Havana is one of the most unique cities in the world — it’s seemingly frozen in time at first glance, but you soon realise this city, and the country as a whole, is so much more than just a time warp. The place is colourful, charismatic, and buzzing with energy.
Before visiting Cuba, we’d admittedly done very little research aside from scrolling Instagram for a bit of photography inspiration. And on arrival at Havana airport, we immediately knew this trip was going to be unlike any other we’d ever experienced.
The internet can be hard to access here, and only 5% of the population has access to it, so of course, there’s no airport wifi. Hot tip: write down the full name and address of where you’re staying. Read: we didn’t do this and spent a fair bit of time trying to find our accommodation with our lovely taxi driver who didn’t speak any English.
The city of Havana is split into three main areas: Old Havana, Centro Havana, and Vedado. Old Havana is like a living, breathing museum, from the old classic cars, to the dilapidated buildings, to the street stalls selling magazines with Che Guevara gracing the front cover. All signs point back in time to another world, and it’s mesmerising.
But Havana is also changing. Fast. Since the trade embargo with the US has eased, Cuba has experienced a huge boom in tourism from the United States (previously, most tourists hailed from Canada and Europe, with just a few Americans daring to brave the risks by arriving via flights from Canada or Mexico). This new tourism boom has been great for the economy, of course, but as for what it means for the future of the country and its historic buildings is yet to be determined.
Right now though, is an exciting time to visit. The things that make Havana special are still there, and fortunately we’ve yet to see the likes of the big fast food chains on every corner. So if you’re toying with the idea of a trip to Cuba, go now, before things change dramatically.
Then, once you book your trip, follow our tips for Havana. They’ll help you get settled in when you first arrive in this incredible city.
Tip #1: Do your research
As mentioned, there is little to no internet access in Cuba right now, or, when you can access a connection, it’s painfully slow. So do your digital research before you go. Make notes on your smartphone of places you want to hit up when you get there and grab a hard copy map when you arrive, as Google maps won’t work here unless you’ve downloaded it beforehand.
You can get around on foot or by taxi, which come in the forms of classic cars, coco taxis (like a bubble car/moto taxi) and regular cars. They are pretty cheap — about CUC 5 one-way to most places in Havana. (The Cuban convertible peso, which is the currency for tourists, is always on par with the American dollar.)
Finding good food can be challenging in Havana (especially if you are vegetarian like us), so our advice is to ask around for the best places to eat. Chat up other travellers and ask a few locals for their suggestions. Our best find was the street stalls in Old Havana, which are super cheap and totally delicious. Our faves were the fresh churros (50 centavos), corn on the cob (CUC 1), coconut ice cream in a coconut shell (75 centavos), and peanuts (less than 50 centavos).
Tip #2: Be prepared
Expect to lose some of the conveniences of back home — like being able to access your bank account. There are very few ATMs around and hardly anywhere will accept credit or debit cards (apart from the fancier hotels), so make sure you have your currency sorted at the airport when you arrive. You’ll need to ensure you you have the local currency (CUC) used by tourists.
Outside of hotels and the major tourist zones like Old Havana, many locals don’t speak much English, so having a couple of Spanish phrases down pat will help. We downloaded a Spanish app to help us when we got stuck but a phrase book will do the job too.
Tip #3: Book accommodation in advance
The tourism boom means that accommodation in Havana is now getting booked up months in advance. You have a few options to chose from, so decide what experience you want to have and go from there.
We decided to stay in a casa particulare, which is a privately owned B&B rental in a Cuban’s home. These are the best option for really getting an authentic taste of Cuba, while also supporting local entrepreneurs rather than the hotels and resorts, which are typically government-owned. With our casa, we had a room and private bathroom in a family home. At only CUC 25 a night, it was affordable and we got a great feel for Havana life. Hotels in Havana can be pricey so if you go for that option, shop around —and if you’re going to splurge, we’d recommend staying in one of the more traditional hotels in Old Havana.
Tip #4: Do a walking tour to get your bearings
Whenever we arrive in a new place, we always take a walk around before we do anything else, so we can get our bearings. One of the best ways to do this in Havana is to take a walking tour of the city, which will allow you to get to know the area while having a local expert to answer all your questions.
There is so much history in Havana that having a local guide, who is able to break it down for you and give you a local insight, is invaluable. You will also get a good feel for where things are, and if you want to go exploring on your own you’ll know where the main landmarks are.
We asked our guide for recommendations of things to do and how much we should be paying for things. Super helpful!
Tip #5: Get out of the city for the day
When you’ve had enough exploring, there are some beautiful beaches a short drive away where you can enjoy some downtime. A 30-minute taxi ride to Santa Maria beach will set you back CUC 25-30 one way.
Once you get there, pitching up on a sun lounger with an umbrella for shade is CUC 5 and you can chill there for the day. Bliss.
Havana’s often described as being trapped in a time warp, thanks to the cool retro cars prowling the streets and the crumbling mix of colonial and art deco design. But while we love the vintage vibe of Havana, the city also has so much more to explore in the here and now. Take a Havana city tour that will expose you to Afro-Cuban religion, show you the broken beauty that defines the city’s spectacular, UNESCO-designated architecture, and teach you about what remains today of la Revolución. Then finish it all off, of course, with a mojito in la Habana Vieja.