Cuba’s capital is a vibrant, colourful, and soulful destination that every traveller needs to experience. Here’s what to do in 48 hours in Havana, for an unforgettable trip that you may event want to extend.
With Cuba’s guarded openness to private enterprise holding strong, classic American cars and salsa singers share the cityscape with inventive offerings in food, culture, night life and hospitality. After so many months gasping for change, nowhere else in Latin America is going through quite what is happening here.
From the rhythms of salsa in the Old Town to the tranquil Bosque de Havana (Havana Forest), Havana offers countless experiences that’ll delight the senses. Past and present, old and new, old spaces reformed into cool bars and restaurants and so much more.
While 48 hours in Havana may not be enough, and some restrictions apply, the city is most definitely ready to be found.
Before you travel
First, let’s go over the logistical things you need to take care when you’re planning your visit to Havana.
Get a Cuban visa
You may need to visa to enter Cuba. Requirements vary by country so check with your embassy or department of state. You may be able to get your visa through the airliner you fly. Alaska Airlines, the airliner I used, allows you to order visas online through its partner, Cuba Travel Services. You can get your visa at the airport as well, but you’ll have to arrive very early. Check with your airline to find out their visa policies.
Book a casa particular
If you want to experience how ordinary Cubans live, the best place to stay is at a casa particular. It’s Cuba’s equivalent of an Airbnb and one of the few types of accommodation that the government doesn’t run. You can find a casa particular on the Airbnb website simply by searching for accommodation in Havana. I would recommend you stay in a residential area as opposed to bustling Old Town. I stayed in El Vedado, a calm neighbourhood on the west side.
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Know the currency
In Cuba, there are two types of currency – one for locals and one for foreigners. The Cuban CUC is the currency for foreigners. Locals use a currency called CUP. The exchange rates are 1 CUC to 25 CUP and 1 CUC to 1 USD.
It’s important to note that there’s a 10% commission to exchange American dollars. euros will give you the most favourable exchange rate. Regardless of where you’re coming from, I’d recommend you get some euros from your local bank before you leave for Cuba.
Know the Wifi situation
The Cuban government prohibits the use of private wifi. If you want to access Wi-Fi, you will need to go to either a Wi-Fi park or a hotel. Ask your host for the nearest Wi-Fi location.
What to do
With only two days to spend in Havana, the best way to experience the urban life is to do a classic car tour. Classic cars that offer tours are concentrated in the Old Town, but you can also find them throughout the city. My friends and I chartered a classic car on Calle Almendrales in El Vedado, the main taxi street in the area. From 11 am onwards, these cars, called almendrones, appear on the street, looking for customers. You can negotiate a deal with the driver to give you a customized tour of Havana.
My two friends and I negotiated a rate of 20 CUC ($20) per person per day with our guide, Alejandro. An attractive and savvy gentleman, he served as our guide for the entire trip – must do activity if you only have a short stay in Havana!
Our classic tour started in New Havana and ended in Old Havana. It covered the following must-see places:
Plaza de la Revolución
You’ve probably seen this is the iconic square with a large outline of Che Guevara’s face in the background. The largest square in Havana, Plaza de la Revolucion hosted plenty of political rallies during and after the Cuban revolution. It’s an important landmark in Cuba’s history and also provides a fantastic backdrop for photos.
Location: Avenida Paseo, Havana, Cuba
Make your way to the Malecón, “a free place with a nice view and lots of possibilities” — that’s how young Cubans often describe Havana’s famous sea wall. This sea boulevard crawls 7 km along the historical areas of the city, from the colonial centre (Habana Vieja) through the boring (Russian) apartments of Vedado, if it is a resume of Havana’s history, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Couples kiss to music buzzing from old iPhones; friends and musicians dance, taxis honk their way through a dawn-seeking crowd overseen by the police who whisper but rarely intervene. It offers a beautiful view of the city’s skyline in the distance.
Location: Centro Habana, Havana, Cuba
El Bosque de Havana
The only forest in Havana, el Bosque is a nice retreat from the sometimes-boisterous Old Town. It’s a serene space full of greenery and contrasts, where gigantic jaguey trees and their hanging green curtains drape around the scenery, partly concealing, partly beautifying the surroundings.
It’s home to Parque de Almendares, where you can sit and relax while enjoying some piňa coladas. The bar, in fact, serves the best piña coladas I’ve ever had!
Location: Calle 28 A entre 49A y 49C Reparto Kohly, La Habana, Cuba
El Morro Castle: this a 16th Century fortress that was used to shield the entrance to Havana from invaders. You can take a tour of the castle for 6 CUC. Climbing to the top of the lighthouse costs an extra 2 CUC.
Every night at 9 pm, a ceremony known as El Cañonazo takes place in front of the castle. Men dressed in full military uniforms fire a cannon over the Havana harbour. This tradition dates back to the colonial era.
