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Welcome to Havana


Situated on the north coast of the island and built around a natural harbour, Havana (La Habana), is one of the most lively and colourful cities in the Caribbean. Much of the city's charm can be found among the narrow, derelict streets packed with crumbling buildings and fascinating people. Every open door and overhanging balcony allows glimpses of rocking chairs and colourful washing, accompanied by the strains of music. On the streets Chinese-made bicycles, yellow, egg-shaped coco-taxis and two-humped camello (camel) buses weave among the melee of 1950s Chevy's and Russian Ladas.

The historic old town, Habana Vieja or Colonial Havana, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and fast becoming a major tourist destination. The Spanish left behind some superb colonial architecture, and many of the great buildings and grand plazas are being restored to their former glory. Central Havana (Centro Habana) boasts some of the most important museums and architectural highlights, including the Revolution Museum, and the National Capitol, resembling the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. The trendy suburb of Vedado boasts high-rise buildings and modern hotels, and draws locals and visitors alike with its theatres, art galleries, restaurants, cafes, and cabaret shows; however most of the city's sights are in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. The five-mile (8km) seawall, or malecón, stretches from Vedado to Habana Vieja, and is lined with architectural gems in various states of dilapidation or restoration.

Havana's nightlife will exhaust even the most seasoned partygoer. After dark, nightclubs and bars come alive and the famous rum cocktails flow freely. The city has plenty of cultural entertainment too, and its fair share of monuments, museums and statues. For those travellers needing rest from all this activity, the beaches are only twenty minutes east of the city.

Information & Facts


The Cuban climate is mild and sub-topical with cool tradewinds to provide relief from the heat and humidity. There is not much variation between day and night temperatures along the coast and average sea temperatures are 77°F (25°C). The rainy season, from May to October, is also the hurricane season, but most hurricanes strike between August and October, while the wettest months are May and June, particularly around Havana. Summer temperatures average around 81°F (27°C) with humidity at about 80 percent. Temperatures of about 68°F (20°C) are usual in winter.

Eating Out

This city isn't known for fine food, and eating out in Havana can be disappointing if you don't know where to go. There are two kinds of restaurants in Havana: government-run and privately-owned. The state-run restaurants have improved dramatically since the country reopened to tourism and tend to be cheaper, but the independent restaurants, called paladares, are often the best place to go for good food and lively atmosphere.

Restaurants in Havana lack the international variety of many other large cities. You won't find great Asian, French or Italian, but the Cuban and Creole options make up for it at restaurants like La Cecilia or La Fontana Habana.

There are a few fast-food chains, including El Rápido, which serves burgers, pizzas, fried chicken, and other watered-down options. For something a little fresher look out for Pain de Paris outlets, which bake bread and croissants, and offer a variety of sandwiches.

While dining out is beyond the reach of most Cubans, there will often be a second, higher-priced, menu for tourists. Be sure to ask for prices before ordering. Scams are common in Havana restaurants, and check your bill for extras that may appear. Some restaurants may add a service charge, if not then generous tipping of at least 10% is customary and appreciated.

Getting Around

Cubans rely heavily on an unreliable bus system that is cheap, but overcrowded and slow with long queues and inconsistent routes and schedules. Large buses called 'camellos' (camels, for their two humps) are pulled by truck engines and are particularly crowded, but very cheap (20 centavos). Most visitors to Havana avoid the buses and rely instead on numerous, inexpensive taxis to get around the greater part of the city. Renting a car is not the best option as car hire is expensive, roads are not well sign-posted, and numerous one-way streets make driving a real challenge. Different types of taxis cruise the streets, including tourist taxis, two-seater bici-taxis, colectivos (classic vintage cars) and the yellow scooter coco-taxis. Most tourist taxis are air conditioned, metered and well maintained and charge in Convertible Pesos, but there are also vintage car owners who operate as unofficial taxis, although a rate should be negotiated beforehand as passengers are likely to be overcharged. Bici-taxis, coco-taxis and colectivos are officially not supposed to take tourists. A couple of vintage cars can be hired by tourists for tours around the city and can be found outside main tourist attractions like the Revolution Museum or the Capitolio.

