Colourful, vibrant and full of life. Getting bored in the Cuban capital Havana is simply impossible. I’d dreamed about visiting Havana for years and needless to say, arriving in the lively capital my expectations where set pretty high. Yet somehow, I was still blown away by the magic of this city. Pastel coloured houses, the old American classic cars and that exciting feeling of being transported back through time. The old part of town, Habana vieja, is almost like a time capsule of the 1950’s! Here are eight things you can’t miss out on whilst visiting this city.
1. Have a daiquiri at Floridita
This place goes as far as to claim to be the cradle of the daiquiri. Whether true or not, Floridita is definitely worth visiting. This place has a certain old-fashioned ambience with the waiters wearing red aprons, 1950’s decor, occasional live music and a layer of Cuban cigar smoke so thick you could cut it with a knife.
A favourite of the famous author Ernest Hemingway back in the days, you’ll find a life-size statue of him at the end of the bar. Rumour has it he managed to stomach 13 of Floridita’s famously delicious daiquiris in one sitting. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can confirm that the daiquiris are treacherously tasty! Make sure to try out the banana snacks that you’ll usually get served with your cocktail, they’re addictive.
Photo: The restaurant Floridita serves delicious daiquiris and was a favourite of Hemingway’s. You’ll find it at the end of the popular street Calle Obispo in old Havana.
2. Soak up the feels of the streets
Before visiting Havana, I could never imagine that the streets of a city could be so full of life. In fact, if Havana would have its own motto I think it would be something like “Life is what happens in the streets”. Take a stroll around town and you’ll see what I mean.
Not only are there plenty of musicians, people dancing, vendors, kids playing football and other fairly common urban activities going on. But you’ll find that instead of hanging out inside their homes with the doors shut many locals will sit by their doorstep or on their balconies as if keen to not miss out on anything going on in their alley. Consequently, the streets are never quiet and you’ll always find something interesting to listen to or look at.
3. Visit the Museum of the Revolution in old Havana
While staying in Havana, a visit to the Museo de la Revolución (the Museum of the Revolution) in old Havana is a must – especially if you’re even slightly interested in Cuba’s fascinating and rich history. Here you’ll get to know the revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos and learn about the events leading up to Fidel Castro’s rise to power. You’ll also get to see lots of memorabilia from important historical events, like the Cuban missile crisis.
The building in which the museum resides is also interesting. This used to be the presidential palace of the increasingly corrupt Cuban presidents, culminating with Fulgencio Batista. There’s a beautiful staircase where you can still see bullet holes from an unsuccessful assassination attempt.
For me, the most interesting part of visiting the museum was the amount of propaganda that pervaded all areas of the museum. The USA was blamed for more or less everything bad that had ever happened in Cuba. I found it fascinating how in some parts of the world, where the level of state control is high, rewriting history according to your own agenda is still possible.
Travel tip: part of the information in the museum is available only in Spanish. Bring your dictionary!
4. Ride in an old-fashioned American classic car
The American classics, or carros americanos as they are called here, are certainly one of the things Cuba is most famous for. It’s impossible to visit Havana without seeing these cars – in fact you’ll be seeing so many of them you’ll almost start forgetting what modern cars even look like. Buicks, Cadillacs and Chevrolets in all imaginable colours can be spotted in every corner.
A local told me the cars are extremely treasured possessions for most Cubans. They are treated as family members and are passed on from generation to generation.
Instead of taking a regular taxi for transportation, make sure to try out riding in one of these classics. You’ll find the streets full of people offering to drive around tourists in these beautiful old-fashioned cars. Pick your favourite car, negotiate a fee, then jump in!
5. Drink mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio
Another one of Hemingway’s favourites, this bar serves some of the best mojitos you’ll have in Cuba! This is even claimed to be the birthplace of the famous minty cocktail. Be that as it may, the mojitos are definitely worth trying.
We also tried another local speciality, moros y cristianos here. It’s a rice dish with a black beans. Not the best food I’ve ever had, but fun to try out.
6. Have dinner at La Guarida in Havana
There are countries where every single meal you eat surpasses the last. Cuba is known for many things, but mind-blowing culinary experiences isn’t one of them. This is partly due to import restrictions and the scarcity of many products. So when it comes to food in Havana, there will be both pleasant surprises and big disappointments.
However, there is one restaurant in Havana that is so great one could even plan a trip to Cuba just to visit this place! Every foodie visiting Havana should make sure to book a table and have dinner at La Guarida. We had some absolutely amazing food and simply had to come back for another dinner at this place, culinary heaven!
7. Take a stroll along the seaside esplanade Malecón
You can’t visit Havana and miss out on the beautiful promenade right next to the sea. Covering a distance of 8 kilometres, there’s a lot to see along the way. Check out the pelicans perched on the edge of tiny wooden boats bopping in the bay. Admire the beautiful El Morro fortress. Watch fishermen, locals and tourist pass by.
Photo: Walking along Malecón you’ll pass the legendary Hotel Nacional. Among many other famous people Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill have stayed here back in the days.
8. Check out the old town square Plaza Vieja
The old town square in Havana, called Plaza Vieja, is a must-see while visiting Havana. There might be lots of other areas in Havana with beautiful Colonial architecture as well, but sadly a lot of the buildings are in fairly rough shape and in desperate need of restoration. Since Plaza Vieja has recently been fully restored this is without a doubt the best location to really appreciate the architectural beauty dating back to the 16th century. For comparison purposes you’ll find many old black and white photos on the walls of the buildings picturing what the square looked like before.
However, Plaza Vieja isn’t just for architecture enthusiasts. This is a great place to have both coffee and beer, sit outside and just soak up the atmosphere of the lively square. There’s plenty of nice cafés to chose from, try Café El Escorial for example – the coffee was so good I had to buy some to take home with me. Plaza Vieja is also home to an excellent microbrewery called La Factoria Plaza Vieja.
Contrary to many other old town squares in the tourist capitals of the world, Plaza Vieja still remains a place for locals as well. This is greatly due to the fact that there’s a primary school located here. If you’re lucky you’ll witness kids playing outside, parents picking up their children from school and other day-to-day activities.
Photo: Checking out Plaza Vieja in old Havana. The square hosts a splendid melange of buildings representing both Cuban baroque and Art Nouveu.
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