Ever since seeing pictures of those colorful, circa 1950s American cars rolling down the streets of Havana, Cuba, it’s been on my bucket list. While Americans are still allowed to visit, I had to go.
Havana presents the perfect opportunity to step back into the past and visit a Caribbean city where wifi is nearly nonexistent, most vehicles were made before 1960, live music overpowers modern stereos, and 17th-century architecture still lines every block. And there are so many authentic things to do in Havana that you may not be able to cross all of these off in a single weekend.
Lack of wifi also makes visiting the city the perfect time to put away your phone and any other electronic distractions and just enjoy the 20 authentic things to do in Havana, Cuba that have made their way into this article!
Note: $1 CUC = $1 USD (Check out a full list of the best currencies to bring to Cuba)
1. Tour the Town in a Classic 1950s American Muscle Car
One of the main reasons Havana probably made it onto your bucket list is because of the vintage American muscle cars vrooming up and down narrow downtown streets.
Since the U.S. embargo of 1962, cars have been tough and expensive to get onto the island, so the people make due with what they have — and they have a whole lot of classic American muscle cars circa 1950s.
Riding in one of these machines made of steel certainly fills your thrill and provides a blast from the past. In my case, I had never ridden in a vehicle made before the 1980s upon going to Cuba. But as for my parents, who I graciously decided to take with me so they could see Havana for their own eyes, it was nostalgia at first sight.
Touring one of the Havana vintage car tours tops the list due to its nostalgic feelings, utter uniqueness you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and the number of things you get to get to see around the city.
My pro tip is to opt for the convertible. There’s nothing quite like driving on an island with the top down on a sunny taking in the sights of the city. Also, just in case of an accident, you’ll want to get travel insurance to protect yourself.
- Cost: $35 CUC per person
2. Explore Old Havana on Foot
Since much of Old Havana’s downtown streets are closed to vehicles, taking to the city by foot is a must during your visit. Founded in 1519 by Spanish settlers, Old Havana was once the main stopping point for everyone traveling from the New World to the Old World — even pirates hoarding gold on their ships.
Old Havana is full of 15th and 16th century architecture that has been restored over the years, including some of the most beautiful churches and plazas in the Caribbean, leading to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. If the streets of Old Havana could talk, they would have some interesting and dreadful stories to tell.
You can opt to explore the streets of Old Havana on your own or, what I recommend, is to book a free walking tour or a paid walking tour with a guide who’s from the area.
- Cost: Free to $30 CUC per person
3. Drive/Walk Along El Malecón in a Classic Convertible
El Malecón is what separates Havana from the rest of the world. It’s a 5-mile man-made seafront that connects Old Havana to the rest of the city. It where you’ll find locals hanging out. Where boating anchor their two-person fishing vessels at night. Where you can catch a glimpse of Casablanca across the harbor and imagine what pirates were like in the 1600s.
You can find vibrant parties, food vendors and locals willing to share their rum nearly every night at El Malecón. Driving it will give you a glimpse of the beauty that lies there, but walking it will give you a true taste of Havana.
- Cost: Free to walk, included in the classic car tour
4. Visit the Four Famed Plazas of Old Havana by Foot
Beginning at Plaza Vieja and ending at Plaza La Catedral will take you just about 1 kilometer and 15 minutes to walk. But I suggest you take much longer and truly take in the sights around you on this historic walk through Old Havana.
Plaza Vieja is home to the tallest building in Old Havana, the Gomez Vila building, tall buildings encircling the plaza, a fenced-off fountain in the middle and plenty of restaurants for some entertaining nightlife.
Plaza de San Francisco
The Plaza de San Francisco is almost directly off the port, making it the first plaza for visitors arriving by sea and one of the oldest in Old Havana. It’s home to the majestic Havana Cathedral, an 18th-century basilica that housed Christopher Columbus’ remains for over 100 years, and plenty of restaurants and cafes.
