When to fly
The most popular time to fly to Havana is December to January, though if you visit then, be prepared for cooler evenings. The Festival Jazz Plaza also attracts visitors from all over the world in December to enjoy some of the best jazz the genre has to offer. Performances are held in various venues throughout the town such as the Teatro Mella and Chucho Valdes and spectators will then head on over to the late night jams and parties that carry on after the evening concerts. The months of July and August are also very popular with holidaymakers. Time around national holidays – Christmas, Easter, New Year and 26 July (the anniversary of the revolution) – are also very busy with tourists hoping to join in the festivities. In the towns such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba, peak season runs for most of the year.
Unsurprisingly, off season is October and November when hurricanes are most likely. This is the time when the best deals on cheap flights to Havana and accommodation are most likely to be found. Events such as the International Ballet Festival of Havana is sure to keep tourists and locals entertained during the ‘off’ season in Havana as it is one of the largest and best loved events of its kind in the country. The festival sees some of the top dancers from around the world perform alongside artists from the country’s own National Ballet of Cuba and since 1974 has continued to be one of the most prestigious ballet festivals in Cuba.
Havana is the largest city in the Caribbean and arguably the one with the most diverse attractions and sights. Nearly half a century of Socialist regime has made its mark on Cuba’s capital. Travellers booking flights to Havana may have a typical image of the city: its famous 1950s American cars with huge fins cruising past colonial-style buildings that have seen better days, against a backdrop of socialist posters.
But the past decade has seen huge change – major regeneration projects have cleaned up the old buildings and historic squares, new grand hotels are opening, tourists disembarking flights to Havana are more welcome than ever before in casa particulares (private homes) and a dual economy has arisen around the tourist dollars and the Cuban pesos. It is a city on the cusp of change; making it all the more fascinating to visit.
The “must-sees” include stunning architecture (all of Habana Vieja (the old town), Catedral de San Cristobal, the Museo de la Ciudad); a buzzing nightlife and some spectacular beaches. And after a long day sightseeing, don’t miss the chance to sample some of the local drinks. Havana is the home of the mojito.
The eastern beaches of Havana – or Playas del Este – lure tourists and locals alike year-round to nearly 6 miles (10 km) of white sand between Bacuranao and Guanabo. Situated 10.5 miles (17 km) east of the capital city, the beaches offer close to a dozen resorts (popular among tourists) and beach houses (popular among Cuban families). Stick to Guanabo if you want to experience Cuba’s vibrant culture. For a heavily patrolled, but slightly more secure holiday, try the hotel-packed area of Santa Maria.
The Museum of the City is dedicated to preserving the history of Cuba, from its infancy as a colony to the Communist Revolution of the 1950s. Built in 1791, the impressive building once housed colonial governors, and now stands on the Plaza de Armas as a space for historic collections, from the original Cuban flag to weaponry, paintings, period furniture and other Cuban treasures.
Cigars are synonymous with Cuba, so it’s no wonder that tourists flock to see how the smoking gems are made at Havana’s main cigar factories: Partagás and La Corona. Knowledgeable guides offer factory tours of the Partagás Cigar Factory every 20 minutes. Acquaint yourself with the hand-rolling technique, and then pick up a few for friends and family back home.
The site of major political rallies and speeches given by Fidel Castro, the Plaza de la Revolucion is the axis of Cuban political life. The Jose Marti Memorial, dedicated to the expected first president of Cuba who died in the Second War of Independence in 1895, is the focal point of the massive square. A museum honouring Marti abuts the memorial. At the opposite end of the square is the often-photographed image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, which reads “Hasta la Victoria Siempre,” or “forever onwards towards victory.”
Once known as the National Museum, the National Museum of Fine Arts was created in 1913 and now is the go-to destination for the Cuban fine art. Visitors to the museum stroll among 25 exhibits in two buildings, which house Cuban and international art. More than 1,200 paintings, prints and sculptures are on display, all which have been approved by the Presidency of the Council of State.
Spend hours exploring the presidential palace-turned-museum, the ultimate destination for visitors to learn about Cuban history. An architectural wonder, the Museo de la Revolucion houses documents, photographs and artefacts which give newcomers a clear understanding of the sequence of major events in Cuba’s history. A tank used during the Bay of Pigs by Fidel Castro, as well as an historic watchtower, greet visitors at the museum’s entrance.
A wonderfully appointed building in the heart of central Havana. Similar looking to the United States Capitol in Washington DC, El Capitolio housed Cuba’s Senate and House of Representatives until the country’s revolution in 1959. Nowadays, tourists stroll with guided tours through the neoclassic hallways and admire wonders such as the Salón de los Pasos Perdidos (The Hall of Lost Steps) and La Estatua de la República (The Statue of the Republic), the third-largest covered statue in the world.
“Old Havana” to English speakers and “Habana Vieja” to locals, the heart of Cuba’s capital was rightfully deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Much of Havana, from Baroque and Neoclassical monuments to residential homes and gated courtyards, has been preserved. Founded in 1519 and initially a Spanish colonial naval port, the historic city has survived wars and revolutions, and now is home to more than two million residents.
The wet season in Cuba is July to September, with hurricane season June to November. The dry season is December through to April or May. However, the temperature is high throughout the year, averaging around 27 degrees Celsius and falling only to an average of 22 from November to January.
Getting around Havana
Havana’s bus system is unreliable, so take one of the shuttle or tour buses that cater to travellers. You may want to try a camel, which in this case is a tractor-pulled passenger car. These take people all around the city, but are for the more adventurous traveller. You can find tourist taxis easily at hotels and major sightseeing spots. Havana taxis charge rates in US dollars and can be very affordable. Freelance taxis are illegal, and while the passengers aren’t punished, the drivers might refuse to drop you in front of your hotel. It’s always a good idea to settle on a price before you get in the car. Walking around is a great way to soak up the city, especially in La Habana Veija, but you can also take horse-drawn carriages, two-seater Coco Taxis and antique cars to get you to your next stop.
Getting downtown from the airport
Jose Marti International Airport (HAV) is located 9 miles (15 km) southwest of Havana.
Havana insider information
- The Hotel Nacional is one of the most impressive in Havana. It was a favourite of Winston Churchill’s. However, it is also one of the most expensive places to stay. If it’s outside your budget, don’t be put off from just going for a wander round the lobby to take a look.
- One of the cheapest ways to stay in the city is in a “casa particular” – a private room rented out to tourists. Rules are strict for Cubans wanting to rent out accommodation – they need a licence in order to do so and are only allowed to have a maximum of two rooms with two adults in each at any one time. Standards vary widely, so make sure you ask to check the room before accepting it. With a bit of scouting, however, this can be a cost-effective way of staying, and will introduce you to some inhabitants of the city, who will know more about it than any tourist you meet in a hotel.