Havana, Cuba: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide (By A Local!)

If you’re looking for an unforgettable trip that combines history, culture, and natural beauty, look no further than Havana, Cuba. Here you’ll find it all right at your fingertips while having the chance to explore one of the world’s great and undeniably most unique cities.

While some things have stayed the same in Havana, Cuba for decades, some things are changing fast, making it challenging to plan a trip to Havana.

In this ultimate traveler’s guide to Havana, Cuba, we cover everything you’ll need to know to enjoy Havana, including the best things to do, places to stay, and even the best day trips from Havana. With recommendations for our own personal, tried-and-true favorites, we know you’ll enjoy Havana just as much as we do.

havana cuba travel

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Havana, Cuba

More than just another destination to check off the bucket list, there is so much to see and do when traveling to Havana that makes it a dream destination for travelers.

While Havana may be best known for its beautiful and historic Old Havana center and its 1950s classic American cars, you’ll find much more here to excite every kind of traveler:

  • Spanish colonial forts and early 20th-century architecture for the history buff
  • Fábrica de Arte Cubano for art installations and live performances from internationally renowned musicians and DJs – its the center of Havana art!
  • Staying at a casa particular rental property with homecooked meals for an unforgettable cultural exchange
  • And much more!

Havana Travel

Havana makes for an incredible short getaway from Mexico or the United States, even a great long weekend option – travel to Havana, Cuba from Miami is around a 45-minute flight.

However, you can just as easily spend five or more days exploring the city of Havana, before heading out to the rest of the country to explore favorite destinations like Viñales, Trinidad, Baracoa, and more.

For those looking for a Caribbean vacation but unsatisfied with laying on a beach or being confined to a resort, visiting Havana with a stay at a nearby beach is the best option in the Caribbean. You’ll get a mix of cultural exchange and history from this beautiful city while also enjoying some of the best beaches around – there is really no better option than Cuba.

havana

Travel Insurance for Cuba

Cuba requires that all travelers visiting the country have insurance to cover any potential medical costs while in Cuba. Don’t make the mistake of skipping out on a travel insurance policy when you travel to Havana – you’ll likely be required to show it upon arrival!

This is important for travelers from every country: many travel insurance companies do not cover travel to Cuba! This is due to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. This means you can’t rely on your standard travel insurance plan to cover you – make sure to check out Cuba-specific plans.

We recommend checking out Visitors Coverage, a company that offers comprehensive plans for travel to Cuba, regardless of your country of origin.

Read More: Complete Guide to Travel Insurance for Cuba

What to Pack for Cuba

Check out our Ultimate Cuba Packing List to help you pack for your trip – we’re sharing exactly what to bring to Cuba and what we never travel without.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba?

Yes, Americans can travel to Cuba! It may come as a surprise to learn, but it’s actually quite easy and 100% legal to travel to Cuba as an American. For most travelers from the United States, it’s no more difficult to travel to Havana than it is to travel anywhere else – check out our guide to traveling to Cuba from the United States for details.

However, it’s important to be aware that the U.S. imposes some restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba that you’ll have to keep in mind when traveling. The U.S. allows “Support for the Cuban People” travel, meaning that you’ll need to plan to support local Cuban small businesses while traveling rather than businesses run by the Cuban government.

Trust me, you won’t feel limited by this! The best Havana restaurants and things to do in Havana are run by small businesses that will be glad you’re supporting them.

One important detail of this is that many hotels in Cuba are at least partially owned by the Cuban government, making them off-limits to American travelers. Check out our guide to where to stay in Havana for some excellent places to stay in the city you’ll have no trouble booking.

cuba havana

Is Havana Safe?

Havana travel is safe! This is something that I personally believe and is well supported by data.

As a woman, I’ve never felt unsafe or uncertain when traveling in and around Havana, even alone. The city of Havana and the country of Cuba overall are known for being extremely safe countries for travelers, and you won’t have much to worry about here.

When traveling anywhere, make sure to take some basic safety steps and take basic measures to protect yourself against petty crimes like pickpocketing.

Important basic travel safety includes trying not to be flashy with jewelry or expensive cameras/computers, putting your backpack on your front when on public transport, and always being aware of your surroundings. With these things in mind, you and your belonging should be more than fine.

Havana Map

To accompany this article, we created this detailed Havana map, which you can download for your trip. Here you’ll find our favorite Havana restaurants, hotels, and other destinations you can’t skip when in Havana. Click on the Havana map to zoom, explore, and download for your Havana travel experience.

