Where to stay
We stayed with Rafael via Airbnb and I would highly recommend you stay there if you want a real and authentic experience in Havana. Rafael has 2 rooms for rent. The yellow room and the blue room. We stayed in the blue room whilst we were there but both rooms looked pretty much the same.The room was fine with AC and a bathroom and to be honest we didn't sleep amazingly because the building across the street was being worked on pretty much all day and night.
But the reason I would recommend that you stay with Rafael and his family is because they were so warm and welcoming towards us.
Rafael's mum made us breakfast every morning which consisted of eggs, sausage, fruit, tea, coffee, fruit juice etc. They were super helpful telling us all about Havana and giving us advice on where to go and what to see etc.
They also provide motorbike ride tours around the city and I would highly recommend that you do this too. He took us to some very cool spots that we would not have gone to by ourselves. His knowledge of Havana is amazing and he was very happy to answer all of our questions.
I can't recommend that you stay with Rafael enough! He really is amazing and needs tourists like you to go and spend money with him so he can support his whole family.
What to eat & drink
Breakfast should be eaten at your airbnb which will probably cost 5CUC per person. This will include something similar to what we had with eggs, sausages, fruit and drinks.
One morning we decided to try a local cafe and paid 5CUC for breakfast which was pretty much the same than the airbnb food but it was nice to change a little bit and experience something different.
Because the breakfasts were really big, we didn't really have lunch some days. We either had a snack at around 4pm then dinner at like 8pm or we would just have dinner at around 6pm.
There are lots of paladars (family run restaurants) in Havana and I think they are probably mostly good to go to. The first night we had a delicious Lobster dish for 10CUC each.
However, the one place I would recommend that you go to is Bohemia Habana Bar Libreria which is a lovely small cafe in the centre of Old Havana. The guy who works there was really friendly and super knowledgable about Havana and Cuba. He showed us photographs, talked to us about the books he had and made the most delicious food! He is another person that I would love to see succeed and make a good living. We actually ate at his place twice as it was that good!
And then for dinners we found paladars in Old Havana. I could tell you where we ate every night but to be honest nothing else really stood out to me enough for me to write it down here.
After dinner or as a midday snack, we sometimes went to Helad'oro which is a small ice cream parlour in Old Havana selling delicious ice creams for 1CUC a scoop!
What to see & do
I honestly think the main thing to do in Havana is to just walk around and take in the culture and the architecture. Go to a bar and watch the live music, walk the streets and talk to the locals, take photographs of the old cars, watch how the Cuban people interact, socialise and go about their days. There is so much to learn by just observing.
However, if you're in Havana for a couple of days and you want to do more than walk around, I would recommend hiring an old Vintage car for a tour around Havana. These cost around 40CUC for about an hour but I'm pretty sure you could haggle it down if you wanted to.
The best place to get a car is around Parque Central as this is where they all park up to drop tourists off and pick up new ones. I think you can pick the car based on the colour or style that you want if you are picky but we just went with the first one that spoke to us.
The Vintage car tours all have the same route and take you around Old Havana, down the Malecon and back to Parque Central.
The other thing I would recommend is to go on a motorbike ride tour with Rafael who I mentioned above. He is very knowledgable about Havana, he is super friendly and is very happy to answer questions.
There are a couple of buildings in Havana that are worth mentioning.
Capitolio Nacional de La Habana is the main building that you can't miss. It is right in the centre of Havana and is a real statement. We didn't actually go inside, maybe we can do that next time, but it was beautiful during the day and it was lit up at night time too.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a beautiful huge hotel on the Malecon facing the water. I think this is where important people stay when they come to Cuba. It was an impressive building but we would not have usually come to this place. We came here on the motorbike ride tour as a quick stop off to see this special building.
Memorial a Jose Marti is a huge marble star shaped tower and statue honouring the writer Jose Marti who was an advocate for independence from Spain. We didn't go inside this one either but I think it only costs a couple of CUC to see the inside.
Museo de la Revolucion is a local history museum. It is housed in a former palace and this museum includes historical exhibits & Fidel Castro's famous yacht. We didn't go inside as it's a government owned building but I think it would be a good place to learn about Cuba's history from Cuban people and not what the USA says happened.
Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta is a stone fortress constructed in the 1590s to protect the harbour which is now restored & open to visitors. This is situated on the Malecon and is a perfect spot to either walk by and take some photos or go inside and learn some more about Cuba.
There are 4 main squares (plazas) in Havana that are worth mentioning and visiting.
Plaza de la Catedral is where the Havana Cathedral is. It used to be a swamp but it was drained and used as a naval dockyard. The Cathedral was built in 1727 and this area is home to some of Havana's biggest mansions and the Museo del Arte Colonial.
Plaza de Armas is Havana's oldest plaza which is surrounded by restaurants and hotels. In the centre of the plaza is a marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the man who set Cuba on the road to independence in 1868.
Plaza Vieja was opened in 1559 and was used for executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas - all witnessed by Havana's wealthiest citizens, who looked on from their balconies. Plaza Vieja is represented by valuable colonial buildings from the XVII, XVIII and XIX and some examples of the early twentieth century.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis was opened in 1628 and is one of the oldest squares in Havana. In 1761, José Martín Félix de Arrate, Mayor of Havana, considered the Plaza to be the best place in the city. Both the city hall (casas capitulares), police house, jailhouse and customs office faced the Plaza at the time.
Typical Havana Architecture
We've all seen the amazing photographs on Instagram, Google and Pinterest. The gorgeous colourful buildings that are exactly what Cuba and Havana represent. So, here are my top places in Havana to see some of these gorgeous buildings.
Simon Bolivar is the main road leading into Havana. We walked all the way up here one afternoon from Capitolio Nacional de La Habana and ended up at Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon which is a huge Neo Gothic Catholic Church. Along this road is beautiful examples of Havana architecture with bright colourful buildings, balconies, tall doors, clothes hanging to dry and old vintage cars driving by.
The next area I would recommend is Old Havana which is anywhere East of Avenida Belgica. Obispo is the most tourist friendly street with lots of shops and restaurants but I recommend visiting the smaller streets like Habana, Amargura and Compostela. Anywhere in this area is great for taking photographs and appreciating the real Cuban architecture.
Opposite Capitolio Nactional de La Habana is also a row of buildings that are very typical of Havana with bright colours and gorgeous designs. I think this is where most Instagrammers get "the shot".
The other road we really enjoyed walking down was Paseo de Marti north of Parque Central. Both sides of the street were lined with gorgeous colourful architecture and it's a lovely place to go for an afternoon stroll in the sunshine.
The last area I would recommend is anywhere West and North of Capitolio Nacional de La Habana. Streets such as Barcelona, Concordia, Animas, Aguila. These are the real Havana streets with people fixing old cars, kids playing in the streets and clothes hanging on the balconies. Be careful in the less touristy areas. We were fine but I always recommend people to be careful wherever they go.
Money in Cuba
Cuba has 2 currencies that it uses.
The CUC is the Convertible Peso which is what tourists use in Cuba. 1 CUC is equivalent to 1 USD. Restaurants, shops and markets also use and accept CUC.
The CUP is the Cuban Peso and is only really used by locals. There are 25 CUP for 1 CUC. This currency is only used in small local markets for local people.
The way you can tell them apart easily is that CUC currency shows monuments and CUP currency shows portraits.
I highly recommend that you take all the money you will need whilst in Cuba with you. We didn't do that and ended up spending a whole morning going to different banks with different cards trying to get some money out.
We knew that US bank cards didn't work over there so had transferred money onto a Global card that should work everywhere. But the problem we had is that all the card readers in Cuba read the magnetic strip and ours was a chip. Eventually we found a bank that accepted chip cards and managed to get some more money out.
So learn from our mistakes and take all your money with you.
I bloody loved Havana and I kind of wish we had spent more time in there as I think there is still so much that we didn't see. We didn't go in any of the landmarks or attractions, we didn't cross the Canal de Entrada, we didn't go in all the churches or to Chinatown etc. So there is still so much for us to see and do next time we come to Cuba.
I would highly recommend that everyone comes to Cuba before it changes. I also wrote a blog post on how to visit Cuba as a tourist and in particular if you're travelling from or via the USA as I know a lot of people are worried about it. Don't be worried. Cuba is such a warm and welcoming country and they need your tourism to thrive!
Thank you so much for reading and I'll see you in the next blog post! And remember to ask any questions or leave any comments down below!