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Havana. Although it certainly isn’t Cuba’s only city, Havana is arguably the most popular. Havana is the capital city, is a major cruise ship docking port, and receives the most international air traffic in the country! But…what exactly is there to do in Havana? Is it worth more than just a day stop on a cruise, or is it worthy of its own vacation?
WELL, lucky for you I’ve got the answers!
Before we start off, I am a citizen of the USA. If you have any questions about visiting Cuba (YES – it is legal. And YES – you will need a visa), then check out this post for more answers on getting to Cuba from the United States of America. But yanno, once you get INTO Cuba, it’s all smooth sailings man!
During my entire Cuba trip, I spent 7 days in Havana: the first 5 days, then I toured a few other cities in Cuba, then ended my last two days in Havana. So, I have a decent feel for things, mostly from learning the hard way. This is primarily a guide to Havana specifically, but since it is such a big Cuba tourist destination, I will also be throwing in some general travel tips for Cuba.
That said, Cuba is a very unique place to travel so I’ll be referencing a few of my friends’ articles to help supplement within this post! Kk – so let’s get started!
How to Budget
Oh boy, where to begin on the money talk? WELL, maybe with the currency.
A Tale of Two Currencies
To start – Cuba has two currencies. CUC and CUP. CUC is the peso convertible, and it’s pronounced “cuuk,” with the uu making the long oo- sound. The second is CUP, or peso nacional.
Since I am an American, I’m going to use the USD as a conversion.
1 USD = 1 CUC = 25 CUP.
So why are there two currencies? Well, it has to do with the economy and the finances of the local Cubans. CUP is -misleadingly- referred to as the “local’s currency,” as many locals use it to buy groceries and shop and whatnot. The average Cuban maybe makes around 10 CUC a month, for reference.
Tourists can use CUP as well if they WANT. However, I personally never had to. When you exchange your money, it will be in CUC. If you eat at a restaurant or large store, your change will be in CUC. When you take a tour or ride in a taxi, your change will be in CUC. If you come across CUP, it will likely be at a tiny street vendor stand.
Sometimes, stores might show a dual price, both CUC and CUP. Or a stand might just show “13” for a lemon or something. They mean CUP. I don’t think anywhere in the world sells a lemon for the equivalent of 13 USD. Well, maybe Iceland. But I digress.
The two currencies look very similar, but CUP will have the word PESOS on them.
Cash is King
Cuba is a cash country. Point blank period. Stores are not going to take debit or credit. Neither are restaurants. Or tour guides. ATMs to withdraw cash are only in major cities, and VERY FEW and far between. If you’re American, your debit/credit card will not work at ALL. So save yourself the headache, regardless of nationality, and bring cash.
But where to exchange it? If you are American or Australian, exchange your USD and AUD IN YOUR HOME COUNTRY. You can’t exchange to CUC stateside (or in Australia), but if you are American, exchange into either Mexican Pesos or Euros. Literally, it doesn’t matter, the conversion ultimately to CUC will be the exact same. Then, when you arrive in Cuba, exchange your Pesos/Euros into CUC. Why? Because if you wait and exchange USD IN Cuba, there will be a ~10% tax. So avoid that at all costs, no pun intended.
If you are Australian, well, the explanation is much simpler. Cuba won’t accept AUD. For Australians, I would recommend exchanging to GBP first, then to CUC when you get to Cuba. But I am not an expert on Australian currency, unfortunately – that’s just what my Australian friends did.
Alright, now that you are in Cuba – WHERE to exchange to CUC? Well, you have a few options. The airport or the bank. The bank will have a sliiightly better rate, but the lines in Havana are HORRIBLE. I personally did it at the airport to save time and energy. But yanno, pick your poison.
Before you leave, make sure to exchange your CUC BACK to whatever currency (pesos/euros/pounds/whatever). Again, at the bank or at the airport. If you only have a few CUC left, you can slyly exchange your remaining CUC with arriving travelers at the airport to get a perfect 1:1. Just don’t let anyone official see you.
