Havana is easily the most expensive city in Cuba. Days spent visiting the city’s numerous museums and fortresses, sipping mojitos in cosy bars and salsa-ing the night away will quickly begin to deplete your travel funds. But luckily, with its photogenic streets, seemingly endless supply of vintage cars and thriving street life there are still a few things to be found in Havana without a price tag attached.
Since being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 the heart of Havana Vieja or ‘Old Havana’ has been transformed. In place of a neglected historical centre are pristine grey stone walkways and plazas and revamped buildings with a fresh lick of paint.
Although the restored areas can feel a little too clean cut, there is no denying the ‘new’ Old Havana is beautiful. Wander through the spacious plazas, down leafy boulevards and admire the city that once was.
So far restoration work has focussed only on sites with a tourism value while derelict residential areas remain largely untouched. So while the centre of the old part is shiny and new, there are streets around the outskirts that are still pretty rough around the edges and have that iconic Havana feel.
There are a lot of tourist traps to be found in these parts, including probably the most expensive mojitos in the country. Ignore the touts and enjoy your stroll.
Off an unassuming Havana street you will find the psychedelic colours and Afro-cuban vibes of Callejon de Hamel. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but as you move further in you will enter a throng of people swaying rhythmically to the same beat.
Between the colourful walls and quirky sculptures the band drums and strums, the front man croons and strangers from the crowd step up to shake their booty as the music takes them over.
Hips are swinging, rum is flowing and sweat is flying.
The outdoor rumba show kicks of every Sunday around noon. Full disclaimer: it gets pretty crowded and while there are plenty of locals, it can sometimes feel like tourists dominate, shaking their posteriors with a little less sass and soul than their Cuban counterparts. Touristy or not the live music and atmosphere are electric.
Havana Vieja may be where all the tourist dollars have gone into making sure the facades are beautifully renovated, but the streets of Havana Centro are where the grittier and more authentic charm of the city can be found. And it has it in spades.
Run-down houses with faded paint and crumbling walls create the city’s iconic streetscapes. Clothing hung out to dry swings between balconies where middle-aged ladies stand to survey the hive of activity below.
The streets are full of life. Old men sit on their doorsteps taking slow drags of their fat cigars as the world swirls around them. And this is not a show put on for the sake of tourist dollars like in other parts of the city, it’s just a regular Tuesday morning. Ladies sit amongst buckets of flowers chattering loudly. Kids play soccer and ride donkeys through the street. Families wait for their ration of bread or potatoes.
This is where all the action is and it quickly became our favourite place in the city to explore on foot.
Walk through this revamped hotel, up the green staircase to the right and into the smokey cave above. Here in La Casa del Habano the experts prepare the tobacco leaves and roll them layer by layer into hundreds of cigars. They are accurate and swift in their movements and before you know it a pile of complete cigars is sitting before you.
If you haven’t had a chance to see the cigar making process or are not interested in paying for a tour, this is a great place to see it for free (although tips are greatly appreciated). Arrive around mid-morning to see the cigar rolling from the beginning. The bar is small but popular with an extensive selection of cigars for sale.
When the buildings begin to blush with golden light, Havana’s Malecón is the place to be. Fisherman flock over the seawall to catch some dinner, kids play between the rock pools, bystanders try to avoid the stray waves that come splashing over the wall and sometimes a musician or two will blow or strum out a tune. Although this is primarily to send a few extra CUCs their way, it really only adds to the atmosphere as the sky flushes orange and the sun dips behind the bulk of the El Focsa building and Hotel Nacional.
Although the sunset is perfectly enjoyable on its own, if you want to add a little zing to the experience, Cafe Neruda across the road from the water serves up mojitos for 2 CUC. Watch vintage cars whizz by with a sunset backdrop and an ice-cold refresher. The food portions here are tiny but the drinks aren’t bad.