Things To Do in Havana, Cuba

Havana is jam-packed with excellent things to do, no matter your budget or interest. We can’t dive in deep to all of them here, but check out our mega guide to the 42 Best Things To Do in Havana for all the details.

These are a few of our favorite things to do in and around Havana.

Explore Old Havana Cuba

Old Havana is certainly the inspiration for the image you likely have of Cuba in your mind: early 20th-century buildings in bright colors, classic American cars, and winding cobblestone streets. Exploring this beautiful neighborhood you’ll find this and so much more, making it hands down the number one thing to do while in Havana.

A popular place to start exploring is in the Plaza Central, from which you can head down the bustling Calle Obispo that cuts through the center of Old Havana.

Make sure to also take a stroll on the Paseo del Prado heading towards the Malecón sea wall, especially towards the evening to enjoy the sunset over the ocean.

One thing that makes Old Havana so unique? People actually live here! While parts of Old Havana have been transformed into museums and apartments for rent to visitors, you’ll still see Cubans living their everyday lives – kids playing in the streets, fruit and vegetable markets filled with locals, and more.

Read More: Ultimate Guide to Exploring Old Havana, Cuba + Self-Guided Walking Tour

Old Havana’s Four Plazas

One of the best ways to discover the heart of Old Havana is to take a self-guided walking tour of the neighborhood’s four largest, most well-restored plazas.

Old Havana’s four main plazas include:

  • Plaza Vieja,
  • Plaza de la Catedral,
  • Plaza de Armas,
  • Plaza de San Francisco.

Visiting these four plazas and walking between them you’ll see much for the best of the Old Havana center. Use the Maps.Me app as a free Havana travel guide to guide yourself through Old Havana’s meandering streets and take time to soak in the city along the way.

Read More: Top 10 Apps to Download for Travel to Cuba

plaza vieja havana
Plaza Vieja

Get A Drink With a View

While there are plenty of bars and restaurants in Old Havana Cuba with beautiful views and rooftops, the pool decks and rooftop bars at the three newest luxury hotels in the city – Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, Iberostar Packard Hotel, and Royalton Habana – are fantastic spots to enjoy a happy hour drink and unmatched views.

My personal favorite is the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, with its incredible view over Plaza Central and Havana’s beautifully restored theater. Drinks are delicious and prices are reasonable, and you’ll find a good wifi connection here if you’re looking to check your email or catch up with friends and family back home.

Plus, these hotels offer day passes to use the pool and facilities for non-guests if you’re looking to take a swim.

Shop at Clandestina

Clandestina is a Cuban design brand based in Havana that is taking Cuba and the rest of the world by storm.

Based out of its charming storefront in Old Havana (located at 403 Villegas near the Capitolio), Clandestina is one of the first and only Cuban brands to market and sell its products online worldwide.

Clandestina’s design store carries hand-printed clothes, posters, items for the home, and much more. Not only do these items make perfect souvenirs with their often tongue-in-cheek Cuba-related themes, but you’ll also be supporting a groundbreaking Cuban small business.

Visit Coppelia and the Yara

Coppelia is well known in Havana and around Cuba as the country’s most famous ice cream parlor, with a rotating list of flavors. It’s a major Vedado Havana landmark found in every Havana guide that you won’t want to miss. Coppelia is the perfect stop for an afternoon or evening treat and escape from the sun.

Don’t be deterred if you see a massive line slinking around the park waiting to get in – there are smaller stands just near the entrances of the park that generally cater to travelers who don’t want to wait in line for the less expensive prices Cubans will pay.

Directly across the street from the Coppelia is the Yara, a landmark movie theater that hosts regular new releases of Cuban and Latin American films, as well as international film festivals. If you’re in town for a film festival, try getting tickets – they’re very cheap!

Walk Along the Malecón

The Malecón sea wall is a favorite gathering spot in Havana, especially in the evening and to watch the sunset, but it’s also definitely worth a stroll to see the city from the oceanside.

While the Malecón extends along the length of the city, I think the portion in Vedado is the best part to explore on foot.

Alternatively, if you book a ride in a classic convertible while in Havana – a favorite activity and an unforgettable way to see the city! – you’ll get to enjoy rolling down the Malecón in style.

