Colors, music and laughter are my choice of words to describe Cuba, and if one city in the island encompasses all is La Habana.
Arriving to Cuba I was a little apprehensive of what it was going to be like. Despite reading many blog posts about it and seeing so many pictures, it is one of those destinations you can only imagine what is going to be like but you don’t really know until you get there. Well for me it was everything I imagined and much more. Since I have been back I have highly recommended it to friends.
La Habana has a vibe that you want to take with you after you leave. I wish I could have stayed here longer, much longer, but if you have a quick trip let me tell you 48 hours will give you plenty of time to explore the best in La Habana and get the amazing feel this city transmits. Here is my 48-hour itinerary stay in La Habana.
La Habana Vieja (see below for top sights to visit)
Coffee break in El Escorial (Plaza Vieja)
Lunch at Habana 61
Sunset and aperitif at Ambos Mundos
Dinner at O’Reilly 304
Vedado and Plaza de la Revolucion
Lunch at local paladar in Vedado
Walk through Malecon
Explore Almacenes San Jose
9PM show in El Morro (el Cañonazo)
Dinner at La Bodeguita del Medio
Sights to visit
As a tourist you are probably going to check three broad sectors: Old Havana- the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vedado- the more modern and commercial district and Malecon- the seaside boulevard.
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
You are probably going spend most of your time here, as it is where most things are happening. Old buildings, churches, museums, but also life! Prepare yourself to explore and get lost walking through these intricate streets that show you what Cuban essence is about.
Here is a list of some sights to check while you get lost in La Habana Vieja:
El Capitolio: Cuban copy of Washington DC Capitol building, smaller but very similar. Fun fact, the government used to occupy this building up until the Revolution in 1959. After the Revolution the government changed its function to the Academy of Science. At the moment it is being renovated (2016).
Parque Central (central park): The park itself doesn’t hold anything very special, but make sure you check the surrounding buildings. The Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso (Theater) is one of the most imposing buildings in La Habana, still functioning today and famous for its national ballet performances. Besides it are some classic hotels: Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Telégrafo, Hotel Parque Central Iberostar and Hotel Plaza. All of them have beautiful elegant facades. Next to it you can also find the Museo de Bellas Artes (national museum). Around the park you can also admire and take a pic or two with those fancy looking old cars. If you want a ride they charge around 35 USD an hour for a tour through the city. However, the odds are you will anyways ride one of those in your time in Cuba as you get a cab in the street and encounter one of these beauties.
Paseo del Prado: For those who are familiar with Madrid, this boulevard connecting the Central Park with El Malecon has a similar feel that the one in the Spanish Capital. As you walk by between the trees you will find grand buildings that despite being deteriorated you can still admire their magnificence.
Plaza Vieja: you can recognize this plaza among the others you will go by because it has a big fountain in the middle. Despite its name, this actually was originally called Plaza Nueva (new square), as you will notice by the architecture of the buildings in the square. So don´t let the name trick you, the oldest square is Plaza de Armas. Surrounded by some cafes and restaurants that you can stop and take a break while you admire the colonial buildings (read below about Café El Escorial).
Plaza de Armas: oldest square in the city. I dare you to find the street that is made of wood. According to some, the governor who lived in one of the buildings didn´t want to hear the carriages on the stone thus made it change to wood. Probably only place in the world with a wooden street from the 17th century!
Calle Obispo: one of the most liveliest streets in la Vieja Habana. This street stretches from Plaza de Armas all the way to Parque Central and is full of shops, bakeries, cafes, restaurants (or local paladares) and hotels. Visit this street on a weekend and you will see Cuban families enjoying their weekend here. Make sure to make a pit spot in the most beautiful pharmacy (yes a pharmacy) I have seen called Museo Farmacia Taquechel. It is an old pharmacy that still holds some of the antique porcelain medicine containers. Really worth seeing!
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis: this plaza is named after the convent in this square. An open plaza that faces the harbor and the Aduana (customs house).
