With improved relations between the United States and Cuba and the easing of travel restrictions, more and more Americans are eager to explore the raw history and culture of this Caribbean island. With mainstream cruise lines like Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, and Carnival Cruise Line now sailing to Cuba, many travelers will be planning a visit in the near future for “people to people” experiences. Having just returned from a cruise on NCL’s Sky, we are back to give you our list of the Top Things to Do in Havana, Cuba on a Cruise.
Even if you are spending an overnight in Havana, it is unlikely you will get to see and do it all, so we guess you will just have to visit this largest Caribbean island again to discover all it has to offer.
Top Things to Do in Havana, Cuba on a Cruise
Set off on a Walking Tour of Old Havana
There are plenty of things to see and do in Havana that are all within walking distance of the cruise port. In fact, a walking tour of Old Havana, “La Habana Vieja”, is a popular shore excursion offered by the cruise lines. This downtown area is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is definitely worth exploring. Set off on the cobblestone streets to explore the four main squares, each with its own distinctions and unique charm.
Plaza de San Francisco, which is located directly across the street from the cruise terminal, is most known for its Fountain of Lions. Plaza Veija, the “Old Square”, is known for its eclectic architecture and is also bustling with restaurants, bars, and a microbrewery.
Plaza de Armas is the oldest square which hosts a book market; also be on the look out for the white marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, initiator of the Cuban wars of independence, and the bordering fort, Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Plaza de la Catedral was the last of the main squares to be created and is known for the Catedral de San Cristobal, a fine example of Cuban baroque dating back to the 1700’s.
If you are up for a little more exploration after touring the the squares, you can head to the Museo de la Revolucion (or one of the several other museums in the area). This former Presidential Palace now displays Cuban history exhibits. Behind the building also lies the Granma Memorial, a large glass enclosure which houses the yacht that took Fidel Castro from Mexico to Cuba for the revolution.
If time allows, the Havana Museum of Rum, located just down the street from the cruise terminal, also offers guided tours showcasing a bit of Cuban history and a real-time experience of the actual production process. If you are visiting Cuba, it is almost mandatory that you at least taste the rum!
Take a City Tour in a Classic Car
When you think Cuba, 1950’s classic cars automatically come to mind. So of course, a ride in one of these antiques has to make our list of the Top Things to Do in Havana, Cuba on a Cruise. While the cruise lines do offer this experience, we suggest booking with a local tour company to get a cheaper price and a more comprehensive tour of the city.
We booked a tour with Havana Journeys that was a fraction of the cost and completely customizeable. This tour is in compliance with the “people to people” interaction requirements. We started off with a walking tour of Old Havana including many of the landmarks listed above then hopped inside our vibrant vehicle to continue our journey through Havana.
We were able to visit several sights in Central Havana, Vedado, and Miramar while driving in our classic car. In Central Havana, marvel at Parque Central, completed in 1877 after the city walls were knocked down, as well as the other impressive buildings and hotels nearby including the Great Theater of Havana, the Museum of Art, and the Capitol Building (Museum of the Revolution also located in the area.).
If time allows, you might want to make a pit stop at the new Partagas Factory or the Romeo y Julieta Cigar Factory. As of 2016, it has been legal to transport Cuban cigars and rum back to the U.S. as long as it is for personal consumption! If you are craving something to eat or drink, you can also stop at El Floridita or Sloppy Joe’s while in the area.
Continuing your journey on the Malecon through Vedado, you can stop to visit the Hotel Nacional. This historic, luxury hotel offers a great view of Havana harbor, is home to the Cabaret Parisien, and also has a museum in the gardens dedicated to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Other notable landmarks include the Habana Libre Hotel (one of the largest hotels in Cuba), Coppelia (a widely popular ice cream parlor), Revolution Square housing a memorial to Jose Marti and a huge mural of Che Guevara, Colon Cemetery (a 140 acre cemetery noted for its elaborate memorials), and Almendares Natural Park (also known as Havana’s Forest).
