Since the thawing of Cold War relations between the United States and Cuba began, the Caribbean nation stands poised to become more open to American tourists than ever before—and Havana is the gateway. Though the decades haven’t been considerably kind to the Cuban capital, it is, nonetheless, a city of contrasts that have culminated into a palpable allure. As Fico Felove (Andy Garcia) said in the film The Lost City, “Havana is very much like a rose; it has petals and it has thorns…so it depends on how you grab it. But in the end it always grabs you.”
Founded in 1514, Havana is Cuba’s and the Caribbean’s largest city and was the region’s hub before the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Though rich in history and culture, the country closed its doors on tourism for decades thereafter. Only since the 1990s has Cuba slowly become a hot-spot once again, especially among Europeans and Canadians.
Divided into distinct neighborhoods, the city illustrates the social and economic divisions within the capital. Old Havana, or Havana Vieja, is the heart of the city’s colonial history and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982. Many tourists pass on visiting Centro Havana, due to its poor conditions of residential buildings. Havana’s elite live in Vedado, which offers plenty of hotels and fine dining, and diplomats and ex-pats reside in the upscale area called Playa.
Free Attractions in Havana
1. Old Havana
Old Havana exudes a charm of a golden era. Amble along its cobblestone streets and explore a rich colonial past. The city’s 18th-century Cathedral San Cristobal, which is unique due to its two non-symmetrical columns, once housed the remains of Christopher Columbus until 1898. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is an impressive military fortress, which the Spanish built to defend against pirate invasions or other European military forces that had their eyes on Havana. It now houses a pottery museum, a small gift shop and a café. The Plaza de Armas is the oldest square of Havana and has been a venue of military parades, as its name implies, since the 16th century. In the Plaza Vieja, the Camera Obscura offers a unique perspective of the city through the use of natural light, two lenses and a mirror within a periscope which projects a city image on a curved platform in a dark room.
After a day of history and culture, visit a former Hemingway hangout, La Bodeguita del Medio on Calle Empedrado, for a refreshing mojito or maybe try a Cohiba cigar.
2. Strolling along the Malecón
It’s Havana’s famous waterfront boulevard that stretches about four miles from Old Havana. Lined with sherbet-colored buildings in Art Deco and Neo-Moorish architecture, locals nicknamed the Malecón the “Great Sofa,” due its attraction for social gatherings. It’s a great place to watch fisherman gather at dawn to cast their lures out to sea, or quench your thirst with a cool drink under a copper-colored sky at dusk. The Hotel National de Cuba, which is a historically listed site, is also nearby.
3. Vintage Classic Cars
Does your heart melt when you feast your eyes on American classic cars? To admire these automobiles rumbling down the streets from a time gone by, then Havana is the place to be. You’ll also find these vintage Chevy models lined up near the capital building, providing a nice opportunity to admire them up-close and chat with the owners.
4. Visit El Floridita
This famous bar was the favorite hangout for Ernest Hemingway. Although sitting down and sipping a beer is not free, you can take a photo with the bronze sculpture of the American author at the place he used to sit. American poet Ezra Pound, American writer John Dos Passos, and British novelist Graham Greene, who wrote Our Man in Havana, are other notables who also frequented this bar.
5. Dance with a Cuban
Most Cubans love to dance in the streets, and if the urge arises to learn some Rumba moves, head to Callejón de Hammel on a Sunday and dance to your heart’s content. When the sun goes down, groove to the salsa rhythms that hum from the bars and clubs on sultry Havana nights.
6. Go to the beach
Playa Del Este is a great beach to while away the day under a bright Cuban sun. Though crowded during the season, it’s worth a visit for the clean, warm water, local music and great food. The mood is just as upbeat on a tropical evening.
7. Cuban art
Havana is the center of country’s art scene, and there are plenty of places to take it all in. Founded in 1962, the Galería Habana exhibits contemporary Cuban art and also offers special exhibitions throughout the year. To see young Cuban artists at work, step into Taller de Serigrafía René Portocarrero. Their paintings and prints are also for sale, so you too can leave as a proud owner of a Cuban masterpiece. “Muraleando,” or muraling, is a concept conceived by local artists Manuel Díaz Baldrich and Ernesto Quirich Paz in Havana’s Lawton neighborhood, which has become an open-air gallery of modern art over the last 12 years. The Peña Comunitaria puts on a block party here every six weeks and encourages up-and-coming artists to show their talents amid a very festive atmosphere.
8. Play ball!
Yes, Cubans love baseball. Buy a ticket at Havana’s El Latino Stadium for a few pennies and enjoy a great evening during the béisbol season, which runs from November to June. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to hang out with the locals.
Hotel room prices vary from $20 to $40 in Old Havana. Another option is trying out Airbnb if you like the local company.
A few extra tips
- Under the revised law, which took effect in January 2015, the Cuban government requires US tourists to obtain a visa, for which a tour operator generally handles the paperwork on your behalf, and posses a passport that doesn’t expire within six months at the time of arriving in the country. Also, visitors may bring $400 worth of goods from Cuba, but only $100 of which are alcohol and tobacco products.
- Police presence is everywhere, and the crime rate is relatively low. Nevertheless, tourists have to use their common sense, regardless of the destination. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry, carrying too much money or other electronic devices. It’s better to avoid problems by being a proactive and savvy traveler.
- Peak season is from November to June, but you’ll find cheaper rates and fewer crowds from June to October. Though be aware that the low season is also hurricane season.
- Anyone who visits Havana must purchase medical insurance, as all tourists are sent to a special tourist hospital in emergency situations and must pay in cash. If you don’t buy it prior to leaving the U.S., you can do so before going through Cuban immigration.
- You still have to bring US dollars, because American credit cards still haven’t completely taken effect. You can exchange dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), but you’ll also incur a 10% tax. To receive the best exchange rate, go to a bank or exchange office called Cadeca, or Casa de Cambio. It’s possible to buy CUC “over-the-counter” at hotels and resorts, but the rate is very poor.
Sources: Fodor/ huffingtonpost/lonelyplanet/LA times