Havana is one of those cities that is too big to be called just big, too energetic and romantic and culturally monolithic to pin down. To get the full picture, you have to submerge yourself in Havana’s rich atmosphere, part salsa, part beach and part pink Cadillac. These can’t-miss Cuban activities are the place to start.
Tour the city in a classic car
You won’t get far in Havana without seeing a classic car whisk by. Shiny and coloured in every hue of the rainbow, these cars are kind of a signature here. To ride in one is a rite of passage. Often they’re called Taxi Particulars – or ‘private taxis’ – that’ll tour you around the city for a negotiated price between you and the driver. They can also be arranged in advance with special touring companies. And before you know it, you’ll be cruising in style.
Read a book where Hemingway penned classics
Hemingway and Havana did more than flirt a little – theirs was a downright romance. Hemingway lived with his wife Martha in Finca Vigia, a modest home in a Havana suburb just 15 minutes from the capital city. It’s where he wrote classics like The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Nowadays, much of the house is just as Hemingway left it in 1960 – it’s where you can see Hemingway’s library and the boat he bought for fishing expeditions.
Enjoy a show at the original Tropicana
Opened in the 1939 amid a grove of tropical gardens, the Tropicana has since exploded onto the cabaret scene and is now one of the most famous clubs of its type in the world. Those showgirls in elaborate sequinned costumes and high-flying feathers? The Tropicana basically invented that look. It was also the basis for Ricky Ricardo’s club in I Love Lucy, which bore the same name. Today the Tropicana is still going strong in all its over-the-top glory with cabaret shows and cocktails in its open-air salon.
Dine in the Plaza Vieja
The Plaza Vieja has been around – okay, it’s been an open space in which people congregated in – since the 16th century, when it was used for executions and fiestas which, back in those days, were basically the same thing. The architecture here is a mixed bag, with Art Nouveau and Baroque buildings sprinkled between one another, making way for bars and restaurants where you can grab a drink and watch the never-ending activity in Havana’s streets.
See the cannon fire from La Cabana at night
The stone fortress known as La Cabana was built in the 18th century to make up for the weaknesses of the nearby castle El Morro, both of which served as waterfront watch dogs guarding Havana. Both became part of a historical park whose attractions include bars, shops, a museum and restaurants, plus the all-popular cannon firing that takes place at La Cabana at 9pm every night. Featuring re-enactors in full 18th-century garb, the ceremony has taken place since the colonial era, and signals the gates of the city wall closing.
Marvel at the galleries in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
A mouthful, yes, but the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a museum showcasing art from the pros in Europe along with more than 600 pieces of ancient art from the likes of Egypt and way-old school Rome. The plot thickens just two blocks away at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – Arte Cubano – where the exhibits are purely Cuban artwork. Paired together, they’re a match made in heaven.
Salsa dance in a Cuban club
No, it’s not required that you hit the dance floor when spending an evening in a Cuban bar, but resisting the urge is going to be a serious struggle. The Cuban style of salsa dancing is known as ‘Casino’, which is a playful partner dance. You don’t need a partner or even a beat-keeping bone in your body to join in on the dancing – just an appreciation for the sultry sounds of Cuban Son music should do the trick.
Wander through the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon
We get that recommending a self-guided tour through an incredibly massive cemetery might be a little morbid, but the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon – the Christopher Columbus Cemetery – is a biggie. It’s one of the best historical cemeteries in the world, stacked high with marble arches, elaborately-sculpted memorials and mausoleums. These grounds are a who’s-who of Havana, as many famous Cubans are buried here.
Sip daiquiris in Floridita
The daiquiris at Floridita aren’t just your average cocktail. They’re full-blown legends. That’s what happens when Ernest Hemingway makes a habit out of visiting your cocktail bar – you gain a little bit of a reputation. Located on the corner of Obispo and Monserrate and lined with Hemingway memorabilia, Floridita is also a fish restaurant, but nothing quite beats the daiquiris, rumoured to be among the best in the world.
Walk along the Malecon
The Malecon is a seafront promenade that runs about seven kilometres from Old Havana to the Vedado neighbourhood. On one side you’ve got a stretch of buildings in styles like Art Deco, and on the other you’ve got stretches of water. It’s a legendary spot to see sunsets, and especially comes alive at night-time.
Wander through Fusterlandia
Fusterlandia is part living art gallery, part museum. Artist Jose Fuster was inspired by the wacky-but-gorgeous style of Antoni Gaudi’s works in Barcelona, and it shows. Fusterlandia is a neighbourhood Jose Fuster has decorated with colourful mosaics that coat everything from sculptures to bus benches and doctor’s offices. And the mosaics just keep on growing.
Lay out on the Playas del Este
Yes, even a city as cosmopolitan as Havana has its own beach. The sand is soft and white and the water is vibrant and blue, making it a classic little Caribbean number. As the main beach of a busy town, it can get crowded at times, but between the thatched umbrellas and palm trees, beach bars and sunloungers, you’ll find some space to call this patch of paradise home.
Stroll down the Paseo del Prado
The Paseo del Prado is a scenic street that divides Old Havana and Centro Havana. It was first designed in the 18th century, but a French landscape artist kitted it out with marble benches and a line of trees on either side to shield the walkway from the at-times brutal sun. It became a sought-out place for wealthy types to build their mega mansions, which can still be viewed while strolling along this shady oasis.
Ride in a tuk tuk
Because honestly, Cuba looks different from every angle, so it’s only natural to throw a tuk tuk excursion onto your list of Cuban modes of transportation. The tuk tuks in Havana range from your classic variety – rickshaw, open-air carts – to these strange-looking pods with rounded backs. They’re open on the sides and sometimes painted to look like yellow New York taxis.
Witness how Cubans make their famous cigars
Just as classic cars and rum are kind of Havana’s thing, so are Cuban cigars. You can not only buy them just about anywhere in this town, you can also get up close and personal and see how they’re made. Cigars in Cuba are made entirely by hand by a single person from start to finish. Partagas Factory is Havana’s most famous, but there are a number to choose from for the full experience.
Been to Havana? Let us know your favourite place in the comments.