City Guide: Havana, Cuba
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Havana, Cuba is the capital and largest city of Cuba, and one of the brightest beacons in the Caribbean Sea. A good backpacker destination due to favorable exchange rates and safety, millions of tourists from all over the world have been flocking to Havana for years. However, it remains enigmatic to many Americans due to political tensions between the Cuban and US governments. You can learn more about the background of this tension and what to expect when you first travel to Cuba by reading my guide here.
Luckily, more and more of us are seeking out what this historical city has to offer, and I’d like to share some of the reasons why. This guide is aimed primarily at the budget backpacker, so you’ll be learning about all the best sites to see, as well as how to keep costs down by staying in local hostels and hotels and eating at paladares. It’ll be the best of both worlds!
Read on for how best to enjoy Havana, Cuba on a budget!
Where to Stay
Havana, for the most part, is extremely safe, day and night. This means that you can enjoy budget accommodations in a variety of neighborhoods. I always vouch for hostels for the solo, budget traveler, although I’ve also included hotels for groups or solo travelers needing a bit more privacy.
- Havana Vieja – Most people opt to stay in this well-preserved neighborhood by the waterfront.
- El Vedado – Another solid choice in a historically trendy neighborhood.
- Centro Havana – This is where I stayed. It’s way less flashy than the other two options here–definitely a more typical part of town–but it’s perfectly safe, and you will get a better feel for how the typical Cuban lives. I recommend Hostal Mirella para Mochilleros off Calle Infanta.
There is no rail service nor rideshare of any kind on the island. However, you do have plentiful taxis and buses. For a lot of tourists, taxis are probably going to be your preferred method of getting around. Buses are extremely cheap (about 25 cents per ride), but there are virtually no standard timetables. Taxis cost more, but are far more reliable.
Yes, Havana is famous for its 1950s Chevrolets. They are flashy as hell and their owners take great pains to keep them running 60+ years later in a country that does not have the most up-to-date mechanical facilities. When you get into one of these nice Chevys, you’ll probably see a note on the inside of the door that says “No tire la puerta.” This means “Don’t slam the door,” and I highly recommend that you heed it, out of respect to the driver and his or her vehicle.
Fare can range from 10 to 25 CUC per trip, as these are considered the premium taxi service.
While you have to take a ride in one of these tailfinned beauties, they are not your only option. You have your standard taxi service, which is most likely going to be a well-traveled Russian or Polish car that’s seen better days. Their fares are cheaper; for example, you can get from El Vedado to Havana Central for about 7 CUC.
While safety is not an issue on Havana’s buses, comfort, space, and price gouging are. I have heard many reports of Cuban bus drivers charging visible tourists twice as much as Cuban citizens. Yes, this works out to 50 cents instead of 25, which at the end of the day is not a dealbreaker, but it’s the principle of the thing, ya know?
Taxis from the airport to any of Havana’s central neighborhoods (Havana Vieja, Havana Central, etc.) almost universally cost a standard 25 CUC.
When to Go
Havana’s climate is 100% Caribbean, meaning there’s virtually no bad time to go, weather-wise. I went in November, and I remember one day there was a cool breeze blowing down the street. Not cold, just cool. A hoodie should be all you need.
Like with many other destinations, the shoulder seasons (typically Spring and Fall) are going to be cheaper than the Summer months.
What to Do
Playa Santa Maria
Make no mistake, there is no shortage of gorgeous beaches in Havana and throughout Cuba. I personally vouch for Playa Santa Maria, which is slightly less frequented, and a little more relaxed, despite its attractiveness. The water is clear, warm, and inviting.
Pro Tip: Look out for the guys sitting at tables with whole coconuts and bottles of rum. For about 5 CUC they’ll cut a hole in the coconut and pour in a generous serving of Havana Club rum for you.
This is certainly the most well-known (and thus most trafficked) beach on the island.
Note: The entrance fees are high and, believe it or not, Cubans are not allowed on this beach. I sincerely hope they change this in the near future.
Havana Vieja (Old Havana)
If you’ve got the pesos, Old Havana is the place to stay, no question. The colonial architecture of the city is perfectly preserved, and its central location provides quick access to all the best sites. You can visit El Capitolio, the Cuban National Capitol Building, which stands at very nearly the exact center of Havana. It is on Paseo del Prado, itself the main street of Havana and a pleasure to stroll along.
It’s not the cheapest neighborhood, but it is the most beautiful in all of Havana. For some more economical rates (we’re talking in the $40/night range), try looking at Hotel Lido, which features breakfast and a currency exchange service on-site.
The large fort across from Downtown Havana. You actually drive through an underwater tunnel across the Bay of Havana to get up to it. This fortress shares its name with the other El Morro fortress in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s an impressive structure, great for history buffs, and also provides great views of Downtown Havana.
Another fort, on the opposite side of the Bay of Havana from El Morro. Built in the 1700s, it is the third-largest fortress complex in the Caribbean. It was used as a political prison during the reigns of both Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro.
The famous casino in Las Vegas got its name from the even more famous cabaret club in Havana. Tropicana puts on incredible shows that are up there with the very best in the entire world.
Cabaret Las Vegas
For the LGBT crowd, you have to check out Cabaret Las Vegas. Having said that, I’m a 0 on the Kinsey Scale and I had an incredible time here two nights in a row. They put on wildly spectacular lipsync and dance numbers with something for everyone. While the atmosphere is lively and fun, they do not tolerate physical rowdiness. I saw them clear the place out over a relatively minor altercation.
Where to Eat
El Biky makes some startlingly good pizza, and provides a nice, chill atmosphere at very decent prices.
Locos x Cuba (“Locos por Cuba”) is a great breakfast spot with a cozy balcony.
There’s no direct translation for paladares but these are basically coffee and food spots located within peoples’ homes. They’re extremely cheap, and the way to go if you’re looking to travel as cheap as possible. On the other hand, the smaller portions may not fill up everyone, but they are great for morning coffee, breakfast, and lunch.
One of the most famous bars in Havana is El Floridita, the birthplace of the daiquiri. It was also a favorite haunt of the American writer Ernest Hemingway, so much so that they feature a bronze statue of him at the end of the bar. It’s a nice place but can get extremely crowded.
You also have La Bodeguita del Medio which is a historic restaurant/bar/cigar shop.
What to Avoid
Government-run restaurants. They overcharge and underserve. Two giveaways are the prices and the lack of locals.
That’s all I have for now. As usual, I will update this post as necessary. If anyone has a good place or a useful tip to add, please add it in the comments below!