Cuba is the largest island in the Carribean with it’s interior is dotted with mountains, tobacco fields and the coasts are sugary white. There’s a lot do, see and experience for the lover of nature and anyone looking to experience a culture like no other place on the planet. But, the most color you will find is in the capitol city of Havana. It’s here that I spent 5 days and 4 nights. I explored the music-loving, classic car filled city and even made it to a nearby beach. Below is my list of the Top 10 Must Do’s. This is not all that Havana has to offer but are the experiences I found most interesting, photogenic and fun!

buildings in Havana
woman walking in Havana
unicorn in Havana

Cruise in a Classic Car

Red Dodge convertible in Cuba

Close your eyes and try to picture Havana without classic cars. You can’t! The city is known for it’its wondrous collection of still driveable American cars from the 1950’s – pre-revolution and the ousting of Miami gangsters! Due to embargos placed on the nation by the U.S., Cuba’s inability to buy affordable cars from other parts of the world created the necessity for these American Classics to stay in good working order.

The cars are everywhere you look! So, this Top To Do is easy to take off the bucket list! There are two ways of hiring a car, you can flag one down or book a tour in a classic convertible for the duration of your choice. I chose a two-hour tour and paid 70 CUC (tourist currency and equal to approximately 75 USD) for two people and 35 CUC for one hour for me and my inflatable unicorn without any commentary. Both were delightful and made for great pictures but after the tour concluded I had to do reading on my own to understand all that my guide said in Spanish.

Upsides:

It’s a fun, novel way of seeing the city and getting some sun while you explore Havana or it’s nearby towns. Great for photos and the guides will take you wherever you want to go. I recommend taking a ride your first day in Havana with a map in hand to get an understanding of the lay of the land.

Downsides:

The cars are old so the seats are covered in hot plastic which causes sweating. Another thing, the exhaust is horrible and you are definitely not going to smell lily fresh once you wave your driver “adios”! Even though Cubans have been working with English-speaking tourist (mainly Canadians for years) the majority are not fluent in English and their tour will not be as heavy on facts as you may have received in other countries.

ford convertible in havana
red dodge in Havana Cuba
car ride in Havana

Tour a Rum Factory

Red Dodge convertible in Cuba

Rum is the drink of choice in Cuba… practically the only choice! This sugar-based alcohol has been produced in Cuba for over four centuries and they’ve become experts at making some of the world’s finest. While in sugar-land I chose to indulge in the history and taste of this syrupy sipper at Bocoy Rum Museum.

When I arrived, the town experienced a black-out so my tour was shortened to a tasting of the flavored rums made by Bocoy. I was amazed by the flavors: Plantain, Mint, Cocoa, Cafe! All delicious but closer to an aperitif than a full drink!

When I return to Cuba, I will tour the Havana Club Museum – this is the most popular rum of the country – and visit the facade of the former headquarters of Bacardi (now made and legally operated in Puerto Rico).

rum tour of Boracay
Boracay flavored Rum

Tour a Cigar Factory

Partagas Cigar Factory Cuba

Equally famous to the classic cars are the Cuban cigars! Known for their high quality and high price tag – even in Cuba! To truly understand their price tag you must get up close and personal to the artists themselves. In Havana, there are five factories you can visit. I chose to tour Partagas which manufactures over 25,000 cigars per day for their brand and the famous Cohiba – Castro’s favorite when he was a smoker.

Upon arrival, I was asked for my ticket. Oops! I didn’t buy one from a hotel and assumed I could just buy one on sight. Wrong! However, Tamara, the woman who would be my guide, had one of the taxi drivers waiting outside drive to a nearby hotel and purchase one for me. He charged 5 CUC for the service and I was able to join the tour.

