Havana With Kids: An Overview
Stepping out of the airport in Havana is like stepping into a movie set. Everyday folk are going about their everyday business in 1950s Chevrolets and you half expect a deep voice to yell, ‘Action!’. For my 7-year old son, the experience was more akin to stepping into a Hot Wheels world, based on his treasured model car collection.
As we drove from the airport to the old part of town (La Habana Vieja) I mentioned to our taxi driver that Cuba must have some of the best mechanics in the world. He replied, ‘La pobreza agudiza el ingenio’ or ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. A fitting proverb to introduce life in Cuba.
With limited access to Internet and little, if any, disposable income, the Cubans are excellent at thinking outside the box. A quality that is particularly appealing to children. As we pulled up alongside our Casa Particular for example, and were searching for the non-existent door buzzer, our driver announced our arrival by hollering into the evening air. Much to the amusement of our children a little basket attached to a long piece of string got tossed out of a third storey window. They found the front door key inside, paving the way for our Adventures in Wonderland. Despite spending 4 nights in Havana over the course of our trip, we only had one and a half days to explore the city.
Take a video tour of Havana below:
The following are some of our Havana Highlights:
Exploring Old Havana on Foot
We spent the majority of our time on foot, taking in the lively and colourful street scenes of Old Havana. The grand, yet crumbling buildings that make up this quarter (now UNESCO protected) reflect its colonial past when Havana served as a hub for trafficking Spain’s gold and riches from The New World.
There are four main plazas worth visiting, all within walking distance of each other:
Plaza de la Catedral
When facing the cathedral from the plaza, ask your children if they can spot anything unusual about the facade. (It has asymmetrical towers)
The Plaza de la Catedral houses the baroque Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana. Note it’s named after Saint Christopher, the patron saint of Havana – not to be confused with the less saintly figure of Cristobal Colon whose remains were interred here at the end of the 18th century, after Spain was ousted from Hispaniola . See The (Posthumous) Adventures of Christopher Columbus to read about the mystery surrounding his final resting place). Ask your children to see if they can find the plaque and marble wreath that marks Columbus’ presence. (Hint! It’s to the left of the main altar and not that easy to find).
Translation of plaque:
On 19 January 1796, the Spanish government moved the ashes of the Great Admiral, Christopher Columbus from Santo Domingo [in what is now the Dominican Republic] and interred them here.
On 26 September 1898, at the time of giving up its sovereignty of this Republic the same government moved [the ashes] to Seville Cathedral.
Curiously, on some nearby scaffolding in the plaza I saw an old black and white photo of the cathedral that suggested a statue of the controversial admiral once stood in the façade’s alcove .
We couldn’t resist climbing up a rickety stairwell to the top of the clock tower to admire the plaza from above as well as the giant bronze bells that were supposedly cast with a sprinkling of gold and silver to give them a sweeter tone. I can’t personally vouch for this theory as we were given strict instructions not to ring the bells!
Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja & Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
From the Plaza de la Catedral we worked our way, somewhat haphazardly, to the other three main plazas in the old quarter; Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja and Plaza de San Francisco de Asis.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
Each square has it’s own distinctive character, our favourite being the colourful Plaza Vieja. The ‘Old Square’ is a wonderful place for families to come at dusk. Parents can enjoy a mojito in one of the many restaurants lining the square whilst children are entertained by puppet shows, balloon artists and other street performers.
The Planetarium and Camera Obscura
Plaza Vieja also houses a planetarium (which, sadly we didn’t have time to visit) as well as a rooftop Camera Obscura. This optical device of lenses and mirrors projects an aerial image of the city into a giant concave screen taking you on a birds-eye tour of Havana. The projections are so clear that you can even pick out individuals walking the cobbled streets. You can also admire panoramic views of the city from the roof of the building itself. Definitely worth a visit with children.
Cyclo or Horse & Cart Ride
Other ways to explore the old city, especially for tired little legs, are in the back of a cyclo or by horse & cart. They are easy to find, with many hanging out in the main squares.
Classic Car Tour
It may be a tourist cliche but you can’t visit Cuba without experiencing a ride in a vintage car. It is also a good opportunity to explore other parts of Havana that are harder to cover on foot, including Vedado and Central Havana.
You can either book a tour through a hotel or agent, or find a car on the streets – they generally line up near the main tourist sights. We spotted a beautiful 1951 convertible Chevrolet outside Hotel San Miguel (where there are a lot of horse & carts offering city tours as well). As we rattled along the Malecón, Havana’s wide coastal thoroughfare, we passed Hotel Nacional, the grand Art Deco hotel which famously housed the largest ever Mafia summit under the pretence of a Frank Sinatra concert. (It’s hard not to admire their panache!). Whilst the hotel is now a little run down, a friend of ours who lives in Havana told us it’s fun to visit for a sunset mojito.
