Havana Travel Guide

Caribbean  
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Free Things To Do in Havana

If you have extra time, Plaza Vieja is worthwhile.
  • #1
    Things to do in Havana
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    #1 in Havana
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    To tourists, Old Havana may be the city's heart and soul, but to Cubans, it's El Malecón. Technically speaking, El Malecón is a 5-mile-long boulevard that stretches along the water, with Havana Bay on one side and the edges of Old Havana, Vedado and Central Havana on the other, depending on where you are. But metaphorically speaking, El Malecón is both a meeting point and place of refuge for locals looking to catch a breath of fresh air after a long day or night.

    During the day, you're likely to see some residents along with a tourist or two, but at night, especially come sundown, is when you'll see flocks of Cubans holding loved ones close as they watch the sunset, crowds of young people laughing and drinking, fishermen waiting for a catch or even a small dance party. And sometimes, you may not see anybody at all. On particularly stormy days, waves crash up against El Malecón and much of the sea spills onto the roads, making for a great photo op.

  • #2
    Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
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    #2 in Havana
    Cafes, Churches/Religious Sites, Entertainment and Nightlife, Historic Homes/Mansions, Monuments and Memorials, Museums, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Cafes, Churches/Religious Sites, Entertainment and Nightlife, Historic Homes/Mansions, Monuments and Memorials, Museums, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Skipping Old Havana is tantamount to missing Parliament if you're in London or the Eiffel Tower if you're in Paris. This picturesque neighborhood is not just iconic to Havana and Cuba, but also to the world. In the early 1980s, Old Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to the impressive preservation of some of the area's centuries-old architecture. Walking through Old Havana, you'll see a plethora of architectural styles, including baroque and neoclassical design elements, decorated in the brightest of colors. The neighborhood is also brimming with equally picturesque cobblestone-lined plazas, automobiles that look like they belong in museums and throngs of equally interesting people, whether they be Cuban street entertainers or awestruck world travelers.

    The perimeters of Old Havana are actually the old borders of the city present in the 16th century. In the beginning of its heyday, Old Havana was a thriving port town owned by the Spanish. Often called the "Key to the New World," Havana was attractive for offering access to the Atlantic, which made shipping new riches from the Americas back to Spain an easy feat. Although the Spaniards' occupation eventually came to an end, they left behind a significant architectural style.

  • #3
    Plaza Vieja
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    #3 in Havana
    Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    Of all the picturesque plazas that dot Old Havana, Plaza Vieja is considered to be the neighborhood's main square. The cobblestone-lined plaza is flanked by brightly colored baroque and art nouveau-style buildings housing restaurants, art galleries, residences and even a camera obscura. Built in 1559, this plaza has had many faces and has played host to a bevy of historical events – both good and bad. Fiestas and festive processions were commonplace back in the day, as were bullfights and public executions. Plaza Vieja used to be a space for military exercises before becoming the site of an open-air market. After that, it was converted into a park, then transformed into an underground parking structure, if you can believe it.

    Luckily those days are behind Plaza Vieja, with travelers finding the current rendition of the square to be a true feast for the eyes. Visitors also praised the individual artwork that's spread throughout the square (including a bald nude woman riding a chicken while carrying a fork) and the fact that locals hang out in the square, not just tourists. If you have time, some say the best way to soak in the atmosphere of the plaza is to grab a drink alfresco and just kick back, relax and watch all the people pass by. Being in the pedestrian-friendly Old Havana, Plaza Vieja is easily accessible by foot.

  • #4
    Plaza de la Catedral
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    #4 in Havana
    Cafes, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Cafes, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    If you're one of those travelers who believes that if you've seen one plaza you've seen them all, then you clearly haven't been to Plaza de la Catedral. A top-rated attraction among many recent travelers, Plaza de la Catedral is worth the extra time for, unsurprisingly, its stunning 18th-century cathedral, also known Catedral de la Habana. Visitors were taken by the imposing baroque cathedral, which was once described by a Cervantes Prize-winning writer as "music made into stone."

    The square is quite small, so don't expect to find as many amenities (there's only one restaurant) as the nearby Plaza Vieja. But its lack of square footage isn't what bothered visitors. What did annoy travelers was how crowded the square becomes when cruise ships are docked in the city's harbor. If you can figure out when that occurs, travelers strongly recommended planning your visit around that. You can find Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana. Plaza de la Catedral is free to visit and it's open year-round.

  • #8
    Playas del Este
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    #8 in Havana
    Beaches, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    After a couple of days touring the capital, you may find yourself in need of a break from the hustle and bustle. If so, seek a side trip to Playas del Este, a set of beaches located about 11 miles east of Havana. This 5-mile stretch of shoreline starts at Bacuranao and ends at Playa Jibacoa, with about six other picturesque beaches with turquoise-colored water in between.

    If you're looking for peace and quiet, Bacuranao and Playa Tarará are your best bets, although the latter requires a small entry fee. For livelier (and free) atmospheres, look to Playa Boca Ciega or Guanabo, where you'll find the highest concentration of locals. Mi Cayito and Boca Ciega are popular with LGBT travelers while those with families will likely enjoy the amenity-clad Playa Santa Maria, where the majority of the area's resorts are located. Playa Jibacoa is also considered a peaceful beach, but unlike the other resort beaches, it offers more things to enjoy than just water sports rentals. On land, visitors can traverse trails from the beach to the nearby backcountry; underwater there are coral reefs to explore. What's more, Havana Club rum is made in the town in which Playa Jibacoa resides. 

  • #9
    Plaza de la Revolución
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    #9 in Havana
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    Of all the plazas that populate Havana, politicos can't miss this one. Plaza de la Revolución is proof that, despite recent lifted restrictions, Castro's Cuba is still very much alive. The plaza acts as the central location for many of the regime's branches of government, and features artwork and monuments honoring notable Cubans, including central figures involved in the revolution. The Ministry of Interior (or Ministerio del Interior) features a giant mural of Che Guevara, with the phrase, "Hasta la victoria siempre" ("Always toward victory") fashioned underneath. At the adjacent telecommunications building, there is a similarly styled image of Camila Cienfuegos, another famous revolution fighter, with the phrase, "Vas bien, Fidel" ("You're doing fine, Fidel") written underneath. There is also a monument to José Martí, Cuba's most famous writer who dedicated his life to fighting for independence in the pre-Castro era. Nearby is the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, Cuba's largest library, and the Teatro Nacional de Cuba, the country's most important theater.

    Travelers shared mixed reviews of Plaza de la Revolución. Many visitors enjoyed their time at the plaza and were fascinated by the attraction's historical significance (Castro used to make speeches here). Others, however, found the square to be drab in comparison to Old Havana's colorful plazas and said the attraction isn't worth more than a quick hop off a bus tour. If you're hoping for a livelier experience, plan to visit on May 1 for the annual International Workers' Day celebration, where millions of Cubans congregate in Plaza de la Revolución to celebrate workers' achievements. Usually there are festivities as well as speeches made by top leaders, including one of the Castros.

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