Okay, now that we covered the currency, let’s talk budget. HOW MUCH TO BRING?? Well, 1 USD is essentially 1 CUC. Cuba prices, in general, are about on par with large American cities. So however long you are staying, budget as if you were traveling to Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York.
You should eat breakfast at your casa, which I will explain more later, and those are usually 5 CUC per person. For lunch, expect to pay between 8-15 CUC per person. Dinner, depending on location, can be between 15-35 CUC. Luckily, the drinks aren’t New York City prices – expect about 4 CUC for cocktails and wine, 2 CUC for beers, and soda and juices were about 1.5 CUC. I don’t eat cheap, so I budgeted 90ish CUC for 2 people a day in food.
Excursions can vary. That is why I tried to book most of mine online ahead of time, either with Airbnb (where I could pay with my card!) or asking the tour guide for pricing so I could set aside enough cash.
I mostly walked in Havana, and saved taxi rides for trips across the city, which ran me about 15 CUC one way. To be safe, 30 CUC a day in transportation because I am notorious for being lazy.
I am also a merciless shopper. I love shopping. ESPECIALLY LOCAL ART. Prices are incredibly variable for local artisans. But as a general estimate, here are the prices of things I bought. A lot of small-medium size artwork ranged around the 30 CUC mark. Magnets and little trinkets were between 5-10 CUC.
It total, A VERY COMFORTABLE budget (so with more upscale accommodations, lots of trips and excursions and eating 30+ CUC dinners every other night) was 1500 CUC for 2 people for 2 weeks. Since it was my Valentine’s Day gift, I splurged a ton. BUT if I was estimating my normal (comfortable) spending costs on vacation, I would have budgeted 80 CUC a day, including the casa. But maybe I have expensive vacations, idk man. Just expect how you would pay in any major city I guess?
Where to Stay
During both of my stays in Havana, I stayed in a Casa Particular. In fact, in ALL the cities in Cuba, I stayed in a casa particular. Basically, they are like home stays. For most casas, you rent a private room in a local’s house.
I recommend staying in a casa because 1) you are supporting the Cuban people. Yes, hosts working in the casa business still pay high taxes to the government, but at least they are directly benefiting from some of that money. If you stay in a hotel, they don’t. 2) Staying in a casa will ensure you get THE BEST BREAKFAST on the island. Literally, like, don’t even eat breakfast outside of your casa. Best of all, it’s about 5cuc a person. Where else you gonna find that kind of quality with that price point?? Exactly bruh.
So where can you find these amazing casas? WELL, lemme give you the scoop.
Nowadays, it’s as easy as booking on Airbnb! Cuba has been doing the room-share thing before it was even an app in America, but Airbnb make things easier for planning. Because I’m a luxe broke-boujee traveler, my first 5 nights were spent in a super nice Airbnb. This is literally the perfect Havana Airbnb. Well…as perfect as they get anyway. And only $50 USD a night!
If it’s your first time using Airbnb, you can use my link to get $40 off your first home booking and $15 towards your first experience!
It is an ENTIRE private apartment in Old Havana. Great location, the bed was comfortable, the hosts are amazing, and – get this – there is WiFi IN THE APARTMENT. More on that later, but trust me, it’s a luxury. (You still need a WiFi card though!). That said, the apartment is on the 4th floor of an old building. There is AC, but no elevator and it is unfortunately not wheelchair accessible. In fact, a lot of places in Havana (and Cuba in general) are not wheelchair friendly.
There are some cheaper options in Havana though! And even more expensive too! Literally everything from luxe to real simple! Sometimes, however, because Cuba is Cuba, there might be a mix-up or two in the booking. I’ve heard stories from friends who booked one room, but ended up with something completely different. Or places get double booked. Or the address turned out not to be a casa at all. I’ve even heard of amenities being listed that weren’t actually accurate. This wasn’t my experience, but just giving you the scoop.
