plaza.
Last but not least is Plaza de San Francisco, a cobblestone plaza that faces the harbour and is home to the Fuente de los Leones (Fountain of the Lions).
In the evening take a stroll along Havana’s famous the Malecon (Waterfront), watch the sunset alongside many locals, young and old, that come here every evening to fish, swim, or share the beautiful views with their loved ones.
For a change of scenery, head to the district of Vedado, the most modern part of the city, developed in the first half of the 20th century. The area is packed with bars, restaurants, music venues and is home to the majority of affluent Cubans that live in Havana.
If you are short on time or simply can’t do too much walking, another great way to explore the city beyond Old Havana is to rent a classic convertible with a driver and set off on a 2-3 hour tour of Havana’s main sites in style. You can grab a car any time of the day from outside of Hotel Inglaterra. The typical route includes a stop at sites like the Revolution Square, Cristobal Colon Cemetery, Jonh Lennon statue park, Nuevo Vedado, Vedado, Hotel Havana Libre, La Rampa and others. Negotiate the rate ($20-30 for a 2-hour tour is a great price), and the route to create a custom tour that suits your needs. It’s a touristy activity, there is no denying it, but it’s a really fun way to see the sights and cruise around the city in a very cool car!
Depending on how much time you have in Havana, you may want to get out of the city and check out some of the nearby beaches. The closest public beaches to Old Havana are Playas de Este and Playa Santa Maria, located roughly 30 kms east of the city. The beaches aren’t spectacular (you really do have to go to an all inclusive to find those), but they are perfect for escaping the city for a bit of fun in the sun. A return way taxi to one of those beaches will cost $50-60. You can also take a bus (cost is $5) leaving from Hotel Inglaterra every 30 minutes.
Where to Stay in Havana
Accommodation options in Havana are somewhat limited. First, it’s important to note that you can’t pre-book hotels in Havana on any of the usual booking sites (you can thank the US embargo for that). Sites like Booking.com, Agoda.com, Expedia, Orbitz and the likes will show zero accommodation options in Havana. There are, however, a few other websites that specialize in Cuba-wide accommodation, including Cuba Hotel Reservation.
If you are looking for nice accommodation in Havana, be prepared to pay. You’ll struggle to find a 3+ star hotel for less than $100/night (some of the nicer hotels in Havana charge upwards of $250-350 per night).
If you are happy to pay the price, check out the following hotels, conveniently located in Old Havana:
- Hotel Saratoga
Hotel Iberostar Parque Central
Our recommendation is to skip hotels altogether and stay at Casa Particulares instead. Casa Particulars are the Cuban version of Airbnb. They are licensed by the government and are equipped to receive foreign guests. Just like with Airbnb anywhere else in the world, Casa Particulars range from private rooms in locals’ homes to whole apartments with private bathroom, living room, and dining area. You can pre-book Casa Particulares on Airbnb or by contacting the hosts directly via email.
Don’t have an Airbnb account yet? Sign up now and receive a discount to put towards your first Airbnb stay!
We stayed in Casa Particulars across the country and loved our experience. We got a chance to interact with locals, follow their recommendations for restaurants, cafes, bars, and things to do in Havana. Our favourite Airbnb Host was the lovely Gladys, the owner of this lovely colonial apartment in the heart of Old Havana. She speaks good English and is chock full of useful information and tips for visitors.
Where to Eat & Drink in Havana
Finding a great place to eat in Havana can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you are traveling on a budget. Unless you are dining in very high-end places, expect service to be poor across the board. Cubans just haven’t mastered that part of the restaurants business just yet. But the good news is that authentic good Cuban food is available, you just need to know where to look for it!
The best rated and recommended restaurants, like Donde Lis Restaurante & Bar, 304 O’Reilly, or Habana 61 cater solely to tourists and thus charge a premium. If your budget allows you to dine in style (expect to pay $30-40 per person), visit these and other fine dining options recommended by other travelers.
A great way to experience some local cooking is by dining at Paladares, privately owned restaurants that have recently started to pop up all over Havana. The Guardian has compiled this handy list of the Top 10 paladares in Havana that includes popular spots like San Cristóbal, Atelier, and Doña Eutemia.
But even without a recommendation, it’s possible to stumble on some pretty cool and most importantly delicious dining spots in Havana. Some of our personal favourites include:
- El Trofeo, Paseo del Prado, Old Havana – good value, good food, central location. Located on the top floor just across from the El Capitol building. Note: the decor is rather fancy, so dress accordingly. Try the cheese and ham stuffed chicken.
- Los Nardos, Paseo del Prado, Old Havana – great menu, good prices, a favourite with locals and visitors. Dress nice and be prepared to wait. There is always a line to get in.
- La Vitrola, Plaza Vieja, Old Havana – a great restaurant set in a vintage American style diner serving delicious Cuban tapas style dishes. Live music, great atmosphere, and outdoor seating.
- La Imprenta, Calle Mercaderes, Old Havana – set in an old printing factory the restaurants offers a comprehensive menu of Cuban fusion cuisine. Try their unique Mojito and beer cocktail!
Outside of Old Havana, there are lots of great restaurant choices in Vedado as well.
For drinks and entertainment, Old Havana offers lots of options for cocktails and live music venues, while Vedado is where you’ll find the trendiest clubs and bars. The following at the most popular bars in Old Havana:
- El Chanchullero – great vibe, great drinks… if you can get in (there is always a long line outside)
- Bar Monserrate – great spot for live music and a few casual drinks
- La Floridita – touristy and overpriced, but has great daiquiris and atmosphere
- La Bodeguita del Medio – claims to be the place to sample a Mojito
Expect to pay $4-5 for a cocktail and $2-3 for a beer at many of these establishments.
How Much Time Do You Need in Havana
You’ll need a minimum of 3 days to see Havana, although you can easily spend weeks in this fascinating city. Old Havana may seem compact but exploring it on foot for hours on end can be really exhausting, so it’s best to split up your sightseeing into 2-3 day chunks. If you want time to also see Vedado and Central Havana, add at least a day or 2 for each district.
Check out these helpful itineraries for some inspiration:
- 1 Day in Havana by Travel + Leisure
- 3 Days in Havana by Frommers
- Long Weekend in Havana by Insight Cuba
Or check out our Vlog from our time in Havana…