Havana, the tropical capital city and cultural heart of Cuba, is a fascinating and unique city that is full of life and culture around every corner.
In April 2016, I traveled Cuba independently for 11 days, with about half of that time spent in Havana, which quickly became one of my favorite cities.
Havana, and Cuba in general, can be expensive if you stay in hotels and eat where most tourists eat. But if you’re adventurous and want a more authentic travel experience, Havana can definitely be done on a budget. Here’s how:
If you fly into Havana, a taxi from the airport to the city centre is an overpriced $25-30CUC (CUC is on par with USD) 30 minute drive. If you’re traveling solo, like I was, try to meet people on your flight or at the airport to share a taxi and cut costs (and to make friends, of course. The friends I made at the airport became friends for the rest of my trip).
WHERE TO STAY:
A casa particular (which is like a homestay) will be $20-25CUC per night, or $10-12CUC each if you share with someone. Staying at a casa particular is awesome because you get your very own Cuban mom or grandma as a part of the deal! All of my Cuban moms at the casas I stayed at were such lovely people. Staying in a casa is a much more authentic experience than staying at a hotel and it provides an extra and necessary source of income for Cubans (and they pay a fixed fee to the government regardless of how many or how few travelers they receive). Whereas, if you stay at a hotel, it’ll be a ridiculously overpriced, less authentic experience and all of your money spent at the hotel will go straight to the government, so it’s an all-around waste.
If you’re looking to meet other travelers, hostels aren’t really a thing in Cuba except for one or two in Havana, so Cuba can be somewhat difficult to meet other travelers. If you’ll be traveling around Cuba, I highly recommend to start your Cuba adventure in Havana and stay at one of the hostels so you can meet other travelers to travel Cuba together.
You can book a hostel online before you arrive in Cuba through hostelz.com and hostelsclub.com. Stay at Rolando’s Backpackers for around $10-12CUC per night. It’s in a great central location in Central Havana, a few blocks from the ocean (and the Malecón) and it’s such a great place to meet people as a solo traveler. It’s a very small hostel, so you need to book in advance. If they don’t have any beds available, I recommend to show up at the hostel regardless because there may be a cancellation or they’ll find you a casa particular nearby and invite you to hang out at the hostel and meet other travelers. The staff are really nice and helpful.
The hostel has a rooftop bar, but you can bring your own alcohol. If you’re drinking your own alcohol, buy at least one drink from the bar to be polite. The hostel provides breakfast and dinner for an extra charge. You can find a cheaper and more substantial breakfast elsewhere, but the dinners are good and very substantial for $5-7CUC for vegetarian, chicken or lobster and they always include soup and dessert. But you can find dinner for $1-3CUC if you venture out of the hostel and eat at local places. You don’t need to tell them in advance if you want breakfast and dinner, like you do at a casa particular.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN HAVANA:
Walk around and observe life. Cuba, particularly Havana with the old buildings and the classic cars, is easily one of the best places in the world for street photography. The streets of Havana are unique and full of energy, life and culture. One of my favorite things to do was walk around Havana, observe life and take photos. It will inspire you. One of my favorite memories of Cuba was when an older Cuban man broke into a dance in the street on a Friday afternoon in Central Havana. And then a few young school girls in their uniforms joined in. It was like a “F*ck it, it’s Friday” dance and it was the best ever. I wish I’d gotten a video, but sometimes it’s better to enjoy the moment.
Talk to the locals, if you can. The people are what make your trip.
Walk around Old Havana and Central Havana during the day. Old Havana (Havana Vieja) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it’s very pristine, but it’s also the biggest tourist trap in Havana. It’s definitely worth a visit, but if you’re looking for something more authentic, go to Central Havana (Centro Havana), which was my favourite. It’s rundown and grittier, but it’s more real, there are next to no tourists and the street photography is unreal (and it’s safe).
The Malecón is great any time of day or night. Walk along the Malecón, which is 8km of boardwalk along the ocean and you’ll find locals here anytime of day. Most locals go for sunset and then hang out, drink rum and socialize all night. It’s a great, cheap alternative to a bar or club, a great way to meet locals and a great overall cultural experience.
Admire the classic cars. The cars are everywhere, but Parque Central in Old Havana, near the Capitolio (which is also an iconic building in Havana) is where you’ll find all the pristine classic cars in one place. You can throw the owner a few dollars to allow you to sit in one and take pictures.
Hire a taxi driver to drive you around Havana. This can be done in the nice classic cars! Some taxi drivers will try to charge you a fortune, but a good price is $20-25CUC per hour, which is a steal when split between a car full of people.
Go to the beach. Take a taxi or bus.
Get some local currency. Contrary to most information, you can use CUP (or moneda nacional) as a tourist (there are two currencies in Cuba), but you can only obtain it at a casa de cambio (exchange house), not the banks. Don’t exchange too much money into CUP because you will use it less than CUC and the things you can buy with CUP are extremely cheap (ie. street food can cost the equivalent to 5-25 cents). You can use CUP for street food, local stores and local restaurants. For more information on the two currencies used in Cuba, see here.