My advice: READ THE REVIEWS!
My friend Cassandra wrote a really great article giving more tips on booking Airbnbs in Cuba.
One thing to note though – you cannot book Airbnb WHILE IN CUBA, so make sure you book all of your rooms ahead of time. I learned that one the hard way….
What to eat
I wrote a WHOLLLE blog post on the best restaurants in Cuba, including places in Havana! To answer the age old MYTH – no, not all food in Cuba is terrible. In that post, I cover more deeply some of the factors that created this myth, as well as why some people consider the food bland.
Hint – they were eating at government owned food establishments.
My advice, eat at privately owned restaurants, known as paladars. 1) because again, you’re supporting the Cuban people! 2) the food is bomb. My post on the best restaurants in Cuba also details how to determine whether a restaurant is government or privately owned, so you can make decisions on the fly!
BUT, if you don’t have time to peep it right at this second (save it for later!!), then here’s a quick list of some great food options in Havana.
- La Guarida – $$$. V, VE, GF
- Otramaneralahabana – $$$. V, VE
- Habana Mia 7 – $$$. V, VE
- Paladar Los Mercaderes – $$$ (this was my favorite more-expensive restaurant)
- Casa Mia Paladar – $$
- Restaurante Paladar Decameron – $$. V
- Mas Havana – $$. V
- La Esquina de Cuba – $$. V
- San Juan Bar & Grill – $$
- Mojito-Mojito – $$
- Somos Cuba Restaurant – $
- Oasis Nelva – $
- El Cafe – $
- Los Tres Chinitos – $
- Mambo – $
- Sloppy Joe Bar – $. I KNOW, its v obviously government owned, but its soooo gooood I am too weak. Also! They are the ORIGINAL creators of the sloppy joe sandwich.
What to do
Oh yessss, the bread and butter of any travel guide, eh? Well, there’s actually A TON to do in Havana! I’ll start with the basics and work my way to the more out of the box options!
You could literally spend days JUST photographing the town. I’m not so much a street photographer, so I personally didn’t do a lot of this, but if you like photography some of the classic Havana shots are :
- Callejon de Hamel
- Old Havana
- Bacardi Building
- El Floridita (Hemingway’s favorite mojito bar)
- Fábrica de Arte Cubano
- La Guarida
- El Malecón
- El Christo
- Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas
- El Capitolio (those four colorful buildings in Havana are across the street! 2 in 1!)
- Gran Teatro
- Catedral de La Habana
- Colon Cemetery
- Cuba Sign at Hotel Nacional
- La Catedral de la Virgen María (this square of the houses of the 4 richest families in Cuba!!)
- Museo de la Revolucion
- Revolution Plaza
If I were a good photographer, I would have gone to all of these places and remembered to take pictures. But alas – I am not. Whoops.
Classic Car Ride
It’s a Havana staple. Depending on what you want, you can ride around Havana in a colorful classic American car, usually between 20cuc-40cuc! It’s a nice break from walking and you can enjoy the breeze in your hair as you fly down the street and learn a bit of background on the city! My car ride was about 45 minutes I think, and I paid 25cuc for 2 people! Our guide was not very talkative, but that was fine for me.
Make sure you put on sunscreen though, because that Cuban sun is no joke! Or, if you’re short or time (or hate car rides), you can just give the car owner a CUC or two for a photo op! They’ll let you pose with their car and you can use the rest of your time to eat sloppy joes. Everybody wins.
Go Museum Hopping
This is something I didn’t do because…well, truthfully my first 3 days in Havana were pretty miserable because I was recovering from the flu. So, I didn’t really feel like reading plaques. In fact, I didn’t go to any museums while in Havana. I know. Tragic. BUT, if you love museums, here are a few that are worth your time! Or so I hear…
- Museum of the Revolution
- Napoleon Museum
- The National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana
- The Havana Club Museum of Rum
- City Museum of Havana
- The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (very pretty courtyard!)
