A first time visit to any new city can feel a little intimidating, after all, you’re foreigners in a foreign land. But don’t let this very natural fear put you off exploring all the Cuban capital has to offer. Vibrant, cultural, historic, and breath-takingly beautiful in equal measure, Havana is one of the world’s finest vacation destinations. Here we outline all you need to know for your first time in Havana.
Located on the western half of the island, the Cuban capital was founded by the Spanish colonists, who then ruled the island, in the sixteenth century. It is the political, economic, and cultural centre of the island, and as a result, has a huge number of things to see and do as a tourist. As the home of the island’s main international airport – named after national poet Jose Marti – its also very easy to get to! Because of its colonial history, Spanish remains the capital’s primary language.
First off, like the rest of Cuba, Havana has two currency systems in operation. This may sound overly complicated, but in reality, it isn’t. As a visitor to Havana you will be using the CUC, or Cuban Convertible Peso, pegged 1:1 with the US dollar. So don’t be surprised if you see to different prices advertised in paladares restaurants and elsewhere, and always check which currency a price is referring to if you’re unsure!
Nothing important point to note is that Havana remains a cash society. Bring all the money you will need for your stay in cash – a combination of CUCs (if you can get them) and Euros or British pounds is best. Avoid exchanging US dollars at all costs, as they have a heavy 10% fee slapped on to them by the Cuban government.
Havana has no shortage of large, and often historic, government run hotels, such as the Hotel Nacional. However, for a more authentic stay, we strongly recommend opting for casas particulares whenever possible instead. Often becoming the highlight of a visitors stay in the capital, these bed and breakfast style establishments are owned and run by individual families. As a result, each one is not only small – offering a handful of rooms at most – but also unique. Facilities vary from one casa to another, with the full range accounted for, from budget to penthouse. Try Airbnb or a boutique Casa Particular to check out what’s available.
Spend just a few hours in Havana and you will probably see groups of locals hanging around a particular street corner or plaza with their smart phones out. It means you’ve stumbled on one of the capital’s Wifi hotspots.
Compared to most other country’s Cubans have very limited access to the internet. Wifi hotspots aren’t anywhere near as readily available as elsewhere, and require (comparatively) expensive cards from the national telecoms company ETECSA (also purchasable at hotels) to access. The connection speed is also slower than standard connections elsewhere in the world. All in all, its best not to have to rely on having internet access, which means printing off any important documentation you may need.
Getting your bearings
Taking a stroll as soon as you arrive is a great way to get your bearings of Havana. From a tourist’s point of view, the capital is split into three districts: Habana Vieja (the UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town), Vedado (the upmarket central business district), and then the newer predominantly residential districts.
It’s perfectly safe to wander the streets on your own, although you’ll probably want a good pair of walking shoes since the roads and pavements can be a little on the bumpy side. But to get the absolute most out of your time on the capital’s streets, and for help unearthing all those secrets Havana has built up over its 500 year history, opting instead for one of the quality tours in Havana that employs expert English-speaking guides is well worth the money.
Where to eat and drink
There’s probably no better place for a first time visitor to Havana to experience the authentic Cuban capital then in one of its many restaurants and bars. Though they can be a little tricky to identify at first (look out for the menu boards on otherwise ordinary buildings) paladares are simple privately-operated restaurants with a handful of tables and chairs which produce tasty local dishes to order in addition to international favourites such as pizza and burgers.
The capital’s bar scene is equally dynamic, ranging from hard-working establishments where you can’t get much more than a locally-brewed bottle of beer or shot of Havana Club rum, to cocktail bars mixing up perfect mojitos and daiquiris in sublime surroundings overlooking Habana Vieja. Our best advice is try them both for yourself!
Don’t miss out on the best of what the Cuban capital has to offer just because you’re a first time visitor to Havana with this guide of all you need to know!