As I finally decided to get my shit together and finalize the booking of my Cuba trip I decided to spend a whole week only in the capital Havana. A day-trip to Vinales would have nicely fit into my schedule. However doing 3 cities within a week sounded too stressful. I haven't had a "relaxed" holiday for quite a while, so I decided to take it slowly on this trip.
Too many people advised me to spend only 3 days in Havana, and then I should move on to Trinidad. Everybody was bragging about that little gem of a town. I didn't give it too much attention and stuck to my plan.
Now that I got back from Havana, I'd totally advise people to stay at least 5 days in Havana. You can easily do daytrips to the beach "Playa del Este" or like previously mentioned the beautiful city of Vinales.
I can't imagine that you will feel the vibe of the city within only 3 days, it takes more than that.
What to do in Havana?
Obviously as soon as the name Havana pops up, people do think about the colorful streets of Old-Havana. "Habana-Vieja" definitely is the prettiest neighborhood in Havana. It's clean, it's lively and easy to get around. The only thing I didn't like about Old-Havana, it didn't look authentic. "Obispo" street is the main shopping lane leading through the city-center. It's packed with shops, in which ones you won't meet a local cuban, it's just too expensive. The shops are pretty much boring, except for a couple of old bookstores selling books & collector-items of Fidel & Che Guevara.
As I was spending my holidays during the cuban winter season, too many places like bars & restaurants looked deserted. It didn't feel like the partying Havana-City that we all know from the movies, it was just the total opposite. I liked walking through "calle Obispo" just for the fact, that it was packed with people. I love having a cup of coffee and watching people passing by.
I won't start listing all the places you should visit, that you might find in a tourist-guide. I really didn't focus on any of the very touristic places. I really wanted to discover it on my own.
I will tell you a little more about the main neighbourhoods "Habana Vieja" and "Vedado".
After the end of my trip I noticed that I couldn't have had a better experience in Cuba than this first 8 days in Havana. Too many of my friends, who returned from Cuba, agreed that it was a lovely island, however none of them wanted to get back. I gotta admit that I became quite a fan of Cuba.
I'd definitely recommend to stay in a "Casa Particular". First of all it's cheap! The average rate for a room is between 20-35 € or US$ a night. So you'd only pay around 180€ a week, which would not even be enough to spend 2 nights in a hotel.
Don't hesitate spending a couple of bucks on cuban people in the street. I admit that it can be very annoying being asked 20 times a day, if you want to buy cigars, or if they can show you around, bring you to a bar... it's just annoying. BUT... if you agree on spending one drink (1-3$), the cubans might bring you to a bar you'd have never discovered on your own.
In bars, you will meet cuban locals, telling you about the country's history. They will introduce you to other drinks than Mojito & Cuba Libre. They will teach you some salsa dancing or tell you about the most iconic salsa-musicians of Cuba. One random cubano, who asked me for a Mojito, took me to the most simple cuban bar, where Che Guevara was hiding for 3 weeks on the rooftop of the building. Inside the bar, there was a big bell, which they used to wake up "the Che", or let him know when enemies were approaching.
Places to hang-out.
- Old Havana is definitely the nicest spots to wander around the colorful alleys, have a peek inside the livings rooms of the different houses (cuban people always leave their front-door open). Visit different art galleries, have a drink or a coffee, enjoy the different music spots throughout the city, talk to people... It just never gets boring.
- THE MALECON was another highlight of the city. Everybody knows the street from the photos... fishermen sitting on the edgy walls of the Malecon waiting to catch a fish, american cars driving by, waves hitting the walls and wetting the pedestrians walking along the sidewalk. The Malecon is fascinating at any time of the day. In the early hours go for a morning run, in the afternoon go have a delicious seafood meal at the "La Abadia" restaurant, in the evening walk along the walls like the locals. "La Abadia" was my favorite restaurant in the center of the city. The prices were very descent and you had a view straight onto the ocean. I mostly paid around 10-12 CUC (8-10 €/$) for a seafood-salad, a grilled seafood skewer, and a cocktail or a softdrink.
- VEDADO was a more authentic neighborhood of Havana, not as a fancy as Old Havana, but you will have a fun time in that area. LA RAMPA, as they call Avenue 23 (Avenida 23) is the hotspot for nightlife. "La Zorra y el Cuervo" is a pretty nice Jazz-Club, you pay 10 CUC for the entrance and get 2 free-cocktails. The night I visited the bar, there was a local jazz band playing, that didn't blow me away. But there were a couple of special guests who made it a very pleasant show. It was funny to see that the jazzclub was packed with japanese tourists, the japanese LOVE jazz music! Just right next to the club, you will find a couple of salsa&rumba clubs. Even the gay-area is right next to the Rampa. I always started my night at the dive-bar "San Juan", where I would meet the craziest cubans on my trip. One night I met a german tourist and all he could say was "man I love this bar!". Almost every night I had dinner at the restaurant "Locos por Cuba". It was just right next to my casa. The service was flawless, the food was delicious, and again crazy cheap (and they had the prettiest waitresses in Havana!). In Vedado you're only steps away from the famous "HOTEL NACIONAL DE CUBA". Also check out the most famous ice-cream spot in Havana called "COPPELIA". Expect a waiting line of 20 minutes to get your scoop of ice-cream.
- CALLEJON DE HAMEL is also located in the VEDADO neighborhood. It's a block of colorful & arty murals. The Hamel street was built up by the local community to raise money for disabled children. It's a very charming place which is definitely worth a stop. They also have a signature-cocktail called "BILONGO", apparently it's the only place where you can get it.
