Navigating Havana's confusing dual economy could be a tricky proposition, even going to Cubans. However, it's still easy to enjoy a reasonably priced visit to the Caribbean's largest city if you're prepared to be flexible and acquire a basic knowledge of the local mecánica (Cuban method of doing things).
Here are a few hints regarding how to manage your money in the Cuban capital.
Shop around for flights and be flexible with dates
Flying may be the only practical way to get to Havana from outside Cuba. Book well ahead of time via a reputable agency if you want to snag a reasonable deal. Some flights have a hotel package thrown in. Off-season (April to June and September and October) generally has got the cheapest rates.
Visit in spring or fall
Peak season in Havana runs from November to March, and you can expect hotel rates to be at least 10% higher then, nudging as much as 25% higher around Christmas and New Year. The best choice for a bargain is between Easter and late June or September and October. Caveats include traveling at these times, especially the elements, though Havana's rain isn't constant and large storms only hit every 4 or 5 years.
Stay inside a casa particular
Bedding down in a single of Havana's private homestays, known as casas particulares, nearly always works out cheaper than a hotel – plus you'll invariably be provided warm, informal service along with a candid insight into Cuban life. In Havana, a decent double room can cost as little as US$35 a night, compared to the US$400 you might pay within the city's fancy five-star hotels. A large number of casas particulares are spread around the metro area, and many owners accept payment in euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds, meaning you won't will lose out on changing money.
Central Havana is mainly walkable
Forget renting a car, and steer clear of hailing too many expensive taxis. Havana's central core – namely the neighborhoods of Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Vedado – is highly walkable. Be aware of uneven sidewalks, speeding bicycle taxis and heavy heat and humidity, specially in the summer.
Not all taxis would be the same
Modern state-owned taxis that wait at ranks outside hotels are usually more costly than the yellow-and-black Ladas that operate privately, although you'll sacrifice air-conditioning and luxury within the Russian cars. Cheaper still are shared taxis, also known as colectivos or almendrones. These old American autos run along fixed routes and require five passengers at a time. Flagging one down involves a series of complicated hand signals. Ask a nearby.
Budget travelers with no deep understanding of Cuban culture generally gravitate toward private Lada taxis. Negotiate a fare before getting in. Most private drivers need foreign cash, and you'll cut costs should you pay this way.
Metro buses are super cheap
Havana's metro buses, referred to as gua-guas (pronounced “wah-wahs”), run on 17 routes throughout the city, fanning out in to the suburbs. The buses are usually crowded, and bus stops aren't always well marked, meaning tourists rarely use them.
However, if you are on a tight budget, it's worth checking the route map. Metro buses are particularly useful if you are venturing out towards the suburbs to see popular sights such as Parque Lenin and Museo Hemingway. Fares are super cheap and charged in Cuban pesos. Pay upon entry, and watch your bags.
The newer, amber-colored mini-buses called taxi ruteros are an alternative choice. They run along fixed routes in central Havana and cost a little more than gua-guas, but you will still rarely pay more than 25 pesos (US$1) for a journey.
Get up to speed with Cuba's currency changes
Cuba includes a confusing monetary system, and also the country continues to be reeling from the complicated currency unification in 2022. A rampant black economy pervades all areas of society, and forex rates in banks are radically dissimilar to those on the road. In early 2022, the euro-to-peso exchange rate was 1:27 in banks but closer to 1:60 in the pub.
The best plan, especially if you're on a tight budget, is to arrive with lots of funds in foreign cash, preferably euros, and also to avoid changing too much of it into Cuban pesos.
Most private businesses – from restaurants to taxis and also to casas particulares – accept payment in euros (and to a lesser extent Canadian dollars and British pounds) at favorable “street” forex rates. Thus, a 500 peso meal at a good private restaurant can cost you the same as EUR18.50 using bank-exchanged pesos, but less than half of this if you pay in euros.
Havana has lots of ATMs that accept non -US linked debit and credit cards, although they only dispense Cuban pesos at bank rates.