See a Show
If you’re in the mood to just sit and watch something happen for a change, you’re in luck! Havana has some great performances! I had tickets to go to the Tropicana cabaret show, but…yanno…I had the flu and all. BUT – it’s very iconic Havana entertainment. It’s pretty pricey, about 80-90 CUC, and that’s not including dinner. But! It does include a cigar, some drinks, and a light snack (nuts I think). You can book online, which I did, or you can get them at the entrance (I’ve been told they don’t sell out because it’s such a huge venue).
A show that includes dinner would be the Buena Vista Social Club. It has a 50s music vibe and is also a bit cheaper at 50 CUC. HIGHLYYY recommend if you’ve watched the movie Buena Vista Social Club!
On that note, click here for my list of Cuban movies to watch before your trip!
The least pricey cabaret show, and also happens to be considered the 2nd best, is the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacionale. At 35 CUC, you get two drinks! The venue is smaller than the Tropicana and you can get tickets at the box office. I’ve heard that if they are fully booked, you can check just before the show in case of cancellations.
And of course, there’s the famous Cuban ballet. Don’t believe me? You can watch world renown dancers and members of the Cuban National Ballet at the Gran Teatro de La Habana! Grab tickets at the box office! I would also recommend Habana Compas Dance for young upbeat fun, and Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba to witness a blend of dances (that represent the blended Cuban culture) to the beat of Spanish and Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Did all those shows get you in the mood to dance? WELL GOOD! My friend, and local Cuban blogger, Mari wrote an AMAZING post detailing all the best nightlife in Havana. I truly can’t write it any better than her, so please go check that out!
Another way to get your dancing is to take a salsa class! Technically, “Cuban Salsa” is called Casino! If you just walk around town, you might see signs advertising Casino classes! That’s how I got my first lesson! A lot of bars have regular Casino classes on specific days of the week! When in doubt, just ask your casa host. They 100% will hook you up.
Go to the Beach
-each, let’s go get away.
It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t throw at least ONE Nicki Minaj lyric in there haha.
But yeah, go to the beach! I’ll just list some of the most popular ones in a bullet because….it’s a beach. I don’t think it needs MUCH explanation.
- Santa María del Mar : arguably the best for tourist since it has the easiest setup, which also means it’s busy. Arrive before noon if you want to rent chairs and umbrellas. Lots of restaurants and stores, but also some small stands and beach vendors.
- Boca Ciega : sliiiiightly less busy than Santa María del Mar, but also has a few casas if you want to stay beachside.
- Bacuranao : also busy, but a big majority with local Cubans from the city and the Havana suburb of Alamar.
- Guanabo : also popular with locals, but less busy than Bacuranao.
- Tarará : it’s beautiful, and imo the most beautiful near Havana.
- Brisas del Mar : has shallow waters and grassy fields nearby
- La Veneciana : VERY low key, maybe a couple of other people here and there. Not the prettiest, but relaxing
There are a handful of ways to get to the beach. The easiest – and fastest – would be to go in a taxi. It is also the most expensive, but at least you know you won’t get lost. Most of the beaches are within 20-30 minutes of Centro Habana, and depending on your haggling, around 20-35 CUC. If you’re traveling with other people, that’s pretty good! If you don’t speak Spanish well enough to negotiate a price (or…at all), then you can ask your casa host or even pop into a hotel to get one.
Buuutttt if you’re traveling solo or if it’s just a bit too much for your budget, consider taking a taxi colectivo. Basically, it’s just a shared taxi that you can hop in and it cuts the price to like a third. Buuut, it’s more of a set route and once the sun sets, it’s harder to snag a spot for yourself. You can ask your host for some pick up spots!