I arrived late in the day and made it onto the last tour with Tamara, we started on the base floor looking at images of the plants in fields and being told which brands are manufactured within the factory. Next, we climbed a steep set of stairs to the rolling area. On the top floor the workers, mainly young men, were divided into work zones based on their skill level. The trainees are together for 9 months before they are moved across the walkway to the professional area. The professional area had at least 100 people working side by side. Perfectly rolling the three leaves from different parts of the plant into a perfect cylinder. Next, the cylinders are inspected and once approved taken across the hall to the women who are pros. These pros add the outside leaf that you see when holding the cigar. They carefully use a paste of flour and water to adhere the leaf to the tobacco log. Lastly, the cigars are taken one floor lower to be labeled and packaged by 25 women who are considered masters. Each woman is required to label an average of 2,300 cigars each day.

The average employee makes 10 CUC per month, is given several 15-minute breaks during their workday, is entertained with literature or a speaker for one hour each day and are granted free cigars. These are typically the cigars that you’ll have sold to you on the streets. They are the cigars that aren’t perfectly shaped but still smoke very nicely.

woman smoking a cuban cigar

Plan Your Visit

Tour Hours :9 – 1 pm

Choose a tour that starts after 12 pm to avoid crowds.

Location: Penalaver and San Carlos

Price: 10 CUC per person

You must buy tour tickets for Partagas from a hotel.

There is no store to buy cigars at the factory but your guide may offer to sell you some without labels.

Plan to walk up several flights of narrow stairs.

Ladies, the young men may start checking you out & “howling” if they think you are cute.

partagas cigar factory tour
Partagas Cigar Factory

Take a Stroll

woman walking in Havana Cuba

The buildings in Havana may be empty but the streets and parks are filled with action! From Son musicians to taxi drivers, men promoting restaurants and tourists capturing images at every corner, Havana has it all! Art galleries, musicians, rooftop restaurants, cafes operated out of private homes, and gorgeous Spanish-colonial buildings with chipping paint, Havana is a photographer’s dream!

I recommend walking along the coastal drive, Malecon, to see lovers in an embrace around sunset and venture into the Capitol Region via El Prado. Havana Viejo is best explored during the day do you don’t miss any detail.

Safety: Havana has extremely low crime rates and as a solo female traveler I never felt endangered even whilst walking through the back streets after  1  am.

Local Interaction

Many Cubans will come up to you as you stroll about. They will ask:  “Do you speak Spanish?” and “Where you are from?”.  If you choose to answer them be prepared for them to later try to get you to eat at a particular restaurant, see a show or give them money for information. Some people were genuinely interested in my story but 90% of the time they were looking to guide me towards a purchase somewhere. If you don’t like this type of attention, simply respond in a polite way that you are not interested in talking or don’t need any assistance.

woman smoking a cuban cigar
park in Old Havana
streets of Havana
tiled window in Havana
streets of Havana colored building
University of Havana library

Visit a Rooftop

sunset Havana

There are a plethora of rooftops to sip a drink, listen to a band, enjoy a meal or take a dip! I averaged one rooftop a day while in Havana but the two below were my favorites! You don’t have to be a guest at the hotels to enjoy the rooftop pools and views of the expansive city of Havana! So, hit the “P” (piscina or pool) button and go on up!

El Mirador

La Guarida rooftop in Havana Cuba

On the roof of a once gorgeous mansion that has fallen to decay, this rooftop is a gem! The site is hard to find due to a lack of signage but go to La Guarida restaurant, made famous by the book and movie Fresas y Chocolate, and tell the staff you’d like to go to the rooftop. When you entered the building you may think you are in the wrong place, ropes hold columns together and the several flights of stairs seem barely stable. Trust me, keep climbing until you see the white framed rooftop and order the La Mansion (made of Havana Club, mint leaves, fresh pineapple, peach jam, lemon juice, honey and sugar).

el mirador drink havana cuba

Saratoga Havana

rooftop bar in Havana Cuba

I recommend the Saratoga Havana rooftop for the views! Unbelievable shots of the Capitol building and bustling street of El Prado! There are drinks and food available at the rooftop pool and wifi for purchase. Tell the security man of the property that you are going to the rooftop. You are allowed here even if you aren’t a guest of the hotel.

woman overlooking Havana at sunset

Chow Down

plate of cuban food

One of the best things about Cuba is the food. It’s a blend of African, Spanish and Taino cooking methods, spices from all over the world and is heavy on meat and starch! The rumors are true, Cubans eat a lot of beans and rice but they are DELICIOUS!  I typically eat a paleo-friendly diet but all bets were off when I visited Cuba. I wanted to taste it all! When it comes to food, there is no argument against the old phrase “it’s a matter of taste”. But these four treats were delectable and should not be missed when you visit Cuba!