Plaza de la Catedral: For me the most picturesque of all the plazas in La Habana. Almost a closed square occupied by the Cathedral of La Habana in one side and beautiful stoned buildings with blue balconies around it. Some of these buildings and side streets have restaurants. Just down one of the corners you will find the famous Bodeguita del Medio (read below for more info).
This amazing esplanade lets you breathe in the ocean and take a great walk through the coast surrounding La Habana. This road connects old Habana with Vedado. Here you can also admire Cuban daily life as people gather by the sea wall to watch the sunset and have some fun.
Almacenes San Jose (market): This building is a little farther away from most sights towards the ocean, but here is where you want to come if you are looking to buy all the souvenirs to take back home. This old warehouse is now the house of local artisans and the perfect spot for you to go shopping.
El Morro: this old castle and fortress is a place you can visit during the day to get a wonderful view of the city by the seafront. However if you get a chance you can also come here at night and go back in time to the 1800s and be an spectator of a reenactment of a ceremony called “el cañonazo” where cannons are fired at night (9PM every night) to announce the closure of the city walls.
This “newer” neighborhood of La Habana is worth a trip (even just on one of those antique cars) to get to see what a different part of the city looks like. Known as the area where the “richer” families of La Habana used to live. Some of these big mansions are now embassies or government buildings. Here is where some of the more modern hotels are located as well as university buildings.
Plaza de la Revolución: this large square is where you will find the famous Che Guevara’s memorial. Moreover Fidel gave some of its most famous speeches in this square and the Pope gave mass on his visit to the island. On one side of the plaza you will find the building of the Cuban government nowadays. Although it is farther away from some of the other sights it is worth the trip for the pics and to relive some historic moments.
Where to eat and drink
This city has plenty of choices for food and drinks. Some places are classics such as La Bodeguita del Medio, Floridita or Ambos Mundos. However in the past few years with looser economic regulations, more and more private restaurants have flourished. These small family owned restaurants are also called Paladares are all around town, with different price ranges, offerings and flavors. Below is a selection for a 48-hour stay in Cuban capital.
O’Reilly 304: first things first, make sure as soon as you arrive to Cuba call this place to book a table for dinner or lunch. This cute little restaurant is happening so with no reservation, no chance you will get in. A mix between classical Cuban food with a touch of other Latino cuisines. Try their ceviche and their mojitos! I sat on the bar and have to say I regret not ordering the mojito daiquiri, saw the barman do it and looked sooo good!
Habana 61: same as O Reillys, you need to call ahead for a table, it is very popular! This restaurant has a more modern vibe to it and serves great Cuban cuisine. The lobster I had was absolutely wonderful!
Ambos Mundos: best piña colada I had in Cuba! Visit the rooftop bar of this historic hotel in Calle Obispo, known as the hotel where Erne st Hemingway lived 6 years of his life. It is a perfect spot to take a break and enjoy a great view of La Habana Vieja and have a drink while listening to some live music. I recommend the piña colada which is served in an empty pineapple and topped up with some cinnamon yumm! But mojitos and daiquiris are also good.
La Bodeguita del Medio: this classic restaurant and bar in La Habana is almost an institution. Visited by Hemingway for its mojitos, today its walls are full of scribbles of every person who has stopped by. You will definitely find live music and can have a taste of Cuban food described in its menu by a poem.
Café El Escorial: This café is at the corner of Plaza Vieja and Cubans consider it the best coffee in town. I think I have mentioned I’m not a coffee drinker, however my mom who I was traveling with confirmed it. So stop by and enjoy a good strong cup of coffee here.
Where to stay
There are two main options on where to stay in La Habana. You can either stay in a hotel (a wide range of offerings, but make sure you book in advance) or check a Casa Particular. Casa Particular translates to private house, or in other words a type of homestay with a Cuban family. This is a great alternative to have a more authentic experience and a cheaper option as well.
Final words of advice
I encourage talking to people to understand more of their lives, their situation and get the best of this beautiful country. For me that was the most enriching part of this trip, talking to taxi drivers (most approachable) and getting to know more of their lives. Always with a smile and between jokes, I found Cubans to be very happy people!