1. Visit the capital building, El Capitolio, in central Havana !
You can’t miss the capital building during a trip to Havana. Most likely, you will pass the building several times on various cab rides. It is quite easy to work into your plans and is in a very pedestrian friendly area with plenty of shops, hotels, and restaurants nearby. We were immediately struck with its similarity to the US Capitol, but it is not exactly the same and has more color and character. It is, however, very similar. As you can see above, the capital is under construction and has been since 2013. The building’s restoration is a slow process to be used for Cuba’s National Assembly.
You might find it hard to get tickets at the last minute during a peak travel season, so you can plan ahead and get tickets for the tour a day or so in advance. We were lucky and found a guided tour with two spots. Tickets were about $4 per person with the guided tour. We highly recommend using the guide, which was both in Spanish and English. We learned that women make up nearly half the National Assembly! There were lots of questions being asked and the guide was able to answer each one. We were very pleased with the quality of the experience and the break from the heat!
2. Almacenas San Jose Artisans’ Market is a essentially a flea market on the water, a great stop!
If you are looking for souvenirs, this is the perfect one-stop shop. We aren’t really into buying the typical tourist items when we travel, but this place was more than just a tourist trap. It was very pedestrian friendly, filled with local artists, had great food, and a perfect location for a stop. You can find anything from cheap souvenirs and beautiful, original art.
There is something for everyone at Almacenes San Jose Artisans’ Market. We were out of cash by the time that we made it over there, so we weren’t really looking to bring home a large piece. Instead, we opted for some photographs which we will frame back home as a memento of our trip! This way, we travel lighter, save money, but still supported the local art scene.
3. Be sure to see Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, the national art museum!
The museum is easily located and very near the Plaza de la Revolucion. You can easily see both in the same day. Consisting of two buildings, one dedicated to Cuban artists and one to universal art, you will see a huge diverse selection of pieces. The substantial scope of local art was incredible considering the size of Cuba. This museum was easily our favorite in Havana.
The interactive exhibit above was one of several experiences that really made the museum come to life. There were no instructions, and you simply encountered the experience on your own. The headphones shared various pieces of music which correlated to performing artists on video. Below are a few of our favorite pieces from the afternoon!
The entry fee is low, even the tourist rate is lower than we expected at around $5 per person. You can also get a guide in either Spanish or various other languages for an additional $2-$3 at certain times. We suggest at least two hours as it is a substantial museum with several interactive experiences.
4. Venture to Vinales!
We had an amazing experience with a day trip booked through Air BNB. A taxi picked us up at our casa particular early in the morning and we headed on the long but nice drive to Vinales. (Our taxi was a large vehicle, but at six feet tall Brian absolutely did not fit in the back seat. It would have been fine for a short trip to city center, but to drive a longer distance it was very uncomfortable and he eventually moved up front. If you are tall, be sure to get a larger taxi or sit in the front!) Vinales is a tiny village, but you can chose to spend the night out there as well. It is very quaint. We saw a tabacco plantation, took a horse ride in the mountains, saw a massive painting, and went a boat ride through a river cave. The food and drinks every where were very, very tasty and fresh. They crushed the sugar cane right in front of us to make the drinks.
Our entire trip included absolutely everything for about $85 per person. We felt this was a great bargain and enjoyed that we didn’t have to do any planning at all. We also paid before leaving the US, so we didn’t have to spend much cash at all on this day. It was a great way to pay for something ahead of time that didn’t require using our little supply of cash once we were there. Through Air BNB’s site, you can send questions back and forth with information for pick up, etc. However, because cell service is very, very minimal, this could have posed issues. Luckily, we found a cafe with free Internet where we were able to confirm our details the day before. We did hear about other groups who weren’t so lucky.
5. Cannon ceremony at Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana was a brilliant surprise!
After we arrived in Havana, we made a relaxing plan for our first night. The owner of our house for the week highly suggested dinner in the city and then seeing the ceremonial firing of the cannons. You will need to take a cab to the other side of the bay, which is about $10 for the short ride. Our driver was willing to meet us again afterwards, so we didn’t have to look for another cab. We ended up splitting the ride back with some Europeans to save money, which worked out well! You can pay a small fee to tour the fort, which was, well, a fort and interesting but not too much to see. There were lots of vendors everywhere. Then, we headed to see the ceremony. Everyone was crowding around the cannons quite tightly, and ended up on the side of the fort quite close to the edge, and there was no wall. If we had gotten there earlier, we definitely would have found a different vantage point. However, we did get to see everything easily. A group of men in the military dress in period costume and sing about the tradition. They have various military exercises and march during the singing. Then, promptly at 9pm, they light a cannon and shoot it into the bay every night like clockwork.
The ceremony is historic and is a recreation of a tradition where a cannon was fired to let the city know the gates would be closing, and the city would be safe from pirates for the night. It is a colonial ceremony and one of the oldest traditions in Cuba. We were surrounded both by tourists and Cubanos eager to watch. The energy was exciting and made a great first night in Havana! You simply cannot miss El Canonazo de las Nueve!
