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One day in Havana

Making the most of Cuba means exploring all the island has to offer, which often means you only have one day in Havana. But even in one day, a Havana trip can be a great introduction to Cuban history and culture. Havana is easy to navigate on your but some visitors prefer a local to take them around and explain the history and cultural details in greater depth; links have been provided in this post for your convenience or if you’re happy to wait until you arrive, your hosts will have operators they can recommend for you.

A Cuba trip is best done by exploring the country thoroughly; I highly recommend The Authentic Cuba Travel Guide from Don’t Forget to Move.

To make things easy for you, everywhere mentioned in this post is ALREADY PINNED in the embedded Google Map below! [though it should be noted that WiFi is few and far between, so you want to download offline before you go]

day trip havana

Making the most of a Havana trip

It might seem too quick to go all the way to Cuba and only have one day in Havana, but if you think of a 5 day trip, where everyone has a special place to visit in cities all spread out over this massive, beautiful 760 mile-wide island. That means often a Havana trip only gets one day!

What a crime. Havana rates a lifetime to explore and experience. Still, we accepted the challenge and soldiered on to see the best way to see Havana in one day. Within this stingy time frame, best to focus on the things that Havana does best: colonial history and architecture, art, music and a nightlife that blows other cities away.

tour havana cuba

How to get to Havana

Getting to Havana is easy from most cities. Many European cities have direct flights to Havana. Canada surprises with multiple direct flights to many Cuban cities including Havana. Direct flights from the US have become common place since 2015 after a change in the relations between the two countries.

However United States citizens must comply with a set of requirements before they can legally travel to Cuba. These travel to Cuba requirements for US citizens are detailed by the US Embassy in Cuba. There are also regular cruise ships that leave from several US cities and stop in Havana.

Land at José Martí International Airport. Exchange some money into local CUCs at the kiosk outside the airport to the right as you exit. Don’t exchange US dollars as there is a 10% penalty surcharge. Bring only Euros, Canadian dollars or other hard currency to Cuba. Remember US debit and credit cards do not work in Cuba. You can get to your accommodation for about 30 CUC by cab and hit the streets.

If you prefer to book your transfer in advance, you can book a private transfer for $44 (2 people) or a shared transfer for $10 per person.

havana trip hotel inglaterra

What to see in Havana in a day

The countdown to Havana in a day begins: 3, 2, 1…GO! Wake up at your casa and have breakfast, a delightful spread of fresh eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, cheese and maybe, if you’re lucky, plantains and ham…all for 5CUC.

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To make things easy for you, everywhere mentioned in this post is ALREADY PINNED in the embedded Google Map below! [though it should be noted that WiFi is few and far between, so you want to download offline before you go]

Get your bearings of the city quickly and efficiently. Head to the hop-on-hop-off bus stop closest to you. That will probably be the stop in front of the iconic National Theater on the border between the two classic Havana neighborhoods of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Centro Habana. This is also where most of the classic American cars congregate. You’ve seen dozens of these photos.

havana plaza central

Hop On/Hop Off buses in Havana

Take the full tour of hop-off-hop-on bus for 10 CUC as early as possible in the morning so you can sit in the top level and see the sights. If you do this later in the day it will be too hot and you with either roast in the top section or be forced to sit in the bottom level where the view won’t be as good. The entire loop takes about 2-1/2 hours. You’ll see the famous malecón, Havana’s seawall, the broad avenues of Havana’s upscale neighborhoods, the Plaza de la Revolucion and much more. You’ll be tempted to get off and wander – don’t. You only have a day and there is way too much more to see. But this pleasant and interesting ride will give you a good lay of the land.

havana trip malecon

Museum of Fine Arts

The bus will drop you off where you started which is great because you will be near your next stop. Head left a couple of blocks the Museum of Fine Arts, entrance is 2 CUC. The entire museum is worthwhile, especially the quirky modern art section. But if you’re going to prioritize, focus on the Cuban Art wing which you are less likely to see elsewhere.

Habana Vieja (Old Havana)

So, you’ve had your lunch. Now it’s time to explore one of the oldest cities in the Americas, Habana Vieja or Old Havana. The most efficient way to experience Habana Vieja is to visit all four of the colonial plazas on foot. These plazas are spread out across the area. As you walk from one plaza to the other you will pass some of the most beautiful colonial architecture Havana has to offer. Also in the area are museums, art galleries, restaurants, clubs, parks and shops. You will be walking in the footsteps of the conquistadores that walked along these same streets 500 years ago.

havana trip habana vieja

Explore the plazas

It doesn’t matter which plaza you start at but make sure to visit all four. Plaza de Armas is where you will find a wonderful collection of antiques, books, posters, coins and other memorabilia. The museum of the city of Habana is also on this plaza and worth a visit. Plaza de la Catedral is where you will find the beautifully restored, baroque style Havana Cathedral. The arched walkways around this 1727 architectural masterpiece evoke a long-gone era of caballeros and elegant Spanish ladies with their parasols.

havana in a day cathedralPlaza de San Francisco is near Havana harbor and surrounded by more upscale, elegant restaurants and historical bars once frequented by the Hollywood glitterati of the 1950s. It is named after the imposing church-now a museum- at the center of the plaza. From here it is a short walk to the Museo de Rum (Rum Museum) for a little history and tasty samplings of the best rum in the world. You are in Havana after all.