So, when it comes to food, there is no argument against the old phrase “it’s a matter of taste” but these four treats were delectable and should not be missed when you visit Cuba! Enjoy the classics and some of the fancy, fare being created at top restaurants!

Langosta a La Cubana

Enjoy North American lobster? You are in for a treat! It’s cousin, the Carribean Spiny Tail is on menus all over the Havana region. It is a warm-water lobster found off the coast of Florida and Cuba  and it does not have claws.

Cubans served it up grilled or roasted in the shell with butter and seasoning! Typically served with rice and whatever vegetables the restaurant has available. My favorite lobster dish was served to me on the beach but this photo was taken at Dos Hermanos in Old Havana.

Tuna Tacos

Tacos are not Cuban but it would be a sin for me to keep these delicious nibbles a secret! I’ve eaten tacos from many stands and restaurants in Mexico but these tuna tacos from El Mirador (the trendy lounge above the famous La Guarida Restaurant) are what dreams are made of! Not only is the food delicious, try the pesto ceviche, but the drinks are beautifully crafted and the music is hip! It’s picture perfect, mouthwatering bliss!

Ropa Vieja

ropa vieja in cuba

You MUST have this National Dish of Cuba while visiting! It is a combination of stewed beef with vegetables and typically paired with tostones (mashed & fried plantains), rice and a simple green salad.

I enjoyed the dish many times but my favorite was eaten at Dos Hermanos. The restaurant is famous for being a gangster and celebrity hangout in the 1950’s. Today it is a beautiful spot to have lunch and listen to a Cuban band before or after touring the adjacent Havana Club Museum.

Cubano

cubano sandwich

It’s hard to say where this warm, sandwich from heaven was first created but it was definitely created by Cubans – either in America or Cuba. You can find the warm, pressed white bread filled with cheese, ham and many times with mustard and pickles in both Florida and Cuba.

Upon landing at Jose Marti International, I immediately made my way to the cafe at arrivals and picked one up! When you make it into Havana you’l see small to-go shops that sell a variety of ham-based sandwiches and if you pick-one up it is totally ok to walk and eat!

Have a Drink

woman drinking a daiquiri at Floridita

Prior to visiting Cuba I had sipped a few Cuba Libres (known in Ohio as “Rum & Coke”), enjoyed the refreshing coolness of a daiquiri and slung back Mojitos on a warm summer’s day.  In all that drinking time, I failed to be told or learn that it was one man, Mr. Hernest Hemingway, who popularized a few of these drinks while calling Cuba home! When I started planning my visit, drinking these favorite beverages of the famed author flew to the top of my  To Do’s.

For a Great Intro to Cuba & Hemingway Watch – Papa Hemingway in Cuba

Daiquiri at Floridita

daiquiri at floridita

There are several varieties but the simplest is made from rum, ice (chopped or blended), lemon juice and sugar. This is the traditional drink of the Bar Floridita and made famous by Ernest Hemingway! So famous that there is a statue of the man you can pony up next to! Arrive early to avoid the hoards of tourist or be prepared to wait to spend 7 CUC on a daiquiri of your choice!

drive past Floridita
exterior of Floridita

Sip a Mojito

mojito on the beach in cuba

I like to think of the Mojito as a health drink! It may be made with mint but the rum, sparkling water, sugar, lemon juice, and ice make it the perfect drink on a hot Carribean day.  Bonus: this was the favorite drink of the famous writer Ernest Hemingway!

