Havana is usually compared to stepping inside a time bobble. The old 50s cars on the streets, the old colonial houses and people sitting in their doorway chatting to their neighbor. Life has another speed here. However, it can also be a little bit difficult to figure out how everyday life actually is lived here. How can you get a taste of living and exploring Havana like a local?
In this guide, I will take you through the everyday life and customs of the dusty streets of the Cuban capital, and give you my best tips on how to explore Havana like a local!
I spent four months in Havana walking through the streets of Centro Habana toward the university of Havana in Vedado. Even though, it was back in 2014, when I visited again last summer not a lot seemed to have changed. So, I hope my tips can still be useful for you. I don’t know if a completely white European like me can ever really become Habanero (a person from Havana) but the closest I got was this ID card! But then again, they took it from me in the airport. Not so Habanero after all. Sad, sad!
Well, let’s get started on the guide!
1) Don't pay a fortune for renting one of those old cars – get the real Havana in a máquina
A classic tourist trap in Havana is driving along the seaside drive Malecón in one of those renovated old 50s car. But let's face it; the Cubans don't do that! Instead they use the older less-renovated 50s cars you see around town as transportation. Taxi collectivos or simply máquinas as they are called by Cubans, run in a net all over the city. They have more or less fixed routes, and along these routes people will stop them and ask for a ride. The car quickly get fill up (or something overfilled) with people who doesn't know each other but just need a ride. A little bit like a small version bus. Click here to read more on how to use Havana’s collective taxis.
A misconception of many visiting Cuban is that these maquinas are only for Cubans. I have never been denied to enter or anything, and you get a so much more authentic feeling for Cuba. Enjoy, and have a great ride!
2) La Habana Vieja isn't everything
The old part of Havana is cute, vibrant and all that! But! But it is just representative for Havana. The Cuban state has in recent years invested a lot of money in renovating La Habana Vieja. And yes, it is beautiful, and El Capitolio is nice. For sure, you should spend time exploring this part of the city. Havana Vieja is truly the touristic center, and the prices are as follow. But it is not all of Havana. Very far from everything actually. And it doesn't just a part of how living standards are for the common Habanero.
So, get out of the touristic comfort zone of Havana Vieja, and hit on the dusty roads to Centro Habana and relaxing Vedado (keep on reading to #2 and #3). Havana Vieja starts at Parque Central leading downwards towards the harbor side through calle Obispo (check out the interactive map below to get an overview).
3) Walk the dusty roads of Centro Habana
In Centro Habana you will experience a complete different everyday life than in Havana Vieja. The buildings there aren't new-renovated or recently painted but old, dilapidated with the painting fall off and doors hard to open.
It has this own charm. People sitting in their doorways, talking with their neighbors, shouting at acquaintances passing by or buying a cafecito (more on cafecitos later) from a café in a window of somebody's home. The streets are broken. When the máquinas pass by filled the passengers, you hear how mental crashes against mental everytime the car falls down in a hole in the street. Head to Centro Habana to get lost on the small side streets, and explore your own little hidden gem of the real way life is lived in Havana.
When you stand on Parque Central with calle Obispo behind you, in the right corner you will have the beginning of calle Neptuno, and the beginning of Centro Habana.
Centro Habana lies alongside the seaside drive, Malecón (continue reading for more on the Malecón). So, in case you get really lost just hit toward the Malecón to orientate.
4) Enjoy the quietness of Vedado
If you continue straight ahead on calle Neptuno, you will end up at the University of Havana located in the Vedado neighborhood. Vedado is in most parts a quieter area of Havana but that doesn’t make it less worth visiting!
Scroll around the streets parallel to calle 23 heading towards the street of Paseo, and you will see some beautiful colonial houses with small gardens in front. A local market. And even a school.
Check out the massive hotel Habana Libre which used to be a Hilton hotel. After the Revolution in 1969 it was turned into the revolutionary headquarter. Nowadays it has return to be a hotel.Just behind Habana Libre there has recently been popping all kind of all restaurants and bars up with a lot more modern design than you usually see in the state-owned restaurants around the city. Check out my post about this area of Vedado here.