Plaza de Armas
Dating back to the 1520s, Plaza de Armas is Havana’s oldest plaza. It’s home to statues, beautiful buildings and quite possibly the only wooden street you’ll ever see. Legend has it that the governor of Cuba made workers replace the stone street outside his home with wood so passing carriages wouldn’t disturb his sleep.
Plaza la Catedral
The newest square in Old Havana, completed in the late 16th century, is Plaza la Catedral, where you’ll find the breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral of Havana. The ultra-rich of Cuba began constructing mansions around the plaza in the 18th century, but it’s now home to restaurants and cafes that were converted from the mansions.
Plaza de la Revolución (Bonus)
The largest square in Havana, and well outside Old Havana, is the Plaza de la Revolucion, where large sculptures of Revolution leaders’ faces are plastered on the sides of buildings.
- Cost: Free
5. Smoke a Recently Rolled Cuban Cigar
Throughout the entire world, Cuban cigars are often at the top of conversations when discussing the best cigars in the world. The island has been growing tobacco since long before Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the island in the 1600s and began exporting the cash crop back to Spain.
I am in no way, shape or form a cigar smoker (although I brought a few back with me and had to light one up while writing this segment). But if you’re in the presence of the best cigars in the world, you may as well partake. Even if it’s just a few puffs, it’s a pretty cool feeling to be smoking a recently rolled Cuban cigar in Cuba.
There are a few reasons why Cuban cigars are considered the best in the world. Most of Cuba’s tobacco is produced in Pinar del Rio, a province located about two hours outside Havana and home to the famed Viñales Valley. It has the perfect climate and agricultural area to produce high-quality tobacco year in and year out.
One of the other reasons Cuban cigars are so prized around the world is how they’re produced within the country. In Viñales, you won’t see any heavy machinery powered by diesel engines driving up and down tobacco rows picking the harvest. Nope, not at all.
Thousand-pound oxen pull plows to till up the land. Farmers then plant the crop and pick it by hand. After the tobacco has been picked, it’s then hung to dry in windowless shacks made from fallen trees and palm fronds.
There are no fancy machines to roll the cigars, either. That’s all done by hand as well — and it’s been that way for hundreds of years, well before Columbus stumbled on the island in the 1600s.
There are two recommended ways to get your Cuban cigar fix: visit the source and tour the tobacco plantations in Viñales, or take a tour of one of the three cigar factories in Havana open to the public. You can choose from the factories of Romeo Y Julieta, La Corona or Partagás. Each charge 10 CUCs for a tour. Heading out to Viñales can be done on a day trip for around $95 CUC per person or an extended trip that will be far cheaper.
- Cost: $10 CUC to $95 UD
6. Take the Ferry (or Taxi) to Casablanca
Taking the ferry or a taxi to Casablanca will also allow you to do the next three things to do in Havana, Cuba since they’re all located in the Casablanca neighborhood, which is across the harbor from Old Havana.
It’s a small operation that runs during daylight hours out of the port. The thing about Cuba is everyone is always on island time, so there may or may not be a ferry taking off when you want it to. It only goes from Old Havana to Casablanca and back, so don’t worry about getting lost.
As for the tickets, you need to buy them before getting on the ferry and you can haggle them down to 1 CUC per person. Don’t pay more than $5 CUCs for a round-trip fare.
- Cost: $1 CUC each way or max $5 CUC round trip
7. Visit the Cuban Missile Crisis Display
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 started the isolation of the island from America. That’s when the Soviet Union pointed ballistic missiles at the U.S. from Cuba during a 13-day confrontation that ultimately ended without a nuclear war.
I wasn’t alive then, so I’ve only seen documentaries about how tense the standoff actually was. The missiles were eventually moved from their original destinations and are now on display at the Cuban Missile Crisis display.
I urge everyone who visits to go see them because those who don’t study history are bound to repeat it — and there’s absolutely no need for nuclear missiles in this world (or any type of war for that matter).
