Havana, Cuba is a lively and colorful port city with lots to do even outside of your ship excursions. At first step out of the cruise ship you’ll be dumped into a plaza with so many connecting streets it’s hard to know where to even start. Even though it’s difficult to not find something to do, there are certainly specific experiences to be had and places you definitely won’t want to miss.
1. Tour the area surrounding the capital building
The port of Havana is less than a twenty-minute walk to the capital building of Havana. (El Capitolio)
El Capitolio not only will provide an amazing picture for you, but you can even tour inside the building itself during select hours if you buy a ticket. The square surrounding acts as a major hub for many buses, cars, and taxis. However, don’t run off too quickly as nearby the square you will find lots to do, eat, and listen to. Stop by the famous Floriditas for a daiquiri or a piña colada. Or check out the Bacardi headquarters building a couple of squares over.
Not to mention, all the streets leading up to this city center are filled with their own little life and stories as well. On each street, you’ll find unique restaurants, bars, craft shops, and plenty of places to nab yourself those souvenirs for your soon to be very jealous friends and families back home.
You’ll also probably be pleasantly surprised that most street corners and many local restaurants have live music and dancing that you’ll definitely want to stop to take in!
2. Take a tour in a Vintage American Car
Once you’re ready to go a little further than your own two feet can take you the plaza near the capital building (and the streets surrounding the port as well) are swarmed with vintage American cars that double as taxis. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Cuba at all, I’m sure you’ve seen the iconic car somewhere in the photo.
If you are a barterer, this is your chance to show your skills. Even if you don’t know where you want to go or see, the taxi drivers will take you to the “hot” spots and all the best stops. Bonus points if they speak English well as they will fill you in on a lot as you drive around. Everything from their culture down to their family life or the best bar to buy a Cuba Libre! (A local favorite! Havana Club Rum-Native to Havana- mixed with coke)
Don’t forget your hat, as the sun is sometimes so hot you’ll burn right through your hair on the top of your head!
3. Find a rooftop bar
Speaking of Cuba Libres….There are rooftop bars and restaurants all over the city. Some of the prettiest ones are next door to the capital on top of hotels.
Pro Travel Tip: You do not need to be staying in the hotels to go up to the bars when they’re open. They offer incredible views of the city and in the nicer hotels maybe even some form of air conditioning. A chilled room is a rarity across the country. Look out over the city and enjoy watching all the vintage cars litter the streets with color.
4. Forget about Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi has only been available to the Cubans themselves for a short period of time. Despite Wi-Fi squares being available in some places (You’ll be able to tell by the mass amounts of people grouping in one square on their phones), it is not worth the purchase during your stay. Not to mention it is expensive and sketchy at best.
Take your photos, but don’t waste time trying to find a bar or restaurant that offers it with purchase. You’ll waste time searching. Avoid the waste of time and frustration, genuinely soak in the culture, and update your family once you’re back on the ship.
Soak up Cuba while you’re in Cuba! Not everyone will get the chance to do what you’re doing!
5. Nibble on street churros
As a general rule of thumb, if there are ever locals lining up for something, it’s probably a good sign. The occasional churro truck at a street corner will ALWAYS have a line. For a quarter of a CUC (one of the current major currencies equal to slightly more than a dollar), you can buy yourself freshly made churros and even add powder sugar or chocolate on top. They’ll pull them straight out of the oil for you and are deliciously sweet and always hot!
Don't forget to check out All the Best Caribbean Foods too before you begin your island adventure!
6. Smoke a Cuban Cigar
Just because you’re in Cuba, does not mean the cigars are any cheaper. If you go to a store to buy a box you will pay A LOT. Definitely make sure to weigh out your many options you will have to buy and don’t buy at the first place you stop. If you’re not a big smoker, find someone that knows something about cigars to make sure that you don’t get sold a fake. Figure out before you talk to a merchant how much you want to spend and what you want to buy. If the wooden box to hold them isn’t important to you, you can even buy singles from the many street vendors. Bartering is 100% the name of the cigar game.
7. Soak in the Sun at Santa Maria
If you’re itching to get some beach time in, the closest one to the port of Havana is Santa Maria. Unlike many other overcrowded beaches throughout the Caribbean, you may be surprised to find almost nothing other than sparkling white sands down the beaches here. It might also be a good idea to pack a lunch or some beers if that’s what you prefer since restaurants and bars are few and far between.
You can always get a taxi that works well if you have a bigger group. The taxi will get you there in around 20 minutes. You can also buy a local bus ticket for 5 CUC, which will allow you to go back and forth all day. This is a good option if you plan on making several stops throughout the day. The bus is obviously a little slower getting you to your sunny spot in around 45 minutes.
8. Spend a day in Varadero
If you have a little more time in Cuba take a bus out to the very famous beaches of Varadero. This peninsula in Cuba is known for some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and with that in mind, the coast is lined with resorts and hotels for all the visitors. Typically you can buy day passes and then enjoy all the same amenities as someone who is paying to stay at the resort. Snorkeling, parasailing, swimming, beach activities, and even the buffets and bars are often included in day passes.
Remember, Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean and Varadero is not close to Havana. About a two-hour bus ride, each way will eat up a lot of your time in Cuba. You will be able to see beautiful jungles from your bus window, but honestly visiting is only a good idea if you plan on having a longer stay in Cuba than one day.
9. See how the city changes in the dark
If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll even get the opportunity to spend the night in the capital city.
Some cruise ports get eerily quiet after normal port hours. Most of a port’s liveliness comes strictly from the tourists dumping into their beaches and shops from the ships. Havana is an entirely different story as it turns into a different world at night.
Whether you prefer shows, like to dance yourself or just want to hear traditional Cuban music as you sip on your tropical drinks, you’ll find something just right for you when the sun goes down. As long as you observe basic safety rules (stay with a buddy, don’t wander too far by yourself, etc.) you will be perfectly okay in Havana at night.
10. See the biggest Cabaret in the world
You will not regret buying a ticket to Tropicana. Upon entrance, the ladies will be handed a rose and the gentlemen a cigar. There is no shortage of rum as you watch the stages that literally surround you (behind, to the side, and above) explode in color, culture, and feathers. The dancers and singers stick to a very traditional set and explore many different Cuban dances such as salsa, and cha-cha. (Bet you didn’t even know that both of these dances originated in Cuba!)
After multiple hours of costume changes, different styles of song, and never-ending music, Tropicana will finally die down. You will leave understanding more about traditional Cuban music and dance than you could ever imagine. Maybe some of the songs are not your favorite but they will be Cuban through and through. If that’s not what you’re visiting to experience, then why are you visiting?
No matter what makes your list of things to do or see while you visit Cuba, you will get a vibe and energy different than any other Caribbean island. Remember as you see trash on the streets and before you complain about the lack of Wi-Fi, that Cuba has been closed off from the world for quite some time. That is one of the main reasons why their culture has been able to thrive and remain strong in Havana. You will not find a Señor Frogs or a Margaritaville. You’ll find a whole other world. Take in every moment you can.
Have you visited Havana, Cuba yet? What did you find amazing? What were your favorite stops on the trip? Would you go back? Let me know below!
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As always, God Bless, and I hope to see you somewhere around the world.