John Lennon Park
Our classic car tour also took us to the John Lennon Park where a statue of the Beatles singer sits on a bench, poised for a chat. When Beatlemania swept the world Fidel Castro was not impressed. Believing the group to epitomise consumerism, he declared a ban of their music in 1964. But over the course of four decades it appears that Castro had a change of heart. In December 2000, to mark the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Castro unveiled this statue. He no longer associated Lennon with the decadent West but rather as revolutionary figure who wanted to help the working class.
At the foot of the bench is the following inscription “Dirás que soy un soñador pero no soy el único” (“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,”) from the song, Imagine. Like Lennon, Castro admitted that he too was a dreamer who had seen his dreams turned into reality.
I loved that my son (the biggest dreamer I know) sat down next to Lennon and held his hand.
Across the street from this park our driver pointed to a derelict house which he said once belonged to the deposed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. I haven’t found any sources online to back this up though. Anyone?
Paladar La Guarida
We asked our driver to end the tour at Paladar La Guarida, one of Cuba’s legendary restaurants.
This restaurant is hidden away behind a crumbling exterior in Centro Habana and is a popular dining spot on the tourist trail. Made famous by the Oscar-nominated movie Fresca y Chocolate (it was filmed in the same building) it’s bright yellow walls are covered with framed stills from the film as well as photos of visiting celebrities. I saw that Queen Sofia of Spain once sat in our table and Natalie Portman had dined there only a week before. Not surprisingly the food does not disappoint.
Reservations are essential (a day in advance should be enough, but don’t hold me to that!).
Finca La Vigia: Ernest Hemingway’s home in Havana.
Located 10 miles east of Havana in the small town of San Francisco de Paula is Finca Vigia (‘the lookout farm’) and former home of Ernest Hemingway. We stopped to take a look on our way back into Havana from Trinidad. For more details, see Cuba With Kids: Ernest Hemingway’s Home in Havana
Other Things to Do and See in Havana with Kids
Sadly we didn’t have time to cover everything on our Havana Wish List. For those staying longer, here are a few more suggestions:
The Museo de la Revolucion
Housed in the former Presidential Palace, this museum starts with Cuba’s pre-Columbian culture. It works it’s way through three floors to Casto’s revolution and to present-day Cuba. My husband visited it on a second, work-related trip to Cuba. He thought it a little run down but still worth a quick visit, particularly with older children. Some of the exhibits include the cowboy hat that revolutionary, Camilo Cienfuegos wore as he addressed the crowd from Presidential Palace shortly after ousting Batista. You can also see the yacht, ‘Granma’ which transported 82 revolutionaries (including Fidel, Raul and Che) from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. The boat crash-landed off the southern-east coast of Cuba and most of those onboard were hunted down by Batista’s soldiers and killed.
Plaza de la Revolucion
Here you can see the Che mural and Jose Marti memorial. You will also likely get a fleeting glance of this as you transfer back and forth from the airport)
If your children stay up later than ours do, then this looks a lot of fun! Every night at 9pm a cannon is fired from La Cabaña Fort, on the other side of the harbor. (You have to drive through the tunnel to get there). Back in the colonial era, this shot used to mark the end of the day, when the city gates would close for the night. In the lead up to the cannon shot is a reenactment of the 18th century ceremony. I’ve read that it’s good to be there by 8pm to secure a good viewing spot. I found the video below by carolinebrown007 on YouTube.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Located at the far end of Plaza de Armas is this huge 16th century fortress that was built to defend the city. Inside is the Museo de Navegación (Navigation Museum) that includes various model galleons and treasure excavated from shipwrecks.
Contains a model of the solar system revolving around a giant sun and a theatre which takes you on a 45-minute journey into space. It also has a 3D simulation of the Big Bang and lots of interactive games. Sadly it wasn’t open when we visited as our son is fascinated by all things relating to planets and Space. I believe the opening hours are Wed-Sun 10am-3:30pm.
Arte Corte Papito
Getting a haircut in a foreign country can be somewhat unnerving but it can also be an enriching cultural experience! Apparently this hairdressing & beauty salon-cum-museum is the place to go in Havana. Top barber, Gilberto Valladres (‘Papito’) is passionate about the history and traditions of his craft. His collection of paintings and male-grooming artefacts are displayed on the walls and customers sit in a 100-year old chair. Woman can also get cuts, mani-pedis and facials here too. (10 Calle Aguiar, +537 861 0202). Could be an interesting / memorable experience?!
Fundacion de Arte Cubano (FAC)
This modern cultural centre in the Vedado district has multiple galleries for music performances and art exhibitions. It’s geared towards adults but teens with an appreciation for the arts may well enjoy it too.
These red, open topped double deckers connect to all the key sights in the city.
Where to sleep in Havana with Kids
We stayed in three different Casas Particulares in Havana (See Cuba With Kids: Staying in a Casa Particular). These casas (or private homes) are usually cheaper than hotels and offer families the opportunity of spending time with locals. They also offer a more homely environment and a variety of room configurations to suit families of all sizes.
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To view all our blog posts in the Cuba with Kids series see our Family Guide to Cuba.