Kids Attractions

There are many fun places for children in Havana, both educational and recreational. The Acuario Nacional has dolphin and seal shows, while the Camara Obscura will give them a great look at the city through its telescopic lens. The Isla del Coco amusement park is the largest in Havana, located in Playa.

There are a few parks in Old Havana with play areas for children. Some have entry fees, but these are usually in Cuban Pesos and amount to a few cents. Lenin Park is enormous, and has everything from swimming pools and horseback riding to a zoo and an amusement park. Parque La Maestranza in Old Havana is less extensive, but has play areas, pony rides and a train ride. In Old Town you'll also find a bowling alley and arcade, along with La Colmenita children's theatre and the Cinecito, which plays only child-friendly movies.

The official language is Spanish, but English is spoken in the main tourist spots.

The official currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), divided into 100 centavos, but the 'tourist' currency is the Peso Convertible (CUC), which replaces the US Dollar as currency in tourist related establishments like hotels, restaurants and so called 'dollar shops'. US Dollars are no longer accepted as payment, and a 10% commission or more is charged to exchange them, therefore the best currency to bring along is Euros, the British Pound or Canadian Dollars. The CUC is almost equal in value to the US Dollar. Some places only accept Cuban pesos and others only Pesos Convertible (usually tourist related establishments). Money should only be changed at official exchange bureaux or banks to avoid scams confusing the two currencies. Visa and MasterCard are generally accepted only in major cities and hotels as long as they haven't been issued by a US bank; Diners Club has limited acceptance, and American Express is not accepted anywhere on the island. Travellers cheques are less readily accepted than credit cards, but all major currencies are acceptable, except for US bank issued cheques. No US-issued credit or debit cards will work in ATMs, but those holding other cards issued in other countries should be able to get pesos at most major tourist destinations. Euro or Sterling travellers cheques are accepted at Cuban banks and Bureaux de Change.


The nightlife scene in Havana pulses with Latin rhythms, sultry dancing, Timbal drum beats and a whole lot of energy. Live music is a focus and a highly popular pastime in Havana, and visitors can enjoy the unique experience of partying it up to local jazz, samba, and salsa, while clubs, bars and discos abound too.

In general Cubans love to look chic and stylish so don't be afraid to bring out your party outfit when hitting the streets for a night on the town. Head to La Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana, which is very touristy, but a great place to get warmed up to the local flavour before hitting nearby clubs like Bar Montserrate where a local quintet jams the night away and the rum keeps flowing. El Chévere, in Parque Almendares, is a gigantic open-air disco that keeps the music pumping all night long with pop, hip-hop and salsa beats, the Habana Café in the Hotel Melía Cohiba in Paseo is the place to be seen, and the rooftop bar at the Hotel Ambos Mundos is super trendy. Clubs don't get busy until after 10pm, and often stay open all night long.

Those looking for a quieter, more intimate setting should head to Calle 21 in La Roca where good whiskey, cigars and good conversation can be shared. For live music, venues like La Tropical in Playa feature live bands, while Jazz Café and Jazz Club La Zorra y el Cuervo in Vedado are Havana's top live jazz venues.

Havana also has a thriving arts community, with internationally-renown groups like the Cuban National Ballet performing in the Gran Teatro de La Habana, or the national symphony orchestra in the Teatro Amadeo Roldán. A weekly highlight is the Sábado de la Rumba at El Gran Palenque, which is a charismatic mix of secular and Afro-Cuban religious dancing and drumming.


Havana may not be known for its shopping, but it's a good place to check out the local wares and enjoy the shopping geared at tourists - a sad reality of the country's capitalist stance as most Cubans can't afford the luxurious products on sale, though some locals can be found strolling through the streets and malls, browsing, shopping and mingling with international visitors.

