3 days in Havana, an itinerary for first time visitors

The Cuban capital Havana is a melting pot of colonialism and communism, migration and political movements and music, art and dance which makes it a city like no other. Thanks to this rich and varied history, though, Havana is the perfect destination for those who want a trip filled with culture, sight-seeing, history, art, people-watching and, of course, classic cars! The city itself is a mishmash of old and new, with decaying buildings and vintage cars sitting alongside well-kept art deco structures and a handful of Western restaurants. The colour, culture and Cuban music floating through the streets will make you feel alive and you’re sure to learn a wealth of new information as you discover this intriguing country! Three days in Havana gives you a good amount of time to explore the city highlights as well as getting a taste for the country’s charm (and hopefully its rum too!).

Read on to find out my top tips about visiting Cuba and what I think makes the perfect three-day Havana itinerary…

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How To Get To And From The Airport In Havana

While Havana airport can be quite confusing for first-time visitors, there is a range of options available for getting to/from the airport to the city centre. The choice you make will depend on your budget and your confidence as a traveller as some are more adventurous than others.

Shuttle

Officially speaking, there isn’t an airport shuttle service that you can book upon arrival into Cuba, but there is the option to book an airport shuttle into the centre of Havana before you arrive. This can be done online via Get Your Guide (organised by Nexus) and costs $20 for door-to-door service. This is ideal for those who want a relatively cheap option, in a safe, comfortable, air-conditioned minibus but please be aware that the service can take a long time to reach the centre as it will drop various people off along the way.

Taxi

The second option for getting from the airport into the heart of Havana is to take a taxi. All taxis located within the airport rank have to be licenced so you won’t have to worry about taking a legitimate ride. It is worth noting, however, that you will be approached by many drivers as you come out of the airport which can be quite overwhelming for novice travellers. As long as you have an idea of prices you shouldn’t be ripped off, and if you have some Spanish language skills to barter with even better!

Tourist cabs are the yellow and black taxis available and will cost around $30/30 CUC while the Almendron taxis (i.e. the stylish 1950s classic cars) can seat more passengers so tend to cost around $50/50 CUC. This cost could be shared by fellow passengers if you’re willing to split the fare.

Alternatively, you can pre-book a taxi from the airport so you don’t have to worry about the hassle of bartering, and you’ll just need to look out for a driver holding a placard with your name on it. A pre-booked taxi is likely to cost around $50/50 CUC.

Bus

Lastly is the option for adventurous, budget travellers: the public bus. The public bus leaves from the edge of the airport complex (the P12 stop) which lies around 3km from the main international terminal T3. It is therefore only a good option if you travel light, don’t mind a long walk and are arriving during the day. If you really want to get the bus but don’t want to walk, you could try to bargain with a waiting driver to take you to the bus stop (should be around $1/1 CUC per person).

Once you arrive at the bus stop there’s no telling exactly when the bus will arrive, and it’s worth mentioning that it is likely to be extremely crowded and hot (which is what you would expect for a journey that costs $0.05/0.05 CUC). If you’re staying in Old Havana then you’ll need to stay on the bus until the last stop (near Capitol) and walk or take a cycle taxi from there to your Casa or Hotel.

Great Theatre of Havana
Great Theatre of Havana

Top Tips About Travelling to Cuba

Cuba is a destination unlike any other so it’s worth being aware of a few things before you arrive so it’s not too much of a shock to the system. Even the most worldly travellers are likely to be surprised by some things when they arrive in this Caribbean country.

There are two currencies

One interesting thing about Cuba is that there are two currencies, one used by locals (The National Peso – CUP) and one used by tourists (The Cuban Convertible Peso – CUC). Each CUC is worth the same as its value in dollars (e.g. $5 = 5 CUC) but is worth 25 times its value in CUP (e.g. 1 CUC = 25 CUP). CUP is used by locals for low priced items such as local buses, street food, fruit and veg from the market and collectivo rides (shared cabs) while CUC is used for higher-priced purchases such as casa particulares accommodation, tourist buses, meals out, bottled water, tourist entrance fees etc.

