Havana, Cuba

El Capitolio, Havana, Cuba

Havana’s Capital Building. Photo by Aniol.

Why travel to Havana?

Cuba is  opening up to the world, with Americans now permitted to travel to this startlingly old-fashioned Caribbean island – but only if they get a visa within one of 12 categories (not difficult as one category is basically ‘meeting people) – and fly on a charter plane (plenty of those available via tour agencies).

The thing is, other than the beaches such as Varadero which are more-or-less like any beach in the world, the island – and particularly lively, must-see Havana – has still got one foot delightfully in the past, with 50 year-old Chevies cruising the pot-holed streets, elegantly ramshackle buildings, empty highways, locals puffing on grand cigars, totally rubbish TV and internet but lots of face-to-face conversation – just like the old days!

But there’s little doubt that as time goes by more and more this antiquated island will metamorphose into a poor brother of Florida, with second-rate modern cars flooding in, big name hotels and restaurants springing up, tobacco banned from indoors and so on. And so Cuba’s unique ambience will fade away…get there soon, the sooner the better!

A classic American car in old Havana, Cuba

A classic taxi in a Havana backstreet. Photo by Aniol

Things to do in Havana

Tourists strutting their stuff in a small Havana bar.

Havana sees plenty of live music action from small but energetic local bands around the old and new town and big name shows at the Hotel Nacional or the Tropicana. And if you don’t want to see music and dance in a bar or hotel, try the street.

At cafés Cuban-Americans leave their husbands and plates of chicken or pork to swing their hips to a Salsa band.
At El Floridita, Hemingway’s hang-out and now a tourist trap billed as the home of the daiquiri, a mambo singer accompanies the slurping of over-priced cocktails.

Ernest Hemingway’s villa outside the city is another tourist magnet. A homage to the great man it’s preserved in time, with booze bottles still on his trolley, stuffed animals overhead and his weight scribbled on the wall over the bathroom scale.

For the best view of Havana head for Edificio Gomez Vila in Havana Vieja and pay a couple of dollars to get onto the high terrace for a stunning panorama. In addition there’s a Camera Obscura – the only one in the Caribbean – which is worth a look.

Dining at Paladares is another must-do, as these little not-exactly-official restaurants serve local food prepared by local people, often in their homes. Naturally there are downsides as quality can vary dramatically and if you hit a rush then waiting time can be significant.

However, the best Havana experiences come about by taking unaccompanied walks around this fascinating city and stumbling upon locals doing their traditional street activities – dancing, arguing about baseball, practising stilt walking, smoking cigars, walking the Malecon promenade in their best kit, driving around in ancient Chevrolets…

Havana dance in a bar/café, Cuba
Havana Cathedral, Cuba

The uniquely asymmetrical and  baroque Catedrale de San Cristobal in old Havana. It’s lovely but touristy and more of a religious museum than a sacred place – not the kind of destination where most tourists will want to spend more than half an hour.


The best souvenirs are Ché T-shirts that come in a hundred styles. But why no Fidel shirts?
Cigars will be offered to you on every street corner and may be genuine, while original art works can be sensational and good value, tho’ you might require an export permit. Check with the artist before you lose it at the airport. Items made from shells, coral and animals are both immoral and illegal, so avoid them.
Otherwise shop goods are poor quality and souvenirs no better.