The biggest market in Havana is open daily on Calle Tacón in La Habana Vieja, with local arts and crafts, t-shirts, and other popular souvenirs. Or you can head to the ultra-modern Tiendas Carlos Tercero on the Avenida Salvador Allende where everything from clothes and shoes to electrical and sporting goods can be found while for local fashion and designer goods, La Maison in Miramar is the place to go.

Old Havana is a great place to browse too as the area is becoming increasingly popular with small boutiques and specialist shops lining the streets and while you're there, head to the local craft market behind the Plaza de la Catedral where stalls selling Cuban paintings, sculptures, wooden statues and embroidery abound and haggling is welcome.

Cuba's most famous export is undoubtedly its cigars. Regarded as among the best in the world, 'cubans' make great gifts from Havana for smokers. Cigars should only be bought at La Casa del Habano shops, as the black and grey-market cigars available on the street are often low-quality substitutes. Authentic boxes of cigars are sealed with 'Hecho en Cuba' (made in Cuba) branded at the bottom of the box.

Another well-known product of Cuba is its music, with salsa, folk, jazz, and reggaeton being popular. As with cigars, it is advised to buy cds from official state-run stores, as albums bought from the black or grey market are often low-quality bootlegs.

Visitors will notice that Che Guevara's likeness adorns just about everything from t-shirts and bags to mugs and coasters. Ron Caney or Havana Club rum makes a great Havana souvenir, or Cuban coffee. Men may like to pick up a colourful guayabera, an embroidered tropical shirt. Most shops in general open from 10am to 6pm and 10am to 1pm on Sundays.


With a rich and fascinating history, Havana's sightseeing is centred around its varied architecture, with everything from museums and churches to colonial forts and elaborate city squares. With friendly and colourful people juxtaposed by elegantly dilapidated buildings and occasionally derelict streets, there's nothing quite like Havana.

Just breathing in the scents and watching the vintage cars roll down the streets makes for a great day of sightseeing, but head into the historic old town, La Habana Vieja, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to explore the magnificent colonial architecture. Take in the sights and sounds as you stroll down the Calle Obispo as this pedestrian boulevard takes you through the streets, past the Parque Central and to some of the more hidden away gems of the La Habana Vieja. You can get the best view of Havana from the Camera Obscura, which provides a 360-degree look from atop the Plaza Vieja.

Havana is special for visitors simply because there are none of the tacky tourist developments that have overrun other destinations. That said, you'll find plenty of places claiming to be significant to Ernest Hemingway, but few are. You can visit the Ernest Hemingway Museum on the outskirts of town, set in his old residence.

Visit the cigar factories and rum distilleries to sample some of these world famous exports, visit the Plaza de la Revolución where political figures such as Fidel Castro have addressed the crowds and peruse the Museo de la Revolución - a must for all history buffs. And after a long day of sightseeing in the city, head to the nearby beaches, most of which are located no more than 20 minutes away to soak up some Caribbean sun and sip on a rum cocktail.

Local time is GMT -5 (GMT-4 from the second Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October).

This aquarium, located in Habana Vieja, features eight tanks displaying some truly beautiful freshwater fish, along with coral and other tropical species. Children will love the aquarium and will enjoy watching the dolphins, sea lions and seals, while parents can enjoy lunch in the aquarium's underwater restaurant. The subject of a recent renovation, the Acuario Nacional now also boasts a spellbinding display of brightly coloured saltwater fish. Consistently voted one of Havana's top tourist attractions for kids.

