Popular Havana Shore Excursions
Near the Cruise Port
Havana's Plazas: Among those on the must-visit list is Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, which is chockfull of excitement, musicians, booksellers and arts and crafts vendors. Touts, beggars and more gather in this atmospheric and shady plaza, which is flanked by historic buildings and museums. Plaza Vieja, also in the old city, was laid out in 1559 and served as the main square of Havana until the 19th Century. It now houses restored examples of architecture that span the centuries, as well as several cafes and bars that offer Cuban music -- including Cafe Taberna, a favorite spot of the renowned Cuban musician Benny More, known as "the barbarian of rhythm."
The Malecon: On stormy days, the seas crash over the walls of the wide breakwater that lines this four-mile, winding promenade. It attracts a hodge-podge of people: families, couples, fishermen, tourists, those out for a stroll and more. Architecturally, the wide boulevard is lined with numerous attractive and important buildings, many of which are now faded from the sun and sea air.
La Habana Vieja
Palacio del los Capitanes Generales: In this old Havana neighborhood, you can visit the Palacio, a classic example of the city's baroque architecture. Formerly the home of the Spanish colonial rulers, captain generals, and briefly the presidential palace, today it houses the Museo de la Ciudad and features a comprehensive history of Havana. (Plaza de Armas, calle Tacon e/ O'Reilly y Obispo; open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily).
Other neighborhood attractions include the Catedral de San Cristobal. Havana's Baroque main cathedral towers over the Plaza de la Catedral and its 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings. (Calle Emperador 156; open 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Sunday)
La Calle Obispo: This pedestrianized street, though crowded, narrow, bustling and very touristy, will give you the best sense of old Havana and its architectural styles. At one end is the classically colonial Plaza de Armas. At the other are buildings from the more modern Art Nouveau period. The restored buildings include hotels, shops, cafes and Farmacia Taquechel, a pharmacy that sells cosmetics and natural and homeopathic remedies. Its picturesque shelves are lined with an impressive collection of antique Italian and Majolica ceramic pharmaceutical jars. Also on Calle Obispo is the lively and restored Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is famous for its literary past. Ernest Hemingway began writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in room 511.
Museo de la Revolucion: This museum is dedicated to the revolution and is housed in the former presidential palace. This neo-classical building was built in 1920 and was decorated by New York's Tiffany & Co. It served as the home for 25 presidents,so it's no accident that Castro chose it to house the museum of his revolution. Check out the Salon de Espejos (Hall of Mirrors), which was meant to resemble the room of the same name at the Palace of Versailles. (Calle Refugio 1, e Avenida de las Misones y Zulueta; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: The national fine arts museum is contained in two buildings. One is dedicated to Cuban art (colonial, academic and 20th-century art), and the other, two blocks away in the Palacio del Centro Austuriano, focuses on international art, especially European painting and sculpture, as well as ancient art. There is a 5 CUC charge for entry for visitors 14 and older. (San Rafael, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate and Calle Trocadero, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
Paseo del Prado: Take a stroll down, the quintessential Havana boulevard, with its gracious central promenade made of marble. Originally laid out in 1772, the street remains popular for locals, especially in the evening. Marble benches, wrought-iron street lamps and eight bronze lions line the avenue. Some of the buildings along the avenue have been restored and painted bright, pastel colors. Often, there are street musicians along the central walkway.
Parque Central: The heart of the city center, this park has a small statue at its center to the revolutionary martyr, Jose Marti. It is lined with palm trees and provides a welcome relief from the chaos all around. This area is lined with monumental 19th- and 20th-century buildings, including the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana's oldest hotel and a classic spot to have a drink on the terrace and watch the world go by. The nearby Centro Gallego began life as a social club for Galicians (Spaniards from the far northwest portion of the country, many of whom, like the Irish, emigrated to foreign shores) and was built round the existing Gran Teatro de la Habana.
El Capitolio: Diagonally opposite from one corner of the square is Cuba's Capitol building,, which was inspired by the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. (and actually slightly larger). It was once the seat of the Cuban Congress, and in 2013 Raul Castro announced that it would return there (the building is still being restored). It currently houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology. (Paseo de Marti esq. a San Jose; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
A prestigious neighborhood where wide boulevards, gardens and grand residences grace the tree-lined streets, Vedado was once home to single families. These dwellings now house several residents on different floors and offer a fascinating glimpse into how the elite of the city once lived. Several of the mansions have been restored and are used as embassies and offices for foreign corporations. This is also the home to the University of Havana, the massive Necropolis de Colon (the city's most impressive cemetery) and several important museums, including the Museo Napoleonico. This museum boasts the largest collection of Napoleonic artifacts outside of France, gathered together by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo. (Calle San Miguel, esq. a Ronda; open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday)
Plaza de la Revolucion: Also in El Vedado, the vast expanse of the Plaza de la Revolucion has been the heart of the Cuban government and politics since 1959. Fidel Castro renamed the square, formerly known as the Plaza Civica, and it has been the site of many important events, ranging from Castro's famously long speeches to a mass given by Pope John Paul II in 1998. But it's perhaps most famous for a sculpture of the iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, with the words "Hasta la Victoria, Siempre" (until victory, always) on one side of the Ministry of the Interior building.
Hotel Nacional: Overlooking the malecon, one of history's most important hotels sits atop a cliff. This would be the Hotel Nacional, once a playground for celebrities, presidents, dignitaries and American mafia bosses. In 1960, Fidel Castro set up his headquarters here during the Cuban Missile Crisis, closed the casino and nationalized the hotel. Today, people from all over the world can stroll through the hotel's grand lobby, and sit on the stunning terrace for a cafecito or a cocktail. An exhibit on the military history of the grounds is available for public visitation. (Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Plaza, La Habana)
Finca Vigia: On the outskirts of Havana is, Ernest Hemingway's farm. He purchased the home in 1940 and lived there, off and on, while in Cuba. The home was made into a museum in 1962 and remains, essentially, as Hemingway left it. It features his 9,000-book library, hunting trophies, photos, artwork and even his fishing boat, the Pilar. The Finca Vigia Foundation in the United States is working to preserve this historic home, and its efforts have led to rare U.S.-Cuban co-operation, including the digitalization of Hemingway's private documents. (Calle Vigia y Stheinhard, San Francisco de Paula; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday)
Havana's beaches start just 11 miles from the city center -- but these are no nasty city beaches -- Las Playas del Este (the eastern beaches), about 20 minutes by car outside of Havana, are a series of exquisite white sand beaches fringed by aquamarine seas and small towns that stretch for nearly 30 miles. Just note that before you head to dig your toes in the sand, a full-day group tour is required by U.S. law. Maybe save the beach for your second morning in port if you are docked overnight.
Best for Relaxing: Locals flock to Playa Guanabo, which can be particularly crowded on weekends. This is the more authentic Cuban end of the strip, which has thus far escaped development.
Best for Active Types: The most popular beach for tourists is Playa Santa Maria del Mar, with its pine- and palm-lined beaches, hotels, restaurants and water sports.
Best for Kids: From Havana, Bacuranao is the first beach you arrive at and is a quiet family-friendly spot.
Best for Resort-Lovers: Varadero, Cuba's renowned beach resort, lies about two hours from the city and sits on a 12-mile-long peninsula jutting deep into the Straits of Florida. It boasts an airport which caters for direct flights, mostly catering to international package holidaymakers who never leave this stretch. It's about two hours from port, and it's best visited on an organized tour.