Havana was everything I dreamed it to be. Beautiful architecture. Historic. Run down, yet rebuilt and beautiful. Walking through the cobbled streets of old Havana, you can hear live Cuban music down every block, smell a lingering puff of a Cuban cigar and see the vibrant-coloured, restored buildings. The first time I ever had a glimpse of Cuban culture, I dreamed of running away to Havana, learn Cuban dancing and becoming fluent in Spanish. Years have past since then, and finally I had my chance to visit the city that is still living back in time. This time I wasn’t able to live out that old dream, but I was able to learn and see so much in just one day. Below is a list of the top sights you have to see (and you can see) in just one day in Havana.
1. Stroll the Streets of Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
Walking around the whimsical, colourful streets of Old Havana is a must. I doubt you could find a way around it. Many of the sights I have listed below are in Habana Vieja, and you might just stumble across them without even trying. During our walk-through, we ran into a couple of soaked kittens, delicious-smelling bakery’s, quaint cafes and bars bustling with live music.
2. Plaza de la Revolucion
At first glance, the Plaza de la Revolucion is just a huge concrete parking lot. Surrounding this giant lot is huge portraits of Che Guevara (on the Ministerio del Interior building) and Camilo Cienfuegos (on the telecommunication building), as well as the Jose Marti Memorial. Lined along the side of the Plaza are tour buses and lines of vintage cars. But, when you step out of the craziness of the tourists and into the middle of the square you can feel it. The history of this square. The revolution, and all the important events that have occurred here over the past 60 years. Originally known as civic square, it became the Plaza de la Revolution in 1959 after the Cuban Revolution. Many political rallies have taken place in the plaza, and political figures, like Fidel Castro addressed more than a million Cubans on many important occasions here.
3. Ride in a Vintage Car
I’m not going to lie to you; we didn’t ride in a vintage car during our trip (wasn’t sure how comfortable the two-hour trip would have been from Varadero). But, if you really want to experience the true Havana, try to get around in a vintage 1950s Chevrolet or Ford. The vintage cars cost roughly the same as taking a regular cab (booking a vintage car tour in Havana starts around CUC 50). If I could do it again, I would definitely pick the pink Chevy convertible.
4. Smoke a Cuban Cigar
There’s a reason why Cubans have the most famous cigars. Everywhere you turn in Cuba, you can smell the crisp puff of a Cuban cigar. The most famous cigar brand in Cuba is a COHIBA. If you’re a beginner, like me, a local retailer suggested smoking a H. Upmann coronas junior. Other popular brands include: Punch, Partagás, Romeo y Julieta, Bolívar and Montecristo. Really into cigars? Check out the Partagas Cigar Factory.
5. Walk the Malecón Esplanade
During the day, the Malecón looks like a run down, once beautiful street. It is slowly being deteriorated by large waves crashing over the ledge and onto the sidewalk. But during the evening, the Malecón is a great place to people watch and stroll along after a filling Cuban meal.
6. Listen To Cuban Music
In almost every bar in old Havana, you can hear live music spilling into the street. Take your pick at which musician sounds the best and enjoy a delicious rum beverage or Cristal beer.
7. Plaza Vieja
The exact history of the Plaza Vieja is difficult to pin point. After reading numerous articles that contradict each other, the only thing I can say for sure is that this square has undergone many transformations (including an underground parking garage), and may have possibly been a marketplace. While I cannot say for sure what exactly it was, it is now a beautiful square with restored buildings housing bars, restaurants and cafes. It’s a great spot to stop in for a coffee and people watch.
8. Tour the Partagas Cigar Factory…or at Least the Store
The Cigar factory was something we decided to skip, but if you were really into cigars, it would be an interesting stop. We did however; go inside the factory store to look at cigars (and rum) to purchase. The factories don’t always have the best rates on cigars, but at least you know they are real. Avoid buying cigars from vendors on the street they are always fakes.
9. Catedral de la Habana / Catedral de San Cristobal
The Cathedral de la Habana is one of the oldest churches in the Americas (building started in 1748). Fun Fact: Christopher Columbus’ remains were once housed here before being moved to Seville, Spain.
10. Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
Stepping into the courtyard of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales takes you to a whole other world. The vibrant plants and wandering peacocks makes you forget you are in downtown Havana. In the middle of the courtyard is a marble statue of Christopher Columbus. If its not obvious (because of its name), the palace once housed Cuba’s governor generales (and randomly the U.S. Military administration, before the revolution), and is now a museum. You can view the courtyard from the street. If you’d like to check out the museum, admission is CUC 3.
11. Take in the View from the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro
This was our first stop on our trip to Havana, and there couldn’t have been a better way to start. The view from the Castle shows a panoramic view of the entire city of Havana (new and old). Turn around and see a beautiful view of the surrounding ocean. The fortress was originally built to serve as a defence from potential invaders. We never ventured inside the castle, as our tour guide said there was absolutely nothing to see in there. If you’ve experienced the inside and enjoyed it, please comment below and let me know all about it!
12. Have a Mojito on the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos
Here’s another amazing viewpoint for the city of Havana. What’s better than a nice view? Being able to sip a cocktail and enjoy it. The rooftop bar showcases a 360-degree view of the historic city centre of Havana. The hotel itself is worth checking out as well. The hotel walls are adorned with photos and pieces of Ernest Hemmingway. He was known to reside and write at the hotel. Ride up to the rooftop in a retro elevator, or check out the live music at the piano bar in the lobby.
13. El Capitolio (National Capitol Building)
The Capitol building in Centro Habana resembles and is believe to be modelled after the same in Washington, D.C. This stunning building is worth the quick stop to see. As of right now you can’t view the inside; the building is closed for renovation.
14. Gran Teatro de La Habana
The Gran Teatro is another grandiose building to check out in Havana. The theatre is now home to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
15. Museo de la Revolucion
With the short time we had in Havana, we decided to skip the inside of the Museum of the Revolution. On the outside, is the façade of another beautiful building. Featured outside of the museum is the tank that Fidel Castro rode in himself during the Bay of Pigs battle in 1961. Located in Old Havana, the museum is home to everything that has to do with the revolution, including a tonne of propaganda (admission is CUC 8). The museum was once the presidential palace until 1974.