Havana is intriguing and unlocked, shattered but joyful, always astounding. A gorgeous blue sky could befall murky and brooding in a minute. European luxury sedans move along yank tanks ducking all kinds of street craters. People, always friendly and warm, crudely criticize everything around and then meet at the Plaza de la Revolución to cheer up the government. In any case -even if you stay for a weekend- Cuba will be impossible to forget, especially if you can face up these 10 things to do in Havana. Before we get into it, let me tell you that you can book all this on our marketplace of private tours in Cuba well before you touch down in Havana Airport.
Lodging at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba: after the arrival on Friday evening
Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a world-classic Art Deco building from 1930, was considered by the World Travel Group in 2009 as the best hotel in Cuba. You can find yourself there hitting the hay on the same bed where Gary Cooper (room 223), Frank Sinatra (room 214) or Rita Hayworth (room 246) did. By the way, if you go for a walk at night by the gardens hanging on a cliff before the ocean, beware of the ghosts of some shady celebrities who also took lodge at the hotel, like the mafia capos Mayer Lanksy or Santo Trafficante (room 211). Indeed you won’t find any phantom there, but good service in an exclusive environment. The hotel is categorized a five star (hardly true but pretty close) with prices scoping from 250 USD a single to 1800 for the presidential suite. Hotel Nacional would be an excellent base for all the things to do in Havana.
Roll up your own cigar at the very Partagás factory, a good star for a Saturday
Whether you like to smoke or not, Cuban cigars are unique and Partagás is one of its prominent brands. By heading to this beautiful colonial-building across the Capitolio Nacional, you´ll be entering the world of the oldest cigar factory in Cuba. You can learn to roll your own cigars instructed by a torcedor –a master in the art or rolling tobaccos. This should be one of the things to do in Havana, country of the best tobacco in the world. By the way, you can bring back to the United States up to 100 USD worth of tobacco products as a souvenir. Consider, for instance, that a Partagás 8-9-8 box (25 cigars) is priced at about 250 CUC (290 USD) Anyway, Secretary of State John Kerry brought back a humidor with cigars for 160 USD plus a bottle of rum and nothing had happened…
Tour the Old Havana, an unavoidable mission
As Barack Obama did in his recent visit, Old Havana is a duty. He arrived under a brolly on a rainy evening, but in the daytime, you´ll need enough protection against the ruthless sun over a treeless borough. Take your own maximum-protection sunscreen lotion because this is usually lacked in Cuban shops. You´ll get probably overwhelmed about the many seductive, warming locations inviting you in. I’m meaning restaurants with live music, tiny overstuffed museums, Spanish tabla’os and some intriguing stairs by the street. I would recommend this: just visit the main Old Havana Plazas, large squares among colonial buildings where you can learn the most and buy some memorabilia. This tour could star at the Plaza de Armas and must not overlook Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza San Francisco.
Drink a daiquiri where they became famous: El Floridita
Many people wrongly think this drink was born in El Floridita, but it truly came from Oriente, the formerly easternmost Cuban province. By early 1900 a famous Cuban engineer and an American businessman met for business in an iron landmine named Daiquirí. There was nothing to drink around the table but some rum, sugar, and lemon so they decided to put it all together and voilà… an excellent drink was born. Don’t forget a shot drinking a daiquiri in the company of the life-sized bronze statue of the most important client ever there: Ernest Hemingway.
Take a drive through the Malecón on a fifties’ yank tank
After such a ramble by the Old Havana just rent a vintage-convertible Chevy at Avenida del Puerto. For about 20 to 30 CUC you’ll be driven by a skilled chauffeur through the 5 miles of the Malecón Avenue, great time to breathe the ocean air and take the bigger possible vision of the city. From the Havana Harbor, the ride will cross through the main architectural periods of the city, almost century by century.