Calléjon de Hamel. The narrow, colorful two-block long alley between Aramburu and Hospital streets in Central Havana. The buildings and street are lined with bright paintings, murals and sculptures of Afro-Cuban culture. There is a Rumba street dance party every Sunday afternoon from 12-3pm. It is touristy, but it’s cool and worthwhile. There are small galleries and stores that sell local Cuban art, paintings and wood carvings.
Walk along San Rafael pedestrian and shopping street in Central Havana. It’s full of locals, not tourists. You’ll find one of the wi-fi parks along the way.
Go to a wi-fi park, even if you don’t want to wi-fi. You’ll know you’re in a wi-fi park when you see 100+ anti-social people immersed in their phones. It’s a unique sight to see. You can buy a $3CUC one hour wi-fi card off a dealer in a wi-fi park and it’ll go down like a drug deal, but it’s normal, legit and safe.
Visit the Plaza de la Revolución in Vedado. It basically looks like a giant, empty concrete parking lot surrounded by very grey, communist government administrative buildings. Here you’ll find one of the most iconic images in Cuba- a giant mural of Cuba’s revolutionary hero, Che Guevara, as well as a portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos.
Explore the book market in the Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in Old Havana. The books are all antiques and you’ll find some antique trinkets and treasures as well.
Learn to salsa dance. Or watch Cubans salsa.
Drink Mojitos. Some location suggestions below.
NIGHTLIFE AND WHERE TO HAVE A DRINK (OR TWO):
Inglaterra Hotel rooftop patio for a drink and an amazing view of Old Havana.
Vedado. A more modern, affluent neighbourhood and the nightlife hotspot.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano (or FAC Club) showcases Havana’s contemporary world-class art scene and a great nightclub, all in one very cool, modern and unique spot. The first floor has artwork, a bar, food, a live band playing and a packed dance floor. Upstairs has more art, an indie film playing on a giant screen, and a patio where you can lounge and hang out.
Cover is $2CUC and drinks are $2-3CUC. Or $5CUC for the extra large mojito, which is the best and the best value- it’s about 4 shots of rum in big glass. They free pour alcohol, so your drink will be about 80% rum because rum is cheaper than soda, after all. You can find blended mojitos upstairs, which are delicious and extra refreshing. I went to Fabrica de Arte Cubano a few times in Havana and had so much fun every time.
Good to know: Upon entrance, they give you a card that they stamp every time you buy a drink or food, so you don’t pay until you leave, which isn’t ideal because the lineup to leave is massive and if you lose your card, you have to pay $30CUC. Also, the washrooms don’t fit the classy vibe of the rest of the club. They’re filthy, so you need to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Casa de la Musica for live music and dancing. There are two Casa de la Musicas- one in Miramar and one in Central Havana. The one in Miramar is more upscale and expensive, which generally rules out seeing any locals there. So the one in Central Havana is probably where you want to go as it’s cheaper, more authentic and you’ll meet lots of locals to dance with.
El Floridita and Le Bodeguito del Medio, the famous Hemingway bars in Old Havana. Popular, but very touristy.
The Malecón where the locals hang out, drink rum and socialize.
La Zorra y el Cuervo, a famous jazz bar in Vedado. The $10CUC cover includes two cocktails.
Nacional Hotel for a drink in Vedado, near the Malecón. You’ll have an amazing view of the seawall and the city, which is worth the $5CUC for a mojito.
WHERE TO EAT:
Eat at the local restaurants, instead of the overpriced tourist restaurants, for $1-3CUC. They’re much cheaper, more authentic and I learned that the food isn’t going to be great anywhere, so you might as well save your money and spend as little as possible.
Casa particulares typically have the best food. They’re huge meals, but they’re overpriced in comparison to what you could find in the local restaurants. Expect to pay around $3-5CUC for breakfast and $7-10CUC for dinner, so they are reasonable prices if you’re not traveling for a long period of time and/or on a tight budget.
You can get around via bus, taxi or colectivo. I always found a group to travel with, so I mostly took taxis and colectivos and only took the bus once or twice. If you take the bus, you often have to book in advance because they fill up. If you want to take a taxi or colectivo, you’ll need to practice your bargaining skills and your Spanish, or find someone who can communicate. Aside from government officials, taxi drivers make the most money in Cuba, so they will try to hustle you hard and shoot for a very high price. If you’re on a budget, you’ll want to travel with a group, so you can split the cost 5-6 ways. Approximate taxi costs and travel times:
Havana to Trinidad– $100-120CUC, 5-6 hours
Havana to Viñales– $80CUC, 3-4 hours
Along with the rest of Cuba, Havana is fairly safe, but still exercise regular caution.
Havana is really unique and it’s one of the greatest cities in the world and I know you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!
For more information on traveling Cuba, see Traveling Cuba Independently – Facts, Tips and What to Expect