The city of Havana is an amazing place to visit. There is a mixture of old and new there that you may not find anywhere else. Havana is big, so you might think you can just stroll around the city and see everything in a day, but you would be mistaken. Our suggestion is to go on either a private taxi/guide tour or a bus tour with your travel agency. That way you have the best chance of seeing a good variety of things. After that, perhaps you will feel comfortable trying it out on your own.
It is very easy to get turned around in Havana, so using a map of some sort is suggested. You might also want to take some landmark pictures on your phone in case you do get lost and need to get back to where you started. If you show someone that picture they might be able to point you in the right direction. Getting a private taxi/tour guide was the best way to go for Tamara- we always get lost in an unfamiliar place.
In Havana, it seems every nook and cranny has something to offer. Some places are public, some are not. Some are ok to enter with a tour guide, some not at all. Some places will ask you to pay a fee if you take pictures, others will not. It is all very confusing, and that is why a tour guide is a good idea. He or she will be fluent in Spanish and take to the places you are allowed to be in. We have only seen a tiny snippet of this city. There is still so much to see!
There are some amazing public squares (plazas) in Old Havana that everyone should visit and almost every tour will take you to see them. Make sure you take some time and enjoy the abundance of statues in the city. We like to take pictures of them and the associate signs/plates so we can look them up what they were we get back home.
What to watch out for
Like most cities in the world, Havana has some people who want to make money from tourists. Unfortunately, you may be unaware of the ‘rules of engagement’. So some things to watch out for are:
- People asking you to take their picture. Often these will be ladies dressed up in outlandish costumes with big cigars. They actually have a license to wear that costume and solicit photos. If you take a picture, you are expected to pay them for that privilege. Other folks will try to pose with you and get a picture. They don’t have a license, but will still expect you to pay them. My advice is don’t take a picture of anyone that asks you to do so.
- It is not suggested to take pictures of Military personnel or Police. Do you like people coming up and taking your picture without asking?
- Museums will often have an attendant that takes your money and lets you visit. If you take pictures, they will ask you to pay another fee. It is a good idea to ask first before taking any pictures.
- Street vendors selling food and drinks. It is really hard to know what is safe to eat or drink in this regard. I’d advise only going to restaurants that have a good reputation. Your tour guide will know safe places.
- Crime is low in Cuba, but centres like this are easy pickings for pick-pocketing and scams. Go with your gut feeling when dealing with people that approach you. Your gut feeling is almost correct.
- Begging happens in Havana just like every other city. You will just have to figure out how to deal with that. You can pay a CUC and hope they go away, or that might end up attracting more begging. A good thing about having a tour guide is that they may help you avoid this situation.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asís
Plaza de Armas
Plaza Vieja, Old Town Square
Make sure you go up the tower and visit Camera Obscura. It will give you a real-time view of Cuba using a periscope camera and mirrors. It is a 15-minute tour, and amazing. The view over Havan is impressive from the top of this building. The cost is only a couple of USD.
Cathedral of Havana
(La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana). Sometimes Spanish is very short, but not in the case of the full name of this place.
Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón (Cemetery)
This is the largest cemetery we have even seen! It sounds morbid to visit a place where people are buried, but the architecture in this place is amazing. Families have plots and buildings here that are generations old. You need to remember Churches and Cemeteries are very important to Cuban people. You will find these in every town. Havana being a city has a truly amazing one.
Remember that this is an active cemetery. Show nothing but the utmost respect for people visiting graves or having a ceremony. You can pay to take pictures there, but certainly don’t do that if people are mourning. That would be unforgivable.
Revolution Plaza Havana
This plaza is a famous landmark in Havana and is surrounded by government buildings and monuments. Ideally, you will go with a guide who can explain what you are seeing. You will also see a whole bunch of classic cars as people come and go to see the plaza.
There are many beautiful Spanish fortresses and structures to see in Havana. Tamara and I plan to spend a whole day just visiting those at some point.
El Morro fortress
They have a ceremonial cannon firing at this fortress, which is well worth attending. It was part of a Nexus tour that we took from Varadero. The fortress is quite impressive. We are big medieval buffs, so we intend on going back to Havana one day and visit nothing but the fortresses!
El Garaje is located at Calle Amargura and San Ignacio across the street from the Hotel Raquel. What an amazing collection of really shiny antique cars in there!
Former Hemingway Estate
If you are going to Havana, your may want to visit the former Hemmingway Estate (Finca Vigía) in San Francisco de Paula Ward.
Los Frailes Boutique Hotel Havana
This is a neat hotel to peek in and take a look at in Havana. The metal monk statues are really neat as is the interior of the building. This is an operating hotel, so please ask the staff at the front desk if you may look around the lobby.
Statues and Monuments
You will find amazing statues all over Havana. If you are with a Tour Guide they will help you better understand what the statue is about.