- Cost: Free
8. Watch the Cannons Fire at the Castillo Del Morro
Originally constructed in 1598, Castillo Del Morro (known as the Morro Castle) is one of the most prominent structures in the country. It was built to defend the city from pirates and was then put to use again to protect Havana in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
For the low price of $6 to $8 CUC, you can tour the castle during the daytime and nighttime and get a close-up view of the cannons firing every night at 9 p.m.
Since it faces the Malecon, you can actually see the cannons fire from across the harbor — and you can hear them from just about anywhere in Old Havana (so don’t get spooked when you hear a loud explosion at night).
Don’t forget to stop at nearby Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro and climb the lighthouse for an additional $2 CUC.
- Cost: Free to watch the cannons fire, $6 to $8 CUC to tour the castle
9. See the El Cristo de la Habana
Outside of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, El Cristo de la Habana is the second largest Christ statue in the entire world. It’s perched atop a hill in Casablanca, overlooking the entire city of Havana and standing 66 feet tall. You can see it from the Malecon and it’s really close to the Morro Castle.
- Cost: Free
10. Interact with the Locals
Two things you’ll learn very quickly about Cubans is that they’re extremely kind people and they love Americans. They stop you on the street to chat and ask you how you’re liking their country, what you think about the relationship between Cuba and America, and then offer you something small for free — no strings attached.
I know Cuba isn’t part of Central or South America, but they do speak Spanish and have many of the same cultural values of those regions. But one thing they don’t do is overbear you and try to make you buy something. Sure, there will be plenty of people trying to sell you stuff, but if you don’t buy from them, it’s your loss — at least that’s the vibe they give.
In general, Havana is an extremely laid-back city with extra friendly people who are genuinely kind. I never felt uncomfortable once in all of Havana, and I even walked the streets by myself after midnight to get a better taste of life in the city.
- Cost: Free
11. See the Old Mansions in Vedado
There was a time when Havana was going to be the gambling capital of the world, attracting businessmen and mobsters from everywhere you can imagine. Then the embargo happened and those prominent people were forced to leave their mansions crumbling in the grips of communism.
Vedado, which means forbidden in Spanish, is now home to streets lined with crumbling mansions. Artists, culinary professionals and families have since taken over these mansions to set up galleries and paladares inside. Although I didn’t get to visit this part of Havana, it’s located only a few miles east of Old Havana.
- Cost: Free
12. Take in the Serenity of Havana Forest
El Bosque De La Habana, also known as the Havana Forest, is s slice of green paradise in the middle of Havana. It’s set along the banks of the Almendares River and is home to 300-plus-year-old banyan trees covered in vines and moss.
It’s a place where locals go to quickly get away from the hustle and bustle of the city life and enjoy a picnic in the shade. If you book a classic car tour (which I highly recommend you do), they’ll take you through the Havana Forest.
- Cost: Free
13. Bust a Salsa Move
Salsa music is everywhere in Havana. Walk into a local dive bar (which I highly recommend you do) and there’s a great chance you’ll hear a live band playing and locals dancing to salsa. Walk around the streets at night and there’s a great chance you’ll hear salsa music radiating from a boombox and echoing in the streets.
While I’m not a particularly good dancer (I can’t dance at all), Havana is a great place to try your hand at salsa. There are plenty of places offering lessons, just Google salsa lessons in Havana. Or, you could just walk into a bar that’s blaring salsa and one of the locals will gladly take your hand and teach you.
- Cost: Free
14. Catch a Dinner Show
While the Tropicana Nightclub Show is by far the most popular dinner show in Havana, there are a few cheaper options available. Tickets are pretty pricey for any show, so I didn’t wind up going because I travel on a tight budget and there were many other expensive things in Cuba I wanted to do.
Dinner shows are cabaret-style shows that feature world-famous dancers, colorful lights, plenty of salsa and a whole lot of feathered costumes. Plus, the shows usually come with a drink and dinner included in the price of the show, which is anywhere from $50 CUC to $90 CUC.
