3 days in magical Havana, Cuba

Travel tips for a visit of the Cuban capital

Vintage car in Havana, Cuba

The melody of Guantanamera fills the streets, smoke evaporates from cigars and exhaust pipes of 1954 Chevys and rusty Cadillacs, all while a laughing group of young people stand in line to buy fresh credit for their illegally imported smartphones.

Street scene in Havana CubaStreet scene in Havana CUBA

Streets of Havana Cuba

It’s a normal street scene in Havana and we try to soak it all in on our first day in the Cuban capital. We don’t want to imagine that all this is about to change in the next years…!?

Kids play in the streets in Havana CubaA dog stands in a street in Havana Cuba

Street scene in Havana Cuba

Will the vintage cars disappear? Will the now untouched streets suddenly be filled with billboards and other advertisements for US products? Will the gentrification process start in Havana Vieja and evict all the people that now live in the run down buildings, that seem to crumble and fall down eventually?  Will McDonald’s and Starbucks start spreading like a virus?

Street scene in Havana Cuba

This is a normal street in the city center of Havana – no shops, no billboards, no Starbucks or McDonald’s

When you talk to Cubans they seem rather relaxed about the changes we fear for the island. They don’t believe that this could even happen to their home country, that was so safe from outside influences for so long. Maybe Cubans can’t even begin to grasp how American or European cities look like and have changed over the past decades. While we are used to city centres being cleaned up “dead zones”, that are mostly used for business and tourism, Cubans don’t fear for that to happen.

Street scene in Havana CubaGirl dressed in white standing in street in Havana CubaFresh fruit stand in Havana Cuba

Everyone we ask seems to be quite confident that Cuba will become even more independent, although the gates to the US have been opened slightly. They believe in their self-sufficiency, which they had to perfect due to the lack of imports and business opportunities since the 1960s.

A girl and a boy in Havana CubaVintage car in Havana CubaStreets of Havana Cuba

But we do see how their eyes begin to lighten up when they get to talk about how things used to be before the embargo. Proudly our taxi driver shows us pictures from Havana before the embargo – a city like any other back in those days. Huge Coca Cola signs adorned the glorious buildings, everything was shiny and new.

Those were they good days… weren’t they?

A man smoking a cigar in Havana CubaA vintage car in Havana CubaStreets of Havana Cuba

It’s hard to reason with these emotions. What we see as charming, beautiful and incredibly photogenic, is indeed a struggle for Cubans in their everyday life. Standing in line for the most basic things like sugar and oil is just unimaginable for us. So all that change that we fear for, might actually be a welcomed progression for Cubans.

“Let’s hope that positive change is coming for Cuba, but that they keep what is their true soul!”

Vintage car in Havana CubaWorkers dressed in blue walk by a blue door in Havana CubaA pink vintage car parks in Havana Cuba

And now some practical tips, when it comes to traveling to Havana.

How to get there

Getting to Havana is pretty easy – there are many direct flight connections from all over the world. Now with the US embargo lifted there’s also direct flights from many US cities, that are rather cheap.

When we looked for flights from Miami to Havana we found tickets for under 100 dollars! In the end we managed to book a flight ticket for 120 dollars traveling to Havana from Cancún, where we stayed before.

?‍? Our tip:
If you’re coming from Europe, you could combine a Cuba visit with a US trip now!

Cuban flag next to American Flag

Cuba is moving closer to the US again

What to see & do in 3 days in Havana

The best thing to do in Havana, is to spend the days (and nights) in the streets. If one city deserves all your attention on the streets, it’s Havana! The combination of the impressive architecture, vintage cars everywhere and people in the streets makes Havana unique.

We’ve never seen a city center that felt so alive and energetic as the old town of Havana.

Street scene in Havana CubaVintage car in Havana CubaVintage car at Parque Central Havana Cuba

Start your discovery here at Parque Central! This is the perfect entrance to the old town called Havana Vieja.

Take half a day to discover all the small alleys of Havana Vieja and stop at the countless Plazas (Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, etc.).

Street of Havana vieja CubaApple store in Havana Vieja CubaA Cat in a café in Havana Vieja Cuba

Marvel at the architecture of the Capitol and the “Gran Teatro de Alicia Alonso”, named after Cuba’s most famous prima ballerina, from the rooftop of Iberostar Parque Central hotel.

Smoke over Havana Cuba at sunrise

The views from the rooftop of the hotel are ever-changing – smoke rising up at the early morning, magic light at dawn and even at night it’s quite spectacular.

?‍? Our tip:
If you’re not staying at the hotel, visit the rooftop for a cocktail in the late afternoon and hang out until the sun sets.

Rooftop café of Iberostar Parque Central Havana Cuba

Directly in front of the hotel you can also book a tour with a vintage car. This costs about 35 CUC (the currency for tourists, which is more or less equal to the dollar) for 1 hour. Make sure to book a tour in a convertible for the original feeling!

Vintage car tour through Havana CubaVintage car tour through Havana CubaVintage car ride in Havana Cuba

The driver will show you a few of the classic sights of Havana, but after all it’s more about the feeling of riding one of those vintage cars – in our case a 1954 Chevrolet.

Detail of a 1954 Chevy in Havana Cuba

Your driver will definitely make a tour stop at Plaza de la Revolucion and proudly show you their icons – revolutionary figures Che Guevara and his companions.

Plaza de la Revolucion Havana Cuba

Another must see is the Malecón ocean drive. This broad street, that spans a couple of miles alongside the seawall, is a popular hang out spot in the afternoon. Here you’ll get incredible views of the ocean while countless vintage cars are passing by.

