Top Ten: Getting to Know Havana
It can be hard to know what to do on a trip to Cuba – in a country so full of history, overflowing with personality, yet mysterious and still largely unknown, how does one even know where to start? Below, I’ve shared 10 items that absolutely need to make it onto your itinerary.
1) Step back in time
The amazing Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana was built in 1774 by the Spaniards to protect the city and regulate access to Havana Port. For centuries, the gates of the fortress were closed at 9 o’clock each evening to protect residents from pirates and enemy naval flights; this closing was signified with the firing of a cannon. Today, the Cañonazo Ceremony is strictly symbolic, but worth it – arrive early (by 8 o’clock) to explore the fortress grounds and exhibits, grab a drink, and get a good spot. You’ll want to grab a taxi and be sure to bring money for entrance fees and the aforementioned alcoholic beverages.
Open daily, 8am-11pm, cannon ceremony nightly at 9pm
2) Grab a cone
If you have a sweet tooth (or find yourself overwhelmed by the Havana heat), be sure to visit Coppelia, Havana’s best-known ice cream parlor, commissioned by Fidel Castro himself. The parlour may offer a limited number of flavors (typically 3, thanks to shortages a la the US embargo), but Coppelia takes its helado seriously – the site can accommodate up to 1,000 people, and line typically begins stretching down the block by mid-morning. (Great article on Coppelia here!)
corner off Calles 23 & L
3) Snag a history lesson
The Museo de la Revolucion is a non-negotiable part of a visit to Havana – even if you’re pretty well-versed in Cuban history, the perspective and displays you’ll find here are guaranteed to be quite different and eye-opening. The museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace, the last tenant of course being Fulgencio Batista – in the grand foyer you’ll see large bullet holes from a failed assassination attempt in 1957.
Avenida Bélgica, La Habana, Cuba
4) Shop – or just browse
Housed in an old shipping warehouse on the port, Almacenes San Jose Artisan’s Market is a massive maze of over one hundred unique vendors and snack stands. If you’re looking to momentos to remember Cuba by, this is the place to go – while some of the offerings are your typical cheap, ahem, crap, you’ll also find countless unique works of art, jewelry, and handiwork. Typical market etiquette applies – watch out for pick-pockets, be prepared to be solicited, and take time to chat up the vendors, who are almost always fascinating and friendly people.
Avenida del Puerto corner of Calle Cuba, open 10am-6pm daily
5) No, not that Casa Blanca...
A short ferry ride across the harbor from Old Havana, Casa Blanca is a piece of natural serenity. Trek up the hill, past quiet houses nestled back in the trees, to the very top of the peak to find La Cabana de Che Guevara, a one-time residence of the freedom fighter. A tiny, sparse museum, it’s worth the visit to at least enjoy the cool breezes flowing through the home’s open windows. A short walk past the museum, you’ll find Cristo de la Habana, a sculpture slightly out of place in secular Cuba but beloved nonetheless. At 167 feet above sea level, the statue pavilion provides a wonderful panoramic view of the harbor and old Havana.
6) Get lost…
In Old Havana. Old Havana, or Habana Vieja, is a place you can wander for hours without getting bored. Chock full of unique architecture, gorgeous churches, expanses squares and hidden side-streets, Habana Vieja offers a great place to spend a day without an itinerary – however, if you insist on one, some great highlights can be found here, while a mapped-out tour is available here.
7) Take a Walk
One of the most emblematic sites in Havana is the Malecon, a five-mile long seawall and esplanade stretching from Habana Vieja to the neighborhood of Vedado. The Malecon is vibrant with different energies at every time of day – early risers heading to work in the morning, teens goofing around in the late afternoon after school, and every sort of person imaginable chatting, walking, lounging, and more in the evenings. You'll also be treated to the fascinating transformation of buildings along the esplanade - many of the historic buildings are in the process of being preserved and restored. If you walk the full length of the Malecon, you’ll find a hidden treat at the Vedado end – the Torreón de la Chorrera, a 1646 tower that today houses an outdoor bar.
You’ll see a lot of fascinating dichotomies and contradictions on your trip to Cuba – one of them being food. Take time to really enjoy your meals and notice the differences – Cuba’s well-established restaurantsfeature amazing meat, vegetarian, and seafood dishes. Be sure to try the ropa vieja, and opting for fresh lobster, shrimp, or mussels is always a winner. While you won’t be at a loss for luxurious meals, branch out and enjoy Cuba’s more typical, simpler fare. If staying at a casa particular, you’ll likely enjoy plenty of rice and beans, stewed veggies, fresh fruit, and occasional meat dishes. This isn’t a place to be picky – though food rations are loosened for hosts, serving a large meal still takes a lot of planning, preparation, and careful portioning on the part of your host. However – you can be guaranteed that the food will be tasty and fulfilling. For another unique experience, pop into a fast-food joint or a tiny paladar. Here, you’re more likely to experience some of the more interesting effects of the U.S. embargo, such as rather suspicious “cheese” and a preponderance of what tastes like Spaghetti O’s sauce (on your pizza as well as your pasta!).
9) Take a day-trip
You can certainly fill up several days with Havana’s offerings, but if you’re in town for closer to a week you should consider a day trip to one of Cuba’s world class beaches or glorious mountain range. A little over two hours to the east of Havanais Varadero, where you’ll find beaches beyond compare. For a shorter drive, just an hour, Jibacoa offers resorts, beach-lounging, and snorkeling. For a different taste of Cuba, head 45 minutes west into the Sierra del Rosario mountain range to explore the eco-tourist artist colony of Las Terrazas, the mountain oasis of the famous Orquideario of Soroa, or the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
10) Visit the theatre – or baseball game!
Cuba is full of amazing cultural attractions, and my two top choices should satisfy most visitors. The Teatro Nacional de Cuba, conveniently located on Plaza de la Revolucion (arrive early for your photo opportunities!), offers ballets, operas, and plays. If that’s not quite your cup of tea, head to the Estadio Lationoamericano to catch a baseball game. For a ridiculously cheap ticket, you can let yourself get caught up in Cuba’s famous baseball fever (or take a nap in the stands, which I am more prone to do).