- Cost: From $50 CUC to $90 CUC, depending on the location
15. Drink a Mojito (Or a Few)
It is extremely hot and humid in Cuba much of the year. We went in early November and the temperatures were still scorching. The mojito offers the Cuban people and visitors a cool way to wind down after a long day in the hot sun.
Originally invented in Cuba, the cocktail came to prominence outside the island due to Hemingway and James Bond. It’s a pretty simple concoction: white rum, mint leaves, sugar, lime juice and soda water.
But ohhh are they delicious! You’d be hard-pressed not to find a bar serving fresh mojitos for a decent cost, so I urge you to enjoy them while you’re there! Also don’t forget to take advantage of happy hour so you can get two for the price of one.
- Cost: $2 CUC to $5 CUC per mojito depending on the bar or restaurant
16. Walk in the Footsteps (and Drink Like) Hemingway
If you’re reading this article, you may have heard of a guy named Ernest Hemingway, possibly one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. He frequented Havana during his years and actually wrote The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls while living on the island. (Both are great books by the way.)
He’s got an old home there called Finca Vigía and they’ve even set up a museum outside that’s open every day of the week. As you can imagine for the heavy drinker he was, he frequented lots of bars in Havana, but only a few were his dedicated watering holes.
El Floridita is arguably the most famous of the three famed bars (the two others La Bodeguita del Medio and Dos Hermanos). There he invented the Hemingway Daiquiri, a frozen drink with white rum, maraschino liqueur and lime and grapefruit juice. It was delicious, but I’ll stick to mojitos for now.
- Cost: $4 CUC to $6 CUC per drink
17. Eat a Meal at One of Many Paladares
When you’re in Havana, it’s OK to go to fancy restaurants for a nice dinner here and there, but I highly recommend going to a paladar for some authentic Cuban food. Paladares are citizen-owned restaurants that offer tremendous home-cooked food for a great price.
Cuban food takes parts from traditional Spanish dishes, the spiciness of Caribbean cuisines and has an infusion of African plates. Although you’ll get rice and beans with nearly every meal, the spices and flavors in these dishes are incredible.
- Cost: $8 CUC to $15 CUC per meal with a cocktail
18. See the Buildings Lit up at Night
If there’s one thing there’s no shortage of in Havana is nightlife, and the beautifully lit buildings tell the story of which places are popping and which are off the beaten path. For two straight nights, I was in awe walking down the streets of Havana, seeing the vibrancy of lights and people congregating on the streets.
- Cost: Free
19. Hit the Beach
Since Cuba is an island and Havana is on the ocean, there are plenty of beaches around to get your fix of the sun, sand and rum in your hand. Santa María del Mar is where all the locals go to party in the sun, so if you’re looking for a quaint and quiet beach, you may want to look elsewhere.
If you have viable transportation and can get further outside the city, check out Playa Boca Ciega, Playa El Salado, Playa Jibacoa, Playa Bacuranao or Playa Guanabo. Since I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the time I visited Havana, going to the beach wasn’t my top priority, but beach season is all year in Cuba.
- Cost: Free
20. Get Your Nature on in Viñales
Although it’s located 2.5 hours outside of Havana, taking a day trip to Viñales is totally worth your time. You’ll get to tour a tobacco farm, smoke a hand-rolled cigar, go horseback riding through the valley, gaze upon a landscape that only exists in three places on earth and explore caves on a boat.
- Cost: $95 CUC for a day trip, about $50 CUC for a multi-day budget trip
With travel sanctions becoming more strict for Americans seemingly by the week, I saw an opportunity and knew I couldn’t miss it. If Havana’s on your bucket list, don’t miss out on the opportunity before Americans are no longer allowed to go or tourism pumps up the economy enough that they begin renovating and updating.
I capitalized on the visit during a perfect long weekend in early November — and it did not disappoint. The best time of the year to visit is November to early March. Havana in a constant state of summertime, but it gets extremely hot and humid from late April to October.