Sunset at Malecon. Image by Sruthi Vijayan.
Havana, Cuba is a magical place.
It’s not pull-a-hare-out-of-a-hat magic. It’s the make-an-elephant-disappear-into-thin-air magic.You’ll constantly face the ache of not being quadruple-eyed. You’ll be afraid to blink – the fear of missing out on a perfectly restored 1950s Oldsmobile or too hastily walking past a 16th-century art-deco masterpiece.
It’s impossible to experience all of Havana, Cuba in just a day, but Havana — like Paris, Tokyo, New York, or any of the other great cities in the world — has an inexplicable quality. It gives you enough to come back for more.
Morning: Coffee and World Heritage
Head over to Plaza Vieja , a stunning 16th-century UNESCO world heritage site. The Plaza is the vibrant and throbbing centre of Old Havana. It’s been recently restored and is home to colonial buildings dating back to the 17th century. It’s also a great place for people watching.
Café El Escorial, with seating that spills out to the cobblestone plaza, serves up some of the best coffee in all of Havana. If you’re feeling boozy in the morning, try their café y amaretto. Right across from Escorial is Café Bohemia, a quaint café tucked away amidst the bustle of the plaza. Once you’ve had your fill, ride the elevator up to the Camera Obscura for great views of the old city.
Mid-Day/Afternoon: Peso Pizza and the Original Mojito
Continue along Calle Mercaderes (Merchant’s Street), a stunningly restored 18th-century street filled with museums, restaurants, exhibits, and boutiques. Stop by Café Santo Domingo at the crossing of Obispo and Mercaderes for some moist coffee cake. Then walk over to Plaza de la Catedral to explore the 17th–century baroque church de San Cristobal de la Habana. The plaza is also home to the Taller Experimental de Grafica de la Habana if you’d like a peak of Cuba’s vibrant art scene or to simply observe artists at work.
The plaza offers some al fresco dining options, but if a history lesson in the guise of a drink is what you need, then the legendary Bodeguita del Medio is your answer. Famed for inventing the mojito, it’s also known for its patrons: Scan the walls for signatures of Pablo Neruda and Ernest Hemingway.
Then find yourself back on Calle Obispo, Old Havana’s arterial road populated with stores and cafés. If you’d like to eat like the locals, stop by one of the many peso pizza stalls. Small, doughy, and cheesy, these pizzas are a bargain! But remember, peso pizza stalls accept payments in Moneda Nacional or CUP.
Late Afternoon: Grand Architecture and a Forest in the City
After lunch, visit the El Capitolio, Cuba’s answer to the White House, built with the intention of being twice as grand. Though the building is closed for renovation, the surrounding areas offer plenty of building-watching : art-deco, baroque, neo-classical , art nouveau — it’s a long list .
Choose to walk down the Paseo del Prado’s lovely tree-lined avenue to discover Havana’s most exquisite buildings, or catch a ride in one of the many vintage cars parked around the capital building. A one-hour tour of the city will cost you between 17 and 25 CUC, depending on your bargaining skills. That includes a stop at the Plaza de la Revolución and the leafy Havana forest. You can’t miss the giant mural of Che Guevera, a favourite among selfie-snapping tourists.
Have your driver drop you at the Malecon, and 8km esplanade along the coast. Watch as the golden sun sets across the old city and illuminates its crumbling colonial buildings. The Malecon is where Cubans congregate – you’ll see couples in wild embrace, men fishing, and little boys jumping into the ocean.
Dinner/Late-Night: Celebrity Sightings and Swinging Parties
Head back to the Paseo del Prado for dinner. Opposite the illuminated Capitol building is Los Nardos, one of the many Spanish clubs in the city. Be warned: The lines are long; sometimes the wait is up to 45 minutes.
Another great option is La Guarida, considered by some to be the best restaurant in Havana. It’s known for its refreshing take on Cuban cuisine, and, if it helps convince you to go, Beyonce and Jay-Z dined here on their trip to Cuba. Reservations are a must.
Trace your steps back to Calle Obispo to catch a drink at El Floridita – notably loved by Ernest Hemingway. The daiquiri was famed to be invented here.
The nights come alive in Havana! Sashay through numerous salsa clubs on Obispo offering live music and spontaneous eruptions of dance. Let the sounds of the Maracas guide you — the best parties are found by ear !
While Cuba has high-end and mid-range and budget hotels, to witness the real Cuban charm and chaos, stay in the heart of old Havana in a Casa Particular. Casas are rooms rented out by Cuban families to supplement their incomes. Look out for a blue sign that advertises rooms for rent. I stayed at Juan and Margerita’s lovely Casa: clean, spacious, and right on Calle Obispo.
There are two currencies in use in Cuba:The Peso Cubano (CUP), Moneda Nacional used by Cubans for rations and groceries and the Peso Convertible (CUC) used by tourists. While most purchases will be in convertibles, keep a few CUPs in hand for buying street-side snacks like peso pizzas and churros.
The trade embargo has made certain products difficult to find in Cuba. Even if you manage to find them, you may pay a premium. Bring shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, and snacks.