Visit Pabellón Cuba

Pabellón Cuba is an outdoor exhibition venue on 23rd street – the Vedado Havana neighborhood’s most important and vibrant street. Pabellón Cuba holds regular concerts, art and science expositions, cultural events, and much more, and it seems like there is always something going on here.

You won’t find many tourists here, and it isn’t in every Havana travel guide, but Pabellón Cuba is a great place to check out if you’re interested in exploring Havana art and Havana culture.

Enjoy Great Food and Coffee in Vedado

The Vedado neighborhood is packed with great places to eat, as well as plenty of fun bars and clubs. This makes the neighborhood one of the best places to stay in Havana. It also means you should definitely plan on exploring the neighborhood whether you stay here or not!

Try out favorite Havana restaurants like El Idilio, Fonda La Paila, or El Cheverongo for great options in Vedado. Mamaine is one of my personal favorite cafes in Havana, and has a great range of food and coffee options all day.

Make sure to download the AlaMesa app before heading to Cuba – this Cuban version of Yelp has the city’s most complete listing of restaurants at all price points, and its offline map feature is extremely helpful for getting around the city!

Read More: Top 10 Apps to Download for Travel to Cuba

Visit Playas del Este

Playas del Este is an extension of beaches that run for several kilometers on the eastern side of Havana, Cuba. The closest beaches to Havana, Playas del Este are relatively easy and inexpensive to access, making them quite popular with locals and travelers with shorter itineraries.

The nicest Havana beaches that are part of the Playas del Este are Playa Santa Maria, Playa Marazul, and Brisas del Mar. Here you’ll find beachside hotels and restaurants nearby, which make renting chairs and finding facilities during a beach day quite easy.

You can easily arrange private transport with a taxi from the city. For a cheaper yet comfortable option, you can also find shared cars that depart from next to the train station in Old Havana. Alternatively, you can take a Havana Bus Tour hop-on hop-off bus (on the T3 line) departing from Old Havana’s Parque Central.

Read More: The Top 10 Best Beaches in Cuba

Things To Do in Havana at Night

Join Locals on the Malecón

The Malecón sea wall that runs the length of the city is one of Havana, Cuba’s favorite destinations at night. Not only is this a great place to enjoy an unforgettable sunset, but it turns into a favorite gathering spot for locals and travelers alike at night.

You’ll find vendors walking up and down the sea wall selling alcohol and snacks, or you can bring your own and enjoy.

Not only is this one of the best ways to enjoy the Havana sunset, but it’s also one of the many awesome (free!) things to do in Havana at night. This guide to fun things to do at night will give you even more ideas of awesome free things to do.

Visit Fábrica de Arte Cubano

The Fabrica de Arte Cubano is an incredible destination for Havana art and Havana culture. Plus, it is an evening destination that has something to offer everyone!

Housed in a former cooking oil factory, this mixed-use space includes multiple bars and a small restaurant along with fine arts installations, venues for live music and performances, and much more.

Come for internationally renowned musicians and DJs as well as fashion shows, documentary screenings, and much more on rotation nightly. There is plenty to see and do here for hours, so plan to spend the whole evening here.

Rooftop Drinks over Havana

There are plenty of beautiful rooftop spots over the city to enjoy a drink and music at night. A popular spot is Mercy Bar Cafe in Miramar, which overlooks the ocean and has frequent live music, though this may be a bit far if you’re staying in Vedado Havana or Old Havana.

Try Malecon 663 along the Malecon sea wall between Old Havana and Vedado for another beautiful ocean view with great food, drinks, and a great atmosphere. La Guarida, one of Havana’s most famous restaurants, also has a beautiful rooftop with bistro lights and a gorgeous view of the city at night.

Other popular spots include the rooftop lounges with bars and restaurants at Old Havana hotels.

varadero

Where To Stay in Havana

With both an increase in new hotels and private rental options in the past 5 years, there are more accommodation options in Havana, Cuba than ever before, and at all price ranges.

For years the most popular option in Havana has been apartment and home rentals, called “casas particulares.” These rentals can be anything from renting a spare bedroom in a family’s home to renting an entire private mansion, and everything in between.

Here are some of our favorite properties in Havana, Cuba, from the most basic hostel accommodations to luxurious boutique hotels in colonial mansions!

Cuba 58 Hostel – $

Havana doesn’t have as many hostels as you’ll find in other capital cities. However, take a look at Cuba 58 Hostel in Old Havana for a lively and social atmosphere on a budget. Hostal Red in the Vedado neighborhood is another great option.