Location: Parque Morro, Havana, Cuba
The official name of this large, indoor market is Mercado de Artesanía, but it’s known locally as La Feria. Located right at the entrance to Old Havana, this is the perfect place to test your bargaining skills. I purchased a bag full of souvenirs for less than 20 CUC. Here, you can find typical fridge magnets but also African instruments, traditional Cuban clothes, and lots of unique souvenirs.
Location: Avenida del Puerto, Antiguos Almacenes San Jose, Havana, Cuba
The oldest neighbourhood in Havana, this is area truly is probably the most vibrant part of the city. You’ll find rows colourful Spanish buildings, street performers, ordinary people dancing salsa in the streets, along with tons of restaurants and bars. There’s so much to see in Old Havana that you can spend an entire day here.
Location: La Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba
Playa del Este
Varadero is normally regarded as the best beach escape in Cuba, but its a 3-hour drive from Havana. A great alternative is Playa del Este, which takes less than half the time. Located east of Havana, this beach makes for a perfect day trip, with clear Caribbean water and white sand. There is a delicious and inexpensive seafood restaurant and a coconut shop in front. This may be one you extend your trip for!
Location: Playa del Este, Habana del Este, Habana, Cuba
331 Art Space
The renovated 1941 mansion is the work and display space for three young artists — Frank Mujica, Alex Hernández and Adrián Fernández — whose styles range from intimate drawings to large-scale prints and mixed media. Prices are roughly $500 to $10,000, a reflection of what Mr Hernández describes as his generation’s grand, global ambition to create art that reflects Cuba but “looks to a wider audience, an international audience.”
Location: 3401, Avenida 31, La Habana, Cuba
Where to eat
Considered a symbol of history, culture and Cuban identity. This historical hotel caters to wealthy tourists and offers wifi, but the best attraction is its outdoor restaurant, La Barraca. It’s a wonderful spot to try the Cuban staple dish, Ropa Vieja. This is shredded beef with a rich stew, served with rice. Highly recommended! A meal here will cost you between $10-$15.
Location: Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Postal Code: 10400, Cuba, Calle 21, La Habana, Cuba
The entrance to the city’s most legendary private restaurant greets you like a scene out of a 1940s film noir. La Guarida’s reputation was first fermented in the 1990s when it was used as a location for the Oscar-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate. Not surprisingly, the food is still up there with Havana’s best, with people raving about the tacos, yucca frita, and red snapper. There’s also rooftop seating with beautiful views of the city. This is a high-end restaurant, with meals costing $30-$35
Location: 418 Concordia, La Habana, Cuba
Restaurante Mirador El Clasico
Located next to El Morro Castle, El Clasico is a treehouse restaurant with views of Old Havana in the distance. It has a great selection of seafood and chicken dishes. The black beans and rice are also perfectly cooked. A meal at this mom and pop restaurant will cost you $5-$10.
Location: El Clasico doesn’t have a specified address. That’s normal for mom and pop restaurants in Havana. To get there, you can first go to Paladar Doňa Carmen – Comunidad nº 1 Casa 10 El, Morro, La Habana, Cuba. Then walk 3 minutes to the west and you’ll find the treehouse.
Head here for Havana’s version of the Starbucks frappuccino for breakfast. Cold, strong and flavoured with cinnamon. A wonderfully reimagined interior decked out with revolving local art, much of it made from recycled ‘junk.’ Sit on the porch and enjoy it alongside an omelette or with a full American breakfast. A hearty feast can be had for $3.
Location: 206, Calle L, La Habana, Cuba
This is where Cuba’s emerging elite go, for its waterfront location on the edge of Miramar, its design-school vibe and its food. Try the seafood pasta for a break from Cuban fare, or go deep into the past with pan de boniato and the ropa vieja — a shredded-meat classic made from lamb at Río Mar, in an effort to revive a dish that largely disappeared after the Revolution. Then order flan or rum and linger a little longer as the waves knock into the shore. Dinner should cost around $56 for two.
Location: 3ra y Final #11, La Puntilla, Miramar, 11 Avenida 3ra, La Habana, Cuba
La Casa de la Música
Get your groove on here with live music and dancing to salsa and merengue. The crowd size varies, and some locals may be looking for more than just a dance partner, but with the right band on the right night, you can lose yourself here for hours of visceral joy. One of Cuba’s best and most popular nightclubs and live-music venues. All the big names play here, from Bamboleo to Los Van Van – and you’ll pay peanuts to see them. Of the city’s two Casas de la Música, this Centro Habana version is a little edgier than its Miramar counterpart (some say it’s too edgy), with big salsa bands and not much space.
Location: Calle Galiano e/ Neptuno y Concordia, Centro Habana, La Habana
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