My cousin described it best when she said that while the beauty of Havana isn’t always obvious, it’s always there. Havana is an incredibly vibrant city, and while it might be difficult to see its beauty at first glance, every nook and cranny in this city is filled with its own unique attraction and charm. What truly makes Havana an unparalleled city are its locals. They’re some of the friendliest people I’ve come across in my years of travel, and interactions with them are what really makes the experience in Havana special.
There are so many things to see and do in Havana, but if you want to truly immerse yourself in Cuban culture and live like the locals do, check out the following best things to see and do in Havana, along with some insight on the best food and shopping to indulge in while you’re there.
Ride Around Old Havana In A Classic Car
Before heading to Havana, I imagined old, colorful classic cars lining the streets, riding around with their tops down and filled with tourists snapping photos of Old Havana. I thought this might be simply what I saw in images of Havana, but it truly is the scene here.
Havana’s classic cars are a vital aspect of the vibrancy and color that Havana breathes. Albeit a touristy activity, riding around Old Havana in a classic car is a great way to see the city’s most stunning district, lined with cobblestone streets, lively street performers, and pastel-colored buildings.
While you can haggle with the classic car taxi drivers for sightseeing around the city, there are many tours that you can book in advance that will help you avoid this uncomfortable situation. These 2- to 6-hour-long tours make their ways through various municipalities of Havana and stop at sites such as the National Capitol Building (El Capitolio), Revolution Square, and John Lennon Statue Park.
Hang Out With Locals At The Seawall
Havana’s seawall, otherwise known as the Malecon, stretches for five miles and offers some of the best views of the city, swerving along the Havana Harbor (Bahia de la Habana).
Not only does a walk along Havana’s seawall offer some of the best views of the city, but it’s also a popular hangout for Cuban locals of all ages.
The first night my cousin and I were in Havana, we were about to head back to our casa particular with a full day of touring planned for the morning. A nighttime stroll along the seawall kept us out until sunrise. We were welcomed by a group of Cuban locals to dance salsa along the Malecon, take some tragos (swigs) of Cuban rum, and watch the city unfold under the stars.
At one point, my cousin looked at me and said, “I think I like Cuba.” As the Spanish translator throughout our trip, I told the Cubans we were with what she had said. Let’s just say, the feeling was mutual. Don’t miss out on a chance to get to know local Cuban culture along the city’s famed seawall.
Visit El Capitolio
One of the most visited sites in Havana, El Capitolio, or the National Capitol Building, was commissioned by Cuban president Gerardo Machado and constructed between 1926 and 1929.
Modeled after the U.S. Capitol Building, El Capitolio took 5,000 workers and over three years to complete, costing $17 million USD. Located in Centro Habana, this majestic building is a must-see on a trip to Havana. Visitors can wander through the building’s planetarium and three different museums.
Go Out Salsa Dancing
Whether or not you’ve had even a single dance class in your life, don’t leave Havana without having a night out salsa dancing.
Salsa is undeniably one of the most vital parts of Cuban life; it’s as if it runs in Cubans’ blood. Cuban locals won’t care whether you’re a beginner or an advanced salsa dancer; if you go to a spot where salsa is present, you will be asked to dance.
While my cousin found this a bit intimidating, the best way to approach the situation is by being open-minded and laughing if you don’t get the moves down right away. Cubans understand foreigners aren’t born dancing the salsa and will be open and willing to try to teach you some basic moves. Approach it with an open mind, and you’ll have a great time dancing the night away with Cuban locals. It’s one of the best ways to feel like you’re truly indulging in Cuban culture.
While salsa dancing can be found on practically any corner in Havana, some great places to go out salsa dancing are the rooftop at Hotel Inglaterra, Casa de la Musica, and Cafe Cantante Mi Habana.
Cycle Around Parque Almendares
One of Havana’s lesser-known local spots, Parque Almendares, also known as Great Metropolitan Park, is situated in the heart of Havana along the Almendares River, and it’s an enchanted forest surrounded by tropical jungle landscapes.
Each time I told a local I visited Parque Almendares, their eyebrows would raise, and they always seemed pleasantly surprised, as this park isn’t frequented by tourists often. A great place to witness everyday Cuban life, Parque Almendares is teeming with locals having family picnics, drinking Cuban rum, and dancing salsa. The Afro-Cuban custom of Santeria is also widely practiced here, so be aware that you may witness the sacrifice of animals at this local Cuban park.
There are a few cafes and bars where you can purchase snacks and drinks, though be aware that some of these only take the Cuban peso and not the Cuban convertible peso (the tourist currency widely used throughout Cuba).
Parque Almendares is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Havana, and Airbnb even offers a half-day bike tour of the park, with food, drinks, transportation, and equipment included.
Enjoy A Night At The F.A.C.
Undeniably one of Havana’s most unique cultural experiences, the F.A.C., or Fabrica de Arte Cubano, is an art gallery and nightclub with queues wrapping around the building each and every night.
