There have been more than enough obstacles in the past restricting travel to Cuba, and we don’t want finances to be another one. So, here are some suggestions for free things to do in Havana.
Visit the Old Churches
The Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula church is revered by many as a cornerstone of Havana’s heritage. The church as you see it today is the result of a reconstruction in the 1740s following a devastating hurricane. The real beauty of the church can be found inside; the impressive stained glass windows are mesmerizing. It now hosts a variety of intimate concerts and music festivals. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch a rehearsal.
Nearby, the baroque façade of the 18th century Catedral de la Habana dominates the cobbled courtyard of Plaza Catedral. The distinguishing feature is its asymmetrical bell towers; you will see that one is thinner than the other. The cathedral was constructed using mostly coral blocks cut from the seabed, and close inspection of the walls will reveal embedded fossils. Take a moment to appreciate the restored paintings and frescoes inside.
Experience La Bodeguita del Medio
Near the Plaza Catedral sits a restaurant and bar - La Bodeguita del Medio. This special place has become famous for a variety of reasons, including the alleged creation of the mojito. The interior has become somewhat of a memory wall; framed photos and masses of autographs cover almost every inch. Famous patrons of the past include the author Ernest Hemingway and singer Nat King Cole. I loved chatting to the locals about the history of the bar, and the smell of rum and cigars is a satisfyingly Cuban experience. In the surrounding streets, keep your eyes peeled for the locals walking on stilts and dressed in colourful, colonial costumes.
Explore Calle Mercaderes
Stemming off from Plaza Vieja is the cobbled Calle Mercaderes, or Merchant Street. Plan to spend a few hours here; these three blocks are brimming with fascinating hidden places. The colonial mansions house boutique stores and several small museums, most of which are free. The Museo del Tabaco – Tobacco Museum – displays the whole process from harvest to processing and has a particularly interesting collection of pipes on display. Don’t miss Maqueta de la Havana, a scale-model of Havana Old Town. Over 3000 miniature buildings show the layout of the area in intricate detail. Entry is free but they charge a few CUC if you want to take photos. The balcony here is a great place to watch the sunset.
Wander the Pedestrian Boulevards
For an afternoon of people watching or to mix with the locals, head to Paseo de Marti - known locally as Prado. This tree-lined boulevard is the preferred destination for children spending their afternoons outside playing or roller-skating. Men sit in the shade playing cards, backgammon, or chess while the women sit in groups and gossip; the relaxed way of life is refreshing to see. Start at Parque Central, then wander down Prado to Havana’s seafront boulevard, the Malecón. If you’re struggling to break the ice with locals, the street stalls selling art or books is a good place to start up a conversation. In Havana Old Town, Obispo Street is another bustling pedestrian area.
Enjoy Playas Del Este
If you’re looking to escape the city, head to the beaches on the Eastern outskirts of Havana. The white sand and warm water stretches for several miles so Playas del Este is a popular destination, especially on weekends. The prettiest beach is Playa Tárara, and you’ll find plenty of beach facilities here. That said, the beaches closest to the city are more likely to have locals and tourists mixing and chatting. Don’t be put off by the police presence - all the beaches are safe and family-friendly.
We’ve only scratched the surface here - there are many more free things to do in Havana. Although we highlighted some of the city’s best spots, you’ll find that the spirit of Cuba is everywhere. Enjoy!
Leandi Schoonraad was born in South Africa and she’d lived on 4 continents by the time she was 21. The desire to travel and explore only intensified as time went by, and to date she has been to over 60 countries on 6 continents. Leandi wanted to share her stories, as well as hints and tips for other travellers, so she teamed up with her best friend to create WhistleStops. You can follow their adventures on Facebook and on Instagram. You can also get in touch with them at firstname.lastname@example.org.