In April 1961, the United States (under the auspices of the CIA) launched an attack on Fidel Castro's government, attempting to overthrow it by securing the beach-head at Playa Gíron. The 'Bay of Pigs' invasion, as it has come to be known, was a humiliating failure for the US, only serving to strengthen the Cuban people's support of Castro. Today, the fascinating Bay of Pigs Museum (Muséo Playa Gíron) stands as a proud, and exhaustive record of the Cuban force's victory. Visitors can view maps and displays detailing the course of events as they transpired, as well as actual planes flown by the Cuban army during the siege, fragments of shot-down enemy planes, tanks, mortars and machine guns used in the battle, and much more. There is also a touching exhibition of photographs and biographies of the 156 Cuban soldiers that were killed during the invasion. Anyone with even a passing interest in modern history - or how US foreign policy has shaped the world in which we live - will find the Bay of Pigs Museum utterly enthralling. Budget at least two hours to take it all in.

Offering spectacular 360-degree views over the city of Havana from a telescopic lens located atop a 115-foot (35m) tall tower, the Cámara Oscura is a great place to take the kids. There is even a 10-minute virtual tour in both English and Spanish, taking visitors through the city's attractions and architectural highlights.

One of Havana's grandest pieces of architecture, the Capitolio is an important landmark and one of Centro Habana's major touristic sights. Resembling the US Capitol in Washington, DC, the monumental stone stairway leads to the vast domed hall, from where tours will take visitors beyond the doors to elaborately decorated chambers that once housed the seat of Cuban Congress. Today, it is home to the National Library and Academy of Sciences, and many of its rooms are still used for state events. Directly beneath the dome lies an imitation 24-carat diamond set into the marble floor, from where all highway distances between Havana and all sites in Cuba are measured.

Even non-smokers have to agree that a visit to Cuba would not be complete without investigating the island's most famous export, cigars. The art of cigar-making in Cuba is old and traditional, and three main factories in Havana offer tours for visitors to see cigars still rolled by hand. In the oldest factory, Partagas, founded in 1827, traditionally a reader is employed to keep workers entertained while they fashion the famous cigars. Havana's other cigar factories are La Corona and the lesser-visited Romeo y Julieta. There are shops attached to the factories where cigars can be purchased. Visitors are advised not to buy cigars from people off the street, as these are usually rolled banana leaves fashioned into cigar look-alikes and the sellers are persistent hustlers.

A five-mile (8km) esplanade, roadway and seawall, running between the harbour in Old Havana and the historically Russian area of Vedado, El Malécon is the perfect place to start your Havana adventure. The two-hour walk, described by many as a cross-section of Cuba's history, begins in Habana Vieja - where the buildings have had their famous pastel colours faded by the sun and the salty sea-wind - and goes past various monuments to significant figures in Cuba's struggle history (including Máximo Gomez and Calixto García), before ending up in the area of Verdado, a funky downtown district with great sights and vibrant nightlife. Celebrated by locals and tourists alike as the best way to gain an insight into the soul of Havana, travellers are strongly advised to begin their Cuban holiday with a walk along El Malécon.

Ernest Hemingway may be an American by birth, but Cubans have adopted him as their own - especially in Havana, where you'll find memorials to his apartments, regular haunts, and even favourite drink. Finca Vigia, his home just outside Havana, has been restored and now functions as a museum to the famous author. The residence is kept as it was when he lived there, writing works like For Whom the Bell Tollsand The Old Man and the Sea, and visitors can see his typewriter and library of over 8,000 books.

This historic section of Cuba's capital was founded in 1519, and for centuries, was an important naval port of colonial Spain. Being in such a strategic position, the city was targeted by pirates and fought over on numerous occasions, and the ruins of the defensive walls that surrounded the city can still be seen. The Old City now also contains museums, hotels, restaurants and shops lining the original cobble-stoned streets. Surrounding the picturesque squares (plazas) are beautiful restored colonial buildings with grand facades, and striking churches that form a magnificent setting for the late afternoon chess and domino games and salsa music. Plaza de Armas was the seat of power in Cuba for 400 years, from where the Spanish Captain's General, US military governors and Cuban president were based, and today is home to an interesting book market. During the years of Prohibition in the United States, Habana Vieja turned into a playground for Americans who flocked here for the cheap liquor, gambling, prostitution and flamboyant lifestyle. One of the district's most famous bars is La Bodeguita Del Medio, which was the favoured haunt of legendary US writer, Ernest Hemingway.

