Discover the must-see destinations in Havana that will captivate any age of kiddo, and offer parents culturally-stimulating adventures.
Imagine journeying through a city that was seemingly frozen in the 1950s, and teeming with shining convertibles, spirited citizens, a bright collage of Baroque (with a Cuban twist) and Spanish-colonial structures that tell a dynamic tale of revolution, pride and poverty, and soul-inspiring music wafting down the streets. It’s captivating for every age – so much so that our screen-obsessed child forgot that Pokémon and Paw Patrol existed whilst chasing kittens, watching children volley a soccer ball with their heads, and keeping his eyes peeled for the treasures on his Old Havana Scavenger Hunt list (see below).
While there’s magic to be found in every area of this urban wonderland, it can be tricky to uncover without the right support – namely, a seasoned tour guide. Havana is filled with activities that have the potential to be life-changing, intellectually enriching experiences that bring your family together in beautiful ways... But, the city can also produce a family travel nightmare if you don’t speak Spanish, or know how to work their system, which is very different from the United States.
A good tour guide can take your list of preferred activities, your family’s meal and rest needs, and how much walking you’re wanting to do, and craft an itinerary that suits all your preferences. As we learned during a night on the town sans tour guide, Havana is not easy to navigate on your own.
Our preferred tour company and guide (who we get nothing but good karma to recommend) is Luis from Cuban Trip Compass. Luis was like an animate Cuban encyclopedia, who not only knew all the facts, but offered salacious historical gossip. He was a total score. While we was worth double the price, they only charged us $50/person for the day, which included 8-hours of Luis’ time, and van transportation. If we wanted classic car transportation, it would have been $55/person.
The weeks we spent obsessively researching Havana, Luis’ recommendations, and our actual time in Havana were the ingredients that went into this comprehensive list of recommendations. While it’s possible to jam it all into 48-hours, we recommend spreading it over numerous days so you’re able to savor each experience – and have time for lots of mojitos and naps.
1. Explore the rainbow wonderland of Fusterlandia
The essence of Picasso and Gaudi must have been dancing in Jose Fuster’s mind when he created what is now called Fusterlandia, a Seussian-like world covered in bright mosaics. The epicenter of this world is Fuster’s home, which is open to the public. But the surrounding community enjoyed his work so much they commissioned him to Fuster-ize many of the other structures in the neighborhood.
The whimsical nature of this area is appealing to all ages, as it awakens childlike wonder in adults, and exudes the wild, cartoon-ish aesthetic enjoyed by many children - Hudson especially loved the portholes of various shapes that make you feel as though you’re peeking into secret worlds.
Beyond the art below, beside and above you, the top floor of the house opens to vistas of Havana’s outskirts, so bring your camera. And bring your Cuban convertible pesos, as the street bordering Fusterlandia is filled with vendors selling fairly-priced, non-cheesy souvenirs like leather purses, wooden toy cars, and eclectic paintings and prints.
2. Take a time machine to the 1950’s with a classic car ride
Havana’s streets are coated in a polished tapestry of Chevy Bel Aires, Ford Fairlines and Plymouths from the 1940s and 50s. Cruising in one of these legendary rides has become a tourist cliché for a reason – it’s freakin’ awesome.
Cuban Trip Compass (the tour company recommended above) offers the option of van or classic car transport. If you have a large group, and don’t want to be in different vehicles, we recommend going with the van (which is blessedly air conditioned), but making sure your guide knows you want to have a ride in a classic. They can then allocate an hour or two of your itinerary for driving along the Malecon (five mile sea wall), and other visually stimulating areas of the city in one of these vehicles. Our favorite option is a driving tour of Old Havana, as you get a taste of what it felt like to roam the streets of Havana in the days when the mob ran the show.
A perk of having your guide set this up is that they often negotiate a better rate than you could on the street, ensure you’re taken to the correct areas, and can provide anecdotes about the sights.