My favorite Bars in Old Havana.
The bar looks like the real local thing. There's live music everyday, from midday til the early evening. The bar is located just next to the "La Rosalía De Castro" Culture Center. Almost every afternoon I had a Mojito at their place. They didn't serve the best drinks, but I did like the vibe of the bar. That's also the place where I met two of the most memorable cubanos of my trip, Mario & his son Froylan! Their "signature cocktail" (don't expect too much) is the "Compay Segundo". Try it!
Location: (#3 Calle Monte between Maximo Gomes (Monte) St. & Dragone St.)
LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
La Bodeguita del Medio might be the most popular bar in Old-Havana. It's really PACKED with tourists, but the good thing about it, is its live salsa band. Many people are dancing inside the bar. Their Mojito is pretty alright, even though it's very overrated! On a wall you see a writing of the author Ernest Hemingway "My Mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita". Outside of the bar, the walls are filled with tags, names, signatures of people who visited the place. Just hop in grab a Mojito, enjoy the music til your glass is empty, and leave...
Monserrate is one of the popular bars as well, which is also a recommendation of the "Havana Club Rum Museum". But it was one of the bars, which had the best live music in the evening in Old-Havana. The customers were mostly tourists but it was a calm place, and it still felt like a cuban bar and not a tourist attraction. The cocktails were 4 CUC, however almost double the size than the regular highball glasses.
Creperie Oasis Nelva
The name of the bar might sound odd, but they do have the BEST cocktails in Old Havana. The bar doesn't even look like a creperie (a place where they make french pancakes). I had my first Pineapple-Mojito at Oasis Nelva and it was just marvelous. The interior-design looks fancy, most of the furniture is selfmade. The cocktails are pretty cheap compared to other places in and around Habana-Vieja. The also serve a big variety of organic dishes. Try their "Cuban Lemonade"!
I would totally stay away from Old-Havana, if you're looking for the clubbing kind of nightlife. I was pretty disappointed about the fact that Old-Havana was asleep in the evening hours of a weekend. You definitely need to jump on a cab and drive to VEDADO. Check out "PALACIO DE LA RUMBA DE LA HABANA". The palacio was the first club I discovered on my holidays. Again I invited a cubano for a drink, and after the first bar shut its door, he took me to the palacio. The club opens around midnight and is pretty dead til 01:00 am. On the first night we went around 03:00 in the morning and it was super busy. Obviously they play "rumba" music. I never heard about "rumba" til I set foot into the club. I had a lot of fun in that club and all the cubans were very welcoming.
CASA DE LA MUSICA DE MIRAMAR was the second club (or rather a music venue) that I visited. Casa de la musica was more about salsa music... they host very popular bands. LOTS of dancing people, fair prices on the drinks as well. The neighborhood of Mirama is a 15-minute taxi-ride away from the center. The crowd was a little bit older, than at the palacio. Definitely something you wouldn't witness in Old Havana.
Well Havana isn't just about drinking and eating! Obviously Salsa is a very big thing in Cuba. Why not take salsa classes??? I took 4 hours of cuban salsa classes at the "CASA DEL SON" which is located very nearby the Parque Centrale. 2 hours of dancing classes cost 30 CUC. Most of the teacher do speak very well english. The dancing school looks very nice on the inside, and they do have a bar as well, if you need to loosen up, before the classes or during the break. My teacher Eniley showed pretty much patience for someone with 2 left feet learning how to dance.
I'm not a big fan of museums, but I decided to check out the "HAVANA CLUB" museum on my last day, because after all the Mojitos I had drunk, I needed to get more informed about where it comes from and how the rum gets into the bottle.
If you're a beach bum you should take a ride to the "Playa del Este". I was told by the cubans that it is a lovely beach. Sadly because of the rainy days on the last part of my trip, I decided to leave the sun-tanning aside. You should combine the beach-trip with a convertible taxi ride. I guess the convertible taxi ride inside an american old-timer is a must-do as well, while in Cuba. Sadly I skipped that part as well, because I was traveling alone and my main credit-card wasn't working in Cuba. So I tried to spend less money to avoid any bad surprises.
I did visit a cigar factory though. Was it worth it ? I really can't tell. First of all, you need to get the entrance ticket in advance! I read about it, didn't believe it... and I was wrong. When I went into the lobby of the factory, the security agent told me, that I wouldn't get inside the factory without the ticket from a hotel. Because I was staying in a "casa particular" I had no clue where I should get that ticket from. A taxi-driver outside the factory told me he could take me to a tourist office, where I could buy a ticket. The ticket was 10 CUC for the guided tour through the factory. SADLY... you're not allowed to take any photographs. The different facilities of the factory look very old, traditional and photogenic. I would have loved to take some photos of the factory employees. It's interesting to see where the world-famous COHIBA cigars come from, but in my opinion the guide rushed through the factory. You can't touch anything, you observe the workers from a certain distance. But... while in Cuba... you should at least visit one factory. You won't have the chance to visit a factory in every country.
There's absolutely so much to do in Havana... music is big, art is big, rum is big... You hardly ever get bored if the weather is on your side.
Prior my next trip to Cuba, I really want to inform myself a lot more about the revolution, Fidel, and Che Guevara. I starting reading a book about Che on the airplaine back to Europe and I would love to visit the precise places where the revolution and its take-overs happened.