Live a Day in the Life of Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway, the American writer, purchased a home outside of Havana, Cuba in 1940 where he lived for nearly 20 years even after the relations between Cuba and the United States began to deteriorate. During this time, he wrote what would become his most famous work, The Old Man and the Sea. He also frequented several local establishments that are still around today. So, why not live a day in the life of Hemingway and take a tour of his old stomping grounds during your visit to Havana?
First and foremost, you will want to visit his home, Finca Vigia, which is located in San Francisco de Paula, a small working class town approximately 10 miles SE of Havana. Hemingway purchased this 15 acre “lookout farm” in 1940 for $12,500. Following his death, the Cuban government took ownership of the property, and it now serves as a museum that is open to the public. You can also find his deep sea fishing boat, the Pilar, dry-docked on the estate grounds.
Speaking of Hemingway’s love for fishing, you may want to explore Cojimar, the small seaside town where he docked his boat El Pilar. This quaint fishing village located a few minutes east of Havana was also the background for The Old Man and the Sea. It is said that the “old man” in the story was his guide, a Cojimar local. While in town, stop in for lunch at La Terraza for some amazing views and memorabilia of the author.
Located within walking distance of the cruise ships are a few other establishments frequented by Hemingway including La Bodeguita del Medio, El Floridita, and Ambos Mundos Hotel.
La Bodeguita del Medio lays claim as the birthplace of the mojito, though it is questionable if Hemingway was actually a regular here. El Floridita while a bit touristy, is a historic bar in Old Havana that is acclaimed to have the “Best Daiquiri in the World” by the man himself. Who can argue with a Nobel Prize winner? Stop in to try a drink for yourself. Finally, the Ambos Mundos Hotel was also home to Hemingway in the 1930’s. His room, 511, is now a small museum with tours offered daily.
Explore the Historic Forts
Located across the bay from Old Havana is Parque Historico which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage site. This military complex is actually made up of two forts, Castillo del Morro and La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, which are open to the public for your explorations.
“El Morro”, known for its emblematic lighthouse, was built in the 16th Century and served as an important defense construction until its capture by the British in 1762. The lighthouse, only added later, is now a landmark of Havana. Today, several areas of the complex are open to explore including the still functioning 19th Century lighthouse (closed during our visit). There are also several exhibitions detailing the history of the lighthouse and fort as well as a small nearby marketplace.
Located about a half mile away (15 minute walk) is the larger fort, “La Cabana”. This 18th Century mini-city is the largest Spanish fortress in the Americas. La Cabana also has a number of exhibition halls as well as a few restaurants and bars. One of the more popular museum exhibits is the life of “El Che”. Note: there is a separate entrance fee for each of the forts.
If you are spending the evening in Havana, don’t miss the Cañonazo. This customary firing of the cannons that occurs nightly at 9pm has been maintained since colonial times signaling the closure of the gates in the city wall. Some cruise lines offer evening tours to the forts so you can experience this ceremony up close and personal.
Catch a Show at Tropicana
No trip to Cuba would be complete without visiting the world renowned Tropicana cabaret club. In operation since 1939, this Vegas-style cabaret showcases Cuban culture, dance, and elaborate costumes. While mostly a tourist attraction now, the show, which is held in an open-air theater with lush landscapes, has changed very little since the 1950’s. Along with showgirls strutting their stuff, this variety show features signature performers that have included several international celebrities over the years such as Nat King Cole.
With a total run time of 2 hours, the show is a bit long and rather expensive as well. There are various pricing structures when it comes to tickets, depending on seat location and with or without dinner. Just a word of advice- most reviews claim that the food is not good. Tickets include assigned seating, a welcome drink, Havana Club rum with mixers, and snacks. Smoking is allowed, so this might be a turn off for some.
If you want a similar experience that is closer to the cruise port (as Tropicana is a 20-30 minute drive) and a bit cheaper in price, there is the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacionale. This revue show is on a much smaller scale than Tropicana but still provides the same cultural experience in a more intimate setting. The show, Cubano, Cubano, runs from 10pm-12am with dancing until 2am. It is recommended that you arrive early for good seats.
Are you visiting Cuba on an upcoming cruise? What are you looking forward to during your visit to this Caribbean island? Already visited? Drop us an anchor below to tell us your top things to do in Havana, Cuba on a cruise.