You’ll take a glance at the major colonial fortress. Then the Spanish-style Centro Habana buildings and the famous Vedado skyscrapers, including some emblematic hotels like Riviera, Habana Libre (ex-Hilton) and Cohiba. The trip will end at the 1830 restaurant by the mouth of the Almendares River, once watering to the Old Havana. By the way, you shall appreciate an impressive perspective of the Hotel Nacional from the coastline, a few seconds before witnessing the Star-Spangled Banner waving in front of the recently opened US-Embassy in Havana.
Visit Cabaret Tropicana… among the things to do in Havana
Don’t misplace your first night in Havana. Go to Cabaret Tropicana, a “paradise under the stars” as its non-hyperbolic slogan claims. Half a century ago the American Academy of Restaurants Industry gave Tropicana the “Best of the Best Five Star Diamond” price as the best cabaret in the Americas.
This is a place to eat, drink and watch a spectacular night-show from an outdoors pit surrounded by mangos and royal palms. Again, some gleaming American ghosts could be around like jazz-stars Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole, once prominent performers there. Located about 10 kilometers from downtown Havana, Cabaret Tropicana is always crowded, so you better find a reservation even before you get to Cuba.
Climb the tower at the Plaza de la Revolución
Plaza de la Revolución, ranked 31 among the greatest city squares in the world, was the epicenter of the massive concentrations during the harder days of the Cuban Revolution. Those times have passed and now this site is a patriotic museum, not much besides its 358 ft tower to go up just to see the whole city. There’s an elevator; don’t worry.
Dance at El Callejón de Hamel (Hamel Alley)
This is not one of the traditional things to do in Havana but it’s worth it. El Callejón de Hamel is a small square in the heart of Havana, garnished by colorful, naive murals painted over the not well-off surrounding buildings, where you can meet common Cuban people playing their favorite music: rumba and guagancó. Tiny family shops sell Santería stuff, Cuban art, and wooden statues. Just by midday every Sunday this place explodes to the rhythm of Afro-Cubans percussion instruments like bongos and cencerros (kind of cowbells), so be prepared to dance the rumba under the tropical sun. A very motivating environment prevails there, but be careful because some hustlers could be around, including pickpockets and sex workers, known as jineteras (females) and pingueros (male).
Cross the Bay and have a snack under the Cristo de La Habana
There is a tiny town in front of the big city: Casablanca. There you will find the Cristo de La Habana, a monumental Carrara-marble statue raising its 76 ft at the top of a hill. You can get there by means of a long, narrow flight-of-steps after crossing the bay in a boat known as Lanchita de Casablanca. It’s a tough trip for the elderly. The other way to reach the Cristo de La Habana is via a tunnel. A taxicab would be necessary then, notably easing the whole excursion.
Entering the Cristo de La Habana costs only 1 CUC and of course, it worth all the effort made to get there. That is just the higher point of the Bay, so the view is impressive. Snacks shops are not outstanding up there, but probably enough to have some needed bites.
Go to a Cuban Ballet function, an unforgettable farewell night
Last but not least among the things to do in Havana. The Gran Teatro de La Habana, an 1837 classic-rococo building, will be waiting for you. You are to appreciate the work of one of the best ballet company ever known, led by Alicia Alonso, fifth among the twelve conferee Ballerinas Assolutas in the world. She doesn’t dance anymore but still heads the company.
Not every Sunday the ballet performs, so you better take a look at their schedule to make it coincidental with your trip. Try to get a seat as soon as possible, even before your arrival. Some of the romantic classics usually performed by the Cuban Ballet are Giselle, The Swan Lake, Coppelia and Don Quixote, all of them at the company´s own versions.
A weekend is too little to know any city, but Havana would need a month to get up to date after half a century out of town. There are so many things to do in Havana… Anyway, by depriving some sleep you would do some. Please remember to take some cash with you, preferably CUC, since no American credit card is useful in Cuba yet, regardless of the easing financial policies by the US Government.
(TIP: Thinking of traveling to Cuba? Read our complete guide to planning a trip to Cuba)
So these are our ideas for the top 10 things to do in Havana in a weekend that will stay with you forever. What do you think about our list? Leave your comments below.