Established in 1519, Havana is the capital of Cuba and is the center of Cuban culture, music, art, and food.
As you enter the city, you see the stunning buildings of the modern baroque brought to Havana from Europe. At the same time, this architectural style overlays a minimalist style of socialism. You see structures intended to be the new Vegas for the U.S. visitors, and they are now rarely populated and waiting for their days of glory. You see the beautiful coast facing North, with the Florida Keys just over the horizon.
We stayed in an old classic Iberostar Parque Central hotel between Old Havana and New Havana.
There are many hotel and hostel options in Havana.
Some are new and modern; some are old and charming.
Parque Central is the latter.
It greets you with classic design and traditional staff uniforms. It opened to a hotel lobby lit through the sunroof and green tropical plants. The middle of the bar is a grand staircase leading from the mezzanine to the main hotel lobby.
When you see the lobby, you remember Cuba from old movies. You hear salsa music and smell the freshness of a mojito, and they have both.
Parque Central is in the heart of Havana.
It is 3 minutes away from the Capitolio and right next to the Grand Theatre of Havana. It is 10 minutes away from the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion) and the Old Square (Plaza Vieja). It sits on the major walking arteries of Paseo del Prado, leading to the ocean, and Calle Obrapia, to Old Havana.
Aside from the great location, Parque Central offers two other highlights.
First, Parque Central has a Mediterranean restaurant, a Steakhouse, and a lobby bar. While the hotel food does not compare to what you can get on the streets of Havana, it is consumable and convenient. Try their Cuban sandwich and soup, and chase it with a mojito!
The second is the rooftop bar by the open-air pool, overlooking the city of Havana and the Capitolio. It is perfect to have a drink while lazing the day away in the warm waters. It is also ideal for an evening drink looking out at the lit-up Capitolio and Grand Teatro.
Generally, we were happy with our stay at Iberostar Parque Central.
What made the trip was our daily exploration of Havana.
To explore Havana, we recommend hiring a tour guide.
When we were there, many tourist agencies closed due to the pandemic. Hence, we used Airbnb experiences to find Feeling Havana, led by Yandy’s group.
For $40 cash per person (plus AirBnB charge), the tour includes an old car ride, a walking tour, and a drink at a few local bars. And it is so worth it.
We started with a car ride to see Havana as the sun began to set.
After meeting our guide Emmanuel, we boarded a classic red Ford convertible.
We rode to the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and then along the coast. As we rode, we saw the castles and citadels built to protect Havana from invasions in the 1500s.
Next, we stopped at the Square of the Revolution, where we stumbled onto an old car meet. Having a unique opportunity to see a lineup of cars, we sat behind the wheel of a few vehicles ourselves for a small tip. While learning, Fidel Castro gave an 18-hour speech at the advent of socialism in Cuba.
The car meet ended, and we headed back through New Havana into the rainforest. We learned about the afro-religion and saw practitioners along the river banks. People come here to pray to the old gods from the voodoo practice, even making animal sacrifices.
The car tour ended with a ride through Miramar and Malecon, the scenic ocean esplanade. At that point, we saw the sun coming to its lowest end, illuminating the city skyline in gold.
We continued our adventure on foot.
We visited all the key places in Old Havana on a walking tour.
We started with the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of Immaculate Conception. We then walked through several squares: Arms Square, Saint Francis Square, Cathedral Square, and Old Square. We remembered old Europe with small streets, open homes, and art as we walked.
For a mojito, we popped into a celebrity favourite La Bodeguita del Medio. Later, we found a much smaller Fonda Al Pirata. We had Canchánchara, one of the oldest Cuban cocktails made with honey, lime, and aguardiente.
We walked down Obispo Street to our hotel, at which point we parted with Emmanuel.
Knowing the lay of the land, the rest of our trip was exploring Havana independently.
Check out the Museum of Rum when in Havana.
Here, you will learn the history and the make of the Havana Club rum. You will have a chance to see some old pieces of equipment and a miniature model of the factory town of the past. The tour takes you through the distilling and ageing process, ending at a bar, where you taste rum. We tried 3 years, Reserva, and 7 years Havana Club here. You can also sign up to mix the cocktails and taste very old rum for an extra few dollars.
This is also your chance to get rare bottles of Havana Club rum. We purchased a snazzy rum set here with traditional rum cups.
Visit the Artisan Market to Get Your Souvenirs.
The artisan market offers many Cuban souvenirs, including artwork, magnets, and magic boxes. The competition for your attention is fierce. Despite that, the English-speaking salespeople will make you feel very welcome. Remember here, if you like a piece, bargain for it.
Have a cup of coffee or a drink at the Old Square.
Old Square is filled with tourists and locals. But, there is one bar that will give you both excellent coffee and a stunning view—bar Azucar. The bar is on the second level. Grab a table on the balcony and enjoy the scenery without a need to worry about a thing.
Check out La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano for cigars.
Cigars are a big deal in Cuba. You know it, and Cubans know it.
This is why many people will approach you on the streets and offer to sell cigars. Though this might sound tempting, these often are not the authentic real deal cigars. A polite “no, gracias” will help you avoid sketchy places and fake cigars, and you will learn the phrase quickly.
We encourage you to go to legitimate places that sell Cuban cigars, like La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano. There, you will find professional advice and legitimate cigars. If you are a cigar connoisseur, you can also browse an extensive collection of fancy cigars there. Something you will not find on the streets.
Grab gelato from Heladería Mango & Cafe
Yes, you did hear it right. Cuba has gelato, and it’s great. Cubans may lack some essential flavours, but they know the technique well. In fact, in Cuba, you can be confident you have gelato as we had difficulty finding cream, the base of ice cream.
Eat authentic Cuban Food at Teniente Rey 360 on Teniente Rey.
Not a glamorous place but loved by the locals for its cheap and delicious food. The servers here don’t speak much English. Yet, they will be the most attentive to your needs and help you in any way they can. Try Ropa Vieja, Cuban slow-cooked pulled beef, paired with plantain chips and rice and beans.
Try chocolate cake and pizza from hole-in-the-wall bakery.
On the streets of Havana, you will notice many people carrying pastry and pockets on pieces of paper. These come from many tiny bakeries selling cake and pizza for as little as 40 pesos, and Cubans love it. You will love it too if you don’t mind spending a few minutes in line.
And with that comes the end of our adventures in Havana.
All content in the post, including recommendations and opinions, are our own.