3. Engage in a scavenger hunt on the way to Plaza Vieja
The maze of narrow streets that lead to Plaza Vieja are like the arteries of Old Havana, beating with the authenticity of the city, as they offer glimpses into local schools, homes, and the bodegas where locals pick up their food rations. Be sure to stay alert, as cars aren’t great at slowing for people, and walking under a crumbling balcony could have unfortunate consequences. When you reach Plaza Vieja, reward yourself with a treat at Papa Ernesto or Café El Escorial.
While this journey easily arouses adult interest (especially if you have a good guide), it can incite a boredom riot in kids. To avoid this, make a scavenger hunt list (or use the one below) to keep your children’s interest piqued as you wander these storied paths. Our preferred type of scavenger hunt is a “photo hunt,” where the kids take photos of their finds with a disposable or shockproof digital camera. If you want to skip the photos, give them a pad and pencil to scribble a picture of the scavenger items they spot. You can reward them with ice cream at the gelato shop mentioned below.
Old Havana Scavenger Hunt List
· Street art
· Fruit or vegetable street vendor
· Someone playing music
· Stained glass window
· Someone smoking a cigar
· Cuban flag (the real thing, or a painting of it)
· Image of Che Guevara
· Dog or cat
· A building of each color of the rainbow (for example, a blue building, a purple building, a green building, etc.)
4. Strike a pose with living statues
Scattered throughout the streets of Havana are innovative entrepreneurs taking advantage of the hoards of snap-happy tourists flooding their hometown. These entrepreneurs adorn themselves in elaborate costumes, cover every inch of their body with paint, then post up in a high-traffic area, waiting for foreigners wanting to score an unbeatable photo op.
The thing is, many tourists fail to realize that these people aren’t just dressing up for fun – they’re dealing with wearing heavy layers of clothing and body paint on the steamy Havana streets so people will put money in their hand (or can.) While it’s tempting to steal a quick shot and go on your way, we recommend bringing small bills to give out to folks you want to take a photo of, or with. We had 40 Cuban Pesos (equal to about 40 dollars) on hand each day for this purpose, and would give 2-3 to the subjects of our photos.
5. Be inspired at Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm)
Whether or not you’re a Hemingway fan, most can agree that a rare elixir of creativity ran through his veins. Much of this creativity bloomed at his Cuba home, Finca Vigia, which Fidel Castro confiscated in 1959. When Hemingway’s last wife, Mary Welsh, learned the house had been seized, she sought support from Jackie Kennedy who helped her retrieve the manuscripts that still resided there.
But everything else remains - presumably in the order Hemingway left it - creating the illusion that Ava Gardner (a regular guest of the house), Mary Welsh, or Hemingway himself might stumble out of one of the rooms and pass you a cocktail. While visitors can’t enter the home, you can peer through the open doors and windows, soaking in the preserved oasis of one of the most iconic novelists.
We’ve been to the home-turned-museum of other famous figures, but there was something about Finca Vigia that moved us – you can feel the energy of the past inhabitants. The house and grounds seem to conjure an eerie combination of inspiration and tragedy, a reminder that this was the site of ingenious creation and dark moments of rage, depression and addiction. While Hemingway didn’t die here, I wouldn’t be surprised if he haunts the joint.
Because of the otherworldly vibes, Finca Vigia is a prime place to take pause, sit on the grass or by the empty pool, and do something creative – maybe a bit of writing or sketching. You can offer younger children a pad of paper and pencil to see how the house stimulates their imagination. Who knows, maybe you’ll be temporarily possessed by the spirit of Hemingway and write the first chapter of the next The Old Man and the Sea. A girl can dream.
6. Giddy up on a horse drawn carriage
Since the 15th century, Cubans have been using horse drawn carts to transport people, produce, and anything else that can fit in their cart. To make some money, many Cubans have swapped their cart for a carriage and roam the streets looking for tourists wanting to explore the city, without their own hoofs doing the work.
Because it’s tricky to pre-book one of these adventures, make your way to the street that borders the cruise ship terminal, where you’ll be bombarded with carriage options. Talk to a few drivers until you find one you like, and who agrees to a fair price. Average rates are 20 -25 CUC for 1.5 to 2 hours. If you don’t speak Spanish or have a guide with you, it’s preferable if the driver speaks English so he can tell you about the sights. It's a fun bonus for the kids when they let them feed the horse a treat.
