What to do in Havana at night
(Other than just the Tropicana)
In the 1940s, this city was the place where America went to go party. Then the revolution happened. While Cuba is in the process of reopening to tourism, there is certainly no shortage of things for visitors to do during the day. When trying to figure out what to do in Havana at night though, your options are more limited.
My ship only ever docked there on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so I have no idea what the weekends are like, but from what I can tell, the old town of Havana is pretty much completely shut down by 10:30 on a weeknight. During the day, the city is alive with live music. At least every other restaurant seems to have its own band. I am amazed at just how many musicians are employed here. You would imagine that this is the warm-up for the parties that will start after sunset and continue until dawn. But nope. At night, it’s dead. The musicians are asleep in their beds before nine and the only people still working at midnight are some of the construction workers (I'm not really sure why, but they are) and the prostitutes.
So how do you make the most of this city after dark?
The Tropicana cabaret tends to be the tourist default setting.
Experience the Tropicana
If the song Copacabana was written about a real place, this would be it. It opened the night before the 1940s (New Year’s Eve 1939) and has been a thing ever since. It is located a short bus or taxi ride away from the old town in an outdoor theatre. Under the stars in the cool but humid Cuban air, the show happens on two main stages, in the isles and all around you. Showgirls, opera singers, lights, costumes and stunts, to call it a spectacle is an understatement. It’s a bit pricier than most things in this city, but it’s worth it.
(Tickets are available online.)
The real question is: If you’re in Havana for more than one night, then what the eff do you do?
Go on a walking tour
There are walking tours of old Havana in the evenings. Considering how hot it is during the day, this is actually probably the best time to explore on foot. If you want to go with a guide you can find one on airbnb. I prefer to just download an offline map and get lostish - but not that lost because you’re in a strange city at night (and my mom is going to read this).
Watch the sunset on the Malecón
The Malecón is the street that runs along the water’s edge. As the sun sets over the ocean, the old weatherbeaten buildings that line the road take on a beautiful dusky glow. A lot of the locals gather there, to fish, to talk, to make out with each other and listen to music on their phones. Tourists go there to take Instagrams. If you go, strangers will talk to you. They will want to know your life story and tell you theirs, in Spanish, even if you don’t speak Spanish. It’s the Cuban way. Don’t go there if you want to sit in silence, alone with your thoughts and contemplate life. It’s not that kind of sunset! Do go there if you like talking to strangers and you want to make local friends. They might try to make you eat in their restaurant or go on their bicycle tour, but they also want to be your friend. Not so much your Facebook friend - more your WhatsApp friend - forever.
See the lights from Hotel Parque Central
If you want to watch the sunset over the city, you can do that from the roof of Hotel Parque Central. As the title implies, it’s right next to Parque Central (Central Park) which is across the road from Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso (the theatre), which is right next to El Capitolio (the Capitol). The views are amazing. Entrance is free. Cocktails are reasonably priced. None of the clientele is local though, so it makes for a very touristy experience. There is a swimming pool up there that has colour changing lights (in case the lights of old Havana aren’t breathtaking enough) and the music is …diverse. When we first arrived, there was salsa music (no one was dancing) and then at some point, it switched over to Enya. It’s definitely worth dropping by for a cocktail and a photo, then move on.
Eat in a Paladar
A paladar is a privately owned family-run restaurant, usually in what is part of someone’s home. Some of them do look incredibly professional and restaurant-like and others look like...well, like people’s living rooms.
|Yup, nothing makes you feel welcome like dining off someone’s Christmas tablecloths.|
The quality of the food differs about as much as the decor. Latin music videos playing on a flat screen TV in the corner somewhere seems to be quite a common feature. So, if you’re dining alone and your Spanish is not good enough to engage in conversation with the staff, there is an alternative form of entertainment to playing with your phone. My only regret is that I never dined in one with a balcony. On the whole, I would definitely choose a paladar over a government-owned restaurant any day.
You can go to a secret club
Haha! That’s not really an option unless you get one of these babies:
I’m really just bragging about the time I went to a secret club.
The fact that the invite is in English is a pretty good indication that it’s just a ploy to get tourists to go there. But it works! Some of my friends heard about it and were given one of these passes, I happened to bump into them the one night when I wanted to go out and didn’t have any plans. They didn’t mind me tagging along. We met up with a Cuban friend of theirs and we accompanied him to its address in a residential building in the old town (that didn’t look any different to any of the others). We handed the card to the ‘bouncer’ (a relatively normal looking guy standing outside) who directed us up the (marble) stairs and into what was probably once someone’s tiny apartment. What I’m assuming was previously the kitchen had been turned into a bar and the living room was now the dance floor. The walls were red, the curtains blacked out, and a mirror ball hung from the ceiling. The DJ did his thing in the corner. It was the tiniest club I’ve ever been to, but the place was packed with beautiful people of varying nationalities, and it was an experience.
A few weeks later, I was wandering around Havana at sunset and someone handed me one of these cards. I felt so special to have cracked the nod (even if it was actually the ‘looks like a tourist’ nod). As a two time member of this very temporary secret society, I even blurred out the address in the picture above to keep it that way.
So, if you manage to get one of these mysterious little business card invites, as someone who has been there and did not get kidnapped and sold into the sex trade, it is worth checking out. This is definitely NOT a concept that would work in my city (Johannesburg), so when in Havana…
You can go to a not secret club.
If you want to party with tourists (to mostly American music and reggaeton) and be served drinks by beautiful Cuban bartenders, there is a club where you don’t need a special invitation. It’s called Olalá and it's a favourite among the crew.
(Whoops! Forgot to take any photos)
It’s based in a very modern-looking house that looks like it’s been stolen from another nation’s much wealthier suburb. All the windows have been blacked out with velvet curtains and blue lights illuminate the exterior. You do feel like you’re stepping into a music video when you go inside. Entrance is free but you will need to take a taxi to get there as it’s a little out of the old town. This place is like the Hooters, MacDonalds or Starbucks of clubs in Havana - it’s like going to a club in Cuba without having to experience Cuba.
(I’d rather experience Cuba.)
You can learn to salsa
In the old town (walking distance from the cruise port), one of the few places that are open at night is a bar called La Reliquia. It’s not very big, but it has a nice atmosphere. There’s a small dance floor and if you're lucky, Freddy will teach you to salsa.
Things I didn’t do:
Casa de Musica
- It’s where the live musicians who are not in bed by 9:30 go. Unfortunately, it only gets going after midnight and I live on a ship so I have a curfew. It’s also a fair distance from the old town so you would need a taxi to get there.
The Parisian Cabaret
- Similar to the Tropicana but not as good. This one is located at Hotel Nacional.
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso
- I went for a tour of this spectacular theatre during the day, but I didn’t manage to see a show there at night. The Cuban ballet which is based here has quite the reputation.
- I tried so hard to go to the carnival but I have limited nights off. It goes on for about 10 days in late August on the Malecón.
For more info and stories about Havana, see:
- How to make the most of Havana, Cuba
- It's a'ight and other actual comments from ignorant tourists on their first visit to Cuba
- Havana, Cuba: The ultimate sexual harassment dream vacation destination
And if you want to read the story about how I got flashed (if you haven’t already), read this: