Havana, Cuba has a certain Caribbean mystery associated with it. After the sanction and embargo was lifted in 2013, citizens of America are finally getting the chance to discover the secrets that Havana holds. Havana is an intriguing city, filled with humble people, crumbling and colourful buildings and an abundance of old cars. It is temptingly close to ivory beaches, and is teeming with colourful shop fronts, old Spanish buildings and bars. Old cars and cigars – what more could you want? Here’s our Havana City Guide – Cuba.
How to Get There
The closest place to fly to Havana from is Florida, USA. Flights are very cheap and the flight time is only an hour. Flights are also available from Mexico, and are also reasonably priced. When travelling in Cuba, you must have a visa, called a Tourist Card in Cuba. Refer to our guide on How to Get a Cuban Tourist Visa for American Citizens.
Currency in Cuba
Cuba has two official currencies, Cuban Pesos (CUP) and Cuban Convertibles (CUC). Tourists are only permitted to have and use the CUC currency. The Convertible exchange rate is paired with the US dollar 1:1, making the Maths of currency exchange much easier. Everywhere you go, at least in Havana, will accept CUC.
Currency exchange can be a nightmare in Havana. There aren’t many currency exchanges, the lines are long and it’s a slow process. So be prepared! The best currencies to bring into Cuba for exchange are Canadian Dollars, Euros or British Pounds. US Dollars should be avoided as they incur an additional 10% exchange fee whic will really hurt if you’re exchanging a large amount.
The best place to exchange currency is at the airport upon arrival, however the lines are long, so be prepared to wait. Other places within Havana are banks and hotels, which offer competitive exchange rates. These are mostly found in Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and Vedado.
ATMS in Havana
ATM’s are sparse in Havana, and it’s difficult to predict if they will even accept your card. We strongly recommend having multiple options for accessing your money. The preferred would be exchanging cash, and as a back-up at least two different bank cards.
Cuba is generally a cash only society. Almost all bars and restaurants only accept cash as payment. Some of the larger hotels will accept major credit cards for check out payment.
Getting around Havana
From the airport the official taxis are your best and most reliable option. The taxi should cost between 25-30 CUC and can be haggled, but don’t expect much. This will get you to Havana Vieja or Vedado areas. Once in Havana, official taxis and the vintage tourist cars are affordable, especially if sharing the cost amongst a group. Make sure you agree on a price before you get in. The classic cars are a must do, so find one you like, haggle a good price and cruise around the city. Don’t miss this great experience. A typical city tour in one runs for about $50-$75CUC.
Internet Access in Havana
Don’t come to Cuba expecting Wi-Fi access everywhere you go or mobile phone coverage. Internet access is limited to the major hotels where it can be purchased on a data amount or time basis. Usually enough to send emails, surf the web and Facebook and post to Instagram if you desire. You have to get in early, as there are limited amounts each day and you’ll miss out any time after lunch. You can ask around for the hotels selling it. Or, simply stroll around and see which ones have the crowds of people in front on their phones.
Be prepared for no access by pre-loading offline maps such as maps.me and google translate for Spanish if you don’t have a phrasebook (there isn’t much English spoken!) and anything else you need before you get there.
Where to buy a Cuban Cigar in Havana
You know you want to! It’s a true Cuban experience. Hotel Inglaterra have the best range, at the best prices. Make sure you also head for a tour at the Partagas Cigar Factory to discover which was Fidel Castro or Che Guevara’s favourites, so you know which ones to get! Tickets are bought from the tour office in Hotel Saratoga and tours run most days. But check out the opening hours when you buy your ticket.
What to see in Havana
Old Havana (La Habana Vieja)
The original section of the city is called Old Havana, or La Habana Vieja. This crumbing yet charming area is a UNESCO world heritage site, where the past meets the present. There are beautiful cobbled squares, old Spanish architecture, museums, old cars and plenty to do. The most effective way to explore this area is by foot, as there are many side streets and narrow lanes that cannot be missed. You’ll love the culture, the atmosphere, the people and the food of this brilliant little microcosm.
The famous Malecon is as iconic as old cars and cigars in Havana, Cuba. The Malecon is a 7km stretch of road along the beautiful Caribbean ocean. The concreted walkway on the ocean side of the Malecon is a must see in Havana. Along the walk, you’ll encounter beautifully restored old cars zooming past you, fishermen, young lovers sitting on the concrete wall and an assortment of tourists, locals and artists. It really is a local gathering point, especially at sunset, when the sun dips below the horizon and splashes a pink haze over the city. It is often referred to as ‘the world’s longest sofa’. Ensure that you keep your eyes on the ocean at all times, in some sections it violently splashes over the concrete wall onto the pathway and the road.
Old Square (Plaza Vieja)
This 16th century plaza is a melting pot of locals, dancing, food and Cuban culture. Surrounded by beautiful colonial residential buildings, the plaza is very popular with locals as a meeting place. In the centre of the square is a replica of the original 18th century fountain by sculptor Giorgio Massari. Over the past 500 years, the square has primarily acted as a place for vendors to sell food, and was commissioned to be built after vendors were interrupting mass in Plaza se San Francisco. When Old Havana became a UNESCO site in the 80s, restoration began and returned the square to its former glory. Have a stroll around a gaze up at the beautiful buildings, or sit at a café and enjoy the people watching.
Plaza de Armes
The Plaza de Armes has been the social and cultural centre of the city for over five centuries. The plaza is filled with cafes, restaurants, vendors selling food and drinks, artists selling their wares and tourist happily strolling. The centre of the square contains lush green gardens, surrounded by large leafy trees that envelope the square. The square is home to the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum), delivering a plethora of historical information. In the centre of the square, look for the statue of the Cuban patriot, Cespedes near the fountain.
The Revolutionary Museum offers an intriguing insight into the Communist history of the country, and the infamous characters of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The stunning building that houses the museum was the headquarters of the Cuban government for 40 years. On March 13, 1957 a group of university students stormed the Presidential Palace with the aim of executing dictator Fulgencio Batista. The assault failed and most of the young attackers got killed, however you can still see the gunshots embedded into the marble façade of the building. The museum provides information about the revolution, its leaders and (of course) the role that the US played in their nation’s history. Behind the museum, a large building houses tanks, planes, boats and vehicles used by Castro, most notably the boat he used to escape to Mexico.
Catedral de San Cristobal
The captivating Catedral de San Cristobal attracts every tourist with its beautifully Baroque architecture and photogenic façade. Also known as the Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, this cathedral was completed in 1777 by the Franciscans, after the Jesuits began building it 29 years earlier. It is said that the relics of Christopher Columbus were housed here from 1796 to 1898, however this has never been proven. After a visit to the cathedral, visitors can relax at one of the cafés along the square and gaze at its magnificent façade.
Nearby beaches (Tropicoco Beach)
If you’re looking to get further out of the city and immerse yourself in island lifestyle, look no further than Tropicoco Beach. Tropicoco is a part of the northern coastline, boasting ivory sands and palm trees as far as the eye can see. You can access this coastline by jumping on a bus, that usually takes foreigners to and from the beach every hour. The bus leaves from that square in front of the hotel. It costs around $5USD each. If you want something a little more authentic, why not share an old taxi with a group of people. They will drive you directly to the beach and pick you up. This will cost about $40USD return for 4 people – well worth it.
Author: Michele Hyde
Images Captured by: Ben Fehervary