7. People watch on the steps of El Capitolo
This neoclassical behemoth was inspired by the Panthéon in Paris and is coated in looming sculptures, glistening floors and intricate details. It feels fit for the Gods. The structure was vacant of political purpose for many decades, as it was vacated by the Cuban Congress after the Revolution ended in 1959, and was then home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and the National Library of Science and Technology, until 2013.
After five decades of little repair, the building was wasting away until a massive restoration project began in 2010. The jaw-dropping landmark has almost fully reclaimed its former glory and is now open for tours.
Beyond witnessing the grandeur of the building, it’s fascinating to sit on one of its 55 steps and soak in the day-to-day life of the people. Unlike bustling cities like Washington D.C., where sitting on the steps of the capitol would offer views of suit-clad people rushing by, the steps of Cuba’s capitol building reveal a colorful, mellow culture where workers slowly savor a simple lunch, cab drivers gossip about their fares, and school kids braid hair and play tag on the large concrete expanse at the base of the steps. No one is in a hurry.
Fun Fact: The distance from Havana (by road) to any other location in the country is measured from El Capitolo.
8. Tell ghost stories in Colon Cemetery
One of the best perks of a good guide is that they can shift the experience of wandering through a cemetery from kind of boring and creepy, to exhilarating and eerie (a fun sort of eerie.) They do this by sharing the mysterious lore attached to many of the monuments, sculptures and mausoleums that range in style from Romanesque to contemporary.
As the second largest necropolis in the world, Colon Cemetery can be explored for hours, with every turn offering a new cryptic structure to investigate. Our favorite stops are La Milagrosa (The Miraculous Lady) and Firefighters’ Mausoleum.
La Milagrosa honors a woman who died in childbirth with her baby. It's said that her heartbroken husband buried the woman in Colon Cemetery with the baby between her legs, as was customary. He would come to the cemetery every day and use the handle on the stone coffin to wake up her spirit so he could talk to her. After many years, when he could no longer handle the grief, he had the coffin opened. Legend has it that the mother and child's body were perfectly preserved, and that instead of being between her legs, the baby was now in the mother's arms. She's now viewed as a patron saint for pregnant woman, and is the most popular grave in the cemetery. It's pretty much always covered in fresh flowers and donations.
The Firefighters’ Mausoleum honors the firemen who died in a massive citywide fire in 1890.
If you want to spook-up the experience, tell your family members (who are old enough to read and navigate the Web) to research age-appropriate ghost stories before your trip, then find a shady spot to share them in the graveyard. For younger kids, this can be a fun time to make up stories on the fly.
Because of the lush foliage, bright white (mostly) marble edifices, and an almost constantly blue sky, this destination is far from depressing, instead offering a captivating mix of historical intrigue, mysticism, and artistic mastery.
9. Play tag in Havana Forest
This mesmerizing playground of vine-covered Banyan trees, ferns and a carpet of grass has an Avatar-esque feel, and is somewhat shocking to find within Havana. One minute you’re driving past heavily populated neighborhoods, and the next you feel like you’ve gone through a portal into Pandora. Although, Cuba’s version of Pandora involves an occasional scattering of small animal bones from the Santeria sacrifices done in hidden clearings after dark.
Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion that believes in building relationships with Orishas, or mortal spirits, who worshippers need to maintain favor with by engaging in the ritual of sacrificing chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea pigs, goats, sheep or turtles. (Chickens are the most common sacrifice.) With the exception of healing and death rites, worshipers eat the meat of the sacrificed animal.
If you can get past the creepy/cool presence of animal bones, this is an intriguing forest to explore, especially during midday when young kids need free time to run, and the adults need turns napping in the grass. Be aware that the Almendares River (too polluted for swimming) runs through this area, so don’t let the kids out of sight.
10. Devour ice cream at Helad'oro
After wandering the hot streets of Havana, relishing a sweet, frosty treat at Helad’oro feels like you’ve taken a detour to heaven, or at least a really good artisan ice creamery.
Utilizing seasonal fruits and other fresh ingredients, this spot churns out over 18 flavors that range from unique creations, like Mojito and pie de limon, to tried and trues, such as dulce de leche and Milky Way. These scoops are more gelato than traditional ice cream, which we found to be a more refreshing experience. In addition, you get all this yumminess for around 1 CUC a scoop.
If you want to savor your sugary loot in the store, there are a few tables, but if you want to soak up the sites while you refuel, wander through the very walkable section of Old Havana where Helad’oro is located.
11. Dance at El Floridita
It’s not hard to imagine why this famous bar and restaurant, which is yet another Cuban feature that seems to have been paused in the 1950s, was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hang out. He frequented La Floridita so often there’s a bronze statue of him sitting at the bar.
The bright red bar is backed by a stunning wall of mural and mirrors, while the dining area is coated in old world Havana glamour, with twin columns and murals depicting Cuban life. You can almost hear the murmurs of bygone mob bosses making illicit deals in the corner.
Enhancing the ambiance is the almost constant presence of a band, serving up classic Cuban songs (here’s looking at you Buena Vista Social Club) that are impossible to not dance to - especially after a few of the famed daiquiris.
If you’re here without the kids, wait a few minutes and a small table or bar seats will likely open up, but if you want a better spot for the family to post up, plan to eat a meal so you can sit in the dining room, which offers more breathing room.
If you have to wait for a table, send an adult outside with the kids so they can run around in the square, being sure to keep them away from the busy street, as many drivers seem oblivious to the presence of pedestrians (unless you’re flagging them down with money.)
12. Pretend you’re pirates at Castillo de la Real Fuerza
A bastion fort, Castillo de la Real Fuerza was completed in 1577 to protect Spain’s gold from pirates. In a country where many structures are crumbling, it’s a miracle that this castle, one of the oldest in the Americas, is still standing – a testament to intrepid 16th century builders.
You can also find a symbol of female empowerment at Espera Tower, the supposed site where Doña Inés de Bobadilla, wife of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, would come each day to look for the return of her husband’s ship from his attempt to conquer La Florida. During this time, Dona Ines became the governor of Cuba. She was never treated to the view of her husband’s homecoming, on account of Hernando dying on his journey.
As this impressive defense structure features a filled moat, canons and mortars, it’s the ideal place for children to live out their pirate fantasies. If you really want to thrill the littles, store some pirate swag (e.g., hats, eye patches, treasure maps and coins) in your backpack to whip out at the foot of the drawbridge.
After you’ve stormed the citadel, explore the Museo de Navegación (Navigation Museum, located within the fort) that’s a modern marvel, as it’s not a snore fest for kids. The museum is filled with intricate models of 15th and 16th century ships, and an extensive collection of treasure from sunken galleons.
Tip: The staff here is known to ask for money after taking your picture, so skip this service if you don’t want to shell over a few CUCs. With that said, they’ll also offer you tour guide services (also for a few bucks), which is a perk worth the extra dough if you don’t read Spanish. The signage in the museum and fort is in Spanish, so it can be difficult to understand what you’re looking at without a translator, who can often enrich your experience by offering additional facts and lore.
13. Marvel at the Cañonazo de la Nueve (aka a canon exploding at nine o’clock) at La Cabaña Fort
Prolong the pirate play by ending your night at the sprawling La Cabana Fort that was built in the 18th century and still caps off each day with a ceremony ending in the firing of a canon. This nightly ritual originated to help Habaneros (residents of Havana) sync their watches, and signified the closing of Havana’s wall and bay every evening.
As you stand on the wall of the fort, waiting for the ceremony to begin, you’re met with sparkling views of the city, which foster a masterpiece of reflections across the placid surface of the sea. Then, costumed artillery cadets (many wearing those shiny white 18th century wigs!) follow a series of commands, given by the head of crew, which culminate in the canon shot. As you can expect, this event is loud, so bring earplugs for anyone in your family with sound sensitivity.