It is unlikely you’ll even see or use The National Peso (CUP) while you’re in Cuba, but it’s worth knowing what each of the notes looks like to ensure you’re not ripped off by someone giving you change in CUP (a much lower value currency) when you have paid in CUC.

You must get a visa or tourist card before you arrive

Most travellers visiting Cuba will need to obtain a visa or tourist card before they travel which must be purchased and collected before boarding their flight to Havana. This can be done from the Cuban Embassy in your home country, by post or sometimes through an airline or travel agency. It is vital that you check you have received the correct documentation before travel to ensure you aren’t refused entry onto the plane or into Cuba. Visas are tourist cards are required for all travellers (unless you are a citizen of one of the few exempt countries), regardless of age.

You may also be asked for proof of return travel to your home country or onward destination, proof of medical insurance, proof of financial solvency (usually at least US$50 per day) and possibly also at least two months validity on your passport from your date of arrival.

Internet in Cuba is BAD and expensive

Free WiFi in Cuba just isn’t really a thing, so it’s definitely not a destination you should choose if you’re a digital nomad hoping to work on the road. It is, however, a fantastic location if you want to have a digital detox for a few weeks!

The internet can only be accessed in Cuba by buying an ETECSA WiFi card or by logging on (and paying for) hotel WiFi. WiFi cards can be purchased at ETECSA stores (you’ll need your passport and will have to wait in line), from hotels or from ETECSA card ‘salesmen’ in the street or small kiosks (usually at an inflated price but much quicker).

It’s also worth pointing out that the internet in Cuba is restricted and censored by the government so do keep this in mind when browsing.

It is a communist country

Finally, it’s also worth remembering that Cuba is very much still a communist country which means that almost all businesses are government-owned, most people rely on rations to get by, there aren’t regular supermarkets or stores and there is plenty of propaganda still displayed throughout the country. That’s not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing, just that it is very different to most other tourist destinations and may provide a bit of a shock to the system. On the whole, Cuba is a pretty poor country, with lots of dilapidated buildings and while there is a burgeoning tourist scene, you might have moments where you feel uncomfortable with the disparity between those working in the tourism industry and those working for government businesses.

How to spend 3 days in Havana Cuba

You can also see the map here

3 days in Havana: Day One & Day Two  – Explore Havana Vieja

Havana Vieja is Old Town Havana and is the main, central area of the city that is home to beautiful buildings, old cars, museums, markets, parks and plazas. This is a lovely area to explore on foot, simply spending time wandering through the city streets while soaking up the local culture.

1. Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market

The Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market is a large marketplace located on the Port of Havana which not only features souvenir stalls selling Cuban handicrafts but also puts on cultural performances and art exhibitions. This is a good place to come to get a sense of Cuban culture as well as to support the locals by buying their wares made from wood, leather, ceramics and much more.

2. Museo del Ron Havana Club

Most people who travel to Cuba want to visit the Havana Club museum, the city centre distillery that gives visitors an insight into the process of making one of the world’s most famous drinks! The museum shows how these masters turn freshly cut sugar cane into delicious-tasting rum, and of course, allows you to try a tipple or two.

3. Plaza Vieja

Plaza Vieja - 3 days in Havana

The Plaza Vieja, or Old Square, in Havana, is a large, open plaza surrounded by colonial houses in various states of restoration or disrepair.

Plaza Vieja Havana Cuba

While the square used to be the location for fiestas, bullfights, parades and even executions, today the plaza is more of a place to come and relax in one of the many restaurants and cafes dotted around the outside.