Similarily….there’s always the bus. I personally did not take a bus while in Cuba, but it’s an option. However, I know that Santa Maria del Mar is a stop on the hop on/hop off bus route that’s about 5 CUC, and you have unlimited uses for the day. There a few bus routes that head to beach, but they looked SO PACKED that I wouldn’t even want to try. But – if you reallyyyy want to, I recommend asking your casa host for the correct bus line!
Er – and you COULD TECHNICALLY rent a car, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Renting is a hassle, it’s expensive, gas is expensive, and if you get into an accident or break a road law, you can be kept in the country until the matter is resolved. SO – just take a taxi or public transport.
If you’re looking for a fantastic beach getaway outside of Havana, I recommend visiting the city of Varadero for a day or two!
Peep the Art Scene
One of my favorite things to do in the city is check out the art. Aside from architecture and the art museum though, there isn’t much in the way of street art. At least in the traditional wall murals and pop art sculptures. But there is one magical place I want everyone to know about!
Fusterlandia! I wrote an entire blog post about why everyone should visit Fusterlandia – but here’s the shortened version. Fusterlandia is like an artist’s playground! One artist transformed his home into a functional art piece! It’s pretty amazing!
Another one, which I mentioned above in the photo section : Callejon de Hamel. It is one of the few places in Havana with murals and street art. And also, go to the Cuban Art Factory. Aka Fabrica de Arte Cubano. Aka – A REALLY FREAKING GOOD TIME. It’s basically like if an art gallery and a nightclub had a baby. It’s amazing.
By far my favorite thing to recommend is just hanging out and learning more about Cuba from real interactions. If you speak Spanish, it’s a lot easier. You can go to a bar and just start chatting, or grab a fun dance partner at a lounge, or…basically anything.
But if you’re like me and absolutely hate talking with strangers, then Airbnb Experiences are a great alternative! Plus, you can pay in advance on a credit card instead of carrying around more cash. Plus, if you don’t speak Spanish, most are also offered in English! There are literally SO MANYY EXPERIENCES in Cuba. Havana alone might even have the most out of any city listed on Airbnb! So to make your life easier, I’ll list a few that either I’ve taken or that my friends highly recommend. Plus – these all SUPPORT THE CUBAN PEOPLE
- Learn to play Dominoes
- Afro-Cuban culture experience
- Economy and society discussion
- Behind the scenes in LGBTIQ+ Havana
- Chinatown and Asian influence in Cuba
- History walk
- Volunteer at an animal shelter
If it’s your first time using Airbnb, you can use my link to get $40 off your first home booking and $15 towards your first experience!
My favorite experience that I did was the last one mentioned – the bike expedition. It’s a LONNG bike ride, so you’ll need a bit of stamina, but there are plenty of rest stops and the guide is great about reading the group!
If you’re not into planning your own activities, then consider going on a tour!
My friend Cassandra, referenced a few times throughout this piece, from EscapingNY offers a 7-day tour of Cuba! It involves all the cool things to do in Havana, as well as fun adventures in the countryside! She also does a lot to give back to the local Cuban community. If you are an active person, you will absolutely love her tour! Or on the flipside, if you just need some tips or help planning your own non-touristy trip to Cuba, she can help with that as well!
If you would rather not do a guided tour for your entire trip, then check out my friend Mari’s half-day and full-day Havana tours. Mari is very passionate about showing the realities of her home, but there is also a lot of beauty to be shared. Plus, she knows ALL the best Instagram spots! She has a few different itineraries available!
Also – I’m not getting any money from promoting these specific tours or experiences. I am just really confident you will have a great time!
How to get wifi
This is probably the MOST asked question I get about Cuba.
Short answer: Yes, there is WiFi.
Long answer: You have to pay for it and it’s slow.
Cassandra sums it up really well in her post about Cuban WiFi, but I’ll give you the main points. To access the WiFi, you will need a WiFi card, aka an ETECSA card. You can buy them from the ETECSA office for 1 CUC for 1 hour of internet. At least that was the price when I was there in 2018. Your casa hosts might also offer to get them for you, but charge 2 CUC. In my opinion, it’s worth it. The line at the ETECSA offices can be long, especially in Havana.