Cuba is developing its eco-tourism potential, and one of the prime spots for getting back to nature is at the Montemar Natural Park on the Zapata Peninsula in the province of Matanzas (about 75 miles or 120km from Havana). The peninsula is one of the largest swamps in the Caribbean, and its vast area includes forests, marshes, crystal-clear lagoons and canals. Its exuberant flora, including more than 900 species of plants (115 of them endemic to Cuba) is complemented by its rich fauna, consisting of 160 bird species and 12 types of animal, including crocodiles. One of the park's many features is the Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lagoon), a fresh water reservoir inhabited by golden trout. In the midst of the lagoon is a reproduction Taino village with its houses built on pillars. There are nature trails, a bird watching centre, and the largest flooded cave in Cuba. There is also a scuba centre, crocodile farm and several restaurants.

Built in 1791, the stately Baroque residence of Cuba's colonial governors and former Presidential Palace, the Palace of the Captains General stands as an impressive sight on the Plaza de Armas and is now the repository for the city's museum collections. The museum's displays and exhibits tell the tale of Havana, from its founding to the present day, including rooms devoted to the Cuban wars for national independence. The colourful Hall of Flags contains the original Cuban flag, as well as a number of others used by the Spanish colonial government. There are also exhibits relating to archaeology, folklore and weaponry, and an art collection that includes porcelain, paintings and furniture of historic value and great beauty.

Formerly the Presidential Palace and headquarters of the Cuban government, the impressive building now houses documents, photographs and artefacts pertaining to the Cuban Revolution, and provides an excellent introduction to, and understanding of, Cuba's history and its struggle for independence. Prepare to spend a few hours wandering from room to room as the story unfolds, from Spanish colonial times to the present day. In front of the museum entrance stands a watchtower that was part of the old city walls, as well as a tank used by Fidel Castro during the battle of the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Behind the museum is the glass-encased yacht, the 'Granma', which brought 82 revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, from Mexico to set the 1956 Revolution in motion.

The modern Bellas Artes Museum is split into two buildings housing International and Cuban art. The Colección de Arte Universal covers everything from ancient Greek artefacts and Latin American pieces to art by French, Dutch and Italian painters. The Colección de Arte Cubano is also outstanding and covers works from the 16th to the 20th centuries by prominent Cuban artists.

Twenty-five minutes east of Havana are the Playas del Este, a chain of sandy beaches stretching for six miles (10km) between Bacuranao and Guanabo. On the weekends, they are generally packed with Cubans escaping the city. There are a few tourist hotels lining the coast, but other than that, there are limited facilities. If needing an escape from the city the beaches make a good day trip; however, those expecting pristine tropical island beaches might be disappointed.

Dominated by the imposing José Martí Memorial, the gigantic square has seen numerous political rallies, and the podium in front of the memorial is where important political figures like Fidel Castro have addressed more than a million Cubans on important occasions, such as 1 May and 26 July each year. At the foot of the memorial is a museum dedicated to José Martí, a national hero who would most likely have become Cuba's first president had he survived the Second War of Independence in 1895. It is possible to take the elevator to the top of the 138ft (42m) memorial, the highest structure in the city. Located behind the memorial are the closely guarded offices of Castro. Opposite the memorial, on the far side of the square, is the much-photographed Che Guevara image with the slogan Hasta la Victoria Siempre(Forever Onwards Towards Victory), that identifies the Ministry of the Interior building.

With 22 miles (36km) of sandy, white, palm-fringed beach, Varadero Beach has often been referred to as one of the world's most beautiful beaches. With some of the most amazing diving, fishing and snorkelling opportunities, children splashing around in the crystalline turquoise waters will even be able to spot some fantastic fish with the naked eye. Glass-bottom boat companies abound here, too. Varadero Beach is a wonderful place to spend the day, and an absolute must-visit while in Cuba.

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