State-run restaurants are often cheaper than private restaurants
While state-run restaurants might be cheap, they usually serve lower quality food with limited menus and apathetic service. Budget travelers should consider eating in their casa particular where it's possible to save money without sacrificing on food quality. Substantial casa breakfasts with eggs, toast, coffee and fruit normally cost the equivalent of US$5, and hearty home-cooked dinners start at around US$10.
Enjoy the disposable art
Havana is a superb art city, and many of their private galleries can enter. Something bizarre and fascinating is always happening at El Ojo del Ciclón, the artistic lair of Leo D'Lázaro. Well-known Cuban actor and painter Jorge Perugorría owns Galería-Taller Gorría in the San Isidro district and offers an endless conveyor belt of fine contemporary exhibits.
Street art is yet another Havana forte. You will find thought-provoking Afro-Cuban art and alfresco Sunday rumba performances in Callejón de Hamel. The free-to-wander Callejón de los Peluqueros is definitely an unusual homage to barbers and hairdressing, much of it depicted in art.
The pinnacle of Havana street art is Fusterlandia, an entire neighborhood given over to surrealistic mosaics and murals that'll supply you with a good half day's free wandering.
Browse the halls and gardens of Havana's famous hotels
Havana has some iconic hotels, and many seem to be easygoing about letting non-guests enter to admire the art and architecture and take in the ambience. Top of the list is Hotel Nacional, an important stop for those first-time Havana visitors, using its grand lobby, 24-hour cafe and museum-like Hall of Fame full of photos of prestigious past guests, including Frank Sinatra and Leonardo DiCaprio. Round them back with a stroll with the manicured gardens along with a mojito within the alfresco bar.
Hotel Sevilla, using its stucco and Moorish tiles, used to be a notorious mafia stronghold (Al Capone used to book the whole 6th floor) and has an impressive lobby, retro outdoor pool and romantic 9th-floor restaurant in which a violinist serenades diners.
Inglaterra, Havana's oldest hotel, is another palatial building having a Moorish lobby and walls embellished with historic memorabilia relating to Cuban national hero José Martí who once stayed there.
Discover fun and theater on Havana's streets
Havana is really a visceral city where every day life is lived out in the open. Strolling around its animated if dilapidated neighborhoods will give you a wonderful insight into what makes the town tick. Habana Vieja and Centro Habana are chock-a-block having a cacophony of street life. Consider hotly contested games of dominoes, impromptu baseball, Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies and yodeling pregoneros (street criers) selling bread, nuts and fruit.
Follow the locals to theaters, venues and sports games
In Cuba, entertainment is recognized as the right of those, and tickets to live music, theater and sports events cost a fraction of the items they do in the US or Europe.
As the hub of Cuba's cultural life, Havana comes with an abundance of options. You can observe a high choral or chamber music concert at the deconsecrated Basílica Menor de Bay area de Asís or live salsa at Casa de la Música for approximately CUP$125 (US$5). In the trendy art factory and gratifaction space Fábrica de Arte Cubano, everything from jazz to hip-hop to dance lessons are on show, all for any one-off entry fee of CUP$50 (US$2).
A visit to see Havana's hard-hitting Industriales play baseball at Estadio Latinoamericano, where former US president Barack Obama sidled as much as Raúl Castro in 2022, is similarly light on the wallet, with tickets priced in small change.
Listen to reside music for that cost of a tip
All over Havana, but specifically in Habana Vieja, bars and restaurants regularly host live music, and it's usually of fine quality. Probably the most you'll be asked to pay to listen to these ultra-talented musicians is the cost of a drink, plus whatever tip you choose to leave in the hat, basket or jar afterwards.
Daily costs in Havana
- Double room in three-star hotel (low season): US$150
- Double room in casa particular: US$35 -50
- Public bus in Havana: US$0.40
- Taxi from Centro Habana to airport: US$25
- Coffee: US$1 -3
- Sandwich: US$6 -7
- Dinner for 2: US$50
- Bottle of beer in a bar: US$2 -4
- Mojito: US$3 -5