The university itself is worth a visit. From the top of the stairs, you have an amazing view down the street of San Lazaro towards the Malecón. The inside of the university is a beautiful little park.
Calle 23 is a traffic hotspot in Vedado, and it is a great spot for catching a máquina to almost anywhere in the city. Calle 23 also connects with the Malecón so you might be lucky to catch a máquina toward the Malecón, and get a part of that touristic drive on the Malecón in your own a la Cubano way.
5) Spent an evening sitting at the Malecón drinking rum, Cristal or Bucanero
Apart from helping you to orientate when you get lost in Centro Habana, the seaside drive of Malecón is very popular among Habaneros during the evening. Head down there around sunset to get some amazing photos, and then just settle down with a bottle of rum or some of the local beers, Cristal and Bucanero.
Little by little the fence towards the water will fill up by young Cubans holding in hands and kissing away from the glance of their families, older couples taking an evening scroll, and others trying to earn a little extra by selling all kinds of things from sweets to plastic roses. Relax and take it all in as the Cubans do. Enjoy the view over the sea and the forces of the waves. Watch the people walking by. Just be.
6) Do exchange your CUC to CUP, and go shopping at the local market or by the street vendors
Okay, I know it! The internet is full of blogposts and articles about Cuba’s two-currency system (the CUC and the CUP-thing). And don’t worry, I will not bore you with a long description of it.
It is simple: 1 USD is equal to 1 CUC which is then equal to 25 CUP (or pesos nacionales as they are more commonly known as).
However, in my opinion, it is a myth that the pesos nacionales only are for Cubans. I have never had problems getting them exchanged. The trick is that you need to ask for it. If you go to the CADECAs (Casas de Cambio) and ask directly for pesos nacionales, you will most likely get it. If you don’t, the sweet employees there will just give you the CUC (they aren’t stupid, right?).
So, get some of your money exchanged and hit the streets to enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables sold by street vendors and at the local markets around Havana. That’s where you really get to experience the local life in Havana. Just remember not to ask for a papaya, right?
7) Walk in the middle of the street with no worries...
... just kidding! You do need to watch out for the cars…
The pavement in Havana isn't the greatest, and especially not if you go outside the tourist area. And for that reason (and people sitting in the doorways) Habaneros don't use the pavement. They simple just walk in the middle of the street. Stop for a chat, shout something at somebody they know.
So, if you want the really Cuban experience, get used to walking in the middle of the street…
Apart from the cars, you need to watch out for the people taking their cake for a walk (confused? You will understand when you have been to Centro Habana…)
8) Take a bici taxi to la puerta de tu casa – but do negotiate the price!
There are a lot… I mean A LOT of bike cycle taxis (bicitaxis) in Havana. Most of them shouting at you that they will take you to la puerta de tu casa (right to your doorstep). A phrase that has almost become a synonym for bicitaxis in Havana.
The Cubans do use the bicitaxis, so they are not just for the use of tourist. The drivers are, though, very desperate to catch a tired tourist. Since they know that they can charge a lot more with a tourist than with the Cubans. So, therefore you dump in, please negotiate your price! I was not so fond of the bicitaxis as I get too tired of the aggressive male drivers trying the flirt with me, and having to negotiate the price every time. I'm more on the máquinas.
9) If you are a woman, get prepared and use to Cuban men's catcalling (pilear in Cuban Spanish)
This leads us perfectly to the next point: if you are woman (sometimes also for men), you will have to get used to the catcalling in the streets of Havana!
It is heavy! And if you are not used to it from your home country, it can be very annoying. The more foreign-looking you are (or the more yuma you are as the Cubans will say), the more striking and noticeable you will be in the streets of Havana. And, the more attention and catcalling you will get. My simple rule is that you don't need to talk with everybody talking to you in the street (accounts for all Latin American countries!). Just simply just keep on walking, don't look at them, don't do anything. And they will leave you alone.
