Havana have-tos: the experiences you can’t miss in Cuba’s capital

written by Jess Simpson October 24, 2017
Havana guide Cuba car locals

As I began to write this assignment, to share Havana have-tos from experiences on a recent trip, I thought about the friends my husband and I made along the journey.

Ana studied architecture in college and now manages her family’s homestay business as well as crafts exquisite jewelry from metal objects. We shared homemade vegetable soup and life stories one rainy afternoon at her kitchen table. She and I are the same age and, together, found humor and comfort in our “getting older woes.” After a week, it seemed we had always known each other.

Havana guide Cuba cars

Stunning Havana

I also thought of our tireless guide, Pedro, who took us through Havana’s diverse neighborhoods. He shared his passion for history and sports, along with optimism for the future. Late one afternoon while lingering over ceviche and cerveza, Pedro said, “For my whole life, all 33 years, I heard about America. Only five years ago did I meet an American.” We told him we had Cuban friends living in Miami, but not until arriving in Havana did we have a friend living in Cuba. We contemplated the strangeness of being close neighbors (only 330 miles separates the U.S. and Cuba) and knowing so little of each other.

While I’m still processing Havana’s stunning architecture, vivid works of art, and joyful music, the openness and warmth of interaction with locals like Pedro and Ana is what shines. Traveling in Cuba underscored a simple truth for us: no politician’s policy or government’s regulation can interfere with the connection and understanding that develops when people meet, face to face.

Sharing stories, asking questions and learning from each other, those are the greatest “Havana have-tos” I can recommend.

Havana guide Cuba group tour

An Intrepid tour in Havana

Cuba’s capital, with its immense beauty and complexity, offers an invaluable opportunity for cultural exchange and connection. And, after all, that’s what really keeps us traveling, right?

Whenever you visit, and I hope you do, here’s my tips for experiencing the passion, resiliency, and heart of Havana.

Engage at every turn

It’s a rare block in Havana where walking doesn’t lead to conversation. A man working under the hood of a classic car turns to ask where you’re from. The opportunity to talk American car culture lights a thousand watts in his smile.

Havana guide Cuba car locals“Where are you going?” a local entrepreneur asks as she steers a wheelbarrow loaded with fruit along central Havana’s colorful streets. “You see Prado,” she suggests, pointing ahead to Paseo del Marti (official name), the city’s grandest boulevard. A man strumming guitar in a park mentions his band’s upcoming gig and encourages you to come. “There will be dancing,” he says, as his hips intuitively begin to sway.

No platform offers a better opportunity for connection than homestays, known as casa particulares. Recent reforms permit individuals to run small businesses, such as B&Bs and restaurants, from homes. For travelers, the reward is twofold: money goes directly to locals and you engage in daily life with a family.

A knowledge of basic Spanish (or even just a few phrases) will exponentially enhance opportunities for connection, and be appreciated by nearly everyone encountered.


Always break to dance

When the sun goes down, music echoes through Old Havana’s cobbled streets.

Havana guide Cuba street

Cuba’s beautiful streets

A formal affair this is not. Dancers spill into streets from restaurants and dance halls. As you move closer, you look through open doors and windows to see musicians drenched in sweat and performing like mad as an appreciative crowd swells. Soon, someone waives you in and encourages you to join the groove. Self-consciousness doesn’t stand a chance against the infectious rhythms.

No opportunity for dance lessons, of a formal or informal nature, should be passed by.

Havana guide Cuba dance

Havana’s dance scene is not to be missed


Sample daiquiri, find comfort in malanga

To swim in mojitos and engulf ceviche is a (worthy) goal of many first-time visitors. And, these classically Cuban delights do not disappoint.

What may come as surprise is the simple perfection of a Cuban daiquiri. Far from the syrupy, neon concoctions served in beach bars the world over, the drink here, where it originated, tastes like pure snow.

Havana guide daiquiri

The quintessential Cuban daiquiri

The roof of Hemingway haunt Hotel Ambos Mundos offers respite on sweltering afternoons, along with extraordinary views and a cool daiquiri in the writer’s honor.

Another tasty surprise is more earthy in nature. The root vegetable malanga is considered comfort food. Parents give pureed sauce to sick kids. Hungover adults (one too many daiquiris?) turn to fried fritters for cure. The kitchen of 304 O’Reilly in Old Havana serves a standout version sautéed with peppers, alongside delicious ceviche and plantains. (To find out more about Cuba’s surprising culinary scene, check out one Intrepid traveller’s story.)

Celebrate diversity of expression

Havana is an art lover’s dream. Your head spins as you begin to grasp the scope of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, where a guide to the comprehensive collection is key. Contemporary art is the spotlight of a former peanut oil factory turned exhibition space, Fabric de Arte.

Yet, many of the city’s most visceral art experiences are open air. Wandering into the alley-turned-gallery Callejon de Hamel, the mysterious world of Santería takes form through colorful murals and shrines.

Artistic vision on super-size scale can be witnessed in Fusterlandia. Mosaicist Jose Fuster meticulously covered his home’s every surface, from roof to fence, in a riot of tile tesserae. Neighbors then offered their homes and businesses as canvas for creating an entire village of extraordinary living art.

Havana guide Fusterlandia


Cruise in style

Looking back on notes I made before the trip, I had scribbled, “Classic car ride?” That question mark now makes me smile. The hesitation of being taken on a tourist ride was completely unfounded.

Once you see the rainbow palette of vintage beauties cruising by the sea along the famed Malecón (sea wall), you know this is the way to see the city. An obligatory stop for most drivers is Plaza de la Revolucion, to show off monuments to Che Guevara and Jose Marti, but equally eye-catching is the parade of cars and proud drivers. (If you’re looking for a local-led car tour, look no further than Intrepid’s sister company, Urban Adventures!)

Havana guide Cuba car

Enjoying my car tour!

During the return toward Old Havana, you gaze at one crumbling facade after another and feel time slipping back and forward as you move through the city’s layers.

From the backseat of a shiny, red 1955 Chevrolet convertible, your heart may ache, as mine did, for the city’s past and in hope for its future, and overwhelmingly, you will be glad you came.

Want to visit this dazzling island nation? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Cuba.

American and want to visit Cuba? Intrepid have the perfect 9-day People to People trip for you!

(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x5, Jessica Simpson x4)

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