Party in Plaza Vieja

Plaza Vieja is party central. At night time this place is buzzing with musicians blaring out hot salsa rhythms from the many cafes and breweries around the square. The center of the plaza is often used as an exhibition area for funky art.

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one day in havana cuban music

Where to eat in Havana

You should be well into the evening by now. You must be hungry. Your dinner options are vast: from street food for a mere pittance to haute cuisine in unique environments. Hop a cab and head to Fabrica de Arte Cubano (affectionately known as the FAC). Don’t pay more than 10 CUC for this 15-minute ride from Habana Vieja to the upscale neighborhood of Vedado.

cuba trip havana malecon

Fabrica de Arte Cubano

The FAC is unlike any other venue you’ve ever seen. It is several indoor and outdoor restaurants and bars strategically placed inside a refurbished oil factory. It also houses several art galleries, movie theaters, impromptu discos and dance parties, and live performance theaters, all in a multi-level labyrinth wonderland of music and art. Grab yourself a mojito from the bar at the entrance and wander around sampling snacks and exploring the different exhibits.

The FAC is open Thursday to Sunday as of this writing and there is always a line to get in. Doors open at 8 P.M. but people start to congregate way before then. Get there early and prepare to wait (it’s well worth it). The FAC is open till the wee hours and there will always be taxis waiting outside to take you home.

Paladares in Havana

Should you choose to stay in the Habana Vieja and surrounding area for dinner, some of your best options include these exceptional paladares or private sector restaurants.

Doña Eutemia

A big draw for this paladar is its location, at the end of a little side street just off Cathedral Plaza.

The food is traditional Cuban fare; ropa vieja, a dish of shredded beef in tomato sauce; octopus in olive oil and Cuban tamal, corn meal cooked in a corn husk and filled with different meats.

You are unlikely to get a reservation on the first try. Keep trying; also come at odd times like 2 or 5 p.m.

Callejón del Chorro No 60c, Plaza de la Catedral, +535 270 6433

La Guarida

Nuovo-Cuban at its best. Considered by many to be the best restaurant in Havana. It is on the top floor of a crumbling mansion in a part of Havana, Centro Habana, that does not have many paladares, so it is a destination in itself. It is worth it for the food and the ambiance.

Concordia No.418 /Gervasio y Escobar. Centro Habana +53 78 66 23 54

havana trip cuba guarida
Photo credit: Talek Nantes

Paladar Los Mercaderes

On the second floor of a Habana Vieja walk-up. Paladar Mercaderes is on popular Mercaderes street which you will inevitably come across several times while exploring Old Havana. It is a fun place with roaming musicians, gracious and friendly service and good, traditional Cuban food with a modern twist.

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Calle Mercaderes #207 entre lamparilla y Amargura, +53 78 01 24 37havana tours cigar

Havana accommodation

In Havana, what paladares are to restaurants, casas particulares are to hotels. A casa is a private sector business where a Cuban family rents you a room in an Airbnb-type arrangement. This is your best option for accommodation anywhere on the island.

Most tourist hotels in Cuba are owned by the government. These end to be very poor value for your money and should be avoided (and technically US citizens aren’t legally allowed to spend money there). Casa particulares are a much better option anyway – better value, more authentic experiences and often you get a mama as part of the deal.

The advantages of a casa are: they are easy to book (find them walking the street or Airbnb in advance), they are well-located in all key parts of the city and the price is competitive with an average price per night of $30. The hostess, usually a woman, provides excellent meals. Breakfast is standard, but you can also arrange for lunch or dinner. Your hostess functions as a type of concierge helping you navigate the city; transportation, restaurant or club reservations, shopping or booking casas for you in the next town. The best part of a casa stay, however, is that you are interacting with a Cuban family, hanging out in their living room or patio and absorbing the culture.

Other options to stay in Havana:

  • AirBnb: Havana has a ton of AirBnb options, from casas to traditional Spanish missions. Save $40 on your first booking with this link.
  • Booking: There are hundreds of options on Booking, hotels and casas; save $20 on your first booking with this link.

Havana trip tours

If you want to be sure to cover the most ground, or have a guide to help you get in-depth in Havana, you can book tours through hotels or bigger operators. GetYourGuide has a diverse set of more affordable Havana tour options, depending on what you’re interested in.

Some of the most well-rated options include:

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Talek Nantes How Dare She
Talek Nantes

Native New Yorker, Talek Nantes is a freelance writer, travel consultant and founder of Travels with Talek. She is a passionate travel enthusiast and enjoys sharing her travel experiences with others. Talek’s personal and professional background have led her to travel to over 100 countries. She has lived and worked throughout the world and speaks several languages. Talek has an MBA and a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania.  She lives in New York City and Miami.

In her blog, Talek shares information on unique destinations, and provides actionable travel tips and advice to help travelers make the most of their time away from home. Her focus is on experiential travel, cultural immersion and interaction with local people to help travelers create their own unique travel experiences.

Talek believes that when it comes to travel, it’s all about the experience. Her work has appeared in several travel publications including Matador Network and Readers Digest.

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