Travelling to Cuba? Check out our top 3 Havana Highlights. Budget saving tips and things you need to know before visiting Cubas colourful capital.
We were lucky enough on our recent travels, to spend 2 days exploring the sights of Havana, a beautiful city certainly worth visiting. Super accessible with cheap flights to and from Mexico, we couldn’t resist a quick stopover after our Central American adventures.
Our top 3 Havana Highlights
Havana Highlights #1: Discovering Old Havana by foot
In our opinion, the best way to discover Old Havana is on foot. We spent most of our time strolling around the streets admiring at the crumbling buildings, classic cars, old squares and sights.
Havana is a very safe city, so grab a map from your accommodation or download an offline map to your phone and hit the streets! You’ll be on your own time frame, can stop and starts and much as you like without having to wait or keep people waiting. Best of all, you’ll get some exercise without paying a cent!
TIP: Head out early in the morning to beat the crowds and the heat. Don’t miss seeing the old town at night either.
Havana Highlights #2: Doing a classic car tour
This was so much fun and we learnt a lot. There’s actually a lot of driver guides who speak good English. There are several places around the city where official drivers congregate, making it easy to arrange a 1-3 hour tour of the city.
We chose a pink classic 1950 (original engine) Chevron Deluxe convertible for our 3 hour tour and our driver guide Hector was great.
We visited the Morro Castle, El Cristo de la Habana viewpoint, New Havana, Bosque de La Habana (Havana Forest) and the National Independence Monument and Plaza de la Revolución. Hector was happy to answer all of our questions about Cuba (oh so many) and took us to some great spots for photos.
It was nice to get out of the old town and see some of the surrounding areas too. Exact routes can be negotiated with the driver, depending on what you want to see, as can time frames. Expect to pay 40CUC for 1hour, 60CUC for 2hours and 70CUC for 3hours.
TIP: The weather in Havana can get extremely hot. Take water, a hat, sunscreen and something lightweight like a scarf, to protect yourself from the sun (especially if you book a convertible). Avoid the middle of the day when the sun is the hottest.
Havana Highlights #3: Indulging in a cocktail or 2 with a view!
Fancy a cocktail or two, with killer views over Old Havana?
Then look no further than La Guardia rooftop bar. This beautiful old staircase made famous by its feature in the Cuban film Fresa y chocolate, was worth a photo or 2!
The bar opens at 6 pm, serving cocktails for around 5-6CUC (+service) with fabulous views over Old Havana.
TIP: Get there earlier than 6 pm to get some pics before it gets too busy.
Budget Saving tips
Cuba has a reputation for being expensive, but it doesn’t have to be! Here are our tops tips for saving your budget in Havana:
- Stay in a casa
Not only will you have a more local experience, but staying in a Casa is a lot cheaper than staying in a hostel or hotel. We found a beautiful room in a small casa right in the old town through Air BnB for $US20 p/night. Finding accommodation that includes drinking water will also save you money. A 500ml bottle of water can cost around 1.10CUC and the temperature in Havana can get pretty hot! Take a large refillable water bottle with you to refill instead of buying water.
- Self Cater
This is the best way to save money on food if you’re on a serious budget. Eating out in Havana can be costly! So book a casa with a kitchen you can use. Packing a few supplies to take with you such as cereal, pasta, coffee, creamer etc is also a good idea as tourist-friendly supermarkets aren’t always accessible.
- Eat locally
If self-catering is not your thing, try to eat in local restaurants away from the main tourist squares. Not only will you get to sample the local food, but you will most likely pay the local price. Most casas can also arrange meals with advance notice.
- Know what you’re paying for!
This may sound obvious, but always confirm IF there is a service charge and VAT BEFORE you order a meal at a restaurant. Some restaurants will slap an unexpected service charge and or VAT, which can add an extra 10-40% to your bills total!
- Walk, walk, walk!
Seeing the sights by foot is free and provides you with a good amount of exercise, which you probably wouldn’t do otherwise. Why would you not!
If you need to take a taxi, establish what you should be paying and agree on a rate with the driver before you get in. This is a pretty standard rule when travelling, but sometimes we can get caught out. For example, if taking a taxi from the airport, ask your accommodation what you should be paying so you don’t get ripped off. If a taxi driver is asking for too much money, don’t be afraid to politely decline and ask another driver.
Things to know
You will need a tourist card
All tourists visiting Cuba need to obtain a tourist card. This can generally be done at the airport, through the airline you are flying with when you check in. The cost of the tourist card as of July 2018 was US$20. If flying from Mexico, pesos were accepted, however, the exchange rate given by the airline was poor.
**Note: Americans are subject to different travel rules in Cuba, so if you’re American, it’s best to establish what the visa situation is and what’s required before you book your travels.
Be prepared to get ripped off!!
As a tourist, expect to pay more, in some cases, a lot more. Tourists are pretty much looked at as dollar signs in Cuba, so it’s important to have an idea of what you should be paying and when you are paying too much. There is a difference between paying a tourist price and being blatantly ripped off!! Do your research, ask questions and don’t be afraid to negotiate
When to travel
Pick your travel season carefully. We visited Havana in July and it was HOT, like seriously hot, sweat dripping from places our bodies didn’t even know could sweat hot! Haha. August to September is hurricane season. The peak season and best time to travel is between December and May where you can expect dry sunny days. Of course, this means that there will be more crowds and possibly higher prices, so you need to decide what suits you best.
Cash or card?
It’s still best to take cash with you to exchange in Cuba. Euro’s and Stirling will get you the best rate. Avoid taking USD to exchange. Not only will you get a lower rate, but you will be hit with higher commissions also. We didn’t try to use an ATM but would avoid using them anywhere in Cuba. A lot of cards are still not accepted and if they are, the fees may be high and the exchange rate low. There are money exchange machines available at the airport