My favorite spot to sip the intoxicating garden in a glass: Hotel Nacional! The hotel has inexpensive wifi, great staff, and beautiful views of peacocks in the garden.

mojito at Hotel Nacionel in Cuba
mojito at hotel nacionel

Beach It

havana club on the beach

The nearest beach to Havana is approximately 30 km away and called Santa Maria! It’s gorgeous, with soft sand white sand (just a few chicken bones mixed with shells), dotted with restaurants and accessible via taxi or public bus.

A hired taxi costs between 15-20 CUC one way from Havana central! Your driver may suggest he wait for you to finish at the beach and drive you back but this is not necessary. Simply walk to the roadside and wait for a car to come past. Or, you can pay 5 CUC for a round-trip ride on the public bus. You may only purchase the ticket in Havana at Parque Central and can’t buy one from the driver for just a return trip to the city.

Once you arrive,  set up your towel wherever you’d like or rent a chair for 5 CUC. There are restaurants dotted along the beach serving up Cuban fare and drinks. I ordered a lobster lunch with rice, plantain chips, fruit & salad with a mojito for 17 CUC.

beach of Cuba
lobster on the beach

Shop in Havana Vieja

cuban coins

Just like the cars and buildings, Havana’s handicrafts and souvenirs are vibrant, playful and easily found! My favorite trinkets came from strolling around the city and wandering into random shops. Some were even purchased at the airport as last minute ways to spend my pesos.

If your time is limited go directly to Palacio de la Artesania for a one-stop shop for inexpensive leather bags, maracas, cigars, artwork, drums, and more!  For the book lover, meander into Plaza De Armas Secondhand Bookstore for literary gems!

Old Havana is filled with unique shops of local artistic expression and many times you’ll be buying directly from the artist.

Hat

cuban hat

These beautiful and functional hats sell for 5 CUC! So inexpensive for a beautiful accessory and souvenir.  They can be found in the many shops and stairwell stores in old Havana. I choose the more decorative, feminine style but there are bundles to choose from.

More well known Cuban hats available for men are the fedora! They are easily found and are as affordable as those made for ladies.

Ash Tray

funny cuban cigar ash tray

Do you need need a gift for someone with a great sense of humor? Look not further than the naughty ash trays sold in several shops along O’Reilly Street. The shops sold the cigars in a variety of positions and this token will only set you back 5 CUC!

Maracas

Cuban maracas

You’ll hear maracas played in several varieties of Latin music and in Cuba the Son musicians use them the most. Their origins are heavily debated but there is no doubt that the Cubans have created their own style! You’ll find pairs crafted from leather, coconuts, and wood. Some are purely decorative – painted with faces and have hats adorned, while others are meant for playing. I happily made the last minute decision to pick my

Price depends on style and size. I saw prices range from 4 – 12 CUC. I happily made the last minute decision to pick mine up at the airport and paid 5 CUC for these beautifully painted, bead adorned music makers!

Coin Jewelry

Cuban coin ring

I LOVE jewelry and am as obsessed with buying locally, made jewelry as I am with postcards! It’s wearable art that can be quite affordable!

I like rings but noticed earrings, bracelets, and necklaces made in the same style. I purchased this sterling Cuban peso coin ring for 15 CUC in Old Havana but they are also available at the airport.

Ride in a CoCo Taxi

I lusted over the thrill it would be to ride in a CoCo taxi for the first two days in Havana. With little persuasion needed, I convinced my travel partner to hop in one of these auto-rickshaws for a buzz about the city! It was a thrill to ride around in the little coconut and cheaper than a regular taxi! The nut on wheels is noisy and tiny but has three seats for passengers. The easiest place to hail one is at Floridita and El Prado!

Tip: They are on a meter so no negotiations needed.

coco taxi in havana
woman in coco taxi in Havana

Gallery

streets of Havana
classic american cars in cuba
cyndi on the beach in cuba
unicorn in classic american car

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Want to learn more about Cuba? 

Listen to Scuttabout’s podcast for my thoughts, along with two other travel professionals’ opinions, on the island Nation.  All three of us have a different take on Cuba but there is a common thread that will prepare you for your first trip to this now “easily” accessible tropical destination!

The pod is available on Scuttabout’s website & on Itunes!

Scuttabout Travel Podcast