Read More: Best Hostels in Havana

Casa Mi Tierra – $

Casa Mi Tierra is a favorite in Old Havana – a colonial building turned bed and breakfast with just three rooms, this could easily be an option for traveling with friends or family. Rooms are comfortable and spacious, and you’ll feel like you’re immersed in the historical heart of the city from the moment you wake up.

Casa Mi Tierra is also very affordable and will leave you shocked at how much you can get for your money when traveling to Havana.

Casa Castellón – $

Casa Castellón isn’t all that stylish, but the lovely host family that owns this casa particular will make you feel like you’ve found your home away from home.

Make sure to ask the hosts for recommendations of the best things to see and places to eat nearby, and they can also help arrange transportation or tours while you’re in Cuba. Plus, you’ll be just steps away from the very best of Old Havana!

Casa Flamboyan – $ – $$

Casa Flamboyan is a beautifully restored colonial home in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana that has lovingly been converted into a sunny bed and breakfast. This is a fantastic and relatively inexpensive option in the best part of this lively neighborhood. It’s a great choice on a budget!

Residencia Santa Clara – $$

Residencia Santa Clara is a stylish and modern boutique hotel in Old Havana that has won architecture awards for combining modern amenities and features with the building’s historic bones.

Comfortable and stylish rooms and inviting, and the cafe and bar downstairs are worth a visit even if you’re not a guest. Best of all, the fantastic, walkable location within Old Havana makes exploring the rest of the city a breeze.

La Reserva Vedado – $$$

La Reserva Vedado is easily one of my favorite Havana hotels – this stunning and beautifully-restored boutique hotel and historic home in Vedado feels truly luxurious but won’t break the bank. The front porch and lush patio will make you feel as if you’re staying in a stylish friend’s personal home.

In the heart of the Vedado neighborhood, La Reserva Vedado is an example of the very best of the city, combining history with modern style and exquisite service.

old havana cuba

Where To Eat in Havana

Havana, Cuba is overflowing with an abundance of delicious places to eat, with more cropping up all the time. Here you’ll find a fantastic mix of classic Cuban dishes and increasingly more international food options.

Make sure to download the AlaMesa app before heading to Cuba – this is like a Cuban version of Yelp, and has the most extensive listing of restaurants, cafes, and bars in Havana and across the country.

These are some of my top recommendations for cafes and restaurants in Havana, Cuba, and the places you’ll find us when we’re enjoying time out in Havana.

El Café – $

This is one of my personal favorite restaurants in Havana Cuba, and a top recommendation I always share for breakfast, brunch, and coffee.

Located in the heart of Old Havana, El Café serves delicious, fresh food and coffee all day, and mixed drinks at night. Breakfast sandwiches on sourdough are a favorite, as are granola with fresh tropical fruit.

El Dandy – $

El Dandy is another breakfast, lunch, and brunch spot that turns into a happy hour spot in the evening. This place is small and quaint but always attracts a crowd, and has affordable but delicious options. This is the perfect place to stop for lunch when exploring Old Havana.

Jibaro’s – $$

Jibaro’s is located in Old Havana and is one of my go-to places and top recommendations. Not only is the location beautiful, but they have fantastic food and mixed drinks, making this a great location for just a quick stop or a full meal.

Plus, this is a great spot for vegetarian and vegan options, which can still be challenging to come by in Havana Cuba. Get here early, as the place is small and fills up fast!

El del Frente – $$

El del Frente was born when its neighboring restaurant, 304 O’Reilly, started to boom in popularity, outgrowing its space and opening a sister restaurant.

While it might be overshadowed by its famous neighbor, I much prefer El del Frente, with its lovely rooftop dining space and bar, and delicious, inventive Cuban dishes.

La Guarida – $$$

La Guarida is one of the most well-known Havana restaurants, and with good reason. It has welcomed politicians (President Obama!), celebrities, and all the who’s who of Cuba and beyond the course of its history.

It’s also known for having unforgettable meals. This place is worth the splurge for a delicious meal in a beautiful setting. Don’t miss the rooftop bar for an evening drink or meal with a view.

vinales cuba

Day Trips From Havana

Day Trips from Havana to Viñales

Around 2 ½ hours west of Havana is Viñales, home to the Valle de Viñales – Viñales Valley, and some of Cuba’s most beautiful natural landscape. Viñales is best known for its incredible limestone “mountain” structures that shoot straight up out of the valley floor and are covered with lush vegetation.