When we visited it was quite windy and the tidal waves crushed against the walls of the Malecón. The whole street was flooded and was closed for traffic soon after this picture – and for the rest of our stay (a couple of days). The flooding was one of the heaviest in recent years and quite spectacular to watch! Even the locals gathered to watch the spectacle.

Malecon Havana Cuba

The next day you should check out the Centro Habana and Vedado districts, which span to the west from Parque Central. This area of the city is a little less popular with tourists, but equally interesting.

View of Centro Habana from the rooftop of Iberostar Hotel Parque Central Havana CubaCentro Habana district in Havana CubaCentro Habana district in Havana Cuba

In this neighbourhood you can also find some examples of less classical architecture, that makes a great contrast. There’s even some brutalism in this area of Havana!

Architecture in Centro Habana district in Havana CubaCentro Habana district in Havana CubaView of Centro Habana from the rooftop of Iberostar Hotel Parque Central Havana Cuba

The view from the rooftop of Iberostar Parque Central over Centro Habana

When you end up at Malecón in the evening and are too tired to walk all the way back to your hotel, make sure to ride in a Taxi Colectivo. These shared taxis are used by locals all the time – just stand at the corner of the street with everyone else! (But: Try to find out first on which street side you have to stand to get the cars that drive in the right direction.) This way you get to ride a vintage car for just 1 or 2 dollars (depending on your negotiation skills).

A Colectivo at the bus terminal in Havana Cuba

Bus terminals are the main Colectivo destination – from here you can pick up one easily

Where to go on a day trip from Havana

On Day 3 we decided to leave Havana for a day trip to Viñales, the area of tobacco fields and the famous dome-like hills called mogotes. We’ll share more about that in an upcoming blogpost, but let’s say one thing: It’s a must do when visiting Cuba and really worth the (rather expensive) trip!

Mogotes in Vinales in Cuba

Preview of the Mogotes in Viñales

Where to eat in Havana

As you might have already guessed, we’re both vegetarians, therefore we cannot always taste everything that the local cuisine has to offer. This is especially true for Cuba, as there’s a lot of fish and pork in their diet. So here’s where we went for some vegetarian dishes:

304 O’Reilly
This place is quite famous with tourists (our guess is that they pay a lot of commission to hotel Concierges and locals who recommend their restaurant). Our verdict: Nice atmosphere, amazing drinks, mediocre food. Go there for a cocktail! Our check was 20 CUC for 2 people, so it’s not too expensive!

O'Reilly Restaurant in Havana CubaO'Reilly Havana CubaO'Reilly in Havana Cuba

Casa Miglis
This restaurant is supposedly Swedish-Cuban, but we had a proper Italian lunch there. Everywhere in Cuba there’s Italian food, they love Pizza and Bruschetta. But you can also get a very good Gazpacho here. Our verdict: Beautiful place, very good food, a bit pricey. We paid 50 CUC for 2 people, but also had dessert. Definitely check the banana surprise made with local honey – it’s divine!

Casa Miglis Havana CubaCasa Miglis Havana CubaCasa Miglis Havana CubaCasa Miglis Havana CubaOutside of Casa Miglis Havana Cuba

Our highlight was the view from the restaurant’s window: Everyone plays domino in Cuba in the streets

Other restaurant options include:

  • La Guarida: 418 Concordia, La Habana, Cuba (Make sure to book a table well in advance, it’s super overbooked, although it’s quite expensive)
  • El Cocinero: Calle 26 entre 11 y 13, Vedado, La Habana, Cuba (do this for dinner and then go to the art space next door – we heard it’s supposed to be great!)

Where to stay in Havana

Almost everyone who visits Havana stays in a Casa Particular – one of the private rentals. Now that Airbnb has been opened for Cuba it’s even easier to find a nice homestay there. We didn’t get to test this, as we stayed in a hotel – mainly for one reason: Wifi!

Hotels are amongst the only places you’ll get decent internet in Havana. At the Iberostar Parque Central we even got free internet, which is the purest form of luxury in Cuba 😉 As we needed to work and be able to upload photos + videos this was a key ingredient for us! Make sure to read ou blogpost about the hotel Parque Central, so you can decide for yourself.

Rooftop of Iberostar Parque Central Hotel in Havana CubaPart of our Suite at Iberostar Parque Central Hotel in Havana CubaPart of our Suite at Iberostar Parque Central Hotel in Havana Cuba

Everything you can see in this hotel room cannot be taken for granted when in Cuba. Due to the embargo it was a challenge to furnish hotels with everything we are used to as guests: Wifi, Air Conditioning, TVs, etc. – but all this is made our stay in Havana quite comfortable 😉

View from the rooftop of Iberostar Parque Central Havana

This view from our hotel rooftop at sunrise was quite a highlight as well!

So before we let you off the hook, here are a couple more impressions from Cuba’s capital Havana. We really hope that the inevitable change, that’s coming, won’t damage the beauty of this city!

Streets of Havana Cuba

Centro Habana district in Havana CubaVintage cars in Havana CubaStreet scene in Havana CubaRide in a Taxi Colectivo in HavanaVintage Car in Havana Cuba

After our days in Havana we moved on to Varadero and later on to Trinidad to discover more of the island’s diversity. So stay tuned for more Cuba blogposts soon here!

Disclaimer: We were invited to stay at Iberostar Parque Central, but our views of the hotel stay independent from that invitation.