I had a professor at the university , who told us that some Cuban women (especially younger ones) would dress extra up before going out on the street. Just so that they were sure to receive some catcalling from the men. For me this was in some way shocking and fascinating. I just wanted to shout that them all to tell them to leave me alone and don't see me as an object… Should I actually be flatted? I don't think I will ever be. But it is part of Cuban culture, and that's want you are coming to experience, right?
10) Start your morning with a cafecito
Cubans love to share a cafecito. And there is no better way to wake up in the morning than with one of those small cups of very strong coffee with a lot of sugar. At least not if you want it the Cuban way. Most of the small cafées in the window of somebody's home sell those small cups of coffees for around 1 CUP. Just stop by, ask for a café or cafecito, you will get it and drink it quickly and continue your walk with an extra energy boost.
Cafecito is the diminutive of café. Cubans seems to adore making things in diminutive. And well, then it is a small cup of coffee, so it is just spot on.
11) Spend a day relaxing at Playa del Este
The noise and chaos of Havana can get too much even for the Cubans, so in the weekends during the summer many escape for Playa del Este (the East Beach) to relax, swim and drink rum with friends and family.
There is a tourist bus leaving from Parque Central which will take you out to the main beaches east of Havana. It is easy and convenient, and a great day trip from the city. It is possible to take a shared taxi out there but the taxi drivers are beginning to understand that it is good business to charge the tourists a lot more than the Cubans, so the price benefit for doing this compared to the bus is closing.
12) Go only to Callejon de Hamel if you are trying to sell something to the tourists
Ooh, ups! We are the tourists… Anyway, go there and try to sell something to the other tourist? No? Okay, just kidding!
Callejon de Hamel is a one big tourist trap not located in Havana Vieja. I hardly heard of Cubans going to hang out. It might just be me… During the weekend, there is usually some kind of music performance which can be fun to watch. But still… It feels very touristic.
13) You have to eat arroz y frijoles for dinner at least once – and properly together with carne de cerdo and plátano frito
You can’t come to Cuba without trying arroz y frijoles (rice and beans) at least once! It is as simple as that! Rice and beans is an essential part of the Cuban cuisine. Even though it might seem a bit boring, if you find the right place where you can get a good homemade portion, it can be quite tasty (if you are staying in a casa particular, try to ask there).
There are two versions of how to get it: separated rice and then the beans in a kind of sauce or mixed all together. Both can be nice, and then it is very Cuban! You want to experience Havana like a local, right?
Since beef is exclusively for tourists and export (read more about things nobody tells you about Cuba) for the Cubans the rice and beans usually come with either pork or chicken. And, if you are lucky there will also be fried bananas (plátano frito) on the side! Hmm. Then, you have the complete menu for a Cuban dinner!
14) For a fancy night out be cultural, and check out Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC)
Fábrica de Arte Cubano is museum-club-cultural center located in the far end of Vedado (check out the interactive map for its location). It opened about 3 years ago, and has grown ever since.
It is quite different from other cultural activities in Havana as it provides a more modern approach to Cuban culture. It offers all kind of cultural activities; concerts, exhibitions, interviews, fashion shows etc. Check out their Facebook or website beforehand to find out what is on the agenda.
Fábrica is a complete must if you want to experience some contemporary Cuban art.
15) For the quieter night, finish the day off in a real Cuban style with a bit of baseball or telenovela in la televisión
Even though Cubans are famous for being big time music and party people, many Cubans families end of the day in front of the television with the latest baseball match or the new episode of the recent telenovela (soap opera).
Baseball (or pelota as the Cubans call it) is crazy-insanely popular in Cuba. Everybody has an opionion about the matches, their favorite team etc., etc. Maybe it is because I'm not from the US that I don't understand the passion for baseball. Or maybe it is because I'm not a sport fanatic at all that I don't get it… Anyhow, it is pure Cuban culture!
By the way: the team from Havana is called Industriales. All the rest teams more or less have the name according to their city of origin.
Around 9 pm, the streets of most residential areas are mostly empty. It is time of the its night's episode of the recent telenovela. Nobody wants to miss it! So, head to the living room of your casa particular, and ask your host family if you can join them for a real Cuban night-in.
In the end my quick guide became pretty comprehensive...