4. Hotel Ambos Mundos

The 20th century Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana is famous not only for its pristine architecture but also because it was home to American writer Ernest Hemmingway during the 1930s. Hemmingway resided in a room on the 5th floor (which he rented for $1.50/night) and it was here that he began his famous work For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Today, travellers can visit his room (room 511) which has been restored to how it would have looked when he lived there, and there is also a rooftop bar/terrace which offers lovely views of Havana Vieja.

5. Plaza de San Francisco de Asís

Plaza de San Francisco de Asís - 3 days in Havana

Another of Havana’s famous squares is the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, a plaza which is home to the Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi as well as the impressive Fuente de Los Leones fountain made by a famous Italian sculptor from white marble in 1836 and gifted to the city.

Plaza de San Francisco de Asís

6. Plaza de Armas

Plazade Armas Havana

The Plaza de Armas is one of the busier squares in Havana that plays host to the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes monument, the Greek-style El Templete temple and the palatial Casa del Conde de Santovenia.

The square boasts amazing views across the water to the El Morro Castle and also features a daily second-hand book market (except Sundays).

7. Calla Mercaderes

Calla Mercaderes is a car-free street in central Havana that is home to both modern shops and restaurants as well as old museums such as the Casa de Asia, the Armería 9 de Abril and the Museo de Bomberos. This is a pretty busy part of Havana but the museums here are mostly free and surprisingly quiet.

8. Palacio de los Capitanes Generales

The grand Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is located on the eastern side of the Plaza de Armas and is home to the Museum of Havana, a museum displaying the original rooms as well as a collection of historical art and artefacts.

The building is Baroque in style and has been used as the governor’s house, a prison, a presidential palace and now a museum.

9. Castillo de la Real Fuerza

Castillo de la Real Fuerza Havana itinerary

The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (not to be confused with Morro Castle), situated on the western side of the harbour of Havana, is thought to be the oldest stone fort in the Americas and is now home to the city’s Maritime Museum.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza Havana

The fort was created as a defence against pirates but has also been used as the National Archive and National Library and briefly as the Museum of Arms.

10. Plaza de la Catedral

Plaza de la Catedral - 3 days in Havana

The Plaza de la Catedral, as the name suggests, is home to the Havana Cathedral, a Baroque church with grand bell towers, a large tiled dome and fossilised marine life buried in the walls.

Plaza de la Catedral Havana

The square also features the Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum) and the Palacio del Conde Lombillo.

11. Eat at La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant

La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana was another of Hemmingway’s hotspots and is a great place to grab a bite to eat as well as a much-deserved holiday mojito! They serve up traditional Cuban dishes of pork, rice and beans and there is loads of graffiti from famous names all over the walls.

12. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana

For those interested in fine arts, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana is the place to go. Visitors can discover Cuban works of arts as well as pieces by international artists, with permanent and temporary exhibitions on display throughout the year.

13. Revolution Museum

Revolution Museum Havana

Most travellers’ favourite museum when visiting Havana is the Revolution Museum, a site that gives an insight into the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the country’s ongoing political struggles since then. Housed in the former Presidential Palace, the museum features photos, stories, weapons, sculptures, blood-stained uniforms and exhibits of the planes, cars and ships used in the revolution.

14. El Floridita

To end one of your evenings in Havana you may want to go to El Floridita, another of Hemmingway’s haunts that is famous for its daiquiris. The bar features a large, bronze statue of the writer perched up against the bar, and while it can be pretty busy with tourists it does have a buzzing atmosphere that makes it a great place to end the day.

15. Dinner and show at Buena Vista Social Club

Alternatively, you may rather a dinner and show at Buena Vista Social Club, a venue that is famed for sharing Cuban music with the world, served up alongside welcome cocktails and tasty dinners. This is a fairly expensive night out (around $69pp) but it is good fun and will be one of your most memorable evenings in Havana.

3 days in Havana: Day Three  – Modern Havana

You can also see the map here

While Habana Vieja is the main hub for tourists in the city, Modern Havana also has its own collection of attractions that are well worth visiting.

