I’ve travelled quite a lot, but Cuba may still be my most favourite destination ever. I talk so passionately about the country that people usually ask if I’m getting paid to advertise it. Well, I’m not. But the fact is that Cuba is absolutely fascinating. Regardless of your political opinions, you should go. At least, you can stand up for your opinions based on what you saw and not what you heard or read somewhere.
To begin with, I must say that, of course, one day in Havana is not enough, and probably this applies to every medium sized city in the world. But sometimes we have to make choices. Maybe, you want to stay longer lying on the Caribbean beaches. Maybe, you had to choose between this or nothing. Fair enough, no one is judging you. In fact, I want to help you get the most out of this day. So this is a post with nothing but the essentials of Havana.
Especially for those interested in architecture, Havana Vieja (‘Old Havana’) is a must-see. You will be amazed by the amount of colorful houses around and will be able to note some differences between Havana’s neighbourhoods. Start by Plaza Vieja, a beautiful square, yet so touristy that you might feel that you are in Spain or Italy, especially when you see the prices in the bars and restaurants around.
Also, be careful with the jineteros (and jineteras), Spanish for “tourist harassers”. Don’t worry: Cuba is a really safe country. It’s most likely that they will talk to you (it always starts with ‘where are you from?’), and try to convince you to buy something for or from them. I’ve heard just a few stories of pickpocketing from distracted tourists, but not even one about robbery.
From Plaza Vieja, go through Calle Mercaderes (‘Mercaderes Street’), a great place to buy souvenirs: it is a 10-min walk that leads you to Plaza de Armas, where you can enjoy an open air books and antiques market. You can find rarities and a lot of cool stuff but be ready for bargaining: never buy anything at the first price.
The mandatory Museo de La Revolución (Museum of the Revolution), is another 10 minute walk away. However, I must say: don’t set your expectations too high. The museum is unprofessional: not all the murals have English translations and some of them look like they were painted by school students. But this visit is important to understand a little bit more of the history of Cuba, so you can learn a different side of the story from the one told in the USA and the media. And the building itself is amazing! Admission: 8 CUC and an additional fee of 2 CUC for cameras.
Between Plaza de Armas and Museo de La Revolución, you can make two stops: the first one at the Plaza de La Catedral and its stunning architecture and the other at the famous Bodeguita del Medio, the bar where Ernest Hemingway used to drink his favourite mojitos while he lived in Havana. For his favourite daiquiri, the icy Cuban drink, head to La Floridita instead. Of course, since both became tourist attractions, they are packed and the drinks are overpriced. But if you’re into Hemingway books or if you’re ever on the way, a brief stop can be refreshing.
For lunch, avoid the surroundings of the big squares and tourist attractions. When I was there, I asked a street seller where I could find cheap food. He took me to a small paladar, word for private family restaurant in Cuba. It was inside a family house, and I had a great fish meal. It was a memorable experience, but it was so random that I didn’t remember to write it down. Just ask and trust!
The iconic Malecón, the boulevard along the sea, will probably cross your way more than once. But it’s by the end of the day that you will actually understand why it is so famous. Attended by both locals and tourists, Malecón is my favourite Havana memory.
Despite any problems Cubans may have to deal with, they seem to always have time and the spirit to drop everything and go see the sunset from Malecón. They meet their friends, have a drink, musicians may make a jam session and adventurous kids jump off the rocks.
After the sunset, the vibrant Havana nightlife slowly starts to evolve. For jazz clubs, check out the suggestions in our post Havana for Jazz Lovers. For salsa, what about taking lessons at La Casa del Son? One hour is enough to learn a few moves and make you feel more confident for the night to come. There are many good salsa clubs to choose from: just avoid the big, cheesy cabaret clubs, such as Tropicana and Cabaret Parisien.
Your day in Havana has come to an end. But just one last thing: along the way, don’t miss observing markets, pharmacies, bus stops. And whenever you have the opportunity, talk to people. Cubans are really friendly and receptive. In my opinion, this is the most important part of any trip to Cuba. Everything can be interesting to do, as long as you keep your eyes and ears open in order to soak in the culture.
By Manuela Hollos