Cards can also bought on the street from people selling them for 2 CUC. Just make sure the code on the back isn’t scratched off and you should be good to go!
Now as far as connecting to the WiFi, you will have to find a hotspot. Generally, these are in very public places like parks and squares. But, if you ever see five or more people leaned against the wall on their phones, it’s probably a hotspot.
Recently (2019), Cuba just legalized private WiFi and the importation of routers! So, who knows what it will be like in the future!
Not all apps will work in Cuba. ESPECIALLY any banking apps, money sending (Venmo/Paypal), or stock trading. But your standard messaging apps will : WhatsApp, FB messenger…whatever else there is these days. Instagram and Facebook also work! Apps that I absolutely recommend are Google Translate (if your Spanish is iffy – or non existent), and Google Maps. DOWNLOAD A MAP OF HAVANA (heck, the whole island!) so that you can get around sans WiFi.
Supporting the Cuban People
So I listed a few ways to support the Cuban people, like doing local tours, staying in a casa, eating at privately owned restaurants (paladars), and buying from artisans. But, if you are more of a gift giving person, that can work out too! Leave some room in your suitcase for donate-able items.
Some super easy items would be (and in good condition):
- school supplies
- vitamins/OTC medications
- toilet paper
Here’s an entire list that Mari wrote if you would like to leave behind some items to help out the Cuban community. One thing to note though: don’t bring too many of the same item. Like 15 deodorant sticks or 26 bottles of mustard. The government will think you are trying to black market sell it or something and you will get detained. Keep it varied!
You could leave them with your casa host, but let’s be real, people who have homeshares generally are a bit more well off financially than the rest of their community. Many people in Cuba, especially in the countryside, do not have families or friends that live off of the island that can help support them and their businesses.
Cassandra has some fantastic tips on where to donate your items, and it is something she always works into her group tours.
“Don’t go out of your way to take old, crappy junk that you don’t want to Cuba and think you’re saving the world, but recognize how much we take our possessions for granted and think about the new life that someone could give the items collecting dust in your closet or basement.
When traveling between cities in shared colectivo cars, I ask the driver to pull over as we pass through small towns so I can give bags of clothes and Tupperware to families of modest means. This may not work in tour buses, but colectivo and taxi drivers are happy to comply since they appreciate tourists supporting their paisanos (countrymen/brothers).Cassandra, EscapingNY – How to Pack for Cuba
Havana in a Nutshell!
Wow, that was a long one! But hopefully I covered all of the basics of traveling within Cuba and had some great ideas for your time in Havana! If you want to see cities outside of Havana, I also have travel guides for Viñales and Varadero. For you readers out there, I made a list of my favorite novels by Cuban authors!
Thank you Mari and Cassandra for all the supplemental information in this post! You can check them out on Instagram at @mimaincuba and @escapingny, respectively.
Cuba is definitely is a fun destination, but whatever you do, don’t be one of those people who say things like:
“It’s so cute! It’s like it’s stuck in the 1950s!”
“You have to visit before it changes!”
“I hate how popular it has become. So overrated now.”
“Cuba is going to lose its charm!”
Cuba is NOT an amusement park. Just remember that people live here. Yes, it is cute, but the “vintage” cars and old, crumbling buildings are a result of the US embargo and a country being held back. You should visit, absolutely, but don’t down talk advancement for a country that needs it. Do not wish for people to be trapped just to keep up with some ideal “aesthetic.” Cuba has always been a destination hotspot. Just because American’s couldn’t visit previously does not mean it was completely off the map. People have been visiting Cuba for DECADESSS. Tourism is not new to Cuba.
And just know – Cuba will never lose it’s charm. Mari wrote a post debunking other Myths and Misconceptions about Cuba that is a real eye opener. I suggest you read it.