Havana can be an expensive city for tourists, mostly because of Cuba’s dual currency system. They use CUC, which is tied to the US dollar for most things tourists would buy–hotels, museum fees, some restaurants, alcohol, etc.–but you can save a lot of money by living like a local and using, when possible, the currency the locals use, moneda nacional (MN). Here are the ten best things you can do for free or cheap (less than $2) in Havana!
1. Visit the Plazas of Old Havana
There are four historic plazas in Old Havana–Plaza de la Catedral (above), Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, and Plaza de San Francisco–and you can visit them all for free! In fact, walking to the different plazas is a great way to explore Old Havana. I love Plaza de la Catedral because of the cathedral–it’s also probably one of the more popular so there are people in traditional dress that you can take pictures of (for a tip) and activity all the time–so much people-watching! Bodeguito del Medio of Hemingway fame is also right nearby. Plaza Vieja is the largest and there is a really great brewery in one corner. Plaza de San Francisco is (in my experience) is the least crowded and has an awesome fountain with lions on it. Plaza de Armas has a used book market set up most of the time, which is also really fun to visit. The plazas can provide hours of fun in Old Havana, and they are totally free!
Coppelia is an iconic (and huge!) ice cream parlor on the corner of La Rampa (Avenida 23) and Calle L, which is a really fun, busy corner in Vedado. Waiting in line for the ice cream is also a very ‘Cuban’ experience and involves a lot of people watching. Here’s the deal, if you’re a tourist or you don’t look Cuban, they may ask you if you want to go in a different (shorter) line for ice cream. Unless you are in a hurry, you don’t! That ice cream is for the tourists–sometimes it’s different flavors (there are two flavors each day) than the long-line ones and it costs 1 CUC ($1 USD)/scoop! Where as if you have a little patience you can wait in line with the Cubans and get ice cream for 1 peso MN (5 cents USD)/scoop, PLUS get the added bonus of interacting with real Cubans (we had a great time talking to a couple who sat at the table with us and practicing our Spanish) and ‘living like a local’. Coppelia should definitely be on your short list for cheap attractions in Cuba!
3. See a movie
I ended up seeing two movies while in Cuba because they are SO cheap! They cost 2 pesos MN (about 10 cents USD) each so they are an awesome deal! If you want to know what times different movies are playing at different places (and read some cool articles about directors and actors and such) you can buy a guide at any of the theatres for 1 peso MN (5 cents USD). My popcorn was about 20 cents and my can of pop was 50 cents, so my whole movie experience cost under $1! Plus you get to see movies that may or may not make it to the silver screen in the US, so it’s definitely worth checking out. I also met some really nice Cubans at the theatre and saw two great films–one that took place in Havana called Venecia and another from Argentina that was full of dark humor (and, I later found out, nominated for an Academy Award!) called Relatos Salvajes. They were SO worth more than my 10 cents each!
4. Walk the Malecon
The Malecon is a seawall and esplanade that surrounds Havana from Old Havana, through Central Havana and on through Vedado, so if you stay in any of those areas you’re an easy walk away! The Malecon is about 5 miles long and is a hub of activity any time of day. In the morning there are fisherman and sometimes kids swimming in the ocean waters, during the day it’s lined with people out for walks, bike rides or runs (or tourists checking out art exhibits set up along it, as I was!), and at night people go out to walk their dogs, play music, or split a bottle of rum among their friends (especially on weekends–Havana gets so hot and the cool sea breeze makes it a better place to party than a stuffy house or club). You really can’t go wrong taking a little seaside stroll along the Malecon, and best of all, it’s totally free!
5. Visit a park
Havana has many lovely parks and I recommend taking a few (free) visits to some while you’re in the city. Two of my favorites are Parque Almendares (pictured above) and Parque John Lennon (which has a bronze sculpture with oft-stolen glasses of the Beatles star), but there are many others, like Parque Forestal, Parque Central (in Old Havana), and Parque de la Fraternidad.
6. Check out a swanky hotel
There are tons of swanky hotels in Havana from back in its heyday as a prime vacation spot before the embargo. A few that we visited were Hotel Capri, Hotel Havana Libre, Hotel Inglaterra, and Hotel Nacional. Hotel Nacional is probably the most famous, or maybe infamous, as members of the US mafia used to hang out there. It’s really fun to explore, with peacocks out front, a pretty pool, great architectural details inside, and Salon de la Historia, a bar featuring pictures of all the famous people who used to hang out there. Looking around the hotels is free, though using services like internet and the pools are not. The pools can be a good deal, however–we swam a few times at Hotel Capri without paying anything and twice at Hotel Havana Libre. It was 15CUC ($15) there, but they gave you a towel and you could spend up to 13CUC on food and drinks, so it’s actually a pretty good deal if you swim, have a few drinks and get snacks or dinner!
7. Plaza de la Revolucion
This is one of the few touristy sights located in the Vedado neighborhood. It’s a large open space that’s used for political rallies and such. There’s a large marble monument to Jose Marti across from two government buildings that feature the faces of Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos (it’s NOT of Fidel, as everyone thinks), so it’s a great place for photo ops. There’s also a museum beneath Jose Marti’s monument but it was closed when I went there so I’m not sure how much it costs. Visiting the Plaza and the monument however, is free!
8. Mercado San Jose
The San Jose Market, located in Old Havana, is a fantastic place to buy souvenirs or gifts before you leave Cuba, but if you can resist buying any paintings, carvings, jewelry, dolls or other handicrafts you can look around and get a feel for Cuban art for free!
9. Callejon de Hammel
Callejon de Hammel is a really cool art project in a pedestrian street/alley sort of between Central Havana and Vedado. On Sundays there’s a free dance party, I believe from noon or 1 to 3pm. I unfortunately missed it when I went to visit, but I was still able to look around at the different art projects, and a friendly guide showed me around and told me about the artwork, the religious inspiration of some of the works, and the history of the project. Definitely worth a stop if you want to check out some Afro-Cuban art, or maybe just to join the dance party!
10. Get a manicure
Cubans take a great deal of pride in their appearance so they take care of themselves really well, though of course on a budget. While in Cuba we got manicures for only 2CUC ($2), which was quite a deal! If you’re willing to spend a little more, my friend and I also went to a salon and had some hair treatments for quite cheap too. She had her hair dyed for only $9 and I got a blow-out for just $7. With those prices you should definitely take some time to pamper yourself a little while you’re in Cuba!
Totally Worth-It Splurge
If you’re going to be in Havana for any amount of time, you should definitely go to the beach! There are several beaches among the Playas del Este, but I’m told by local Cubans that Santa Maria del Mar is the best. We visited it twice while we were in Cuba, and I can testify that it is pretty amazing! Fine white sand, palm tree-fringed shoreline, seeing your toes through the crystal blue water, salsa music wafting toward you from somewhere down the beach… I used to think beaches like this only existed on postcards and calendars! But they are real, and they’re in Cuba. There are several ways to get there from Havana. You can take the bus (the cheapest option) but I don’t recommend it, as they are very crowded and it will likely taking you a long time to get there. There is a maquina route that goes to the beaches, but it’s a little hard to find the stop. We paid a driver to take us in a van and take us back, which was about $5/person. If you can find someone to split with, that’s a great, cheap option. But hey, you already saved a bunch of money using these 10 tips so why don’t you splurge and take your own private taxi out to the beach? It’ll run around $20 each way. And believe me, it’s totally worth it!
How did you like these tips? Can you think of any more I missed? Do you want to visit Cuba someday? Comment below!