6. Plaza de la Revolucion and El Museo de la Revolucion was a unique experience as an American!
We weren’t really sure what to expect, but it is hardly a trip to Cuba without visiting this museum. Housed in the palace of the former president, the museum wasted no time in proudly sharing the history of the Cuban revolution, interference of foreign powers, and reverence for its leaders from the past and present. There is a large indoor portion of the museum which is dedicated to the history of Cuba including pre-Columbian culture, through the fight against Batista, to society today. Then, another portion of the museum, pictured below, is an outdoor area with planes, tanks, boats, etc used in the revolution.
In the center is the small boat which brought 80 revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, from Mexico to Cuba. The planes and tanks were used in various important moments in military history of Cuba and each had explanations and information about the history of the piece.
The museum costs about $4, and we recommend at least one hour but we took two! There was so much to see and read, and it was quite an education to hear another narrative about your own country, which we, of course, expected. Brian has experienced living in communist countries, but this was a first for Candace. You simply can’t go to Cuba, without an experience like this one! The museum is part of the Plaza de la Revolucion. The square is commanded by the massive memorial tower to Jose Marti, standing over 350 feet tall, which is in front of the government buildings.
The square stretches out to the sea and the Malecon, making it a great part of your day on this side of Havana. You can easily walk to the sea and to the National Fine Art Museum, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
7. Callejon de Hamel offers the most colorful moment in Havana!
Everywhere you look around this little street is packed with vibrant art and the joyful people of Cuba! It is really just a narrow alley but simply packed with the beautiful taste of local culture. It is an Afro-Cuban style from artist Salvador Escalona.
The alley is a small and beautiful little moment in Havana that you don’t want to miss. Our guide also said that this is a hub for practicing Santeria, a widely practiced religion in Cuba. Plan for about thirty minutes to see the alley, and there is no cost associated with it. It is located between Calles Espada and Aramburu.
8. Explore the local neighborhoods on a walking or bike tour!
Whenever you find yourself in a new city, it can be very helpful to get an overview on a bus tour or with a local guide. Unlike many other major world cities, there was no clear system for easy public access to a typical tour of this type. We booked the tour through Air BNB before our departure from the US, which was also great because we could pay in advance and save the all important cash while in the country. We arrived in a neighborhood early and selected among quality bikes. Brian was a bit bored with the 4-5 hour tour and was happy to escape with the guide toward the end and race down hills with technical turns. Candace was more interested in a leisurely tour and stayed with the group. We were able to see the University of Havana, a small art district Callejon de Hamel (described previously), Plaza de la Revolucion, some local parks, and get a general idea of the layout of the city and some places where we wanted to return later. While it was a great exposure to the city on our first full day in Havana, we would have chosen a slightly shorter tour if we returned for this particular excursion.
9. Walk and dine down Calle Obispo or O’Reilly!
The colors, the people, the vitality of Havana is intense down Obispo or O’Reilly streets. There are several ways to get there, but it is anchored by El Floridita, the famous bar (which is overrun by tourists like no other place we saw), and the second location of the National Art Museum. So, you can take a taxi to these spots and just start walking. The tourists shops are tucked in among local stores and markets which makes the experience unique to other shopping districts in major cities as locals are completely around you everywhere you go. This a great place for people watching, a good meal, some live music, and Internet!
While we love to unplug during travel, it is helpful to check on the family after a few days and confirm your bookings for various excursions. We found a cafe with free Internet, a terrace, and a great lunch offering. It was the perfect reprieve from the heat, and we were glad for the opportunity to have a mojito and message the family back home. There were several of these cafes but they aren’t necessarily widely advertised, so just ask around and read the signage. Another key thing to look for is shade! Just on the other side of the street, people looked miserable on the balcony with the sun glaring down on them, but we were quite comfortable in the shade.
10. Meet the locals!
When in Havana, the people will absolutely be a highlight of your trip. Everywhere we went, the locals were incredibly kind and welcoming. Our tour guides were all studying or teaching at the university as biologists or engineers. In fact, just about everyone we met in the tourism industry was a doctor, lawyer, or chemist and had multiple advanced degrees. They told us that it was a quite hard to make money in Havana, and this was their way to get ahead. Most worked 7 days per week. One of our guides described his goal of getting hot water in his house. This made it very important to tip. Cash is a great way to give these hard-working people your gratitude for sharing their beautiful city. While you won’t meet very many people in the streets who speak English, any guide will have excellent skills. Candace’s Spanish speaking skills were very helpful in navigating the city, negotiating cab fare, and understanding prices and directions, but we had no issues communicating with everyone in the tourism industry. Some were eager to question American politics and better understand the American mentality toward Cuban, but most were just happy to share their country and their hearts with us. Everyone went above and beyond to make sure we felt comfortable, knew where to go, and left wanting to come back. We are so eager to return with our boys one day soon!