1. El Capitolio

El Capitolio Havana Cuba

El Capitolio is a huge public building located on the Paseo del Prado in the centre of Havana which looks like a replica of the United States’ Capitol building. The building features a domed cupola, a large, statue-lined staircase, granite columns and manicured gardens and inside includes the Statue of the Republic (La Estatua de la República), a bronze statue, covered in gold leaf – one of the largest indoor statues in the world.

2. Have a drink in Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, located in Vedado, is one of the few five-star hotels in Havana which boasts three restaurants, a cafeteria and four bars so you won’t be short of finding somewhere to grab a drink. This hotel is elegant and well-equipped and even hosts a nightly “Cubano, Cubano” Cabaret Parisien show from 9 pm to 2 am which will make you want to get up and dance!

3. Walk the Malecon

The Malecón in Havana is the sweeping esplanade that stretches for 8km along the Cuban coastline, all the way from Habana Vieja through the modern Centro Habana and Vedado districts up to the Almendares River. This is a lovely way to experience real Cuban culture as you leisurely walk along the promenade; watching the world go by along the way.

4. Plaza de la Revolucion

Plaza de la Revolucion - 3 days in Havana

You’re likely to have seen the Plaza de la Revolucion as you drive into Havana from the airport and you’ll be longing to return to take in the views of the massive Cuban flag alongside the memorials of José Martí, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. This is a large square that regularly held political rallies and speeches given by Fidel Castro as well as masses held by Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.

5. Jose Marti Memorial

Jose Marti Memorial Havana

The José Martí Memorial, as mentioned above, is a statue and tower of remembrance to the national hero José Martí, with a star-shaped tower monument and a marble statue of Martí himself. Construction of the memorial began in 1953 (100th years after José Martí’s birth) and the finished product includes an observation deck that can be reached by an internal elevator.

6. Universidad de Havana

Universidad de Havana Cuba

The Universidad de Havana is the oldest of Cuba’s universities, founded in 1721 by Pope Innocent XIII and King Philip V of Spain. The current neo-classical university buildings are located on a site in the Vedado district and while some of the buildings are in desperate need of repair, visitors can still admire the art deco library along with other beautiful campus buildings.

7. Vintage Car Tour

A vintage car tour is a quintessential attraction for tourists visiting Havana as there is nowhere else in the world that you can explore a city in such cool, classic cars!

You may want to simply take a vintage car tour around the city so you can experience riding in one of these magical pre-revolution vehicles, or you can use it as a mode of transport between some of the aforementioned attractions (as New Havana is quite spread out). Either way, be sure to have your camera or phone at the ready to take loads of photos while enjoying the ride!

Where to stay in Havana

Havana Vieja

Most travellers wish to stay in the heart of Habana Vieja, which is why I have chosen the Hotel Sevilla and Hotel Plaza as my top picks.

Hotel Sevilla is a four-star hotel located in an old, colonial building which includes modern amenities such as a swimming pool, a fitness centre, a bar and a restaurant. The rooms here are spacious and comfortable and while the interiors aren’t the most elaborate or elegant, guests can expect welcoming, English-speaking staff that will make your stay unforgettable. Hotel Plaza is another four-star property in Havana with a grand entrance lobby, a sun terrace and a shared lounge as well as a bar and restaurant that feature regular live music.

Alternatively, you may want to stay in one of the Casa Particulares, the Cuban equivalent of AirBnBs, which cost around $25-30 per night and are run by local Cuban families. These casas are fairly basic but often include breakfast and also give you the chance to practice your Spanish and get to know more about local life. I recommend Casa Paloma

Three days in Havana gives you a good amount of time to explore both the old and new sides of the city, get a feel for Cuban life and start to understand the history of the country that has made it what it is today. This is the best way to begin your trip to Cuba, and if you’re travelling independently, you can decide whether you want to come back to the capital to spend more time here at the end of your trip. 

Have you been to Havana? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments below!

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