Havana is a city brimming with life lived large. From live jazz in the streets, to brightly coloured 50s taxis and a national obsession with ice cream, the capital of Cuba is a great place to explore as a family.
Whether it’s a chance to eat at a restaurant in a home, or to stay with a family there’s plenty of ways to see the real Havana for yourself and find out why you should be saying ‘Dale’! (That’s ‘Let’s go’ in Cuba!)
Here we give you ten of the top things to do when visiting Havana with children.
1. Stay in a casas particulares
‘Casas particulares’ have been springing up all over Cuba since the government allowed individuals to open their homes to the tourist market in 1997. Similar to a British B&B, these private homes give families an insight into how people in Cuba live, something you definitely won’t get from the glossy international hotels. There are lots of families that offer their homes to tourists which provide a unique opportunity for children to play together. Many hosts also offer cooked meals and they usually work out a much cheaper way of visiting the island. There are a number of websites dedicated to finding the casas particulares for you. Try http://www.casaparticularcuba.org/ and http://www.casaparticular.com/.
2. Take a horse and cart ride around Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
The streets of this Unesco World Heritage site are fascinating and full of glimpses of everyday life. You will find salsa and jazz music tumbling out of open windows, and children playing football in the streets, and old Cuban ladies hawking cigars. Travelling by horse and cart allows you to take it all in at a sedate pace. The pastel blues and yellows of the crumbling colonial style buildings create an atmospheric backdrop. It really is a relaxing way to start to get to grips with the geographical layout of the old city. Horses and carts are easy to pick up around Park Central, just make sure you negotiate the price before you leave. Taking a horse and cart ride was one of our children’s favourite things to do in Havana (you can read about Cuba in my children’s words here).
3. Eat in a Paladar
This has to be one of the most special treats in Havana. Paladars are restaurants set up in a person’s home, and you may find yourself and fellow diners eating the most delicious authentic local food at tables in a dining room, lounge or library. Many of these Paladars are out of the city centre so you will need transport to get to them, but it’s a fantastic way to see more of Havana well off the traditional tourist routes and you will see real life all around you. Try La Guarida, our favourite Paladar set in an atmospheric, beautiful tenement.
4. Step out on the streets
Wandering the streets of Old Havana has to be one of the greatest and simplest treats in this colourful city. The plazas and pedestrianised routes are packed with restaurants, cafes, street performers and of course the cigar sellers.
You will find yourself regularly pausing to catch some live music, watch entertainment or just to chat with locals who have stopped you to find out about your family, and where you’re from. It’s a lovely way to discover the true Havana.
5. Dig in to a Cuban ice cream
In central Havana is the 50’s styled Coppelia ice cream bar. Visiting here you witness just how seriously Cubans take their ice cream. Locals will queue for several hours to take their place at the bar and taste the best ices around. It’s become an important place to meet friends and socialise for many Havanas, where you might hear the phrase “Me di tremendo tanganazo!” (“that’s gossip I didn’t know!”). Packed with atmosphere it’s a great place to visit to cool off in the heat of the summer. A special kiosk for tourists will help you beat the queues and still try out the flavours on offer (although you will pay a lot more at the tourist stand).
6. Visit the chocolate museum in Havana
In the heart of Old Havana the Museo del Chocolate is the ideal retreat from the crowds and the heat and a child’s dream. With an extensive menu of chocolate to drink and eat alongside a collection of historic chocolate paraphernalia, it’s a good stop-off after a morning of sightseeing in the historic city centre. At the back you can watch some of the tablets and pieces being prepared while you wait for your drinks. Try the cold chocolate milk as a refreshing pick me up during the heat of the day.
7. Catch live jazz in the streets
It’s not hard to come across live jazz being played in Havana. You can hear it drifting from windows across the city and as you wander through the city centre’s pedestrianised streets you will stumble upon some of Havana’s finest musicians playing live for your pleasure. It’s down to you whether you find yourself in the mood for dancing (as the Havanas say “Vamos a echar un pie!” – Let’s dance til we drop!) or simply relax and let the music and atmosphere wash over you. It’s bound to put a smile on the faces of young and old. Check out the cafe at the elegant Hotel Inglaterre for live jazz throughout the day – we loved stopping here with our children for a fresh orange juice and some music – the children were enthralled.
8. Get creative and make your own perfume
Habana 1791 is a truly special place for fans of special scents. Set deep in Old Havana, this perfume house works with twelve different scents including Lilac, Sandalwood, Tobacco, Ylang-Ylang, Violet, and Vetiver and creates totally unique fragrances. If you’re feeling like you need to find an aroma which is totally ‘you’, there’s the chance to work with the shop staff to make your own one off perfume. It’s a great place for children to make up their own creation and take home a great souvenir. Surrounded by laboratory style equipment, this is a truly unique experience which absolutely deserves the title of a perfumers’ emporium.
9. Catch a classic taxi ride
The cliché is true. The streets of Havana are packed with classic Chevrolets, Buicks and Plymouths. Many have been patched up and repaired too many times to mention, but it’s testament to the resourcefulness of the Havanas that so many are still cruising the streets of the capital. Pick up a classic anywhere in the city centre and join the throng. It’s a great way to see more of Havana. Take a drive along the five-mile-long Malecón esplanade where Havana meets the sea and Cubans hang out all day and night.
10. Baseball match
Baseball is a big deal across Cuba and it’s not hard to come across an impromptu game being played in Havana’s parks. The whole family will love a trip to see one of the two league teams based in the capital. The season lasts for several months each year and you’ll see some of the finest baseball played anywhere in the world even though Cuba players retain their ‘amateur status’. There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere at the Estadio Latino-Americano or the love that Cubans have for their national sport. Tickets are just a few pounds, so it’s an affordable trip for the whole family.
Visiting Cuba with kids is a great experience. What are you favourite parts of the Cuban capital? I would love to hear your comments.