This gigantic art exposition comprises three stories filled with different galleries and rooms displaying a vast selection of Cuba’s best up-and-coming contemporary art. Amongst the artworks are various bars and food stands, and when evening turns to night, the gallery area transforms into a nightclub, with various DJs spinning and music being played, accompanied by lively crowds of locals and tourists alike.
This unparalleled cultural experience in Havana welcomes all ages and walks of life and was one of the most interesting places I visited not just in Havana, but in all my time spent traveling.
Eating In Havana
Before heading to Havana, many people I spoke with who had visited complained that Cuban food is generally bland in taste, but this simply isn’t the case. While Cuban food relies on natural flavors, knowing what to order in Cuba will guarantee excellent gastronomical experiences. Be sure to try the following traditional Cuban dishes and drinks when visiting Havana.
One of Cuba’s most popular dishes, pollo asado is a type of chicken dish that is marinated and grilled to perfection, naturally tender, juicy, and mouthwatering. This dish, like many Cuban dishes, is typically paired with beans and white rice.
Costillitas De Puerco
Another favorite amongst Cuban locals, costillitas de puerco, or pork ribs, come from the ribcage of the pig, and can be served smoked or grilled, sometimes accompanied by a red sauce, or salsa roja. Pig roasts are common throughout Cuba, especially during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
My personal favorite discovery in Havana, vaca frita, or fried beef, consists of fried and shredded skirt or flank steak, normally cooked with a generous amount of onion and garlic. Like most Cuban dishes, it is normally served with a side of rice and beans.
A typical appetizer in Cuba, croquetas are small, breadcrumbed fried rolls, usually made from potato puree and containing various ingredients. Typical Cuban croquetas can be made with ham, seafood, vegetables, or other meats.
Before heading to Cuba, I wasn’t sure whether or not this was an Amercan-ized Cuban dish, but Cuban sandwiches do in fact exist in Cuba and Havana and are known as a sandwich Cubano.
While Cuban sandwiches in the U.S. normally contain ham, pork, cheese, pickles, and mustard, pickles and mustard aren’t so common in Cuba, thus the Cuban sandwiches I came across usually substituted these ingredients for cucumbers and mayonnaise.
Ah, the beloved Cuba Libre. Another Cuban tradition I thought possibly only existed in the U.S., Cuba Libres are widely known throughout Cuba, and are drunk as heavily by Cuban locals as foreign visitors. A Cuba Libre is simple yet delicious, consisting of aged Cuban rum, possibly Havana Club or Santiago de Cuba, Coca Cola, ice, and a lime slice.
Another favorite discovery in Cuba, and an incredibly fun word to try to pronounce, a canchanchara is a refreshing and sweet alcoholic beverage with fresh lime juice, hot water, Cuban rum, ice, a lime wedge, and fresh sugarcane.
A fun, tropical drink, Coco Loco is a Cuban favorite made with an entire fresh coconut, using the fruit’s natural coconut water as a base, then adding Cuban rum (surprise, surprise), and sometimes coconut milk or sweetened condensed milk.
Shopping In Havana
The first thing to understand about shopping in Havana is that the city isn’t known for being a shopping destination. Because of the structure of Cuba’s economy, anything sold in stores that isn’t a home good or basic necessity is likely only going to be bought by tourists. You won’t find upscale shopping centers or clothing stores in Havana, and shopping in this city is really geared around a few main items that are intended for tourists.
Most tourists want to bring Cuban cigars home to their friends and family, and Cubans won’t be shy when telling you the best places to buy Cuban cigars in Havana. Every Cuban seems to have a friend or family member selling the “best and most affordable” Cuban cigars, but beware that these are usually black-market cigars of lower quality that can be falsely marked. For quality Cuban cigars, you will want to find ones that are marketed by Habanos S.A., such as Partagas, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, and Punch.
After cigars, rum is probably the most sought-out product in Cuba and can be bought on practically every street corner in Havana. The two most popular types of rum in Cuba are arguably Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba, with Mulata and Ron Dorado being other popular household names.
If you want to turn rum buying in Havana into a full-on tourist experience, you can visit the Havana Club factory, where you can take a tour and learn how rum is made and take advantage of the opportunity to purchase the product afterward.
The Havana airport is also a great place to purchase Cuban rum, with a wide selection available. This way, you won’t have to haul around heavy bottles of rum while traveling throughout the country.
One of the best places to buy souvenirs and other handicraft works in Havana is Almacenes San Jose. Inside this giant warehouse are dozens of stalls, selling paintings, sculptures, hand-made clothing, trinkets, photographs, and more.
Paseo del Prado is another great place teeming with artists, photographers, students, and Cuban locals. Passing the time with a stroll through this picturesque walkway in the heart of Old Havana is a treat. Many artists head here to sell their artwork, and knitting and sewing clubs at gather to sell their products on the street as well here.
For antique lovers, Plaza de Armas has items dating back more than a century, including old stamps, postcards, and vintage jewelry, plus unique historical items, such as flags of the Castro movement before the Revolution of 1959.