Viñales is also home to some of the best tobacco grown in Cuba, so it’s a perfect place to come if you want to learn more about the cigars that Cuba is so famous for.

On day trips to Viñales from Havana to Vinales, travelers can visit tobacco farms and meet farmers, see how they dry and store tobacco leaves, roll cigars, and try a sample!

Viñales is also one of the best locations in Cuba for hiking. You’ll find caves to explore and countless hiking trails through the natural reserve for some beautiful views. Check out our complete guide to hiking in Viñales and guide to Cuba’s top hiking destinations if you’re looking to add this to your trip!

Read More: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide to Viñales, Cuba and Where To Stay in Viñales, Cuba

Day Trips from Havana to Varadero

If you’re looking for a day trip from Havana to the beach, I recommend visiting Varadero! Varadero is just over 2 hours east of Havana, and with frequent buses (and private transport options!) that connect Havana and Varadero, it’s usually the easiest beach option from the city.

Day trips from Havana to Varadero with transportation included are generally affordable and a great option on a quick itinerary. We’ve had travelers use the Civitatis day trips to Varadero to rave reviews!

Hotels and private rental hosts can arrange private transportation to Varadero, or buses leave several times a day from the central bus station in Havana near the Plaza de la Revolución. You’ll also find private cars near the bus station that sell seats for slightly more if you’re looking for more comfort, though the buses are generally nice.

Varadero has plenty of accommodation options at all price ranges if you’re looking to stay the night – even better than just a day trip from Havana. Plus, since so much of Varadero’s beachfront is public, even staying a few blocks away from the beach means you’ll have easy access to a beautiful stretch of ocean.

Read More: Ultimate Travel Guide to Varadero

varadero beach

Flights to Havana Cuba

The Jose Martí International Airport in Havana is the largest international airport in the country, with plenty of regular flights to nearby destinations. Located just outside the city, it usually takes around 20 or 30 minutes to reach downtown Havana from the airport.

Taxis from the airport cost around $25 USD – the official rate is posted at the airport, so don’t let a taxi driver convince you that it costs any more than the posted rate! Settle the rate before getting into the cab.

Flight frequency to Havana continues to increase after a precipitous decline during the pandemic, and now you’ll find multiple daily flights to Havana Cuba from major cities in the United States, Mexico, Latin American countries, and Europe.

Travel Essential

Don’t think about traveling without a good VPN (Virtual Private Network). Using a VPN while connecting to the internet is an easy way to keep your personal information safe from hackers and trackers. We’ve used NordVPN for years and couldn’t recommend it more – it’s a must for safety online, at home or abroad. 

Tips for Traveling to Cuba

Pack Wisely

Cuba is almost certainly unlike any place you’ll probably have ever traveled to before. Cuba’s irregular trade situation and the U.S. embargo mean that sometimes it can be challenging to find things here, no matter how hard you look.

Grocery stores or pharmacies will sometimes run out of staple products while having shelves overflowing with an overstock of other things.

This is one of my top tips for traveling to Cuba: bring exactly what you’ll need for your trip, and then some. Don’t be certain you’ll find those headache tablets at the corner pharmacy or an extra bottle of hairspray.

If you think you’ll need it, you should bring it!

Be Knowledgeable About the Internet in Cuba

The internet in Cuba is slower than you’re probably used to, and there are far fewer places you can access wifi than you might be used to at home. Don’t expect to be connected as much as you might be elsewhere!

Make sure to come with a VPN service (we’ve found NordVPN works best in Cuba and keeps speeds up better than other VPNs in Cuba!), so you can access all the internet pages as you would at home.

Despite slower internet speeds, internet access is growing quickly here, and many Airbnbs, hotels, and accommodations provide internet access.

Read More: Ultimate Guide: Using the Internet in Cuba

Cash is King in Cuba

It’s important for travelers from the United States to be aware that American credit cards and debit cards will not work in Cuba – you’ll need to bring all the cash you plan to spend on your trip with you when traveling to Cuba.

However, even if you bank outside of the United States, cash is king in Cuba, and many restaurants, guest houses, tour providers, and more will not accept debit or credit cards. It is best to bring cash with you when you travel to Cuba and convert it once you arrive.

With inflation soaring and exchange rates wildly different at official and unofficial moneychangers, bring cash to exchange in Cuba for Cuban pesos, and you’ll get much for each dollar or Euro you change.

Read More: How Much Money to Bring to Cuba