Want to make sure you don’t miss any of the must-see sites and monuments in Havana? Looking for some great recommendations for your visit to the Cuban capital?
Captain Ulysses has got you covered!
💡 Planning Your Trip to Cuba 💡
🇨🇺 Visa: Before you depart, be sure to apply for your tourist card (which is your visa for Cuba). You can easily order your tourist card online through CubaVisa.
🛏️ Accommodations: To book your accommodations in Cuba, the Captain recommends Expedia. In Havana, he especially recommend 3 casas particulares/B&Bs (Casa Colonial Pedro y Mary, Casa Miriam Hostal Colonial, and Hostal Habana Tu & Yo) and 3 hotels (El Candil Boutique Hotel, Vapor 156 Boutique Hotel and Paseo 206 Boutique Hotel).
📸 Free Guided Tour: Why not explore Havana with a local guide? The Captain highly recommends this free tour of the city. You can choose how much to tip your guide at the end of the tour.
A Brief History of Havana
The Founding of Havana
San Cristobal de La Habana (Havana) was founded in 1514 by Diego Velazquez de Cuellar on the south coast of Cuba. Over the next 5 years, the city gradually moved to its current location in the northwest of the island. At that time, Havana was not considered a capital city because it was too far from the rest of the island to claim to be the seat of power in Cuba.
A Dynamic Port
Things changed with the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru. Havana’s location at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico made it a first-rate strategic base, and the city then became the seat of the Spanish captaincy general in Cuba. For two centuries, Havana was the most important port in the Americas.
However, Havana’s strategic importance also made it a prime target for pirates and corsairs raiding the Caribbean, like Jacques de Sores. To protect the city, the Spaniards built three large fortresses: Fort El Morro, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and the Punta fortress.
In 1762, the English managed to take control of Havana and occupied the city for 11 months. In 1863, the Spaniards regained control of Cuba, but not without a cost: they agreed to cede Florida to the English in return. They then strengthened Havana’s defense system and built a new fortress, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña.
Havana Since the End of the 19th Century
After many years of war, Cuba gained its independence in 1898, although the country remained under American domination until 1902. The beginning of the 20th century was marked by a strong expansion of the Cuban capital. Havana developed along the Malecon, and the Vedado district was established. The capital became a hub of vice and luxury, under the control of American gangsters and mafiosos.
In 1959, Fidel Castro seized control of the country. After a long period of decline, Havana is now undergoing an extensive renovation program, with a particular focus on the Old Havana district, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Havana’s weather, like that of the rest of Cuba, is determined by two major seasons: the dry season (from late November to late April) and the rainy season (from May to November).
The temperature, precipitation, and sunshine hours vary depending on the month, with mild temperatures during the dry season and higher temperatures during the rainy season. Short-lived showers are common during the rainy season, while the dry season is characterized by low precipitation.
Sunshine, on the other hand, is relatively constant throughout the year, ranging from 7 to 9 hours per day.
Getting to Havana
International flights to Havana
Havana Airport, officially known as José Martí International Airport, is the main gateway to Cuba and one of the busiest airports in the Caribbean. Located just 15 km from the city center, it serves as a hub for several major airlines, including Cubana de Aviación, Aeroméxico, Air France, and KLM.
Havana Airport offers direct flights to and from major cities across the Americas and Europe, including New York, Miami, Mexico City, Madrid, Paris, and Toronto. In addition, there are several regional airlines offering flights to other destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The airport has undergone significant renovations in recent years, with improved infrastructure and expanded terminal facilities to handle the increasing number of passengers. With its convenient location and extensive air route network, Havana Airport is an essential hub for travelers visiting Cuba.
Domestic flights, bus & taxis to Havana
Havana is well connected to the rest of Cuba, with regular flights operating from major Cuban cities and many Viazul buses providing links between the capital and the country’s major tourist sites and cities.
Shared taxis are also available to take you to the capital from other tourist cities in Cuba, while renting a car with or without a driver in Havana is also an option.
Things to see & do in Havana
Havana is a culturally-rich city that offers plenty to keep you entertained during your trip to Cuba. With so much to see and do, no risk of getting bored!
If you want to make sure you don’t miss any of the city’s top attractions, you can also take advantage of a free guided tour of Havana. The tour guides work on a tip-based system, so you can choose the amount you’d like to give at the end of the tour.
Havana’s main tourist districts
La Habana Vieja
Havana is divided into three main tourist districts, the oldest of which is La Habana Vieja. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Habana Vieja boasts stunning colonial architecture and is a must-see for any traveler. Although parts of the district have been renovated, there are still plenty of crumbling, old-world alleys and streets that you can explore to get a true sense of the city.
