What springs to mind when you think of Cuba? Sipping spiced rum and smoking a cigar on a sun kissed beach? Pulsating salsa beats on the dance floor? A bearded former President who wasn’t so friendly with the USA and looked a little like Santa Claus in military green? While their political history wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, the only offensive Cuba is likely to force on you is a charm offensive. This tropical island nation offers a multitude of things to see and do, and the only complaint you’re likely to have is that you don’t want to leave. Even though there are many magnificent towns and cities by the sea, most visitors to Cuba arrive and leave through Havana’s José Martí International Airport. Havana is the capital and largest city of the country, and of course travelers tend to explore this vibrant hub of Cuban culture, but there’s often the issue of time – and sometimes visitors just have a short period to see Havana before heading off to one of the islands resorts. So if you’re in a rush (which is actually very un-Cuban) and don’t have the luxury of exploring Havana at a relaxed pace, then here are a few things you definitely need to do.
Walk the Malecón
If you really don’t have so much time, you might only want to walk a section of the Malecón, since it’s 5 miles (8 kilometers) long. It’s a path that runs from one side of the central city to another, along a seawall that faces the harbor. It’s particularly magnificent during stormy weather when the waves crash along it. The walk takes you past the district of Miramar, and it’s worth leaving the Malecón to explore – check out the amazing Russian embassy which looks like something out of Batman.
Explore Havana’s Old Town
The old town of Havana (La Habana Vieje) is basically the downtown part of the city, and it’s the town from which the larger city grew. There are sensationally beautiful examples of Spanish architecture, particularly on and around Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in the city. You can get a quick lesson in the history of the city from the Havana Museum in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales on the western side of the square. There’s so much to see in this part of the city, and indeed the city as a whole, so you might want to take an organized Havana tour.
Dance the Night (or Afternoon) Away
You can think you know Cuban salsa and rumba, but unless you’ve heard it on the streets of Havana, then you’ve been missing out! There are seemingly spontaneous jam sessions where a group of musicians will start playing on a street corner and residents will start to shake their hips in a way most of us can only dream about. If you don’t happen to find anything by chance, then pay a visit to Callejón de Hammel, a small street in central Havana that features great music on a Sunday afternoon.
Time to Spend Those Pesos
Sure, there are Cuban cigars and rum to stock up on (and avoid the duty free stores at the airport, since you can find it cheaper in the city), but there’s a lot more to shopping in Cuba than that. Explore the many goods on offer at Havana’s craft market (Centro Antiguos Almacenes de Depósito San José) on the waterfront where you’re sure to find a special something to remind you of your Cuban adventure.
Havana from Above
So much to see, so little time… Even if you spent years in this fantastic city, you wouldn’t be able to see all of it. You can at least get a sense of Havana by looking at it from above. On the Plaza de la Revolución in the Vedado district, you’ll find a huge memorial celebrating the life and work of José Martí, a poet and legend of the Cuban independence movement (who you might remember from the airport). You can take a lift to the top (129 meters) and look down upon Havana, perhaps thinking of all the things you plan to do the next time you visit.