Some of the must-visit sites and monuments in La Habana Vieja include the Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Plaza Vieja, Calle Mercaderes, Casa Natal de José Marti, and the Museum of Rum.
The Malecon and the district of Vedado
The Malecon and Vedado are two must-visit areas in Havana, each with its own unique character and attractions.
Located to the west of La Habana Vieja, Vedado has been compared to a Cuban version of New York City, with its mix of historic buildings and modern flair. The Malecon, Havana’s iconic waterfront avenue, runs for about 8 km along the coast and is lined with both impressive landmarks and rundown buildings. Highlights include the Nacional and Habana Libre hotels, as well as the Plaza de la Revolucion, which features the towering Memorial to Jose Marti.
For a taste of Havana’s younger and more creative side, be sure to check out the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. This former factory turned cultural space showcases an eclectic mix of art, music, and dance.
The Centro Habana neighborhood, located in the heart of the capital, is home to many of Havana’s iconic sites. Here, you can find the Capitolio, the former seat of the Cuban Congress, as well as the museums of the Revolution and Fine Arts.
Although not as well-renovated as La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana boasts numerous historic buildings worth seeing, especially along Paseo José Martí (also known as Paseo del Prado). Don’t miss the Fuente de la India, the Palacio de los Matrimonios, the Fausto Theater, or the National Ballet School.
For shopping or to discover the ins and outs of Cuban cigar manufacturing, the Captain recommends the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás.
👉 Check out the Captain’s detailed article on Centro Habana.
The other must-see sites and monuments in Havana
The Fortresses of Havana
To defend the city against invaders (corsairs or Englishmen!), the Spanish built a series of increasingly impressive fortresses.
The most famous of these is Fort El Morro (not to be confused with the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro in Santiago de Cuba), located at the entrance to Havana Bay. The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, 800 meters from El Morro, and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, in La Habana Vieja, are also definitely worth a visit.
Located in the Jaimanitas neighborhood, about 15 kilometers west of downtown Havana, Fusterlandia is a vibrant and colorful open-air museum born from the imagination of the artist José Fuster.
In the 1990s, after returning from a trip to Europe, Fuster decided to turn his house into a work of art, similar to Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona. His neighbors were enchanted and entrusted him one by one with the decoration of their homes. And thus, Fusterlandia was born.
The Playas del Este
The Playas del Este are located to the east of Havana. Every weekend, the people of Havana flock there to enjoy a moment of relaxation with their feet in the water.
You might be imagining idyllic white sandy beaches, but be warned that the Playas del Este are lined with large hotels with a resolutely Soviet and concrete silhouette. It’s a far cry from the glitz and glamour of Varadero. However, if you want to take a dip into the real life of Cubans and discover another side of Cuba, you’re in the right place!
Shopping in Havana
The Cuban capital is the perfect place to stock up on souvenirs before heading back home. From cigars to rum and handicrafts, you should have no trouble finding something that catches your eye!
Buying cigars in Havana
To buy cigars in Havana, you have several options available. We particularly recommend two shops, both located in the Centro Habana district:
- The Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás
- The cigar shop at the Hotel Sevilla
Both shops accept credit card payments.
Buying rum in Havana
As with cigars, there is no shortage of shops selling rum in Havana. You can find them in the capital’s big hotels.
The Museo del Ron in La Habana Vieja, owned by the Havana Club brand, also unsurprisingly offers rum for sale.
You can also do your shopping at the duty-free shops at Havana airport. However, be careful: if your flight is not direct, your bottles may be confiscated during your layover.
Buying jewelry and crafts in Havana
To shop for jewelry and local crafts, we recommend the small market on Calle Obispo. From jewelry to handbags to wooden objects… You should be able to find what you’re looking for there.
Top Recommendations in Havana
Here are Captain Ulysses’ recommendations for hotels, casas particulares, and restaurants in Havana:
Hotels & Casas Particulares in Havana:
👉 Casas particulares
- Budget-friendly option: Casa Colonial Pedro y Mary
- Authentic colonial casa: Casa Miriam Hostal Colonial
- More modern option: Hostal Habana Tu & Yo
Restaurants in Havana:
You will quickly notice that Cuban cuisine is not particularly diverse. Therefore, the capital, with its local and international restaurants, is a breath of fresh air in Cuba!
Here are three recommendations:
- Van Van in La Habana Vieja: in a modern and cozy setting, this charming restaurant offers a nice menu mixing Cuban and international influences. The best part: the mojitos are delicious! More info here.
- Sandwicheria la Bien Paga in La Habana Vieja: this is the ideal place for a quick lunch! Their sandwiches are delicious! More info here.
- La Mina in La Habana Vieja: with its lovely terrace, this restaurant invites you to a delicious shaded break on the Plaza de Armas. We particularly recommend the fish fillets! More info here.